There were a handful of recurring themes at this year's E3, including crashing helicopters, bows and arrows, graphic violence, and anticipation for the next generation of consoles. But the biggest story for the industry's future may have been the conspicuously low profile of handheld gaming at the show.
The home console focus of Sony's press conference was the first and most significant sign that this wouldn't be a strong E3 for handhelds, because the conditions were perfect for the PlayStation Vita to come out strong and steal the show. The PS Vita had its global rollout in February, and finds itself in need of a boost after an underwhelming start at retailers. Meanwhile, the PlayStation 3 is entering its dotage, currently trailing the Xbox 360 on a consistent basis and nearly ready to be rendered obsolete by the announcement of a PlayStation 4. Sony would never have more reason to push its portable and less reason to cling to its aging console.
And yet, the Sony press conference had so little PS Vita content, it would have been more likely to dissuade people from buying the portable. If someone walked into Sony's show with an open mind about the system, what would have pushed them into a purchase? Assassin's Creed: Liberation got a nice reveal trailer with a hardware bundle, and Sony tried to make a big deal out of unveiling a subtitle for the already known Call of Duty PS Vita game, but the scattering of other tidbits had little excitement or fanfare surrounding them. Let's recap: The PS3 Super Smash Bros. clone people are so unenthused about is also coming to the PS Vita. PSOne Classics are coming to PS Vita gradually instead of with blanket backward compatibility. Hulu Plus and Crackle will arrive on the PS Vita.
"The conditions were perfect for the PlayStation Vita to come out strong and steal the show."
If you're being generous and consider the entirety of the PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale demo as PS Vita content, all of the above announcements put together clocked in at about 13 minutes of the conference's 85-minute run time. Or just about the same amount of time as was focused on the Wonderbooks campaign for the PlayStation Move. Sony Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida later explained that PS Vita's anemic showing at the press conference was not because Sony didn't have anything to show, but because the company's bigger priority was not being accused of having an excessively long press conference and to make sure the stuff shown was impactful. (I planned to put a snarky rundown of the Sony announcements that had no impact here, but it turned out most of them were included in the PS Vita segments mentioned above.)
Granted, there were dozens of PS Vita games on the show floor, but the media briefing is the place to highlight the company's priorities, the projects it's most excited about. And judging by the conference, Sony is marginally more excited about PS Vita than it is about changing the name of PlayStation Suite to PlayStation Mobile.
It's not like things were much better for 3DS owners, either. Nintendo had four separate media briefings during the week of E3, and only one of them dealt with the 3DS in a substantial way. The publisher openly admitted its primary press conference was a coming out party for the Wii U, and only carved out about seven minutes to go over New Super Mario Bros. 2, Paper Mario: Sticker Star, and Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon. Oh, and they also had a sizzle reel that was an insult to the word "sizzle," highlighting just four upcoming third-party games, one of which (Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance) has been known about for years and launches next month.
Several months ago, I defended handheld gaming in a point-counterpoint column, saying it wasn't doomed at all; it just wasn't as sexy next to the explosive growth of mobile gaming. I still believe that the dedicated portable gaming market is as viable as ever, that tablets and cell phones cannot replace the precision necessary for many of the richest gaming experiences, and that there are still plenty of gamers willing to pay as much as $40 for top-flight gaming on the go. I still believe all of that, but judging from this year's E3, it's a belief that neither Sony nor Nintendo share. And if the people who make the dedicated portable gaming hardware have no faith in it, why should gamers buy into it, either?