IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Why 2011 is an epic year for video games

The show floor was packed at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo with thousands of people hoping to get a glimpse at what the future has in store for video games.
The show floor was packed at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo with thousands of people hoping to get a glimpse at what the future has in store for video games.Matt Rivera

In the last week’s time, Nintendo has unveiled its brand new Wii U home game machine, Sony has taken the wraps off its handheld PlayStation Vita gadget and Microsoft has breathed new life into the historic “Halo” game franchise.

Meanwhile game companies from around the world have revealed dozens of games for the very first time and showed off hundreds of other games they’re working on and will release in the coming months.

The Electronic Entertainment Expo — the video game industry’s biggest trade show — swept through Los Angeles this week and in doing so showed the world just how important a business, entertainment medium and even artistic endeavor games are these days.

Famed film director Steven Spielberg could be found checking out and talking up video games at the Microsoft booth at this year's E3.
Famed film director Steven Spielberg could be found checking out and talking up video games at the Microsoft booth at this year's E3.Winda Benedetti

It brought with it some 46,800 video game industry professionals, analysts, retailers and reporters. That’s up from 45,600 the year before, according to event's host. But it wasn’t just the big name developers and publishers who were on hand. Stars from all corners of the entertainment industry — Kobe Bryant, Ice-T, Hulk Hogan and even Steven Spielberg — have all gotten involved in gaming and they showed up at E3 to talk up the growing industry.

"It feels like there is a renewed level of energy and optimism at E3 this year and I think that's directly parallel with the energy and change going on dynamically in the industry right now," said Dr. Ray Muzyka, co-founder of highly respected development company BioWare. His company wowed the E3 crowds by offering demos and previews of two highly anticipated games — “Mass Effect 3,” and “Star Wars: The Old Republic.”

[PHOTO GALLERY: Games, gadgets, celebrities — highlights from the Electronic Entertainment Expo]

"There are so many new platforms and so many new ways to connect with consumers world wide," he said. "It's probably the most dynamic period of change in the industry in 30 years and that's really cool."

Yes, a lot happened over the last week — but taking a look at the big picture, we spotted five big ideas that emerged during this year’s E3. These are trends that will affect the game industry for years to come.

Big games and big entertainment still matter
If there’s one thing E3 reminds us, it’s that gamers still want those epic experiences. Sure, smartphones and tablets may be shoving their way into the gameing space and into our hearts with their small, bite-sized games and their small prices.

But walk the miles of E3 show floor and you’ll find the place filled with giant booths and towering displays showing off titles like “Modern Warfare 3,” “Battlefield 3,” “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” and “Batman: Arkham City.” That’s because publishers and developers know that game enthusiasts still want those big experiences full of dazzling visuals, larger-than-life adventures and intense action.

These are the game industry’s equivalent of the summer blockbuster films — and at E3, all you have to do is take a look at the hundreds of people waiting in long lines just to get the most meager of glimpses as these projects still in the works to know that enthusiasm for big games hasn’t diminished.  

Motion is still in motion
If you thought or perhaps hoped motion control gaming was a fad that would eventually fade … you thought wrong. This week, Microsoft and Sony made sure to let the world know that they are not only standing behind their motion control gaming devices – Kinect and Move – they are preparing to release new games that push motion gaming even further.

For its part, Microsoft unveiled and highlighted a slate of motion-controlled games for hardcore players. These are the folks who have been most dismissive of the trend’s staying power and most resistant to jumping in.

Love them or hate them, motion controls are here to stay.
Love them or hate them, motion controls are here to stay.Valerie Macon / AFP - Getty Images

But Microsoft set out to convince these skeptics that Kinect was relevant to them by revealing that games like “Mass Effect 3” and “Ryse” would incorporate Kinect voice and body controls into their more intense gameplay. And other publishers jumped on board to throw Kinect their support too. Ubisoft announced that all future "Ghost Recon" games would support Kinect and Sega showed off “Rise of Nightmares” — a fully Kinect-controlled horror game.

Meanwhile, Sony brought stars to the stage during its press conference this week to throw their weight behind the company’s Move controls. Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant played some Move-controlled basketball for the cheering crowds while former Move-skeptic Ken Levine of Irrational Games surprised everyone by announcing that highly anticipated game “BioShock Infinite” would come with some Move-enabled moves of its own.

And then there was Nintendo — the company that pioneered motion control gaming. Executives announced that the controller for Nintendo’s forthcoming Wii U game console will not only feature a built-in touch screen, it will also sense motion and put that to use in new ways.

No, traditional thumb-stick and button game controls aren’t going away. But whether you love motion controls or despise them, you can bet they’re here to stay.

Games that play where you play
We’re seeing it more and more — the future of gaming is to be found in offering people the ability to play their favorite game on whatever gadget they want to play it on.

And this week Sony made a big push into this kind of cross-platform play. In fact, we fell in love with Sony’s PlayStation Vita in good part because they showed us how the handheld gadget will work in conjunction with the PlayStation 3 home console. For example, Sony announced that PS Vita owners will be able to play the forthcoming action/role-playing game “Ruin” on the handheld device, pause their game, save it to the cloud, go home and pick it up right where they left off on their PS3.

Meanwhile, CCP Games showed off the forthcoming PlayStation 3 massively-multiplayer online shooter "DUST 514" which is set in the same universe as the online PC game "EVE Online." At E3 this week, they revealed details about how players will be able to see elements of their PS3 "DUST" gaming carry over into their PC "EVE" gaming and vice versa and how the two titles will link to and affect each other despite running on different game platforms.

We expect to see many more companies from all corners of the industry pushing into this same cross-pollinating, cross-platform territory in the coming months.

Video games that connect us 
There's no denying, Facebook and "FarmVille" have changed the face of gaming. And this week, big game publishers made it clear that the social element of video gaming is more important than ever.

The show floor was packed at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo with thousands of people hoping to get a glimpse at what the future has in store for video games.
The show floor was packed at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo with thousands of people hoping to get a glimpse at what the future has in store for video games.Matt Rivera

Electronic Arts, for example, introduced its first "Sims" game made especially for Facebook called "Sims Social" and talked up the social networking features it is adding to a number of games including "FIFA 12" and "Madden 12." The company also revealed the forthcoming Battlelog — a free social networking service to help "Battlefield 3" players connect with each other, create platoons, look up real-time statistics, and just generally socialize more with one other.

This comes on the heels of Activision announcing its own online social network service for "Call of Duty" players called "Call of Duty Elite."

The fact of the matter is, humans have been playing games with other humans since the dawn of time. So it makes good sense that the video game industry would bring this ancient tradition to today's gamers using modern technology.

New ways to look at and touch our games
One of the great things about this year's E3 was the glimpse it gave us of the innovations that will be carrying games into the future. And a lot of what this year's innovations seemed to be about was finding new ways to let us immerse ourselves into the games we're playing.

Sony gave us hands-on time with the Vita, which is the first game gadget to incorporate a back-side touch pad. Though we were skeptical of the impact this would have when the machine was first announced, our time with the gadget proved it to be a fantastic idea. That touch pad gives gamers a more tactile way to interact with a game like “Uncharted: Golden Abyss" which adds to the immersiveness of the gaming experience.

Meanwhile, Nintendo’s Wii U is all about giving us an additional window to look at our video games through. The home console comes with a tablet-like controller with a screen of its own. And as we had a chance to experience for ourselves, having two screens to view your game through offers some very exciting and unique new ways to play a game either by yourself or with friends.

Cloud-gaming service OnLive pushed into similar territory. The company was on hand at E3 to demonstrate its forthcoming OnLive Player App which not only brings streaming PC games to iPads and Android tablets but which allows gamers to use their tablet as a touch-and-motion-based controller when connected with an HDTV and to use that screen as another perspective on the game you're playing.

We have so many screens in our lives these days — game companies that make them work together in unique ways are definitely leading an important charge into the future.

Certainly after this week's E3, the future of games is looking bright and exciting. It should be a fun ride as we see exactly how all the above trends play out in the coming months. 

For more of our E3 coverage, see:

Winda Benedetti writes about games for msnbc.com. You can follow her tweets about games and other things right here on Twitter . Todd Kenreck is the game editor at msnbc.com you can follow his mad rants about video games right here on Facebook.