Usually these columns are a space where I want to make a point. I’ve typically got an axe to grind, so I build up supporting arguments and then tie them all together at the end with some sort of conclusion. But this column is more a series of observations and open-ended questions.
The Electronic Entertainment Expo happened a couple of weeks ago. Like last year, the various companies allowed Twitch to stream their press conferences, and Twitch in turn allowed the unwashed masses (that’s us) to re-broadcast the stream with our own commentary. Josh, Jarenth, Campster, and I watched the streams and gave our own live reactions to the show. The embedded videos below are the archived versions of each press conference, which have been uploaded to YouTube to give everyone the illusion of permanence. It all adds up to nine glorious hours of entertainmentAssuming you’re entertained by people interrupting each other over Old News..
So while you drink in the white-knuckle excitement of watching us watch an audience watch trailers, let me ask a stupid question:
What is E3 for?
Obvious, right? E3 is where companies go to market their products. DUH, Shamus!
Except, market to whom? And does it actually work?
Think about what a strange gathering E3 is. Normally media announcements are spread out. When you tease your upcoming game or drop your first trailer, you want it to be the big news of the day. A marketing win is when all of the news sites talk about it and you monopolize the news for a couple of days. In what other context is having your trailer buried in a pile of two dozen other trailers a good thing? If you announce your upcoming game on the same day that a new console is announced, AND someone shows off a new peripheral, AND six other games are teased, AND some new IP is showed off… isn’t that normally considered a marketing disaster? Isn’t it usually BAD when your New Thing is lost in the crowd?
But the publishers do it, year after year. Not only that, they spend lots of moneyFor certain values of “lots”. After all, one company’s fortune is another company’s rounding error. to make sure their particular trumpet blast ends up as part of the echoing, industry-wide cacophony.
The predictable defense is, “Well, it must make them money, otherwise they wouldn’t do it.”
This assumes that all of the leaders involved are rational actors working from correct, up-to-date information, which is not at all a guarantee. You can try this out on bad ideas of the past: Leeching must work, otherwise physicians wouldn’t do it!
I’m not suggesting that going to E3 is as bad as leeching. I don’t honestly know if it does any good or not. It’s possible that E3 is a rousing success and a smart investment of time and money for the corporations involved, and that they derive financial benefit that’s just hard to see from my seat in the peanut galley. But it’s also possible that E3 is just the biggest circus in videogaming, a leftover from world before YouTube and social media, a world where companies needed to go through the gaming press to reach the gaming public.
What I find interesting is how hard it is to judge. After all this sound and fury, I can’t see any benefit.
As a consumer, I don’t find E3 trailers and demos to be appreciably more effective than regular, “upload to YouTube and do a press release” style marketing. Sure, I watched the trailers and talked about them with my friends, but wouldn’t I have done so anyway if these same trailers were released over the period of (say) a couple of months?
As someone who writes about games, I don’t see a huge benefit. In fact, it’s actually really annoying. My goal is to have something interesting and relevant to talk about all of the 52 weeks of the year, but E3 creates this inconvenient situation where we have thirty things to talk about one week, but a bunch of silence for a couple of months on either side of that week. There were things at E3 that we didn’t talk about. These were things we could have talked about if they were inserted into the regular news cycle and given room to breathe, and not lost in a sea of bigger, flashier things.
E3 seems to create this dangerous “winner take all” effect. We get twenty new trailers. The public will latch onto the two or three really interesting ones, and the rest will get shoved to the side. This year Death Stranding ran away with the conversation by virtue of being REALLY WEIRD.
The other strange thing about E3 is that – like a lot of games marketing – it suffers from the Gatekeeper Effect. A company wants to reach the masses. To do this, they want the press to write about the game. But what interests members of the press is often different from what interests the buying public.
Someone who plays one new AAA game every other month is going to have very different tastes and needs than someone who is drowning in a backlog of titles, and who plays two games a week. A reviewer who gets their games for free is probably looking for something arty, novel, and have all of its best ideas packed into as short a time as possible. You’re looking for something to write about. You’re looking for something to comment on or talk about, and “Yup, it’s another one of those things” isn’t a very strong basis for an articleUnless it’s a hand-wring-y thinkpiece about “Do we have Too Much Of This Thing These Days?”. An Ubisoft collect-a-thon is pretty much the antithesis of what you’re looking for.
But if you’re not a writer, and have to buy your games with a limited budget of gaming dollars, then maybe you want something safe, reliable, familiar, and prolonged. In which case the Ubisoft collect-o-rama might look pretty good.
So a company needs to market to Joe Public, but to do so they need to present information that will prompt Jane Journalist to care enough to write about it. This is made difficult by the fact that Joe and Jane often want different things. I imagine this creates the temptation to engage in a kind of two-faced approach to marketing: Promise those snooty self-important critics your game will talk about “issues” and be about “ideas”, while promising the Mountain Dew slurping masses that your game will let them Blow Shit Up Real Good. As someone who is both a snooty critic and one of the masses, this always puts me off. I think the marketing for WATCH_DOGS is the clearest example of this. A game that pretends to be about issues it never really wants to bring up, while at the same time offering a patronizingly shallow power trip. Then again, maybe it’s unfair to blame this on marketing. This confused approach seems to be baked into the design of the game itself.
Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe it all makes sense and I just can’t see it. But I can never shake the feeling that we’re watching a very strange circus, and that by watching, I’ve inadvertantly become one of the clowns.
Post Event Meta-Meta Commentary
The EA conference was mostly about their sports games. I was hoping for some clear signals on Mass Effect. I wanted some indication of whether I should be indignant or hopeful. But the trailer was so vague that things could go either way.
There were about five years between Oblivion (2006) and Skyrim (2011) so it would be reasonable to think that we’re about due for some new Elder Scrolls. But aside from the announcement of a next-gen remaster of Skyrim, the Bethesda show was bereft of Elder Scrolls news. Todd Howard even said that Elder Scrolls 6 was “[…] a very long way off.” That’s not terribly encouraging. All they had to show on the sandbox RPG front was their Fallout 4 novelty DLC. Dishonored looked pretty promising, and Prey… I’m actually really interested to hear what people think of the Prey trailer.
Microsoft spent some time talking about their hardware plans. I found their “One Digital Store to Rule them All” to be both sensible yet terrifying. It’s a good policy, but like I keep saying: These poeple gave us Games for Windows LIVE, and I’ve never seen any indication that they have learned any lessons from that.
PC Gaming and Ubisoft are a funny pairing. Like last year, the PC Gaming show featured stuff of limited interest, ran long, and was basically saved by Day 9‘s ability to smooth over everyone else’s awkwardness. Their show was interruptedOn the Twitch stream. I mean, the PC show continued on unimpeeded, but if you were watching via the official Twitch stream the PC Gaming show was cuy off. by Ubisoft. This was the Ubisoft press conference:
Yes, I know that’s an old meme. But look, this is why we have memes. They contain the ability to sum up complex ideas in a single image. And this exactly how the show felt.
Finally, Sony showed off a bunch of stuff that nobody remembers because Death Stranding captured our curiosity. Getting back to the point I made above: This was something to write about. We have no idea what this game is about, what the gameplay will be like, or when it will come out, but the trailer is a conversation starter.
 Assuming you’re entertained by people interrupting each other over Old News.
 For certain values of “lots”. After all, one company’s fortune is another company’s rounding error.
 Unless it’s a hand-wring-y thinkpiece about “Do we have Too Much Of This Thing These Days?”
 On the Twitch stream. I mean, the PC show continued on unimpeeded, but if you were watching via the official Twitch stream the PC Gaming show was cuy off.
WAY back in 2005, I wrote about a D&D campaign I was running. The campaign is still there, in the bottom-most strata of the archives.
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