Hype, deception, and disappointment: Welcome to E3

E3 is kind of bullshit. Though not many will say it, developers, publishers, investors, and media alike think it. And so, it’s not really a controversial statement, except for the one group that isn’t aware of the expo’s privy charades. I’m speaking of the general public.

For a show that is supposed to inform consumers, E3, in recent years, seems to confuse and disappoint game enthusiasts more than anything. I continue to love the spectacle and insanity that E3 brings, but lately I’ve been wondering what purpose this show serves in 2012. It’s supposed to be about more than the press bellyaching over promotional practices and internet users getting upset when publishers show up without a surprise in tow, right?

It’s easy to forget, among all the giant LED screens and flashing lights, that E3 is an industry expo that is supposed to inform the media, the public, and investors as to what the future may hold. As much as I love the thing, it’s hard to deny the truth: It fails miserably at this. It has become a show where Nintendo can say, “Sorry, no price or release details,” while publishers show flashy demos on the floor that only roughly resemble the products that will eventually hit store shelves.

This is the expo gaming our industry currently runs, but is it really the one we deserve?

A Show for Who?

E3 started in 1995 with the main purpose of giving developers and publishers a place to come together and meet with potential investors and retail outlets. These are the people that could put developers’ games on shelves. Since the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas didn’t have room to spare for meeting rooms and extra booths, Nintendo, Sony, Sega, and everyone else made E3 their new grounds for debuting products and connecting with industry.

Somewhere along the way, things changed. The booths got bigger, booth babes came in droves, and the show began to cater to gaming press more than investors and store owners. The people the expo was meant for now met in hallways and meeting rooms far from the show floor (some jokingly call it “Secret E3”). This was a natural evolution. If I’m a Best Buy manager, wouldn’t it be in my interest to let game journalists come to a consensus on what the best games of the show are and then back the developers of those games? A lot of these investors and store owners don’t have much experience with games, so relying on the opinion of journalists is a much safer bet than making an uninformed gamble.

That’s all perfectly fine because journalists and developers also need a meeting place every year. Having a massive trade show gives hardware manufacturers, such as Sony and Sega, an opportune time and place to announce new systems, as they did at the first E3, in 1995, with the PlayStation and Sega Saturn. By bringing together journalists from various types of outlets all across the world, developers, publishers, and hardware manufacturers can succinctly and clearly convey what they have in store for consumers in the coming year. Makes sense, right? Well, it made a lot more sense before we abandoned dial-up and American Online.

With retail chains dying out and internet users watching E3 from home becoming a louder voice than media outlets, the direction of the show began to shift again. Now it feels as if publishers and developers at E3 are catering to viewers at home with game journalists playing third wheel. Does Dead Island really need a Best of Show award when its trailer can go viral online? It’s preferable to have both, but if a publisher could only have one I’m certain they’d choose the later.

So, Where Did Things Go Wrong?

There is a fairy tale that publishers often tell to developers these days, as they put them to bed — or, you know, fire them: “Once upon a time, making games with a half-million dollar budget and selling 100,000 units was acceptable but not anymore. So get the hell out of my office already and find someplace else to sleep, ya dope!”

Marketing is as important an investment as development itself, in the eyes of a major publisher. Activision, EA, THQ, and every other publishing juggernaut have left several near-complete projects unshipped because they didn’t deem these games worthy of spending millions on marketing — rightfully so in many cases. Games started demanding bigger budgets and teams by the time the PlayStation 2 rolled out in 2000. As a result, publishers have fewer games to distribute and they need to make sure what they have reaches as many people as possible, so marketing budgets rose to insane numbers that were rarely justified by success.

To bring things back to E3: this transformed the show from being about developers’ intentions to being run by publishers marketing strategies. Now, EA and Ubisoft have their own press conferences and every $7-12 million booth is designed according to their grand plan. As long as the games and developers are there, it doesn’t matter, right? Wrong. Developers’ intentions and publishers’ marketing strategies would soon clash, sending mixed messages to the public on upcoming games — defeating the purpose of a trade show, in the process.

The Golden Age of Headcrabs

If the purpose of E3 is for developers to show an honest, accurate view of their games to press, it’s not doing a very good job of achieving this goal. I don’t blame developers, though. After all, E3 adopted the model of CES and similar car shows, instead of building a new model that works well for demoing videogames.

Loud music, constant visual distractions (scantily dressed promotional models, large displays, stages with live performers), and a limited window of time may work for checking out tech gadgets and cars but it’s not well-suited for games or film. I imagine most gamers don’t play their consoles in the middle of a warehouse rave, so how can media outlets get an accurate depiction of a game in this frantic, busy environment? More importantly, how can developers build a demo that will be able to cut through the noise and grab people’s attention?

In the early years of E3, companies like Valve and Remedy brought slapdash demos and videos of their games to the show. “Here’s a random video we made of maps in progress, badly rendered models, and some basic action set to a crappy techno song,” I can imagine the presenter of the above early Half-Life demo saying. That was fine though, because it was an honest portrayal of their game. While publisher Sierra would go on to run a ill-informed ad campaign for the game trying to ride on the heels of Quake 2, the E3 demo and trailer was a faithful representation of the game that gave journalists a taste of Half-Life’s specific tone and atmosphere that made it stand out.

A Game of Publishers

Let’s flash-forward to E3 2012. I’m checking out Far Cry 3 at Ubisoft which has one of the loudest booths of E3 — it doesn’t help that they have an army of booth babes, wearing knock-off Hooters outfits, surrounding each kiosk. I’m familiar with the Far Cry series and read Edge Magazine’s cover story on Far Cry 3 a couple weeks back. I knew what to expect: Open world, vehicles, and some exotic animals that don’t like it when you set them on fire.

What I got instead was a linear mission that felt ripped right out of Call of Duty; I followed the way-points on screen, shot a couple dudes in the face, watched a scripted sequence, and then the demo was over. Surely, this tutorialized, linear mission isn’t representative of the same series that gave us the alarmingly large, brutal worlds of Far Cry 1 and 2, I thought.

When I talked to Far Cry 3’s lead game designer, he said as much. He seemed almost apologetic as he explained, “You know, it’s an E3 demo.” This seemed to be a running theme during the week of E3. These days, it’s rare to find a demo on the floor that is true to what the game is or a developer that is open to criticism. Developers are simply there to do their publishers’ bidding, for better or worse. There was once a time when Blizzard brought Starcraft to E3, got negative previews, and redesigned the game as a result. It wouldn’t have been the masterpiece it was, if Blizzard didn’t present an honest demo and wasn’t open to what people at the show said.

So, why are all these publishers insisting on showing flashy demos that aren’t entirely representative of their games? It all goes back to marketing. If Rolling Stone or CNN stumbleupon Far Cry 3’s booth and hastily write down the words “potential Call of Duty killer” as they study the screen, Ubisoft will have gotten exactly what it wanted. If Call of Duty fans on NeoGAF get stoked and spill their Mountain Dews over the new Far Cry 3 gameplay video, Ubisoft won. If publishers can’t force developers to make Call of Duty clones, they can at least market them as such. But, is this healthy for the industry?

The Art of the E3 demo

The screen slowly fades from black, we hear familiar radio chatter, and a man stands on stage, slowly panning and moving his on-screen avatar in a way no actual player would do in their own home. These Call of Duty demos at Microsoft’s E3 press conferences have become a tradition at this point. Every year we eat up the increasingly impressive scripted moments, the man on stage’s tense movement control, and the promise of the franchise doing something new.

The difference between what we see on stage and what we buy from our local game store is not so much unlike the difference between a Whopper advertisement and the thing we unwrap and gasp at in disgust. For certain tastes, Whoppers are delicious and so is Call of Duty. This is an obvious charade performed at E3 that many consumers have wised-up to, but there are others that they miss.

Mixed Messaging

It’s become standard in recent years for developers to have behind-closed-doors demos and footage, in addition to entirely different stuff on the show floor and posted online. For example, Quantum Dream unveiled their latest game, Beyond: Two Souls, during Sony’s press conference on Monday. They then showed me and other journalists a behind-closed-doors demo on Tuesday, but we couldn’t share any information until the end of the show on Thursday. This sort of thing is fairly common at E3.

Although I haven’t spoken to a marketing strategist about it, I have my own theory on this practice. There are three things developers have to gain from this that keeps them from just sharing all their content with the public:

1) The collective positive chatter around a game can have a much bigger impact than a positive demo. Remember the hype around Bioshock Infinite at last year’s E3? Remember the jaded response once the gameplay video was posted online months later (“So, it’s just like a videogame then? Eh.”) Nothing can get a game’s marketing push further than positive word of mouth at E3, so some developers prefer to let their game be filtered through journalists, adding a sense of illusion and allure to a title.

2) By withholding footage and demos to press-only areas of E3, publishers can dictate the terms that journalists can discuss what they’ve been shown. In the above Beyond: Two Souls example, Sony were able to get us all talking about its game as the show came to a close. These E3 embargoes are a necessary evil for outlets. They give publishers the ability to have their games talked about when they want them talked about (during the end of the show), but they also are our only ticket to checking out new demos from anticipated games that we’d be remiss to pass on.

3) Though developers often dedicate a month or more to preparing an E3 demo, sometimes they aren’t completely confident in what they have to show. What if their demo gets a really negative response? Some developers like to play it safe and only show some footage behind-closed-doors, in fear of the internet catching mistakes their team missed.

With the above in mind, it’s not hard to see why publishers feel comfortable with the behind-closed-doors model. However, as the last couple weeks have shown, this practice is starting to backfire on studios.

E3 No Longer Informs, It Confuses

As established above, publishers rely on two things at E3: Appealing to a broad audience through show floor and press conference demos (almost all of which are posted online during the show) and banking on positive buzz from critics coming out of behind-closed-doors presentations. Let’s see how this helped out some games at this year’s expo:

Tomb Raider: The footage shown at press conferences and on the show floor didn’t gel well with developer Crystal Dynamics stated mission of portraying Lara Croft as a weakling who finds strength during her first major adventure. All I saw was some Uncharted-lite cover-based action and an uninspired quicktime event sequence, all complimented by Lara’s off putting moans and yelps. Then I read Holly Green’s excellent feature that covered what she saw behind closed doors. In this press-only demo, Holly got to see Lara in a more confident, aggressive form exploring a less linear part later in the game. If we had all seen this footage, maybe so many wouldn’t have jumped to conclusions and written off Tomb Raider as a sexist Uncharted clone.

Hitman: Absolution: Although I’m not a big fan of the series, I’ve always appreciated the Hitman games from a distance. I never found the clever stealth kills justified the arduous trial-and-error that comes before their discovery, but I was let down to see SquareEnix turn Hitman into a faster paced stealth-action game with a greater focus on gun combat. I already have Arkham City and Max Payne. The E3 2011 footage and recent trailers made Absolution look more in line with those games. Even though the E3 2012 gameplay footage put some fears to rest, fans have already been irked and confused.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist: Same as the above. By showing Sam Fisher going guns blazing in the Microsoft press conference demo, many fans felt like they were getting another Ghost Recon game instead of a true Splinter Cell entry. While this more manic, shooter-friendly representation of the game may have appealed to some, it left series fans a bit cold. However, the behind-closed-doors demo showed Fisher dragging bodies, being crafty with his gadgets, and taking a quieter approach when possible.

Sim City: I was taken aback when members of Dtoid staff returned to our press table with glowing faces after seeing the behind-closed-doors Sim City demo. The shallow, twee trailer and focus on social aspects at EA’s press conference didn’t give me a lot of faith in the title. As it turns out, this Sim City reboot will have a lot of depth and will try out some new things. If I had simply gone off what EA showed earlier, I would have completely written the game off.

The Last of Us: Though the Sony press conference demo was impressive, it left many confused on what exactly was going on a mechanical level. What’s so special about another scripted cover-based shooter, many asked. When we awarded The Last of Us as Dtoid’s Game of Show, it was mainly due to what we saw behind closed doors. Without witnessing the character interaction, subtle mechanics, and hearing the advanced A.I. explained, The Last of Us could be mistaken for simply a post-apocalyptic Uncharted.

Along with my Far Cry 3 and Beyond: Two Souls experiences, the above games are only a small sampling of the disconnect going on between developer intentions and publishers’ marketing strategies at E3. They think that Call of Duty fans will mistake Far Cry 3 for a COD-killer from a distance, when really they are only stripping away the unique aspects of the series and selling the game short for a crowd that is much happier with less — less player agency, less open space, and less tactical options. I’m not sure if the mainstream want a dumbed-down Far Cry, however. And, even if they are right, is it worth getting on series fans and NeoGAF posters’ bad side? Why not just present the game as it is and limit the flashy stuff to TV trailers?

By presenting consumers an imaginary game, only to sell them a different experience, publishers are continuing a cycle of deception, hype, and disappointment. Manipulating audiences with a flashy but dishonest trailer may fill seats in a theater on opening night, but the negative backlash will keep potential audiences away from the film for weeks to come. I believe the same is true of games.

The Solution

So how do publishers show off games at E3 without watering down the experience and presenting it as something entirely different?

The solution is … well, there is no solution. This is why publishers hold preview events months before and after E3. You can’t find the horror in Resident Evil 6 under the bright expo lights and you can’t find strategic depth in X-Com: Enemy Unknown without sitting down for a lengthy session.

While the scaled back E3 of 2007 and 2008, which did away with the massive booths and two-thirds of the attendees, served demos a bit better, they still weren’t ideal. Even so, everyone missed the bombast and spectacle that made E3 such an anticipated event.

I didn’t write this article to propose change at E3. I love E3 as it is. It’s big, dumb fun and sometimes you do get a great, non-bullshit demo of a game. But, most of it is bullshit. The $12 million booths, booth babe controversy, and deceptive demos are all worth the wild ride, at the end of the day.

I just worry about the consumers and dedicated gamers, like you guys, who are easily manipulated one way or other by the demos shown to the public at E3. Before you go aggro and write a silly article about how games are becoming homogenized, read our previews of the behind-closed-doors demos and don’t take the gameplay trailers posted on YouTube at face value.

E3 is bigger than investors, the press, and you guys. Now, it’s about everyone. It’s about getting CNN talking about the Wii U and some guy with a spray-on tan calling Far Cry 3 a “Halo-killer” or some shit because what the hell else is he going to say about a medium he barely understands? While publishers may continue to dress their games up in the most generic way possible to reach the most people, trust that developers will continue to evolve franchises and create something new, more often than not.

You may think you have access to everything at E3 from your home, but there is still a hidden world only open to a select few behind closed door at the show. It’s in these rooms that E3 continues to be what it once was: A place where developers can show their games and players can get excited alongside them. Once you ignore the hype, see through the deception, and prepare for the inevitable disappointment, E3 is the same as its ever been. And by that, I mean’s it’s incredibly stupid bullshit.

Allistair Pinsof
His name is Allistair. He lives in Austin. If he is ever in your city, please come visit him in his minivan. He has have many fresh diapers. No worries!