How many E3 press conferences does the games industry need?

This year’s E3 more than any other raises questions over the tradition of publisher press conferences, who they’re designed for and how many are truly necessary. The quality differential between the highs and lows of E3 2018 are stark, with a huge chasm between the best (Microsoft, Ubisoft, Bethesda) and worst (Sony, EA, Square Enix) of the bunch. “Best” is obviously a subjective term and itself begs the answer to who these presentations are serving. One publisher’s metric for a successful press conference is likely entirely different to another’s.

E3 is a strange beast that has long had an identity crisis when it comes to its target audience. Shrinking and growing on an annual basis, the show swings wildly between being a business-only event and being clearly consumer focused. From its 2007 format, which eschewed the LA Convention Centre entirely in favour of a more spread out ‘city of E3’ approach, to today’s increasing number of non-industry guests and attendees. The main problem being the dichotomy between the event’s two conflicting personalities: the physical event that takes over Los Angeles every year, and the streamed press conferences which make up the majority of “E3” for those watching from afar.

These press conferences, in a time before the world and its dog began broadcasting their every move, used to be part of the physical event. Members of the games press acted as a conduit between publishers and their audience, attending the glitzy shows in their stead. Now companies have a direct line to the pocket of every gamer on the planet. Game announcements and trailers can be disseminated with the press of a button.

Having said that, I think it’s important for the industry to have these marquee events. Gamer Christmases that get people excited about the future of their favourite medium at strategic points throughout the year. E3 works as a venue for that, despite being a mainly corporate networking and business opportunity. Yes, even with hundreds of punters attending to tread the show floor.

But for those at home, the press conferences and the announcements they contain are what make E3. A higher quantity of these presentations means there’s more to look forward to, but with so much anticipation there’s also a quality bar that needs to be hit in order to not alienate the fanbase. Something that happened on multiple occasions this year with Square Enix and Sony both receiving negative feedback for their lacklustre and/or bizarre outings. EA, meanwhile, keeps doing its EA thing with a similar format to previous years. One that oscillates between casual and hardcore demographics in a way that feels more like an investor meeting than a conversation with its core community.

With Square Enix giving away so much of its content and announcements to the platform holders (likely because of their higher viewership), faithful fans were left wanting after a short half-hour presentation that included repeated trailers and few bombshells. Had Square Enix kept back all of its Kingdom Heart trailers, announcements for Nier Automata on Xbox, Life Is Strange 2 prequel Captain Spirit and so on, its pre-recorded “conference” would have had greater impact. Fans might still bemoan the lack of heavy hitters like Avengers and Final Fantasy VII: Remake, but if they’re not ready then they’re not ready. On the other hand, perhaps it’s the publisher’s responsibility to manage expectations in cases such as these. Or, if there’s a lack of important announcements for the company, then it should consider not hosting a press conference in the first place. The fact this was Square Enix’s first in three years instantly raises expectations.

The successes of this year’s E3 (again, using a very selfish, gamery and 1000-miles-removed metric of “success”) were Microsoft, Bethesda and Ubisoft. They not only came bearing announcements and demonstrations of highly anticipated and surprising games, but also presented them with personality and an understanding of their audiences and a celebration of the medium. Ubisoft knows it has to announce a new Just Dance game, so opening the show with a bombastic panda dance number is a great way of doing that in a very Ubisoft way which increases affection for the company despite a lack of interest in the game from its core audience.

Sony, meanwhile, seems to want to return to the days before press conferences were streamed to every screen on the planet. Its presentation was intended as experience for attendees, with live music and a travelling audience. The latter of which meant that viewers at home (many in Europe watching in the middle of the night) had to sit through a ten minute interval and a dry interview as they waited for those in attendance to find their seats. This was an experiment for the company and it looks like it failed. Especially as the show lacked bombshells, disappointing many despite attempts to manage expectations, possibly because of the strength of the company’s previous years’ outings.

The games industry is cyclical and everyone is bound to have a light year eventually, but there are ways of revealing that without broadcasting a live performance art piece that simultaneously alienates remote audiences and confuses those in attendance.

E3 press conferences are likely here to stay, but now more than ever it feels like it’s time for publishers to truly decide what they want to achieve with them and who they’re talking to. And in the case of Square Enix, understanding that showing up isn’t always enough. It’s okay to stay home sometimes. We won’t forget you exist. 

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