So That Was E3 2014 (With Video)

I’m going to talk about E3 on a wider scale here but if you want to hear a discussion about individual games, check out the latest RambleCast where, Chris Cessarano, Chris Woodward and I dig deep into the specifics of what we’re excited about.

So, another E3 is in the books, the first since we had the launch of the PS4 and Xbox One! There was a lot of cynicism of the usual flavour going into the show this year from the so-called “enthusiast” press. The usual “Is AAA doomed?”, “Are consoles doomed?” nonsense that always tends to crop up more around this time of year and which seems to at least partially be washed away by E3. The prophecy du jour last year was that E3 was irrelevant because we’d all be playing games on tablets exclusively in a few years. A lot of those people have gone mysteriously quiet on that now that the Xbox One and PS4 are selling better than their highly successful predecessors were at this point in their lives.

This year, there are still questions about E3’s relevance but of a different sort and one I can get on board with more. The question now is that whether or not a big, glitzy, press and trade only show is really necessary when it’s dead simple for even small companies to directly talk to their fans on their schedule now. Last year, Nintendo skipping out on their press conference and doing live streams was seen as yet another sign that they were doomed, despite having enough wealth to run their current losses for something like 40 years. They did the same thing again this year but Jeff Gerstmann pondered that Nintendo may be ahead of the curve, despite being a traditionally slow and conservative company.

Rather than spending millions on a full-blown press conference, they spent a fraction of that to put on these streams, largely pre-recorded to avoid any unfortunate live flubs and made them available so that anyone be they press, fans or industry people, can watch them whenever they want. They conveyed all the information and trailers they wanted to but in a more polished way and for cheap. People seemed to love it too because it continued throughout the whole show and also allowed for much longer demo sessions than a live conference would provide. I guarantee you that Sony, Microsoft and most of the big publishers were watching that and thinking similar things. Why spend so much more to come to a scheduled trade event where you’re jammed in with your competitors when you can control the message yourself to a more captive audience? For as much as I love the glitz and glamour of E3, I could totally get behind more focused events from industry participants themselves. With EA’s huge hot air show and multiple other large companies having huge, empty booths because they have no games to show, I wonder if we’ll see more of that soon. If we do, I dare say E3’s relevance is legitimately questionable then.

Overall, I’d say it was a good show but as is to be expected from certain elements, it was still looked down upon as something to be made fun of, along with the audience who are clearly just lining up in greater numbers to be good little marketing drones. It’s true that E3 is really just a marketing event but you know what? I like video games a lot and during E3, we get to see and hear about a whole lot of video games, including a decent selection of indie games now too. So, why is that suddenly a bad thing? It may be a marketing event but since I’m not an idiot, I know when I’m being marketed to and I don’t drink the Kool-Aid wholesale, I just take the information I’m given, figure out what games interest me and what I want to keep an eye on. I know a CG trailer when I see it, I know what’s legitimate game play and what isn’t and I know what games will have to show me more before they get my money. Any hardcore gamer with half a wit’s knowledge of how this industry works also knows that. You don’t have to like E3 or the AAA industry, but if all you can bring yourself to do during the week is make snarky comments about it and the audience that watches it (though you’re totally not doing that just because you say so), then maybe you should just keep quiet and consider how much you’re really serving your audience. I’m looking at you Idle Thumbs and Jim Sterling. I like E3, I like the kind of products they show there and the way they’re presented. If you think that’s something to be ashamed of, ride your high horse back to your echo chamber because I don’t have time for you.

What I also took away from this year’s show was a big shift in publisher priorities from last year. When I wrote about E3 2013, I talked about how two big things everyone was pushing last year were open world and second screen experiences. It seemed almost every major trailer you saw had the big zoom out reveal in the end where they showed how you were just one of thousands of people having an impact on the game world. This was often followed up by a demonstration of how you were going to be able to use your tablet or smartphone to interact with the game in some small way when you couldn’t be at your console because you must be playing the game every minute of every day! Whether hacking into other people’s games in Watch Dogs or flying the drone in a friend’s game of The Division, you were always going to have something you could to when on the train or the toilet.

This year, there was a whole lot less of both mentioned.

Several of those open world games have come out and some like The Crew and The Division are still coming but across the board, there were a lot more games focused back on being either single player or tight, small group multiplayer. I love me a good open world but I also love a focused single player experience or playing with just a small group of friends. A lot of the publishers seem to be focusing on those again and that’s great. As for the second screen stuff, I don’t want to say I told you so (OK, maybe a little) but so far, it appears I was right when I said that no one gives a crap about that stuff. Microsoft made no mention of SmartGlass, Sony made no mention of tablet integration (they didn’t even mention the excellent PlayStation app) and while Ubisoft acknowledged tablet play in The Division by showing it in the game’s UI, it was never uttered at anyone’s press conference or demonstrated live. Come to think of it, I haven’t heard a word about Watch Dogs’ second screen stuff since that game launched. Hardcore gamers don’t want a second-rate mobile hand-me-down experience, they want the full thing they paid for and casual players aren’t going to be lured into buying a console and $60 game because they flew a laggy drone around on their phone while commuting. It’s a dumb idea and it seems to have landed with a thud which is a great thing because there are far better things to be spending all that development money on.

This has also unfortunately been the Year of Delays. A lot of what people were excited to see at this year’s E3 was originally set to come this year and is now coming at some nebulous point in 2015. For me personally, I have such a backlog to get to that I really don’t mind. I’ll always take a delay to ensure a quality product in the end. But if you’re Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo, there’s definitely going to be worries about whether momentum can be maintained in hardware sales. The Wii U is hurting bad and needs software right now and there’s a lot coming but most of it isn’t this year. Nintendo plays the long game so they’re just doing what they do but it’s still a worry. To their credit, they could have thrown the Wii U under the bus and focused on the successful 3DS but they didn’t and they’re doubling down to make it a success. The PS4 and Xbox One have had spectacular launches, exceeding most people’s expectations but that will only continue so long without a lot of new software and the last thing they need is the press juicing up a new wave of cynicism if these machines aren’t flying off the shelves this holiday. There is still some big stuff coming this year and there are still many great reasons to own a new machine but will it be enough or will people just hold off until 2015? It’s tough to gauge. Sony and Nintendo both made me happy I own their systems and Microsoft has eventually sold me an Xbox One but in all cases, I would have been happy to wait until next year if I didn’t have them yet.

What I really enjoyed about this E3 versus most of the past ones is that all three of the hardware makers took out a lot of the fluff and ancillary crap from their presentations. With the exception of Sony’s big sag in the middle to talk about Powers and a few numbers (plus, monstrously high expectations after last year’s curb stomping of Microsoft), all three of the big shows were just game after game after game. No stats, no charts, no real business crap, just showing tons of stuff that’s coming to get people excited. That’s exactly what those events needed to be this year and they all nailed it.

It was also hugely refreshing to see the executives from these companies learn to act like bloody human beings who actually enjoy what they do and want to serve their customers. Phil Spencer from Microsoft and Shuhei Yoshida from Sony both went on Giant Bomb’s after hours streams, shows where everything is super casual, people are half in the bag and they just shoot the breeze about games. They weren’t super on message and PR handled, they were just rich business guys who love games, talking to gamers about games. Phil Spencer spent a lot of his time praising Nintendo and Shu Yoshida was the same lovable character he always is. Nintendo spent the front part of their presentation making fun of themselves, including having Fils-Aime and Iwata have a big Matix-style brawl, followed by Robot Chicken bits. Also, look at this photo of Shigeru Miyamoto showing Mario Maker to some young kids:

That is just damn amazing. These are multi-millionaire businessmen, they don’t need to do these things to be effective at their jobs but they did because they love gaming and gamers and wanted to show that. The business world at large can take away a valuable lesson from the game industry and E3: Act like a damn human being who loves their job and people will remember that. It costs nothing and brings so much.

Of course, it also wouldn’t be a week in video games without a new controversy and this time, we got it because there are no women characters in Assassin’s Creed: Unity’s co-op mode. This was another charge led by certain individuals and press outlets that are known for this (I’m not naming them, they don’t deserve the credit) and while there are valid points I agree with at the core, the target and escalation of the sentiment is ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong, Ubisoft blundered their response to this spectacularly and made themselves look completely tone deaf and stupid. They did themselves no favours and their excuses deserve to be torn apart. There is also a very real problem with a lack of inclusiveness in video games and I’m not at all against there being more female and minority characters to choose from, especially in an industry with the insane budgets of modern AAA. More choices are always a good thing.

However, Ubisoft is also possibly one of the biggest champions of diversity in the AAA industry and of all the many valid things to point at as being examples of poor inclusiveness in video games, people chose the company that has an entire Assassin’s Creed game with a black woman hero protagonist (an instalment which I might add, few people bought, despite it being quite good) and an entire DLC campaign for an Assassin’s Creed game that was about a black man overthrowing slavery. Of all the places to go after for a lack of inclusiveness, to instantly declare war on and to throw language at like “hates women” (which a lot of people did), they picked the one that has done more for this very noteworthy cause than anyone else in this industry. I just don’t get it. Battlefield Hardline was right there, an entire series I don’t think has ever had a playable woman in it. Instead, they chose the series that has more diversity than almost any AAA series as an example of how it’s lacking. Hell, Ubisoft’s own co-op demo for The Division had a woman playable character in it, shown being played by a real person. It makes no sense to me. I wonder how many people who took up arms during E3 due to inequity in video games have been glued to the World Cup ever since. If you don’t have time to watch the whole video, this bit is rather pertinent.

I’m sure some people will cherry pick what I said above to justify calling me part of the problem. If you do, you’ll be wrong but do so if you want, I don’t care, I’m used to it. I don’t think in binary absolutes and doing so doesn’t help your cause, it just causes entrenchment and makes otherwise valid struggles that much more difficult to overcome for everyone. The wonderful Aisha Tyler (a hardcore gamer and three time host of the Ubisoft press conference) says it better than I ever could. If you don’t care what I say, you should care what she says.

As a whole, I saw a lot at this year’s E3 that I’m very excited about but a lot of it I’ll have to see more of before I put down my money. There was a lot of CG and scripted demos this year but in terms of juicing my interest to see more, there’s a lot for everyone to be happy about. Every year, Best Buy Canada and Future Shop hold a crazy E3 pre-order sale where if you pre-order three or more games, you get $20 off each. Every year, I pre-order anything I am vaguely interested in and then cancel what drops off my radar before it ships because cancelling individual games doesn’t lose you the discount so everything I do want I get at the six month price on day one. Hot tip there for next year if you live in Canada. This year, I pre-ordered twenty-three individual games, five more than I did last year and not everything I ordered last year has even come out yet. I probably won’t end up keeping them all but it just shows how much I saw that interested me.

Even if I only keep half those pre-orders, that a ton of incredible games coming and for someone like me whose main hobby is gaming, this is an incredibly exciting time. Everyone has their own tastes of course and maybe you saw more or less that interested you personally but if you’re into games, I defy you to not be interested in at least a couple of things on display at E3 this year. The AAA industry and indeed the games industry as a whole are still at an interesting crossroads, full of uncertainty and more than a little press-led fear. Even so, there are still companies, large and small, devoted to giving us a lot of awesome stuff and I think they’re delivering.

The onus is now on us to step up and support all the good stuff we want to see more of. People love to complain how safe the industry plays things and how there’s no innovation in games any more but you can’t say that on one hand and then just buy Call of Duty and Madden yet again with the other. If you want to have different experiences, you’ve got to open your wallet and support them, otherwise we will see more people playing it safe. The industry showed us some safe stuff to be sure but they showed a lot of new, potentially great things that are coming too. If they’re good, we have to show them. I will be, hopefully you will be too.

Also, on a sort of unrelated end note, I just wanted to give massive props to Giant Bomb for the incredible job they did with their coverage and live shows this year, sadly the first year without Ryan Davis. It was very entertaining and I learned a lot and enjoyed myself. After several months of being almost insufferably cynical, Jeff Gerstmann seemed to be really having a good time and loving hosting the live shows. I can’t remember the last time I saw him smile and laugh so much. It was really refreshing and I hope the show made him happy and has made him excited for the future. Great job guys, I still miss Ryan but I’m glad you’re all still here. You’re doing him proud.

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