Another year of the video game industry’s biggest blast of info, spectacle and hype has come and gone and it’s time for my yearly chat about it. Despite being little more than a fancy marketing event, I’ve always really enjoyed watching and reading about E3. As someone who is keenly aware of when I’m being advertised to and takes that as such, I just love this chance to get a huge block of knowledge about the next year’s big batch of games that are coming and consuming all the analysis of it that I can. If you love games and especially, big AAA games, E3 is basically second Christmas.
Last year, a group of us talked over all the press conferences and got to give our impressions of the games we saw as we went. Sadly, real life prevented that from happening this year. This post is mostly going to focus on talking about the show as a whole and some broader concepts about it. If you want to hear me yak about what specific games interested me, I do so at length in the Geek Bravado Ramble video.
E3 2016 was still pretty great but there’s no doubt an air of change and uncertainty permeated this year’s show. Several major publishers have scaled back their presences or pulled out entirely, choosing instead to focus on communicating directly to their customers online, something that’s easier and cheaper than ever before. The show floor was much more sparsely populated and quiet, to the point where Giant Bomb was actually able to record a short podcast in the middle of it, something that would have been impossible even last year.
For the last several years, we’ve heard the lazier members of the games press naval gaze about E3’s relevance. In the past, it was more them wondering if consoles and big games in general were doomed in the face of the mobile games bubble, something I waved off as the nonsense it was later proven to be. This year though, I think there’s validity to the claims but for different reasons. E3 is incredibly expensive for a company to attend and whether you’re an Electronic Arts or a Devolver Digital, there are myriad other ways to talk directly to the people you’re selling to for far less money and on your own schedule and your own terms. I’ve no doubt that the flashy, dual-city press event that EA put on probably cost them far less than a press conference plus booth presence at the show proper would have and Devolver’s street party that wasn’t even officially part of the show definitely cost them less and arguably, got more attention. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more publishers follow their lead in the future.
E3’s never been so much about the games press as getting the attention of the mainstream press but in the era of YouTube and Twitch “influencers”, even they aren’t really that important in the grand scheme of things. I don’t know how the ESA can alter E3 to combat this change. Maybe they can’t and going forward, we’ll see a much smaller show or perhaps, it’ll just disappear after a while. I definitely would miss the concentrated week of crazy gaming news but at the same time, games are getting even more expensive to make and the audience isn’t growing fast enough to keep up so these companies have to save where they can.
What surprised me the most about this year’s E3 was not so much what was there as what wasn’t. Two major paradigm shifts in the games industry are on the horizon, incrementally upgraded consoles and VR. These are two things that were unheard of just a few years ago but in recent months, have had sustained hype behind them. Yet, at the game industry’s biggest show, both were only shown in a rather tepid fashion. Sony didn’t talk about the next PS4 at all and beyond a teaser video, Microsoft said next to nothing about Project Scorpio, instead focusing on the smaller but no more powerful Xbox One S that’s coming later this year. We also got no word from Nintendo on their next system.
As for VR, it was certainly there but I was shocked to how little a degree. Sony is shipping PlayStation VR this year but only devoted a few minutes of their press conference to it, largely showing off another batch of gimmicky tech demos or “experiences” it will launch with and few full games. A couple of publishers have either VR add-ons for existing games coming or some experiments of their own but that was it. I get that Sony is probably going to dedicate their PlayStation Experience fan show to really pushing PlayStation VR but its muted showing at E3 was a real surprise.
The hype over VR went from everyone constantly saying “This game would be so awesome in VR!” to them now saying it has potential but there’s little to play on it and none of it’s worth the price of admission. Even with Sony’s offering being half the price of it’s closest competitor on PC, you’ve got to have compelling software for people to buy into these things. Without an install base, no one’s going to make big games for them and without good games, no one’s going to buy them. Sony and Oculus have been helping to fund new VR projects but many of them are nowhere to be seen and it’s more and more feeling to me that these companies should have held back their hardware launches until more stuff is on them. I could afford a VR headset right now if I wanted to but I’m instead choosing to put that money towards a GTX 1080 GPU, something that can benefit every game and which seems like a much better use of funds. VR has a short window to capitalise on the hype before it fades and it doesn’t feel like they’re doing that.
What made me very happy to see was that at least some of the AAA industry is actually back to taking some creative risks. Much as I like big games, there’s no denying that most publishers have been relying on the safest of bets the last while, especially as they waited with bated breath to see if consumers actually bought new consoles. It turns out they are and in greater numbers than last generation so the money taps have opened again and creativity is being allowed to shine, at least in some places. We saw a number of new, big budget IPs showcased this year and some complete creative overhauls of others. God of War is now a third-person combination of The Last of Us and Dark Souls based around Norse mythology. Resident Evil 7 looks more like Silent Hill style horror and has full VR support. The new Call of Duty is mostly in space. The new Battlefield is set in World War I. The next Legend of Zelda is a fully open-world game with crafting and free traversal. While the big games industry will never be as experimental as the indie space, it’s clear they feel more comfortable taking risks now, even going so far as to flip traditional cash cow franchises on their ear. That’s an exciting thing indeed.
Almost every E3 has some kind of industry gimmick theme that you can see throughout it. It’s uncanny how many of these big companies that are supposed to be competing tend to ride the same trends as the same time. In past years, it’s been things mobile integration into console games that no one asked for. Other years, it’s been turning everything into a big open world, even games that didn’t need it. This year however, it seemed like the overall theme was just an industry more comfortable in its position and that’s realised big AAA games do indeed have a long-term future and that yes, the audience won’t turn their backs on them for trying something different. There’s still a lot of safe bets being made but fewer than before and the risks they’re taking look like they could end up with some pretty awesome things. This new tone was both exciting but also a relief for me to see. It’s arguably never been a harder time to make money developing video games, yet the industry also seems to be more comfortable and less stressed than it was before. I think that’s ultimately a great thing for everyone.
Unfortunately, it also wouldn’t be an E3 without the outrage baiting gaming press doing everything they can to attack the industry they cover and the audience they serve in the most hubristic, tactless, insulting way possible. To the shock and sadness of everyone, the horrible terrorist attacks in Florida occurred the Sunday before E3, mere hours before EA’s press event was due to kick things off. Most of the press events paid tribute to the tragedy with either moments of silence and/or wearing multi-coloured ribbons in solidarity. Hard as it is to have to sell entertainment products mere hours after such horrific events, letting the world stop because of the actions of madmen only validates their actions further. As they say, the show must go on.
Nonetheless, we got a pile of articles and tweets from all the usual suspects, some saying that E3 should either have been delayed or cancelled but most saying that E3 and the industry should have been ashamed because so many of the products being shown “glorify guns and violence.” Let me be clear here: I hate guns and I detest those who fetishise them. I don’t believe guns are valuable or necessary in a civilised society and I think America’s near lone obsession with them is as terrifying as it is despicable. That said, video games aren’t real and watching many of the same members of the gaming press who tore apart Jack Thompson’s insane “games cause violence” rhetoric not even 10 years ago, spewing the same nonsense almost verbatim was disgusting.
I don’t know how one can think any good is being served by piggybacking on a massive tragedy to argue that video games cause violence, arguments by the way that have been thoroughly, repeatedly, scientifically and indeed, legally debunked time and time again. Of course, the hack writers who published this garbage don’t actually believe it, they just found another horrific event they can use to cynically drive clicks to their dying web sites while also pretending to have the moral high ground in doing so. It’s disgusting, abhorrent, unethical behaviour and anyone who did that should be ashamed of themselves. Have the business models of these sites become so broken that this is the only way they can hope to survive as YouTube and Twitch continue to eat their lunch? And if so, what does it say about the character and ethical standards of those who put their names on this stuff?
If you hate your audience and the video game industry that much, why are you people even here? If the only things you can say when getting paid by a video game site to cover the largest, most anticipated video games event of the year, is how your audience are bad people because they like games with guns in them, then get out now. Go start another social justice blog to preach your outrage or go start a new games site where you can write about the pretentious walking simulators and Twine games everyone should play instead. Of course, none of these writers will do that because they know there’s not enough of an audience for that stuff to make a living. You’re not here to serve yourselves and your warped social agendas, you’re here to serve your audiences. If you can’t do that, step aside for someone who can.
I said a long time ago that as much as the games press deserves the reckoning it’s currently going through, that I don’t want the PewDiePies and the Game Grumps of the world to become the new face of games journalism. I still don’t but at this point, I’d take them 10 times over before I would take much of the games press we have now. Say what you will about the most popular YouTubers and I can say plenty but at least those people actually love games and gamers. They know who they serve and it’s the players, not people who can only derive satisfaction from life when they’re being offended at someone other than themselves. The current games press is crumbling and I’m now more convinced than ever that they wholly deserve it.
So there we have it, my top-down, big picture analysis of this year’s E3. There’s no doubt that it was a weird year but it was also a good one and whether you’re into big games, small games or both, there’s a metric ton coming that should interest gamers of all types. Personally, I don’t know where I’m going to find the time to play all the amazing stuff I see coming but hey, that’s a damn good problem to have if you ask me. Every year is a good year to be a hardcore gamer but 2016 and 2017 are shaping up to be some of the best in a good while. I don’t know what the future holds for E3 and one thing is clear, no one else does either. I do hope it gets to stick around in some form as I do like what it offers and what I can take from it. Maybe like the games press that covers it though, it’s time in the sun is fading. I’m very curious how they change it up next year.