By Neil Merrett
Coming as it does every year, the E3 video games show in Los Angeles concluded this week after attempting to provide a definitive state of play for a rapidly changing industry. But is the event changing rapidly enough to keep up?
Was E3 2017 a thrilling insight into the next few years of digital entertainment, or an industry event shown up to be increasingly behind the times in the age of Twitch, ubiquitous streamers, professional gaming tournaments and crowd-sourced, independent gaming?
At a surface value, E3 2017s key stories were an emboldened Nintendo looking to create a new market for itself with the Switch, a confident, perhaps cocksure Sony playing up its market dominance and Microsoft seeking a high-cost approach to console technical superiority with a suped up Xbox One.
Unsurprisingly, the great, good, plucky and well monied players of game production were all there, many this time trying to tap directly into the phenomena of online streaming and internet personalities. So how was the event?
Writing for Kotaku, Nathan Grayson found this years event to be an uneasy affair, providing an “awkward” middle ground of balancing a business showcase with a fan convention.
“2017 found E3 in an an awkward pose , with one foot still in the business world and another clumsily lurching toward fans. Organisationally, it was a mess,” said Grayson.
“In all likelihood, it will continue to change as the [event organiser ESA] struggles to keep it relevant in a time when it’s less and less necessary for companies to spend millions of dollars just to compete with other companies for the attention of media and organizations they’ll get attention from anyway. If this year is anything to go by, the transition will not be graceful.”
With attendance reportedly up this year to 68,400, from 50,300 people in 2016, the decision to open up the show to interested onlookers was seen as being a mixed blessing for the industry.
“For reporters like myself, E3 is fun, but it’s also a grim exercise in attrition. It’s a marathon of demos and meetings that leaves the body exhausted and the mind numb,” Grayson noted. “For some of this year’s new attendees, though, it was probably as though they’d finally gotten a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s video game factory. Many attendees were still there mostly for business, but others were purely for pleasure, and E3 was stuck—or rather, wedged—in the middle.”
Having opened up the event much more to the general public, with no real restrictions or barriers between business, developer and everyday gamers, the change was seen as allowing fans to engage directly with developers, particularly for upcoming independent titles that lack the clout and resources of major players. Crowds were huge and there was reportedly significant waiting time required to play some of the most sought after new games, even for a few minutes access.
In an era where smaller developers court fan engagement and kickstarting funding to support projects – arguably with mixed commercial and critical results – the more open public approach of this E3 2017 should not be a huge surprise.
Yet the event was not without its controversies, as is inevitable when courting an increasingly broad audience, with the Atlantic taking umbrage with a presentation of the upcoming Xbox One beat-em-up reboot Killer Instinct that it claimed carried an “apparent rape reference”.
“Microsoft brought out a man and a woman to battle it out on the big screen onstage in Los Angeles. In this scripted event the man, of course, kicks the woman’s ass at the fighting game,” wrote Rebecca Greenfield for The Wire.
“’I can’t even block correctly and you’re too fast,’ she says, playing a videogame like a girl. But even more problematic than those stereotypical gender roles was the part when her adversary said this, Just let it happen. It will be over soon. You know, like a rape.”
Amidst wider issues with sexism in the industry, the often toxic environment of discussing issues relating to gender equality in games development, presentation and design online remains a minefield.
As such, Microsoft Studios’ corporate vice president Phil Spencer issued an apology for the unscripted presentation at an E3 that sought to make use of live demonstrations.
“Yesterday, during the Xbox E3 briefing, one of our employees made an off the cuff and inappropriate comment while demoing Killer Instinct with another employee. This comment was offensive and we apologise,” said Spencer.
With developers also looking to leverage the appeal of online content providers to expand the potential audience and viral appeal of their games, the approach was often not without peril.
Take for example YouTube creator Jesse Wellens, who may have cemented his name in broader internet infamy for a slightly awkward presentation of EA’s latest street racing title Need for Speed Payback.
Was it an autocue error or nerves? Wellens used his own YouTube channel to address the issues and pressures on producers thrown into the E3 spotlight, happily building a new audience from the likely infamy. What a brave new world we live.
As WatchMojo.com has pointed out in the past, awkward reveals and dismal attempts at spontaneity are not exclusively the domain of this year’s E3, pointing to a long history of cringe inducing cock ups:
Yet outside of the heady, sometimes perilous world of internet fandom, the games business proved equally volatile, not least over the ongoing battle of console dominance between Microsoft and Sony.
Writing an opinion piece for Forbes on E3 2017, Paul Tassi argued that Microsoft’s high profile launch of a more powerful, technically superior console, the Xbox One X, failed to justify the US$500 (£391) asking price for upgraded hardware.
Several years after launch, Tassi argued that Sony, which already has a higher range version of its flagship console on the market with the PS4 Pro had also failed to convince gamers to trade up their technology.
h“For all intents and purposes, this is the ‘new’ console generation. These upgrades are what we’re getting for a good long while instead of a full-on PS5 and Xbox Two, and that may not change, given that we are now in an era where huge leaps in technical prowess really aren’t happening in the console space like we’ve seen with past generations,” he wrote.
“The problem is that we’re entering an era where this new tech relies on a completely separate, expensive device in the form of a 4K TV. While both Sony and Microsoft are attempting to explain how games will look and play better in various ways without a 4K TV, it’s a hard message to convey, and it’s easy not to understand the difference after seven months of the PS4 Pro and Microsoft’s big Xbox One X reveal. If there are incremental upgrades, it’s almost certainly not worth $400-$500 for those without a 4K set.”
Particularly from the perspective of Sony, which may have wanted to avoid acknowledging the technical superiority of the revamped Xbox One, there were seen as limited shout outs to the premium console offerings in the view of Tassi.
Yet he believed that even Microsoft failed to convey the proposed strengths of its Xbox One X and the mainstream value from a “true 4K” gaming experience and graphical overhaul.
“Maybe the Pro and 1X are fine with being niche consoles, but niche they will stay unless Microsoft and Sony can come up with better pitches for why these consoles are necessary, not just extravagant luxury items for a select few,” Tassi argued.
Elsewhere, last year’s focus on the huge potential for VR technologies was also largely absent from the big console names, with Sony telling the BBC that its PlayStation VR hardware was “still in its early days.”
Reporter Marc Cieslak asked Sony Entertainment boss Andrew House, that with one million of the company’s VR headsets now sold, how key was virtual reality to the future of the Playstation brand?
House argued that in the long-term, VR had potential to serve as an almost separate entertainment medium from mainstream games, but had perhaps been “overhyped” by companies in the short-term.
He said therefore that the push to bring VR gaming into mainstream was currently at the start of a very long road.
Still serving as the World’s biggest gaming expo, TechRadar itself brought together a number of the key and hidden announcements this year in LA, relating to a major new Mario title, Fifa 18 and new indie titles vying to take their place among the big boys.
Like gaming as a whole, E3 showed an industry both struggling and thriving with providing an increasing number of possibilities for escapism to an ever expanding demographic of players.
As such, attendees were presented with exciting futures to realise their dreams of graphically refreshed Star Wars adventures or living out their own Napoleon fantasies.
After all, in what other medium could a creator be asked whether Super Mario could possess a semi-real world T-Rex and then use it ride on top of a cartoon dinosaur.
— Game Informer (@gameinformer) June 15, 2017
For bad or worse, gaming is arguably as creative, frustrating and stuck in its ways as ever, yet here is to its exciting, unknowable future nonetheless.