By JJ Robinson
JJ Robinson headed to this year’s Gamescon in Germany for a behind the scenes look at one of the biggest events in the video games calendar. But in embarking on a personal dungeon crawl in the Koelnmesse conference centre, he looks at why gaming PR has become so strictly controlled when publicity is the name of the game.
Gamescon is a sprawling and chaotic beast. Eclipsing E3 as the biggest games event in the world – almost 400,000 visitors got lost this year in the caverns and corridors of the Koelnmesse conference dungeon. It’s big money, and with that comes political support: last year’s event was opened by Chancellor Merkel. perhaps a fan of games such as Wolfenstein where you are seemingly the last vestige of resistance to a global takeover of Nazis and associated mutations thereof.
As Squareblind’s delegate, I visited on ‘tradeshow Tuesday’, having managed to acquire access to the fenced-off ‘business’ halls. We could tell you about the news and game highlights, but the event is so sanitised and the coverage so vast and saturated that you can easily look up announcements around whatever game you’re most anticipating. Instead, let’s take a behind-the-scenes look at how this gigantic content farm operates.
Gamescon operates a peculiar class system. On one side of the wall, Orwell-lingly dubbed the ‘entertainment area’, proles line up for hours to catch crumbs from the dev table: playable demos of an upcoming release if they are lucky, rehashed trailers and a few gameplay slides from an insincere, over-enthused third-party promoter if they are not.
The other side of the fence is the restricted ‘business’ section, in which publishers and developers construct walled ‘invitation-only’ compounds containing bounty limited only by PR imagination: bars, coffee machines, playable builds, pettable developers, copious loot. The format is this – carefully screened journalists (plus vetted streamers and ‘influencers’) receive pre-conference invites to a ‘briefing’ in the business section. Here you are ushered past burly security trolls at the compound’s reception.
You are locked in a small room with a row of PCs to engage with playable demos/listen to pitches or watch footage for 50 minutes. Afterwards you receive bags of freebies, a USB full of screenshots. Guests are then ushered out to make way for the next batch of eager supplicants. More than one compound had its own in-game themed bar with custom microbrews.
You can readily spot the journalists and ‘influencers’ at Gamescon, staggering through the corridors burdened under sacks of loot much like physics-defying adventurers in a dungeon crawl. This might not include actual gold pieces, but probably only because a wily PR has yet to think up the idea. Bluffing my way into Gamescon as some kind of influencer of note, rather than the reality of being an overeager blogger, going to previews felt like being a teenager sneaking into nightclubs, except much less cool.
Once past the front door, developers were invariably friendly and as excited about their game as any fanboy/girl. Some – such as developer Blizzard – were locked up tight. ‘Sorry, no walk-ins’ felt about the same to hear as ‘Sorry, no sneakers’ when I was 16. Arguably this was the system working; after all, I was an interloper. But I was curious as to why the culture had become so secure. Wasn’t publicity the whole point?
At conferences in many other industries, companies on the showfloor will eagerly seek your attention. Games industry events in contrast seem to have fallen prey to a kind of weaponised exclusivity, with an in-out caste system that favours and flatters a small number of top news publishers. In contrast to the lightshow and incredible set design of the entertainment halls, the trade section of Gamescon is a bland labyrinth of office partitions and a few overpriced coffee and focaccia stands. Studios are (quite literally) walled fortresses, developers inside mummified by their non-disclosure agreements, guarded by goons and PR gatekeepers. To be a fledgling games journo without access, or worse, be cast out of favour after a hollow review, is an exile that could prove potentially devastating for an entire media outlet.
The reason for this is that features and think pieces are all very well, but any moderately successful media website – and games journalism is no exception – relies on breaking news to generate the bulk of its traffic and attract new visitors. A small cut of these may become loyal readers, an even smaller percentage might contribute or even pay cashmonies. Under this ‘funnel’ system, the size of that top-line bulk audience really matters, because of the percentage at the other end who form your core support base.
Most ad networks don’t particularly care whether a reader is an engaged regular or a random idly clicking through a newsfeed while watching Netflix. As a result, being cut out from the news cycle by an aggrieved publisher is punishing. It’s a skewed and petty power dynamic probably most familiar to journalists covering Hollywood or fashion.
Attending Gamescon as a ‘tradesman’ gave me great respect for games media publishers who take on challenging stories, such as Kotaku’s recent investigation of abhorrent fratboy sexism at Riot Games. This undercovered a company culture that is a real-life facsimile of the average League of Legends chat feed. It prompted some limp efforts at reform, but will have guaranteed Kotaku is off the list of Riot Games’ media darlings. Riot only produces one game, so the effect is probably minor. But what if it had been EA?
If I took anything from Gamescon, it is that the real fun is to be among the players and fans in the ‘entertainment’ plebzone. The stands here are manned by paid promoters, typically young students wearing the T-shirt and making a bit of holiday income, so you won’t trip over any explosive company secrets. But the interactions are great. “I don’t even know how to play,” confessed my Blizzard-shirted opponent at the Starcraft stand, so we co-oped our way to victory.
At the Tropico 6 stand, a franchise fave of my own, I was left alone to play an excellent and fully-featured demo for the best part of half an hour. I lined up for 20 minutes to lose a round of Overwatch, and was offered face-painting and a Widowmaker tattoo for consolation.
“I lined up for 20 minutes to lose a round of Overwatch, and was offered face-painting and a Widowmaker tattoo for consolation.”
Meanwhile, the demo of the new Nvidia ray tracing graphics cards, bizarrely on the other side of Cologne and requiring a bus ride and separate tickets, was almost empty. You could toggle the ATX feature on and off to your heart’s content, comparing conventional graphics with rendering individual photons in six dimensions. This seemed to make things slower and more squinty, rendering your targets realistically blurry and hard to see at range. Fortunately for early ATX adopters, Battlefield V’s resurrection screen is very pretty.
Swayed by the big studio swag and lure of attending major announcements that invariably end up in a press release simultaneously, journalists covering big events like Gamescon can miss a trick. In the back recesses of the halls, tucked behind the large orc cutouts, are rows and rows of small and medium developers cooking up all kinds of experiments and innovations. The next battle royale concept could be cooking out there. I had a blast with the acrobatic zero-gravity VR shooter Skyfront, by a small team of Estonian developers targeting a new approach to VR arcades, enough for a whole future piece. Drink the cyperpunk microbrews, yes – but don’t forget to observe, listen, and play.
JJ Robinson is a contributing editor to Squareblind, when not being a journalist and VR geek. You can follow him here.