Watching E3 from the comfort of various chairs around my home and office — which I contend is now the preferred way to experience the event — found me spending a lot of time being internally cynical about what I was seeing. I think it is relatively well documented that E3 has lost much of its prestige over the past five years or so, if not longer, but it hadn’t been until the past few events that I really began to wonder whether the industry had just completely lost its way at a top level.
But I also wondered if I was just being caught up in the cynical whirlpool that seems to wander endlessly through the ocean of gaming fandom. After all, I’m on record as saying the past few years have been some of the best in recent memory, and it was only six months ago that I was having to make hard decisions about whether to play Skyrim, Uncharted 3 or Saints Row the Third. Sure, the show may be different from the halcyon days I dimly recall through the lens of nostalgia, but today’s game biz is certainly still cranking out the fun.
I find myself very much left with the question then: Is E3 a relevant gamer event anymore?
And the answer, somewhat surprisingly is, yes. It actually is, but in the context of understanding what the people who control the industry think is important. Not at all as a celebration of the form. It is not an event, it is a warning.
I’m not just talking about the relative affronts of DRM, DLC and other such sinister acronyms. I mean that an E3 presentation, particularly from console makers, is as likely to focus on TV integration, subscriptions, add-on plans or social platforms as it is to actually talk about how a game will be good. Every year it seems that the people with most influence in gaming have less and less investment in or familiarity with what makes for a quality product from a gamer perspective.
I suppose I need to establish that I am drawing an important distinction between the ideas of a “gamer” and a “game consumer,” because from the perspective of the latter I think E3 isn’t just relevant, but perhaps more relevant than ever. I am using a much more niche definition of the term “gamer.” When I use that word, I mean it in the terms that someone might have used it in 1999, meaning specifically an individual who is passionate about the industry, the artform and the evolution of gaming.
Now, of course, these two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive. I, for example, am very much both a “gamer” and a “gaming consumer.” I am as likely to get excited for and buy a critically acclaimed independent title as I am the latest AAA title from EA or Activision. My buying habits are perhaps mitigated but not wholly impeded by a more rigid DRM scheme. In short, my habits tend to represent both the activities of a hardcore gamer as well as the larger buying public.
Perhaps that is why I am torn on E3. I see from an informed point of view the way the soul of E3, if such a phrase has any meaning, is being leached away year after year, but I also know that many of these games that are front and center in the service-driven monetization wars are going to sell a hojillion copies, whether they deserve to or not. We can lambast Madden and Call of Duty all we like for being soulless, money-making machines designed to manipulate and penalize consumers, but any reasonable analysis also has to contend with the practical upshot, which is that they will be very successful soulless manipulation machines.
In that sense, E3 is extremely relevant, assuming you accept that it is, above all else, a business platform to market and highlight a company’s best money-making opportunities in the business. And I think that gets down to the heart of the issue, because the “gamer” side of me wants this to be a celebration of the industry and medium, a show for what will likely be the best games as opposed to simply the games and/or applications that will drive the highest value and best return on investment.
I think E3 is actually extremely successful at being exactly what it needs to be to continue driving in exhibitors, which, let’s be honest, is as important if not more important than drawing attendees. After all, if you build it and you get exhibitors, then you have to work really hard at screwing up the attendees part.
Unfortunately, E3 is not presented that way in most media coverage.
This isn’t the part where I start caning my peers for applauding at IE integration in the Xbox 360. (Though seriously, guys, what the hell?) I just think that, from a gaming enthusiast press side, they/we aren’t doing a good enough job of making it clear what this is. Because if you just watch the gaming sites or the streaming feeds or live blogging, you’d think that this is that old-school celebration. The coverage is bombastic and enthusiastic. The enthusiast press does enough gearing up hype for E3 (in honesty, we play a role in that as well) that the show and the presenters are best served by not dispelling the illusion. The press, which I do think continues to need to be more critical and realistic about this event, spoon feeds marketing spin to an eagerly waiting public. But that coverage isn’t really what E3 is about.
To be fair, I think of all the press in attendance, the enthusiast press — particularly the unaffiliated press — is at least good at noticing and commenting on when the spin is happening. They still deliver it in real time with big headlines, but they aren’t walking around with blindfolds on either.
That aspect they can leave to the mainstream press, who is the final, and perhaps weakest, piece of the puzzle. When even CNN covers the event but appears to not understand that the Wii U is an entirely new console as opposed to a peripheral for the existing Wii, it’s impossible to expect that they are going to actually have a critical analysis in the next paragraph.
I think of E3 now as a mission statement by businessmen about the new shackles they plan to lock on the people in the industry who actually do care about games. It’s a high-profile quarterly earnings call, where big businesses are as much talking to shareholders and casual consumers as they are gamers. It is the chance to spin always-on DRM, and corporate partnerships between different media holders that purport to add value while, overall, entrenching outdated ideas about how and when people should get content.
E3 certainly has people in it that are in the business because they like games, but they are not the point. As a “gamer,” you have to be willing to go look for them not just on the show floor, but also in the coverage you consume. I suppose that could be seen as a sign that the medium and more specifically the methods of making money from the medium have matured. It's like television, music, movies or books. if you are passionate about the form then probably you aren't watching the prime-time network schlock, reading James Patterson or listening to my Spotify playlists. In some ways I suppose that makes the special games that are still for us a little more special, but I still can't help but watch my Spike TV feed of E3 and feel that something I once loved is lost.