“There are ample marketplace alternatives to the activities in which proponents claim they want to engage.”
This quote comes from an infamous Powerpoint presentation that the Entertainment Software Association’s Simon J. Frankel recently gave the Copyright Office. In March, Frankel argued against the preservation of “abandoned” software, even by museums and archives, because it’s “hacking” and should be considered illegal.
As international non-profit digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation asserted in its missive pushing back against the ESA: “If ‘hacking,’ broadly defined, were actually illegal, there likely would have been no video game industry.”
There are many ways to unpack the ESA’s three-slide .pptx, but the undercurrent when taken with the EFF’s point is: “Video games are interchangeable, please keep buying any of them, and we don’t have a good sense or appreciation for the history of our own industry.”
It would be tempting to hail the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the ESA-governed annual showcasing and unveiling of the biggest developers’ and publishers’ forthcoming titles, as the apex of the industry’s achievements and potential: stuff coming out in the next year that will dazzle us in a way that stuff in the past hasn’t.
And while technically that might be true from a strictly visuals standpoint, being technically correct is the lamest and least satisfying way to win any argument.
Truth is, as budgets for many of the biggest companies’ biggest titles have ballooned to hundreds of millions—up by a factor of 10 from the previous generation of hardware—we’re not seeing “ample marketplace alternatives,” but “let’s play it safe” conservative outings. These are sequels, inexplicable remasters of games that just came out two years ago, and very few attempts at new series because it’s risky.
This is how behemoths carry themselves? Leaders of an industry?
THE HARDER THEY FALL
For the people who make big-budget video games, whose work this show is ostensibly meant to celebrate, E3 itself has even less significance for the medium than those who dutifully show up in pursuit of reporting on the dazzle. It’s worse: it’s a ceremonial and outdated drain on resources to boost awareness on how they’re staving off risks on all these incredibly expensive games.
“Because it is industry and press only for the most part, E3 feels like a gigantic marketing circle jerk,” an environment artist who worked on multiple big-budget games like Call of Duty and Tomb Raider told me anonymously. “I don’t think E3 is necessary. It isn’t a place for developers to connect with gamers in a meaningful way like PAX and other conventions facilitate.”
But E3 was never meant to be that. Since its inception in 1995, E3 was originally intended for pre-internet game companies and publications and retail buyers to interface, spread word, stock stores, and get players pumped for the future dazzle. This is back in the days when Twisted Metal on the original PlayStation’s budget was $800,000 and Full Throttle’s was $1.5 million. Mortal Kombat 2’s $10 million budget just for marketing seemed outlandish.
Nintendo Power, Electronic Gaming Monthly and all those other enthusiast publications were doing their best to make this industry stick. E3 wasn’t about connecting with gamers, it was about indirectly getting them to support this growing industry.
But it isn’t 1995 anymore. The industry has arrived, and it needs to start taking actual risks and stop saying budgets are a placeholder for creative boldness—the same creative boldness that established these long-running series we see being exhumed or revitalized annually. Besides that, sometimes not taking any risks can be the riskiest move at all.
The party line from big-budget companies over the years has either explicitly or otherwise been, “We look to independently developed games to drive the creativity. We are too fucked economically to take risks.”
This has seemingly been the mentality of the big-budget space for years now, and it’s never more apparent than at E3, where they march out with demos and trailers made specially just for the show that wind up sucking up resources and, often, being totally unlike the finished games.
I’m no economist, but just look at the numbers: games cost hundreds of millions dollars to develop and market, and on top of all the work of making those games, developers are expected to create extra facsimiles of what portions of the games could be like when they finally come out—maybe.
This is the very definition of excessive, especially when you factor in that large sections of the audience, writers included, understand E3 is itself a glorified PowerPoint presentation. Months and sometimes years after the presentation, when the games are actually out, players flock to the internet to take developers to task over the gap in what was promised to them at E3 and what they wound up with in the final products—which are usually still good, and which no one would complain about if they hadn’t been misrepresented in the first place.
Is it time for a history lesson? The question is not “should we abandon E3” but rather, “is it time we rethink E3 and its purpose?” Is this what the people on the frontlines drawing paychecks from theses budgets really want to be doing with their talents and time?
DRAINED AND DEFEATED
Above: ‘BioShock Infinite’ wound up nothing like this E3 demo
“Presenting for conventions usually means establishing a ‘demo team’ whose entire goal for months is to create a nice-looking, five-minute demo,” says the Tomb Raider/Call of Duty dev. “Is this a drag on resources? Absolutely. These are people who could be working on the final product, but have been pulled aside to dress up a small area.”
“Publishers and platform manufacturers adopted this ideal as the foundation of how they structure their yearly schedules, making sure they coincide their biggest announcements to align with E3 for maximum PR,” says Arran Seaton, who has worked on Turn 10/Playground Game’s Forza Horizon and Ubisoft’s The Crew. “The reliance on a stuffy, business-like approach of how it relays information to the press and public over the years has left it feeling cold and distant.”
Everyone I talked to for this piece who has worked on big budget games would like to see the show change. And it’s done it before. It’s possible.
But criticizing this sector of the industry tends to result in one of two flimsy lines of logic: either that the audience shouldn’t care about how their games are made, or that the people who are working (and being worked) so hard should find other jobs. But we can’t un-peek behind the curtain—part of being a fan is wondering how all this stuff comes together. And if that’s your attitude on the latter point—maybe nobody should be making big-budget games?
Many devs I spoke to for this piece speculated that as budgets have swelled for the current generation, the amount of time spent on convention demos is likely “a large contributing factor in many game delays.” Ironic, given that E3 was intended primarily to facilitate awareness and anticipation for upcoming games, not to slow them down.
“I wish it were not about big reveals for things we can’t actually play right now,” someone who has worked on a big-budget first-person shooter at “one of the biggest games companies” says. “I wish it weren’t about solidifying the yearly franchise model or questionable resurrection of old IPs because everyone’s just waiting for a trailer to the next sequel. I wish it weren’t about using the word ‘IP’ instead of ‘game.’ I wish it weren’t mainly non-developers presenting games to folks who are often neither devs nor consumers, it’s a show made up mostly of middlemen.”
These middlemen used to carry much more considerable sway—back in 1995. Today? The noise around E3 bleeds out long before the show itself even begins, much the way after Halloween’s over everyone starts hanging up Christmas decorations. As I write this, my email inbox ticks up with invitations to streams and press conferences associated with E3 but taking place several days before the show even technically starts.
Doesn’t this strike anyone as strange and somewhat futile, based on what E3 was intended for?
TIME FOR A CHANGE
“I wish [E3] would go away,” says an anonymous professional who has worked at both a publisher and a developer in a variety of roles. “It’s ultimately not at all for consumers, but it’s built up this vestigial arm of trailers and videos that consumers watch over the internet. We don’t need E3 for trailers, and in fact, smaller games would get much more exposure if they weren’t launching trailers the same day as every AAA title for the next three years.”
That’s another contradiction. The big devs are meant to be passing the creative torch to the independent devs, and yet still throw themselves a big party to overshadow and eclipse the ones who are meant to be inspiring the rest of us. As “indie” games are increasingly leaned on to fill in the release-schedule gap from the big devs, very little of E3 is dedicated to celebrating or encouraging creativity—the very lifeblood of dazzle. (Hyper Light Drifter is an example of a celebrated smaller title that announced its decision to forego the show for exactly this reason—a great way of grabbing attention in spite of the show.)
Perhaps because it’s implied or understood that the annual Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco is the “indie” domain, where developers and academics give symposia on the creative potential of video games. You certainly see none of that at E3—where it’s driven home that video games are products, not the creative output of individuals.
“Rather than showcasing the depth and breadth of modern gaming, E3 has become a parade of the latest Call of Duty clones, sports titles, and driving games,” says Matt Schwartz, producer and digital media strategist. “E3 sets the tone for the public’s perception of the gaming industry. This is where E3 falls terribly short of its potential.”
This too is perhaps a ripple from another bygone era of the games industry. Anyone who’s ever beaten old Nintendo games remembers seeing a combination of real names and obvious pseudonyms roll by in the credits. This was back when the industry was still trying to establish itself—pre 1995—and companies were trying to keep their prized employees from being poached.
“Most companies are using the dev team to present or even demo on the floor, meaning people aren’t doing the jobs they’d rather be doing,” says the anonymous professional. “These people are likely away from their families and miss a week’s worth of work. They probably spent the previous week crunching to get the E3 build done, and now they’re going to have to crunch the next week to make up for E3’s wasted time. It’s grueling and terrible.”
The alternative is to hire a PR firm that knows “absolutely nothing about the game days before E3, and read all their information off a paper.”
“So,” the professional adds. “The consumer’s two choices are: torture the people working hard to make your games or get your news from a carefully worded talking head. Neither of which seems like something gamers want.”
OUT OF FOCUS
Big-budget games are more than the work of a few public-facing people. They’re the work of a few hundred people, if not several teams of them collaborating all over the globe. It’s a miracle anything comes out of this process at all. And the extra work E3 incurs on all these people is demoralizing.
To articulate the drain and drama E3 makes big-budget devs go through, I’ll leave with you an anecdote about rocks in video games.
From the aforementioned dev who worked at “one of the biggest games companies:”
Internally everyone on the team saw a short trailer that was to precede an on-stage in-game demo. Very quickly, an email got sent around that it was missing a shot, a second or two looking at a landscape dominated by a big, hyperrealistic boulder in the foreground. Some people had spent an inordinate amount of time on this rock, so it was a heavy blow to them to have that moment cut from the trailer. You wouldn’t believe the amount of artist man-hours spent on rocks, trees, shrubs, grass, etc. When you have a team of hundreds that balloons to about a thousand around release time, individual authorship gets diluted so much that people grasp onto whatever they can.
E3 could champion the game industry’s talent and drive the industry forward. Only here can grown adults feel devastated that rocks may go unseen by an audience they can’t even speak to directly. That may not even be in the final game anyway. Because E3 is stuck in the past.
Is this the pre-rendered hill we want big-budget games to die on?
David Wolinsky is the creator and moderator of don’t die, an interview repository and video game confessional to mitigate the industry’s growing rifts. He’s also the co-producer of the internet’s only podcast about video games, The Electric Cybercast II: Online.