Surprise! Here's Why E3 2012 Fell Flat
If publishers no longer trust their major announcements to gaming's biggest showcase, what is the point of it, asks Johnny Minkley
Whether you were there or, like me, watched from afar, the post-match analysis of E3 2012 from those without vested interests or a product to peddle has been scathing.
Boring press conferences, an abject lack of revelations and an oppressive sense of end-of-generation drift all contributed to a collective shrug and fresh questions over the relevance of the industry's leading annual showcase. And for an event whose primary purpose is to generate hype and excitement, that's a serious problem.
The tone of each year's show is set before the doors of the LA Convention Center have opened, of course. Usually that means the money-burning pyrotechnics of the big ticket press conferences. But this year, expectations were fixed well before the first autocue started rolling.
"The overwhelming majority of major publishers didn't dare leave it to chance - in doing so undermining E3's supposed main strength"
To an extent, it was always going to be underwhelming. We knew Microsoft and Sony had no intention of talking next-gen, and would instead gamely seek to extend the lives of their current ageing platforms by any means necessary. At least the Nintendo show, with a new launch coming this year, promised fireworks.
But if you're wondering who or what is to blame for E3's growing irrelevance this year, it's not the console cycle, nor the booth babes, nor even the badly-managed press conferences. It's the publishers.
Here's a question for you. What do the following games have in common: Gears of War Judgment; Dead Space 3; Need For Speed: Most Wanted; LEGO Lord of the Rings; Tomb Raider; Star Wars 1313; Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance; God of War: Ascension; PlayStation All-Stars for Vita; Forza Horizon; Dishonored; Guardians of Middle-earth.
Got it? Each one was either announced or had its "E3" trailer released in the run-up to the show. So we'd either already seen it, or knew we were going to. Now, which publisher has been hailed as the star of the event? Ubisoft. And what did the French firm have more of than anyone else? Big, beautiful surprises.
Two in particular. With ZombiU, the company demonstrated the potential of the Wii U GamePad's second screen more effectively than anything Nintendo had. But it was Watch Dogs that sent social media into meltdown the moment it was announced. As I write, the conference demo has been viewed almost 4.5 million times on YouTube.
Yes, an actual new game announcement that didn't leak in advance, that was saved in its entirety for the show, and that stunned onlookers, quickly becoming the talk of LA and beyond.
To be scrupulously fair, a large part of the Watch Dogs hysteria owed to its fresh, captivating concept amidst a stagnant mire of angry, conveyor-belt action filler. But the sudden, furiously-typed exclamations of awe it produced on Twitter can't be scripted in advance, no matter how good a game looks. Ubisoft Montreal's title got that reaction precisely because no-one saw it coming.
"With ZombiU, Ubisoft demonstrated the potential of the Wii U GamePad's second screen more effectively than anything Nintendo had"
The overwhelming majority of major publishers, however, didn't dare leave it to chance - in doing so undermining E3's supposed main strength. And, really, who could blame them? Why risk getting lost in the maelstrom of news when you can control the cycle for 24 hours with a carefully timed assets dump in the run-up? Why expose your game to the possibility of being out-manoeuvred on-stage, when you can tie-up a separate exclusive with a TV show? Why bother holding any announcements back for E3 at all? In which case, why bother… You can see where this is going.
It's a somewhat different equation if you're Nintendo, Microsoft or Sony, whose showcases traditionally form the focus of the entire week. Perception matters when you've got hardware to sell. And while all three struggled with staging issues, they were further hampered by tellingly half-hearted support from key third-party partners.
Sony's first-party offerings on PS3 were strong, with the (expected) unveiling of David Cage's new thriller, Beyond, and stunning demos of The Last of Us and God of War. Meanwhile, the major news of a partnership with JK Rowling was only scuppered by the decision to run with an unnecessary, poorly-judged live demo.
But the defining image of the conference came when Sony announced the name of Vita's Call of Duty title. And then didn't show any of it. With the world watching to see how Sony would revive the fortunes of its struggling handheld, its biggest third-party release was apparently caught out with a bad case of stage fright.
Microsoft's bizarre event, meanwhile, perfectly captured in microcosm the unsustainable tensions between old E3 and the new age of connected entertainment: from Halo 4, to SmartGlass, to "Internet explorer is coming to Xbox!", to a thrusting Usher in the space of an hour.
SmartGlass was the standout announcement, coming as it did without hefty pre-show trailing. But why not hold back Gears of War Judgment just a few more days for a big conference reveal? If Epic believes Game Informer magazine to be a better medium through which to announce a triple-A Xbox exclusive than Microsoft's own press conference, what does that say about E3?
Nintendo's decision to host a 30-minute webcast on the Sunday before the conferences was a savvy move that grabbed the early headlines, even if it was mostly fuelled by a desire to correct the mistakes of last year's botched Wii U reveal.
Its press conference troubles were largely presentational, beginning the moment Shigeru Miyamoto departed and Reggie Fils-Aime took his place. But how much better would it have been rated had Ubisoft allowed Nintendo to reveal ZombiU and Rayman Legends? Or had Activision announced a Wii U SKU of the biggest game of 2012?
Compare and contrast this confused, shambolic approach to the art of the conference with the hyper-controlled integrity of Apple's. I'm writing this article a couple of hours before Tim Cook is due to deliver his WWDC keynote. Announcements are expected but, as ever, no-one can be sure what. No concrete leaks, no advance media placements, and as a result, total focus on the main event.
"The defining image of the conference came when Sony announced the name of Vita's Call of Duty title. And then didn't show any of it"
A year ago, Apple showed-up E3 for the dinosaur it was in danger of becoming with a simultaneous event in San Francisco, taking a confident pop at gaming rivals. This year, E3 didn't need any assistance in highlighting its myriad failings.
It's already bad enough that the ESA's event fails to represent the massive section of the interactive entertainment industry inhabited by the likes of Apple and Google, let alone the vibrant and thriving indie scene. The defence has always been that the LA show remains the place where gaming's blockbusters go first.
With Watch Dogs Ubisoft did indeed underscore how powerful E3 can still be as a platform for the right product. But a smaller and smaller number of its competitors are willing to take a similar punt, while there's far too much tit-for-tat horse-trading between too many conferences for there to be any meaningful focus.
Talk of a revived E3 in 2013 in a new location offers hope of yet another fresh start, along with the spotlight on the next - and final? - generation of home consoles. But why should Microsoft and Sony wait until E3 to get the news out there? Don't be at all surprised if they don't.
Meanwhile, journalists on the showfloor this year complained of such astonishingly basic oversights as a lack of wi-fi, preventing those without US phones from engaging with social media on the go, and hopelessly over-subscribed presentations.
With each pre-show trailer tease here and early magazine cover there, then, the case for E3's primacy is gradually eroded. And if E3 is no longer even the best place in the world to announce video games, then what on earth is it for?