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?

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Latest comments (7)

Nick Parker Consultant 10 years ago
I took the decision this year not to go to E3 for all the reasons mentioned by Johnny above and I went public in MCV why I thought E3 2012 would be remembered because it was the one we couldn't remember. For nearly 20 years, I have attended this show, CES Las Vegas was the first for me in 1993 and I can't really see much of a change in the format and I have the same reaction when I enter the first hall on the first morning of "here we go again". It is time to have one games show where traditional publishers and console manufacturers can mingle with the online social and mobile developers and hopefully a bit of the creativity and business sense would rub off on each other and break down the divide between the two eco-systems. E3 2013 should be the last, ending on a high note of next gen launch announcements.
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Dan Howdle Head of Content, Existent10 years ago
Good article.

And Usher wasn't miming.
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Jesse Miller Staff Writer, PixlBit10 years ago
In the age of the 24 hour news cycle, it really isn't surprising that E3 has become less and less relevant. There was a time when E3 was it, but now there are multiple events vying for the industry's time and attention - so much so that I think it likely that companies will likely soon start hosting their own events - like how Nintendo has Nintendo Direct presentations - to make major announcements and use E3 primarily as a way to demo already known product.
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Kevin Patterson musician 10 years ago
MS needs to keep the main E3 conference about gaming, not so much the media and entertainment options. They should have a 2nd conference or wait till another event down the road. E3 is about the hardcore gamer, it's almost a gaming holiday. Talking about entertainment apps is the equivalent of receiving underwear for Christmas, we need it, but it's just not that exciting.

MS should take a good look at how Sony handled it's conference, outside of Wonderbook, It was great and all about the games. Sony had a great conference this year and IMHO "won" E3.

If MS releases a new console next year, and has Phil Harrison talking about it, My head just may explode. (Phil's cool but it will seem surreal)
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Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 10 years ago
The game industry is right in the middle of multiple, traumatic revolutions. There is the move from boxed to digital distribution. From purchase to freemium. From consoles as the main gaming platform. Towards most things moving to the cloud. Towards huge diversity in IP. Towards social integration into gaming. Towards true globalisation as gaming devices (smartphones) reach an immense untapped market (Kwalee's first number one was in Tanzania). And more.

Against this background mere game announcements no longer carry the significance they did when consoles ruled the roost.

Also a lot of the industry (and this includes journalists) are in denial about the changes that are happening. They have their heads in about 2007 and cannot see that the world has changed and is about to change a lot more.

As has been stated SmartGlass was a huge announcement. But it was just a milepost along a strategic road that Microsoft are following to gain competitive advantage.

The other really big announcement was Gailkai integration into Samsung televisions. This incorporates many of the seismic trends listed above and once again is a milepost along a route. Over the next few years more Gaikai/Samung smart televisions could be sold than next generation consoles. Imagine how that would change the balance of power in the industry.

So E3 was fascinating, but not for the usual reasons.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Bruce Everiss on 13th June 2012 9:53am

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Charlie Andre-Barrett European Digital Sales Manager, Bethesda Softworks10 years ago
Good Article Johnny ! very best regards , Charlie
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Good Article - and one that has not been written by any other resource. I would go as far as saying that the 'Turkeys' of the consumer game media saw the sharp blade and the farmer eying the calendar heading towards Christmas and tried their best to change the subject!

If E3 fails then the domino's start to fall - an industry goes into a private presentation mode, with media rushing from one press release to the next press conference and so dependent on the publishers (fighting over exclusives) and so open to manipulation.

And after seeing the possible law suit for THQ over Wii Draw, the media may not be too willing to bet their business on a non-trade-show industry!
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