Back in February, when Geoff Keighley announced he would be bowing out of his annual role hosting E3's Coliseum event, he was fairly certain he was in for a long break.
And even when E3 was cancelled in March due to COVID-19, he still figured he'd be taking several months off before taking to the stage again for Gamescom Opening Night Live in August.
But then, people started approaching him, asking if he was doing anything. And, as Keighley does, he began talking to publishers. And to platforms. And to fans. At first, he says, everyone seemed to think there would essentially be a digital version of E3. But when it became clear that was no longer the case, everyone Keighley spoke to still wanted some kind of unifying concept for their summer announcements and events.
"I found that it didn't have to be me on a shiny black floor stage hosting a show every day," Keighly says. "It's more just like being a traffic cop to navigate all this for everyone and line things up."
"I found that it didn't have to be me on a shiny black floor stage hosting a show every day. It's more just like being a traffic cop to navigate all this for everyone"
The result is Keighley's Summer Game Fest, a four-month-long "global festival" of everything games running from May through August, fostered by partnerships with over a dozen major publishers and platforms.
Keighley describes the Summer Game Fest as less of a single event and more of a "Google calendar" for industry digital showcases, game trailers, launches, in-game events, and free digital demos. He says it's not a forum, nor is it competing with other media outlets -- not even with GameSpot and IGN, who are also doing their own E3 substitute events in June.
His goal, he says, was simply to give the industry something to rally around. And it seems to have worked, at least in that he has many of the industry's biggest names on board. 2K, Activision, Bandai Namco, Bethesda, Blizzard, Bungie, CD Projekt Red, Digital Extremes, Electronic Arts, Microsoft, Sony, Square Enix, Private Division, Riot Games, Steam, and Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment are all confirmed participants, and more are expected to join in the coming weeks.
One notable admission? Nintendo. But Keighley says he hopes that the remaining console maker will join in later, as the Summer Game Fest is open to all publishers and platform holders.
Unifying the industry under a single banner is something Keighley speaks of often. We talked about it last year, upon the announcement of Gamescom Opening Night Live, when Keighley was still trying to rally major companies that were falling away from E3.
Things have changed since then, of course, with COVID-19 cancelling all live industry events for the foreseeable future and forcing major companies to reconsider how they market and showcase upcoming games, all in the midst of the announcement of new consoles. But Keighley says that while the transition to digital events was accelerated by the pandemic, he thinks the industry was beginning to move that direction anyway.
In fact, he mentions that a reluctance to embrace the ideas of a digital, global event was one of the reasons he himself backed out of what would have been E3 2020.
"What I pitched to E3 initially was something that was more digital and global, because that's where I wanted to see things go"
"I just didn't feel confident that the show was going to best represent the industry, and honestly, what I pitched to E3 initially was something that was more digital and global, because that's where I wanted to see things go anyways."
Now, without E3, Keighley says that we shouldn't anticipate a single, heavy-hitting week of major, publisher-led announcement showcases in early June -- not even digitally. Though early June might be a bit more packed than the rest of it, one of the reasons Keighley opted for a four-month-long festival is because the industry has pivoted to spreading its announcements out over that time already.
The platform holders, of course, will have their own digital events around which other announcements will coalesce, and those will be the heavy-hitters of the season. But, he adds, much of the rest of the Summer Game Fest will be focused around individual games doing their own events and announcements, rather than each publisher or platform dropping everything at once.
"It seemed clear that game companies were still going to be doing events.But for a while, it was unclear if their timelines changed because of coronavirus and work-from-home. The demo that they were going to do for E3 is probably the first thing that gets cut out of their production schedule because they still are trying to meet [deadlines]. So there were a lot of conversations amongst all of the platforms and publishers on what they were going to do. And it became clear that it wasn't all gonna line up to two or three days where everything was going to happen.
"...I think it's an old school view: that there's one moment in time for 90 minutes, and then we shut the lights off and we'll see you next year. Now it's more like, 'We've got a big game coming out and we're going to do a day-long showcase of it.' Like what Riot did with Valorant on Twitch was really interesting, or the new season launch of Fortnite. It's not a press event, but it's still something that people cover. And yes, it's hard to maintain momentum for that long and I don't want people to think this is a tightly scheduled event. But it's like a concert venue. There are going to be dark days, and there are going to be big days. The key is that it's going to be curated in a way where when things happen, they're going to matter."
That said, Keighley is still planning on doing at least some of his own programming. Even though Gamescom is now fully digital, he's still planning on hosting a version of Opening Night Live for the second year running, an event that will conclude the Summer Game Fest in late August. But Keighley also says that as important as those kinds of stage shows can be, he expects the industry to embrace the shift to digital, global events and showcases even after COVID-19 allows in-person events to resume.
"[Summer Game Fest] is not a big press conference with 5,000 people in an audience hooting and hollering and cheering. So how do we create those new moments in this new world order?"
"You have to open your mind to different ways of getting news about games," he says. "[Summer Game Fest] is not a big press conference with 5,000 people in an audience hooting and hollering and cheering. And I miss that stuff. Those things are big moments. So how do we create those new moments in this new world order? I think people have to just accept that it's different. Maybe some things will be even better. And maybe you'll get more content at home.
"When people watch me on YouTube, it's a very passive experience. Now I think it's going to be a more engaged experience, with content coming out and feeling more connected to the community instead of traveling somewhere when a lot of other people around the world can't."
One particular way Keighley thinks digital events can evolve is through the growing prevalence of free, digital demos of games -- something some publishers and platforms are already embracing, and an element that he says will absolutely be a part of the Summer Game Fest.
"I think the idea of giving people playable content is going to only grow," he says. "And now you have to download these things, but I think there's a future where, over xCloud or something, you'll start to get things to stream and play instantly. I think these barriers are going to come down not this summer, but in the future, and I think we'll get to the point where it'll be playable trailers. Where you can just have a really amazing four-minute experience in a game and then want to check it out.
"And playable content will be here across this summer, but I also don't want people to think, 'I'm getting a Cyberpunk demo. Now I'm getting a Halo Infinite demo.' Not every game is going to deliver that promise, especially this year given the work-from-home situations and development challenges. But conceptually, I think that's where it ultimately goes.
"And I do think in a few years we're going to totally digitize and virtualize the consumer event space and make this content accessible to everyone for a limited period of time. I have crazy ideas of demos that have virtual cues. You get to play them for ten minutes or something. I think there are a lot of fun ways to replicate the urgency of a live event. But it is kind of silly, the concept of waiting in a four-hour line to play a game for ten minutes. I get with new consoles -- to hold the DualSense, that's special and people will line up for that. But to play a demo of, I don't know, the new Avengers game, come on. Let's stream it in some way."
"In a few years we're going to totally digitize and virtualize the consumer event space and make this content accessible to everyone for a limited period of time"
Another reason Keighley is so keen on bringing everyone together under a single banner is in an effort to promote smaller publishers and indies. Though the announcement roster of participants in Summer Game Fest is all heavy hitters, Keighley is also working with production company and former E3 partner Iam8bit -- which has historically worked closely with individual independent studios as well as the Indie Megabooth.
Keighley believes that bringing in smaller companies alongside them is key to amplifying their voices as well, especially for those studios that wouldn't otherwise have the money to either attend an E3 or put on their own digital event.
"When PlayStation talks about its next console, don't worry. People are gonna know about it. But if you're an independent developer or smaller developer, that's where I think you could really get lost. Those are the games you need to run into at a kiosk at E3 or hear about in the hallway. That's what I'm trying to figure out how to simulate through some of this playable stuff."
Several times in our discussion, Keighley emphasizes that he doesn't really have a long-term strategy for Summer Game Fest. It's very open-ended, he says, with freedom and flexibility to bring in new partners or turn it into whatever it needs to be for the industry. He's candid that, at the end of four months, it may never need to return again and the industry might just go back to business as usual in 2021.
"You don't have to buy thousands of dollars of plane tickets and hotel rooms and badges to go do something. You can just make it available to everyone around the world"
But it's clear he doesn't think that's actually going to be the case, especially in light of his continued attempts to rally the industry around some form of gaming celebration. He says that, like when he transitioned from the Spike VGAs to The Game Awards, now is a time where the industry may just need a "full reset," but acknowledges that it's difficult to turn the momentum of a thing that everyone's been doing for decades into something totally new.
"You don't have to buy thousands of dollars of plane tickets and hotel rooms and badges to go do something," Keighley says. "You can just make it available to everyone around the world. That is a guiding principle for all the stuff I've done, and I think it's something that will carry forward. Whether that means Summer Game Fest comes back in 2021 or it becomes a year-round thing, I don't know. I always do things in partnership with publishers.
"Maybe next year we'll have a physical Summer Game Fest somewhere and all these digital things will be a part of it too. To me, you lead with the digital and global, and then you physicalize it so it's a 100% digital show that just happens to have a few thousand people in an audience somewhere -- versus the legacy of a trade show that's trying to become a consumer show.
"[Events like E3] were such a formative part of my life and career. So how do we recreate that magic digitally? Is that inside Fortnite? Is it in Zoom meetings? How do we build that energy? I want to find that idea that will inspire people to want to get into games and be a part of it."