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Conventional Wisdom: Summer Game Fest and the Legacy of E3

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I want to talk about this year's Summer Game Fest, and inevitably, every discussion of Summer Game Fest becomes a eulogy and postmortem of E3. So, let's not beat around the bush. The current crop of mid-year games events are trying to fill the pleasure hole left behind by the old expo up and vanishing, and there's the question of whether any replacement to E3 can survive in the same habitat. Promoting video games through graphic t-clad spokespeople and reels of gameplay has always been a dubious proposition for a medium where interactivity is integral. But that's more of an argument for in-person press events than against them.

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Anyone who's played a video game understands on some level how much bearing the feel of a game has on its overall quality. It's an aspect that you can't entirely capture on video. And most people serious enough about games to be tuning into an E3 or E4 are aware that sometimes you can drive a bus through the gap between what companies present on a stage and what arrives on your SSD. It's a gap that's all the easier to hide when no one can personally probe even an early demo of the software. So, if streaming-only preview events become the only game in town, we lose a lot of helpful information.

Not that I'm calling for a moratorium on screen captures of unfinished products or statements of intent from developers, but a participatory medium calls for participatory previews. And previews from people not just working as PR or development on the games. It's not that I think most of the folks running demo kiosks want to lie to us, but if you're joined to a title professionally, your experience with it is not going to be reflective of the typical player's. And an outside pair of eyes always sees problems that those close to a project can't.

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Take Mortal Kombat 1. The preview for it at the Summer Game Fest kickerer off was fit to barfing with footage showing what it looks and sounds like when players trade and dodge blows in the game. I also enjoyed hearing from Ed Boon on what his hopes for the fighter were. Plus, NetherRealm has a spectacular track record for delivering on its promises. Yet, it wasn't until our intrepid heroes emerged from deep within the demo mines that I had significant confidence in the game. It was vitally encouraging to hear first-hand discoveries that the kameo system is more elaborate than it sounds on paper, that you can now pull off spectacular flourishes even as a novice, and that MK1 wears its visual identity as a badge of honour even well outside the trailer. What I'm saying is, if you're going to get your rib cage ripped out, you're better off having it done in person.

Then there's Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown. The bones mostly stay on the inside in this one, but Ubisoft's trailers suggested that the Lost Crown's sword dances were fluid and dynamic, letting you poke new openings in your opponent's defences at the drop of a pin. It demands you stay light on your feet if you don't want to get run through by a boar's tusk or chimaera's tail. But as prerecorded videos, they had to be bar napkin sketches of the genuine article. To hear people who got hands-on with Prince of Persia say that it hits its stated marks and rewards exploration is more reassuring.

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The Lost Crown also provides one of many examples of a hands-on demo cutting through the marketing buzz of a canned trailer. Even if we grant that it's enough for an announcement video to outline a vision for a game rather than being a replica of the final build, character-led or wordy adverts are often not accurate to the interests or aesthetics of the games they represent. I don't think The Lost Crown is about trying to meet hip-hop beats to ancient mythology or that you'll spend your time in Path of the Goddess watching traditional Japanese rituals. Putting facsimiles or early builds of these games in critics' hands gets us a better sense of what they're actually about, like standing on a stone plinth or jumping to a second stone plinth.

I hasten to add that even when a studio or publisher does have a slice of their game playable, we should temper our expectations. There are games that have gotten more interrogation than Mortal Kombat or Prince of Persia, held up to that grilling, and still arrived on machines dysfunctional and dilapidated. The embarrassment that jumps to mind is Cyberpunk 2077. It was gifted perhaps the most glowing word-of-mouth I've heard for any E3 demo, and CD Projekt released extensive footage of it running robustly long before zero-hour. That didn't stop it from launching with people T-posing out of the rooves of their cars and clipping through their pants.

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There will be plenty more 2077s just waiting for us to make premature calls on their quality. As Tamoor said about Prince of Persia, everything outside of the demo Giant Bomb saw could be a "hot mess". Still, as long as we absorb first-hand accounts of games with healthy doses of scepticism, we can treat them as probable drafts of the final products. And those drafts tend to get their showings at big summer festivals like Keigh3, hence the relevance of those get-togethers.

Some people also argue that collecting myriad previews into one event gives a much-needed boost to the promotion of each game. Companies may have the technology and media infrastructure to divide up announcements through the year instead of trying to crush them all into three summer days, but if the previews are constant across the calendar, they become background noise, easy to ignore. Concentrate that low hum into a single, gargantuan expo, and suddenly you've got the attention-catching volume of a country bear jamboroo. There's an obvious logic to this argument, although there is a balance to be struck. One complication of E3 was that there was a whole convention hall of games shouting over each other, and with voices liable to get lost in that muddle, it often felt like it was not the most efficient way for each to get a fair showing.

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I suspect events like Summer Game Fest are a bigger boon for indies and smaller publishers than console manufacturers. Nintendo and Sony have whole platforms of games at their back and call; that's enough to let them pitch their own mini-E3s on dates that aren't crowded. Xbox refuses to peel itself from its summer slot, but then it doesn't have to jostle for room when the industry's other box-manufacturers got out of the way for it. Anything but the largest distributor, however, doesn't have the resources or quantity of games to make the same impact elsewhere without some help. Remember, a lot of the target audience for these shows isn't listening to industry news on a weekly basis. They're people who are going to be hooked through a trending Twitter topic they saw, a YouTube or Twitch recommendation, or a link on a console dashboard. To make those impressions, the average developer or publisher needs to hitch its wagon to something larger than itself. Even some publishing powerhouses like Capcom and Ubisoft still roll their red carpets out in the shadow of E3 because publishers are generally louder together than apart.

The Summer Game Fest model could turn out to be a better configuration for everyone. I want to place emphasis on "could". None of us knows the financials behind these events, and we're in uncharted territory; there are uncertainties. But I hear some gamers talking like Summer Geoff Fest's goal should be to balloon up to an E3 size. I'm not arguing with visitors who are calling for a larger venue, there's likely room for the expo to grow, but there are also some gamers longing for it to recreate the conditions that killed E3. That seems like a quick way for it to meet the same end E3 did.

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Like the AAA industry it placed front and centre, E3 was always a beneficiary and a victim of its bigness. Its staging and scope were second to none. As an exercise in polish and coordination, it was jaw-dropping. I'm not sure there was ever a conference from the major exhibtors that didn't show you at least one game brimming with promise, infused with palpable love and dedication by its developers. Even when it fell apart, its lofty ambitions could make its collapse all the more entertaining, like seeing a skyscraper demolished. Bizarre delivery and misjudged attempts at memeable gags made for some of the most memorable E3 moments. We got a flashback to some of the show's past goofs and spoofs with Ubisoft's slightly dated conference format this year. But also like AAA games, when E3 had no substance to back up that pomp and circumstance, the event could ring hollow and self-congratulatory. Trumped-up trailers couldn't disguise when a game was generic and lifeless, and slickly produced pre-renders were no replacement for gameplay. Living rooms of uncanny children puppeteering virtual marionettes made me sweat in fear.

Eventually, E3 bit off more than it could chew, leading to its notorious identity crisis. When the industry consisted of a fairly traditional press and games that generally didn't have a huge disparity in budget, audience, and themes, E3 could capably provide a video game announcements Costco. Now, internet entertainers outside the critical and news professions get more seats at the table, and there are higher expectations for you, the audience, to be able to obtain information without the middlemen. As for the games today, you get blockbusters and indie gems, animalistic gorefests and cozy comfort food, stern teachers and welcoming friends. How does one expo lay the table for all of that?

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Worse, thousands more games come out today than did twenty years ago. No tent could be big enough for all the appealing ones. Not to mention, E3 was also at the centre of a tug-of-war between the two burly economic forces pulling at the industry. With each quarter, investors want to see a higher return from games, but mainstream audiences wish the scale and production values of games to be infinitely increasing, which means spending more on them. All that money has to come from somewhere, and renting a convention centre, booking a theatre, putting on elaborate stage performances, and co-ordinating over a hundred booths results in a hefty bill every June. It's not surprising that some exhibitors, or more to the point, their investors, don't want to keep picking up the cheque.

No industry event that fails to keep up with its industry is going to stick around for long, and the nature of the games market is not that it's a few high-powered studios willing to occupy the same space. Instead, you've got a small number of companies increasingly consolidating power so that they don't have to share their profits and then a diverse, sprawling ecology of indie games outside those citadels. An event which neither gives the big publishers the standalone soapbox they want nor encompasses the wide range of indie titles serves neither end of the industry particularly well.

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Speaking of serving tiny studios and bedroom programmers, Summer Game Fest seems to have accidentally filled a niche as a networking event. The internet has meant that people all across the world can join the game development community, but given that they are scattered across the planet, opportunities to meet can be few and far between. Most of the time a lot of developers are collected together, it's inside the humungous studios which indies are, by definition, on the outside of. I know that social infrastructure is a little inside baseball for many gamers, who just want an event that puts games on screens, but the way that games get onto screens is by people being able to share ideas and join together into development teams. Communal physical rallying points have been important for every art movement. There's no one in-person networking event that can be for everyone because these things are so locational, but keep in mind that GDC, the big one, is online-only this year, and last year, the All-Access pass was $1,700. Alternatives are non-negotiable.

I can't tell you how long Summer Game Fest's lifespan is going to be. But for the time being, the exhibition is serving big publishers without breaking the bank. It's also providing a shop window in which indies can display their games without having to worry about being eclipsed by the Nintendo or Sony press conferences. And if we can take any lesson from E3, it's that we should enjoy conventions that create these opportunities while they're still around. Thanks for reading.