As I write this, Nintendo has just finished their E3 2014 briefing. As is customary for Nintendo, the crotchety yet adorable granddads of the games industry, they decided to broadcast the entire thing in one pre-recorded video presented by everyone’s favourite doughy eyed beefcake, Reggie Fils-Aime. By toning down the overblown glitz and glam of a typical E3 conference, Nintendo did what Microsoft, EA, Ubisoft and Sony try and fail to do every year: they talked about games. Just games. Don’t get me wrong, E3 2014 was probably one of the most game-centric expos we’ve seen an a long time, and it certainly devoted more time to software than last year’s event, which famously spent most of its time touting every non-game related console “feature” imaginable by human and Reggie alike. But most of the game “reveals” we witnessed from the other big four names at E3 took the misleading form of flashy CG trailers, live action hype builders, early alpha footage, or unsubstantial teasers.
Although flashy CG trailers can be excited and attractive, they don’t actually give us any concrete details about the games themselves. Of course a game’s CG trailer is going to look gorgeous, because it isn’t tangible or interactive like the game it’s supposed to be hyping. Now there’s nothing wrong with this sort of thing in theory, a well timed and interesting trailer can generate buzz about a game that, while still a good game, might not be the most interesting to watch being played. But to look at most of the games that were covered at E3 2014, I’d struggle to believe that even 50% of them actually showed any gameplay, or at least gameplay that resembles what will end up in the finished version of that game.
This is where the biggest problem lies: the show itself. Companies want to put on the best show they can for E3, and in doing so, that act of showmanship becomes more important than the content of the show itself. It used to be that companies showed off their games by having a member of the development team stand on the stage and play a portion of the game live. They would usually pick an exciting part of the game that’s visually stimulating to watch (because no one wants to watch planet scanning or bowling with Roman), but the stuff they showed was usually legitimate in-game footage. Unfortunately, being so honest opened these companies up to glitches that would freeze or crash the game as it was being played, leaving a sorry looking individual standing limply on-stage wishing for a quick end to his/her short lived PR career. In the past this has certainly disrupted the flow of shows and given a certain air of unprofessionalism, but I’d take ramshackle honesty over polished lies any day of the week.
In the games industry as it stands, though, EA/Ubi and their ilk come prepared with “vertical slices” of “pre-alpha footage” overdubbed with “realistic” voice actors filling in for the role of the player. Most footage that purports to be real in-game footage is questionable at best, and downright false at others. We’ve seen it most blatantly with trash like Aliens: Colonial Marines, where Gearbox outright lied about the content of their game in order to put on a flashy show and increase pre-orders. It also happened with Watch_Dogs, which was revealed at E3 2012 alongside gargantuan levels of press and player hype (myself included), only for the hype to then die down when the footage Ubsifot showed at E3 the following year was less graphically impressive, a fact that led many to accuse Ubisoft of presenting false footage the previous year. By the time the game’s development cycle had been extended and there was a new “hype game” on people’s minds, people seemed pretty unenthusiastic about Watch_Dogs when it released in May, especially compared to the levels of excitement generated by that E3 2012 “demo”. If there’s any doubt in your mind as to how different Ubi’s demo was to the finished product, this video by Chris Bratt should clear things up.
From a short term perspective, I get it. These companies want to come off as the most slick and professional in the overblown pissing contest that is E3. and the easiest way to do that is to say: “We have games that push the boundaries of gaming”, and show off hair physics and old man heads that have never been seen previously. But when these games finally come out and are very different to what was showed off, it leaves a sour taste in the mouths of every fan who took that EA spin doctor’s word as gospel. I understand that games change throughout development cycles, but that doesn’t excuse the brazen level of fabrication and exaggeration companies will stretch to in order to squeeze in a few pre-orders. It might pay off in the short term, but it can damage a brand immensely in the long term.
The only games that stood out to me this year did so not because they were the ones that appealed to me the most, but because I felt relatively confident that they were being shown to me in honesty and humility. The Witcher 3 looked awesome because it looked like a real game, as did Arkham Knight and a few others, but how am I supposed to get behind a new Tomb Raider game that’s only being shown to me in its glossiest, most phony form? Even No Mans Sky, a game that looks and sounds incredible, barely managed to excite me, because its trailer felt more like a falsified promo than a legitimate “slice” of gameplay.
On top of this, the novelty of the CG trailer has just worn off for me. There was a time when I was giddy for The Old Republic because of its insane CG trailers, but when that game came out, I was severely underwhelmed. The game wasn’t like those trailers, and how could it be? There’s no way an MMO could ever re-create the action and drama of a CG trailer in the same glossy way. But still, I felt cheated. The industry hype had gotten under my skin, and I had let it.
And I haven’t even touched upon this industry’s obsession with pre-orders and early access to DLC. Sony and Microsoft happily sell their consoles based on early DLC for Call of Duty or early access to Destiny, all of which takes time away from the standalone games they’re meant to be bringing to us as a priority. The Division, a game that I was relatively excited for this time last year, has sunk in my estimations thanks to its assurance that “Xbox One users will experience The Division DLC first!” This is a brand new IP, one that has yet to prove its quality, and already Ubisoft is trying to throw DLC in our faces. If that wasn’t enough, it is possible to pre-order Star Wars: Battlefront. You can now spend £50 on a game that was revealed to us in 2013 in the form of a 1 minute teaser, and then re-revealed to us this year in the form of a short documentary wherein DICE took a lovely holiday to Lucasfilm, then showed us “early pre-alph definitely-not-going-to-be-in-the-game-footage”. This game could be absolute arse for all we know, but EA still wants you to put your cash on the line.
But I saw none of this nonsense in Nintendo’s conference. They simply said: “Here are some games. Here is Yoshi, here is Zelda, here is Kirby, here is Toad”. Then they showed legitimate footage of those games being played, while the developers of said games described what it was they tried to do to make the games fun. That was it. They got through plenty of game reveals, some interesting developer insight and they did it all in a light hearted, 50 minute conference. I’m not even a huge fan of Nintendo’s work, but if they keep shrugging off the industry guff that other companies are so eager to spew out, I’ll happily buy their stuff.
Hype is all well and good, but there comes a time when you need some substance to back up the hype. Would anybody want to watch Flava Flav without the rest of Public Enemy in tow?