We’re trying a new format out here at Expansive; our Completely Unnecessary Guides are massive, serialised articles intended as an off-beat and irreverent source of all the information you to need about a subject to pass off as being vaguely knowledgeable. Yesterday we asked, ‘What is E3?’
A Brief History of E3
The first E3 was held in 1995, but nobody particularly cared at the time as the internet wasn’t widespread enough for anyone outside of the industry to actually know much about it. Still, despite the lack of a worldwide live feed of the events or the vast armies of mewling fanboys who think that everybody needs to know their opinion on the minutiae of every single presentation, the very first Expo was not without its issues.
The highlight of the 1995 Expo came in the form of a minor PR war between Sega and Sony. In their attempts to give the Sega Saturn a headstart over the N64 (Which they still assumed would be their biggest rival in the West) Sega secretly prepared an early US launch, secretly supplying a handful of large US toy retailers with stock to be made available (for a princely $399) from the moment of the announcement. This gambit failed miserably, however, as not only did this anger those stores left out from the deal (some of whom dropped Sega goods from their stores), it was also quickly and efficiently undermined by SCEA President Steve Race with a simple, three-word presentation.
Meanwhile, Nintendo announced the Virtual Boy. Yes, that Virtual Boy.
And so began three great E3 traditions; two of the big three attempting to dick each other over, the declaration of a ‘winner’ in an event that is in no way meant to be competitive, and Nintendo having absolutely no idea what they’re doing whatsoever.
The Calm and the Storm
For the next few years nothing particularly noteworthy happened. Well, I guess the announcements of Final Fantasy VII, Half-Life and Metal Gear Solid were kind of noteworthy, but back then gaming news was paywalled off from the average consumer and held captive in some sort of dead-tree based thing they used to call a ‘mag-a-zeen’. These were primitive times, before the industry had the infrastructure to support up-to-the-minute press coverage, and so most gamers never actually found out that E3 had happened until about a month after the fact. As a result, the show mostly stayed an entirely functional industry-centric annual get-together between developers and journalists. As such, the industry-changing Playstation 2 was first shown to the American market in a lecture theatre, whilst the first Xbox was shown off on a tiny little stage with a big green Xbox logo printed on vinyl. For the sake of comparison, this year, Microsoft will be announcing a handful of Kinect games in a 10,258-seater sports arena.
This would quickly change thanks to the advent of streaming video which meant that, for the first time, complete and utter nerds with nothing better to do could finally spend their precious time staring at a bunch of middle aged men talking about video games through the magic of the internet. Where once the presentation budget was spent almost entirely upon increasingly elaborate booths on the showfloor, Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo started scrabbling over each other to make their press conferences seem more important and showy than their competitors in order to provide the most interesting fodder for online television services, such as Gamespot TV.
The result was a war of attrition. The lecture theatres were replaced with sports venues, the vinyl backdrops with massively overengineered structures full of screens and lights, and the middle aged men in suits were replaced with the exact same middle aged men in suits because, for some reason, they’re really hard to shake.
The Viral Age
But these days, in which the money men had near-total control over the message they were sending out would not last forever; the rise of Youtube and Web 2.0 culture led to a massive shift in the balance of power between the manufacturers and the audience. Whereas once the masses were content to sit and watch the presentations (and then moan afterwards about just how bad they were), the ease at which short videos could be shared online meant that the audience could actively affect opinions on both the event and the products they were selling. Whilst Sony’s disasterous 2006 press conference (in which they announced the launch games and price for the PS3) wasn’t particularly out of the ordinary for the time, it was quickly edited down into a number of short, meme-spawning mashups that reinforced every negative opinion about the system.
Whilst it’s hard to say exactly what effect videos like these had on eventual sales, it’s no secret that Sony’s weak E3 showing actively damaged the Playstation 3’s image at launch, reducing the most powerful system on the market to a mere joke for at least a year afterwards. It’s also fair to say that Sony came to fear the nature of the viral video; a few months later Sony’s PR company were caught creating a fake grassroots viral video for the PSP titled ‘All I Want for Christmas is a PSP’. It did not go down well.
The Wilderness Years
And then the whole thing collapsed. Whilst there had been grumbling amongst studios and journalists that the show was just getting too big and too open to function properly (mainly by snobby types who considered themselves too good for good honest little independent bloggers like yours truly) for a few years, it wasn’t until after the 2006 show that the ESA decided to do anything about it.
In order to create a cheaper, more streamlined E3, they scaled the whole thing back. The number of attendees was scaled back to a mere 10,000 (compared to 60,000 the year before), the number of exhibitors utterly decimated, and the entire operation was moved from Downtown LA to Santa Monica. The result was two years of utter disaster; a dead conference walking. Will Wright (creator of SimCity – the good ones, not the recent one) described the event as a “Zombie” and said that “the real E3 died a couple of years ago”, whilst disruptionist small-time publisher Gamecock held a gaudy gothic funeral for the event.
Even worse, the move to Santa Monica meant that everyone who had played Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy in the past two years spent the summer with Theory of a Deadman’s ‘Santa Monica’ stuck in their heads. And nobody should have to put up with that.
Happily the move to Santa Monica lasted for only two years before everything got moved back to how it was. Like Coke Light, the E3 Media and Business Summit was quickly reduced to a footnote in history.
Despite the silly temporary Santa Monica disruption, the stage shows kept growing and growing. Live TV coverage arrived and, despite our constant objections, performances from acts such as Usher, Duffy and Cirque De Soleil kept happening. The presentations became more elaborate and the amount of complete and utter nonsense per press conference increased. Despite the fact that their press conferences were generally awful, Microsoft went from strength to strength whilst Sony owned up to the mistakes of the Playstation 3 announcement and regained momentum by focusing on the essentials.
The bigger publishers, Ubisoft, EA, and sometimes Konami all decided to get in on the action, scheduling their own massively overelaborate presentations and filling in the otherwise dead time between the morning-oriented Microsoft and the evening-dwelling Sony. Nintendo, on the other hand went the other way; after year after year of embarrassingly underwhelming conferences, including the disastrous announcement of ‘Wii Music’ (a game where you waggle the controls around a bit and some predetermined notes play), they decided to go with prerecorded videos instead. Somehow, these turned out to be just as stilted and bizarre as their stage performances, but at least they didn’t contain fifteen minute talks about how the DS was enabling the elderly to play games.
And so that pretty much brings us to where we are now; a confusing mess of pompous hype that isn’t sure whether it’s aimed at the press, the fans or the shareholders that takes up almost an entire day of your precious time and contains little actual substance or value. A series of glorified advertisements that were never meant to be watched as entertainment and yet somehow get a massive worldwide following of irate geeks who are either desperate to get their first glance of a game that looks a lot like the previous game in the series or just still want to know where Shenmue 3 is.
I genuinely can’t wait.
Tomorrow: The Microsoft Press Conference