The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) is a competition in which the biggest, loudest person in the room wins first prize. On the trade floor there is no room for subtlety. Everyone must participate in an ear-splitting, epilepsy inducing game of one-upmanship in a vain attempt to stick out from the general cacophony of the event. In the jungle of E3 every booth is a shrieking baboon, beating its chest and roaring at all the other vicious apes in hopes of becoming the leader of the tribe for the coming months.
E3 is, ultimately, not very good for the industry it supports.
All of this wouldn’t be a big deal if it wasn’t for the unfortunate issue of E3 being such an important part of the medium. It’s hardly a stretch to say that the Expo’s handful of summer days makes up the bulk of what will be talked about and publicized for much of the rest of the year. The format of the show encourages every participant to boil down months — even years — of work into its most simple, easily digestible form and make this distillation as attention-grabbing as possible in an effort to become one of those “buzzed” games. This encourages developers and publishers to take, say, their (probably) carefully constructed stealth game (Dishonored, Assassin’s Creed 3, Hitman: Absolution) and display it through a three minute trailer soaked in throat-slittings and explosions or, better yet, create a title seemingly designed from the ground up to show as well as it possibly can in such an environment (see; every company’s explosive-laden action franchise).
There is no space for a quiet, contemplative title or even one without much bombast. The deliberate, symphonic grandeur of Journey, the methodical pacing of Crusader Kings and the creeping terror of Amnesia: The Dark Descent do not survive in this environment. These type of games must make do with the rest of the year, hoping to garner (far less) press by releasing longer internet trailers or garnering positive word of mouth. The only hope a videogame without franchise pedigree or loud, visceral action scenes has is to secure a private showing, something that is prohibitively expensive for many developers and publishers.
This leads to a marked disparity between the haves and the have-nots of the games industry. Just as Wal-Mart comes to a smaller town and chokes out smaller businesses, enormous publishers like Activision, Electronic Arts and Ubisoft are able to do the same at E3. Money guarantees exposure at crowded expos, after all, and smaller companies such as CAPY or even slightly bigger publishers like Paradox just can’t compete with their far wealthier competition. This is just part of capitalism, though, and arguing the validity of an entire economic/political/social model in this context is biting off far more than I’m willing to chew here. The part that can be argued against, though, is the lack of diversity that a medium as enormous as videogames has in its expo options.
The Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) offers a shot at breaking away from the tyranny of the E3 spectacle, but it really only offers one (or two if you want to count the geographical variations) other option for developers/publishers to show their work at. Now that Tokyo Game Show has begun to lose much of its international relevance and the Liepzig Games Convention is done for, PAX really can’t hold up all on its own. For the foreseeable future game expos are confined to America with only one company’s offering providing any sort of alternative to E3.
So, why does this even matter? Well, the more money a publisher pumps into grandiose PR campaigns, the less left over for actual videogame development for one; the crazier the arms race of spectacle between major companies, the less of a chance the little guys have at getting any ink for their work. The longer this goes on, the more the industry starves out the developers on the fringe — the ones who are less afraid of trying something new because they have less corporate overhead invested in their project. All of that leads to the worst aspects of videogames as a whole: bland, repetitive sequels where no risks are ever taken. By having to continue to count on the biggest developers for innovation (thanks Valve!, go suck a lemon Nintendo!), the medium will be dominated by those titles that are easiest to sell.
I don’t like that and there are probably a lot of others who feel the same way. We need opportunities for all types of games to get under the spotlight for a bit, to be able to make their way into the consumer consciousness and have a shot at going up against the kind of titles that can afford to make an impact through E3.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with big expos designed to celebrate and advertise a medium like videogames, but there is something disconcerting about a single, centralized event without many other competitors. The videogame industry has simply outgrown its expo options and is in dire need of diversity if it wants to encourage the kind of releases that make it worth paying attention to in the first place. Maybe we could hope for an indie expo to spring up at some point in the future; maybe a European event that provides non-North American developers/publishers a chance to show off their work without having to travel across the world to do so. Either of those options would help to make for a more level playing field where all types of videogames are able to enjoy the kind of exposure that usually only well-financed action games and established franchises receive.
So, enjoy E3 2012. Take in a dope Assassin’s Creed 3 trailer, enjoy the irony of Lara Craft doing her best Nathan Drake imitation or cross your fingers for a Grand Theft Auto V release this fall, but as you’re doing that just remember: it could be so much better.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He maintains literature and music blog, Sasquatch Radio, and, more importantly, founded, writes and is editor-in-extremis for game site Digital Love Child. His Tweet-fu is strong @reidmccarter.