Friday, July 3, 2015

. . . Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) 2015 Analysis

(or How I Learned to Love Ta Bomb)
Part 1 of 7

Preface (please read):  Welcome to what is destined to be a rather long and somewhat rambling series of posts that are all about our annual pilgrimage to the Electronic Entertainment Expo - an event that we are privileged to cover and that is pretty much exactly like what you think it would be like.

The purpose of this series of posts is to provide you with analysis of E3 2015 - which as it turns out is a very important E3 above and beyond the usual reasons for which it is an important event.  We will delve deeper into the reasons why that is so in a bit.

The purpose of this preface is to convey to you why reading the entire series - and each section of each post - is not just a good idea - it is - but may very well also be an amusing and even entertaining romp through the experiences of an E3 that sits at the very cusp of a significant sea-change.

We are not the only source for observations pertaining to the significance of this year's E3 - pretty much anyone who was actually paying attention at the show will have noticed the significant details.  If we presume that the observer also happens to work the video games beat, they will also be aware of the "why" behind all of this...

We used the phrase "sea change" above.  We might just as easily have said paradigm shift and it would be spot-on-target.

The reasoning behind this observation and the distinction has everything to do with what amounts to a confluence of both circumstances and events.  Put concisely what we are seeing - and what we saw - at E3 2015 is the culmination of events that were put into motion long before the eighth generation of consoles were offered up in detail to a ravenous gamer public.  

We mention that because it represents one of the foundation points to this analysis.  While you are meant to enjoy this - you are also meant to learn some important facts about the event and why this E3 is both different and special compared to other E3's.  

The latter bit being the real reason for this series, once this has all been sorted, it is our fondest desire that you experience this as an informative and educationally entertaining piece of informative entertainment...  Infotainment?  Edutainment?   

We will doubtlessly sin on the side of entertainment - in fact that is intentional so it really is not so much a sin as it is an indulgence.  

That said, ultimately, in addition to offering you the chance to experience an anecdotal madman tour of E3 2015, this series should also allow you the catbird seat to view what we have long suspected - and have now found proof of - the paradigm shift in the entire games industry.  

Did we see or sense it early?  Yes.  But then we might have been wrong.  We weren't wrong, the benefits of hindsight proves that out.  So bear with us as we attempt to both entertain and inform?

So coming full-circle logically, please read this?

If you happen to read Dutch then you know that the image above is the poster for a world-class cycle race that happens to share the shorthand of "E3" for its event name.  This image was chosen as the place mat image for the 19th annual Hack Dinner (AKA Gathering of Hacks) for E3 2015,  The first GoH dinner was held at E3 1997 in Atlanta when a small group of games journos who had been bumping into each other at industry events all over the world decided to make an annual dinner gathering part of the event.  Each dinner has a theme - this time the theme was the irreverent and completely inappropriate image shown above, which nicely represents an example by which substance and truth are usually the first casualty when the goal is to sell a product -- whether that product is a bicycle race or a video game.

Before The Show

Before we jump right in to the meat and bone for this analysis series there is an 800lb gorilla in the room that needs to be addressed in the form of E3 itself in general and specific terms.

Among the many questions we feel a need to answer are: What is E3?  Why is E3 important?  What happens at E3?  Why was this E3 different from previous ones?  What have we learned that you need to know about?

From our vantage point it seems completely reasonable that many of you reading this may not actually have a firm idea about the Expo beyond its basic goals.   And even then, knowing what E3 is supposed to accomplish does not necessarily equate to a comprehensive grasp of what it really does...

So let's start with just what E3 is?  Answers to that simple question will map the spectrum, but for the vast majority of gamers, E3 is a sort of fusion of Mecca and a gathering of all that is good and that will be good in the world of gaming and video games to come.

The games community is a funny one in that it is not uncommon for a typical gamer to know who it was that made the games they love, and to recognize them as more than a face in a crowded room.

So when those heroes - and really that is precisely what they are -- who are responsible for not simply creating the stories that have attracted us, but who also created entire worlds within which those stories take place...  

Well, with that bridge now crossed, there is a very real temptation to employ superlatives that the typical games journo is very capable of using!  With that in mind, the Mecca analogy takes on entirely new connotations. 

Mecca in Saudi Arabia - Photo by Ayman Zogby
E3 and Mecca

Mecca and E3 works very well thanks in no small part to the intense focus upon Islam in the past decade. The well-known adage that a picture is worth a thousand words specifically refers to the idea that an image can convey nuance and meaning to a complex idea.

The analogy we used is much like that in that the very word "Mecca" is itself a picture whose value and meaning already convey volumes of information.  And nuance.  Both of which are important points because the values we are addressing here are a very relative set of subjects.

We open that door because it is crucial that we include the extremes in this analysis precisely because the audience -- and therefore the relative importance in value that is endowed within this industry by that audience -- elevates the subject well beyond what it was even just a decade ago.

 Thanks to the intensity and focus on Islam in recent years, Mecca as a concept is more than simply the birthplace of Muhammad.  It has more meaning than simply the site of the first revelation of the Quran.  It is a spiritual as well as ideal image in other words.

For gamers the events that take place just before, during, and just after the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, have that sort of impact and importance.

We do not mean for this comparison to lessen the importance or the religious significance of Mecca to the Islamic community.  Far from it in fact! 

No, this comparison is used for the simple reason that it accurately communicates the importance of the events that are E3 in terms that are easily understood to even the most casual of observers.

His proper name is "Vault Boy" and he is the official mascot of the Fallout series.  Striking the thumbs-up pose probably does not mean what you think it does...  The gesture is not the OK symbol but rather is the accepted means by which a soldier can measure the distance to a nuke cloud to determine whether they are a safe distance away.  If your thunk blots out the mushroom it's all good.  If not, well, start running!

In mundane terms E3 is a trade-show event that takes place each summer at which the immediate future of the games industry is effectively presented and put on display.

As an event it unofficially begins with the series of pre-event press briefings offered by major game studios and publishers, spanning the two days leading up to the official opening ceremonies at the Los Angeles Convention Center.  

During the three days that follow those opening ceremonies, E3 is born, loves, and then closes until the whole process begins anew, like a phoenix rising from the ashes..

Over the course of that brief 72-hours an entire army of support staff, PRs and briefing agents set out to educate the games journos whose job it is to learn as much as they can in so short a period of time that it is critical that they define - in advance - which titles are important enough to require some hands-on time, and which are not.

You can easily tell the difference between working press and industry types.  

The latter make up an army of managers and assistant managers from GameStop, Walmart and the like -- easy to spot thanks to their semi-official Expo uniforms that mostly consist of company T's.

Well, that and the fact that they are the ones who travel in noisy if enthusiastic groups who make up a better portion of the lines waiting to get a little hand's on time with the games.

That and they are almost all weighed down with plastic bags from the Nvidia and the official Expo bags that the program came in.  

Bags that are packed to overflowing with the loot that they have "scored" at each booth and stand - branded swag that they will drag around all day and then take home with them to pass out to friends while they tell their E3 War Stories...

Obligatory Cat Image.

“Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality.”

"First-impressions are formed, never to be taken back," anonymous PR at E3 2015...

During the official three-days of the industry expo called E3, most of the major (and many of the minor) video game titles are presented to members of the games press who, by invitation,  have come to learn about the video games that will populate store shelves for the upcoming game season.

Particular care is taken to focus upon the games that are scheduled to be a part of the Christmas shopping and shipping season.  Little is left to chance here, as the primary goal is to induce the games journos to write about their experiences with the games.

That presents the full -- if mundane -- picture.  From the outside, looking in.

What you need to know however is that it is an entirely and strangely different beast when it is viewed in person, or when the viewer - that is you - knows about the man behind the curtain.  So yes, there is a qualifying "but" present throughout the E3 experience...

You see, even in the trenches, what E3 is still depends almost entirely upon how well the viewer grasps what is actually happening to - and around - them.  That is of course as opposed to what they think is happening.

There is an emphasis upon the word "think" because the events that unfold there are not a byproduct of the Expo, and they are certainly anything but a casual happenstance!

Certain games like the major series sequels were expected.  A new Halo, Hitman, Uncharted, and the shooters to be sure, but there are some surprises in the pile... Like Horizon Zero Dawn, Sea of Thieves, and the Doom remake to name a few.  Some will say that E3 can still surprise you, but we say these are not really surprises, but proof that the games dev cycle has finally caught up with the platforms....  We call that good news - very good news.

When the forest AND the trees are visible, having an Eagle Scout handy who is a skilled veteran of Expos past to help you identify the flora and fauna is an invaluable aid!  That is especially true when you happen to be a plebe covering the Expo your first two or three times.

E3 is by its nature a confusing and hectic place, and there are very good reasons why the vast majority of mainstream games publications and sites choose to dispatch senior editors with a lot of experience in this sort of environment to cover it.

When they do opt to send in new people they do it with a team-approach, sending a mixture of veteran journos along with the abecedarian-come-sacrificial-lambs.

That way the plebes get a chance to fly in close to the sun but, even if they end up sharing the experiences of Icarus, the mistakes that they make are survivable and will not hurt the coverage of the event for their publication.

If this is actually starting to sound very complicated and frightening to you, congratulations, you are very nearly ready to learn what this is all really about.

Morpheus could have been talking about E3 instead of The Matrix when he made it clear that Neo was making a choice: "You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe," he explains. 

"You take the red pill," Morpheus warns, "you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."

Roughly translated what Morpheus is actually saying is that sometimes delusions really are functional.  Often when the person is not prepared to be confronted by the reality of a situation, it may really be better if they continue to embrace and accept the simple version of the facts as they know them.

Because in some cases the truth has the force of a kick-in-the-sack.  The problem being that just as was the case with Pandora's Box or the proverbial bell, once you decide you want to open that box or ring that bell, there is no going back.  You know what you know -- the question now becomes a simple one: do you really want to know?

The Red Pill

For this to make quick and clear sense it is important for you to understand that NOTHING that takes place during those brief contact-periods created by the PRs when they join the journo and the game under very controlled circumstances is random or voluntary.  

To be clear that process -- your briefing?  The hand's-on time you get with the game?  That has all been very carefully crafted to deliver a specific set of impressions desired by the studio/publisher.  It is a process painstakingly prepared, charted out, studied, and crafted to leave the journo with a specific impression that, when it is done correctly, can only result in one narrow conclusion.

None of that is accidental or incidental.  The PRs spent a lot of time, money, and effort to see to that.

Let's see if we can make this a bit more obvious and simplified, shall we?

There are two positions present: (1) The Games Journo; and (2) The PR.  These two points of view are easily defined.  

Think of the Games Journo as the human equivalent of a table water cracker.  Now think of the PR - and the game that they are presenting and briefing you on - as the foodstuff being served up on the cracker.

While it was originally conceived as a spoil-proof food, the table water cracker evolved into what is widely thought of today as a truly neutral food delivery system that allows for the serving of food that can stand on its own merits in terms of taste.   

It is basically a completely neutral platform that is shaped by whatever food is served on it.  THAT is the condition and function for the Games Journo that the PR is seeking to create through a game briefing and play session.

The table water cracker is the Games Journo.  Foie gras or artisan cheese is the briefing, and the hand-selected fine wine whose taste compliments the food is the hand's on game play session.

Once the entire snack has been consumed, the PRs have delivered to their clients - the studio and publisher of the game - an agreed upon process.  At the same time they have delivered to the Games Journalist a carefully planned and executed experience that, just like the pleasant aftertaste of rare or gourmet foodstuff topped-off by the taste of a 2005 Château Barreyres, Haut-Médoc, Cru Bourgeois, should leave everybody happy...

The veteran journos are aware of all this, so the process does not always work as planned on them.  But the plebes - and in particular the freelancers on assignment the first few times they have covered events of the size of E3 and the very junior staff writers who are in the same boat?  They are the little bear or duck that stumbles along the shooting-gallery track, turning and reversing each time that the cork or the pellet fired by the PR hits them!

This entire contact process is a choreographed event from which there are specific results being sought.  When it is done right - professionally - the target never sees the hunter, let alone hears the shot that gets them! 

In case you are confused, let us simplify it for you: If you are not the PR, the developer, the publisher, or the presentation staff, then YOU are the target.

Southwest Airlines N922WN Boeing 737-7H4 (737-700) bearing its rare Sports Illustrated Livery (codename SI1) in March 2009 - the livery was changed back to the standard Canyon Blue livery in April 2009.  Photo by Paul Thompson.

Departure Looming
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Los Angles. It's one-oh-five PM and 70-degrees outside.  For those passengers visiting the City of Angels to attend the Electronic Entertainment Expo I hate you!  Take me with you?

“Please remain seated with your seat belt fastened, seat backs and tray tables upright and locked, leaving your carry-on items right where they are; please refrain from jogging and power-walking in the aisles until after the Captain turns off the Fasten Seat Belt sign.

“You can use your swords and cell phones now if you can reach them easily, but please remain seated and leave your carry-on stowed.

“Please check around your seat for any personal belongings you may have brought on board with you; anything left behind can be purchased after three-to-five business days from your cabin crew's store on eBay. Remember to tip generously.

“Please use caution when opening the overhead bins, as shift happens. If you are connecting here to another Southwest flight please check the TV monitor in the terminal for your flight and gate number.

“It certainly has been a chore - I mean joy - serving all of you today. We know you have a lot of choices and we're so glad the others are all so expensive!

“On behalf of Southwest Airlines and the entire crew, I’d like to thank you for joining us on this trip and we are looking forward to seeing you on board again in the near future.”

Are conspiracies rampant at E3?  Yes.  And No.  Now you know....

Next on the Electronic Entertainment Expp 2015 Analysis show...Pre-Show Press Briefings; how to refer to The Show like the cool kids do it;  how the Digital Divide applies to gaming.

The spectacular disaster that was the Nintendo Digital Event for E3 2015 (aka an hour of our life we want refunded).  

Finally, what is it like to rub elbows (and other body parts) with the famous and infamous at E3 and we may discover why Mickey Mouse wears a Julian Assange watch, but probably not.