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Problems with Presentation: Misleading PR, Peculiar Showmanship And The Pitfalls Of E3 Rhetoric

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“2 Years ago, we launched Star Wars Battlefront and we got a lot of feedback. A lot of it positive, and a bunch of it constructive…
…Here to see new things, ask questions. Challenge us. Tell us what they like and especially, what they don’t…
…Massive innovation and stories that will pull you in…
…What you’ll hopefully see, is we’ve addressed all of the feedback and gone even further…
…We’re all here for one simple reason, we all share fundamental belief and that’s that games are the best form of entertainment on the planet. Yeah…”

– Andrew Wilson, CEO of Electronic Arts, E3 2017.

We know the rest of the story. Star Wars Battlefront 2 released the following November to a lukewarm critical reception and overwhelmingly negative community feedback (a user review Metascore of 1 or below across all platforms). A grossly unfair pay-to-win model, failing in every way to capture the enjoyment of the original Pandemic Studios franchise and a central example in numerous government hearings the world over, to determine whether loot boxes equate as gambling. An issue that saw Belgium change it’s laws altogether.

The gaming industry is frustratingly cryptic and wonderful in equal measure, delivering stories and immersive experiences in a way no other medium can imitate. Whether that’s the blockbuster dramatics of The Last of Us or the story of you, the anonymous, farting around in Minecraft or clawing your way to a chicken dinner. Everything’s a story and I truly believe it’s an art form to be respected.

So it’s that much more irritating when publishers/developers cherry pick, distort or completely ignore consumer feedback, despite numerous declarations of “We hear you” at live events and through ongoing community ‘support’.

On the contrary, a vast number do not understand you.

With E3 2018 fast approaching, Andrew Wilsons’ comments speak to a larger problem with presentation in the games industry. It’s with taking to the stage and promising to deliver the undeliverable. With slimy PR that seems to suggest appearing infallible is more important than admitting accountability. With awkward, badly conceived press conferences and questionable celebrity appearances, fodder for so many YouTube cringe compilations, that make the industry look like a stereotypical joke.

Let’s refer back to the opening quotes for a moment.

“Massive innovation and stories that will pull you in…”

In September 2017, EA studio Visceral Games was working on such a project; an ambitious open-world, single player Star Wars title, with Naughty Dog writer Amy Hennig as creative lead.

In October 2017, the studio was shut down and development suspended, allegedly for failing to facilitate EA’s “games as service” model into the project.

Fans were extremely vocal on their desire for this game and for a single player experience in general. Calls for a follow-up to the highly regarded Knights of the Old Republic series litter forums and message boards to this day. I wonder if fans would’ve been half as annoyed had Wilson not come out with the above comment four months earlier, before contradicting himself with the closure of Visceral.

At E3 2017, we were presented with Janina Gavankar (Commander Iden Versio in Battlefront 2) appearing in-character (sort of) flanked by a handful of stormtroopers.
Bizarre and awkward, she sternly promotes the game in her Battlefront persona before shining through with some genuine enthusiasm. Over my numerous viewings of these presentations, one thought remains dominant- “Who is this for? Who decided this was a good idea?”

All power to Gavankar, an actor paid to do a job, she’s one of the best things about Battlefront 2s uninspired, limping single player portion. But why have her appear at a live, informative event as her character, even momentarily? You wouldn’t contract Tom Hardy to sit down with the Hollywood press as Charles Bronson. Instead of some potentially interesting, personal anecdotes of her time in development, we get more PR speak: “I’m also an advocate for in-depth cinema calibre story in games…”

Me too Janina, but with just one new IP to show at E3 2018, the multiplayer focused ‘Anthem’, Electronic Arts, it seems, is not.

In that vein of dubious inclusions, let’s not forget Jesse Wellens.

Brief refresher: Content Creator and all-round good looking chap Wellens made an appearance to promote Need For Speed: Payback.

Despite being “good at performing on the fly”, Wellens struggled with an autocue directly in front of him before bumbling over to “his boy”, Executive Producer Marcus Nilsson and calling him Nick.

Credit to Jesse, in a follow-up video to his channel, he admits to looking like a fool and not even attempting to read the script, provided in advance. He says it wasn’t good enough before claiming that, because of the high view count, he was actually a ‘kind of’ genius for f*cking up.

I take umbrage with that last comment.

Revelling in your own unprofessionalism does little for an industry you’re hired to promote. For a brief moment Wellens was the face of a product, forged through hard work from numerous artists, programmers and writers over a significant period of time. And at the biggest gaming show in the world, he made them look like a joke. Whether the eventual product did much the same thing is irrelevant. He wasn’t involved in the development of Need for Speed, nor does he primarily cover video games in his content.

So why was he there?

Speaking volumes to the integrity of EA, I suspect it was purely a numbers game, more to do with his 10 million+ subscribers than any extensive knowledge of video games. An unfortunate choice when there are literally dozens of successful streamers and gaming-related creators that could’ve filled that slot admirably.

EA aren’t the only guilty party when it comes to poor presentation: The ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ 2016 flashmob, the weird Microsoft Scalebound demo with the playtester dressed as the main character, the 2016 MS Minecraft demo play-through, 2015s ‘Danger Zone’ segment, 2010s terrible Kinect children, many of the commentators general lack of charisma and of course; the entirety of the infamous 2006 Sony PS3 reveal (giant enemy crabs and Ridge Racer).

Just a few of the litany of horrific examples from across the years.

This is the dissonance between the industry and the consumer when it comes to presentation. The wish to reveal your project in an awesome way and the utter mistranslation when it comes to actual execution. And they keep getting it wrong. On the surface, often amusing, but on a deeper level, it makes a mockery of a business that has so much to offer.

Why is it so hard for developers, publishing executives and commentators to behave like genuine, human beings? They can’t help themselves, in what seems like an annual competition for each conference, to deliver their best version of Steve Carells’ character from The Office.

Away from E3 but an example nonetheless, Josef Fares thought it was ever so edgy to shout, “F*ck the Oscars” at the 2017 Game Awards. In truth, it came over as childish, petty and irrelevant. More time celebrating game development and less on channeling obnoxious, faux-rockstar personas come showtime, might one day, see deserving members of the industry (there are many) command as much respect as those Oscar winning actors.

An integral part of the problem is pretending to be something you’re not.

As viewers, we respect genuine character. Costumes, heavily scripted play-throughs and celebrities who clearly don’t want to be there (hi Zac Efron and Jamie Foxx from 2016) immediately draw suspicion. Why not let the game speak for itself with commentary from an engaging, informed orator? If the developers and executives can’t deliver that, find someone who can or own the shallow nature of your product and don’t show it at all.

Consumers aren’t stupid. As a customer, I’d rather hear, “We tried this thing, but we botched it and it’s terrible, so bear with us whilst we fix it. We’re only human.”

I’d also rather hear that, “Game development is a business and we’re here to make money whilst trying to give you an excellent experience.” Rather than a constant tirade of bullsh*t about putting players first.

For a masterclass in delivering variants of both statements, look no further than Canadian developer Digital Extremes, creators of free-to-play title ‘Warframe’.

Speaking to Danny O’Dwyer, former Gamespot employee and founder of the ‘NoClip’ YouTube channel (highly recommended), they freely admit to grievous mistakes along the way and the desire to keep players spending little and often for premium content (if they so choose).

It’s a refreshing attitude from a developer, and may have something to do with the self-published nature of their piece. Less interfering hands, less prying corporate eyes.

Rather than destroying them, transparency and accountability has garnered them a dedicated fanbase in the 5 years since Warframes’ initial release. And it continues to grow. Digital Extremes explain their development choices in regular streams and seek to temper realistic community expectations at all times. As a result, fans respect them.

This seems a straight-forward, logical way of conducting business but time and again, come E3, developers and publishers run away with themselves, failing to understand the presentation of their game and ultimately, digging their own graves with overhype and broken promises.

The story of Hello Games director Sean Murray is a perfect, if unfortunate example of E3 PR gone rogue.

At Sony’s conference E3 2014, he took to the stage to introduce No Man’s Sky; an innovative space game developed by his small, indie studio of “friends” in Guildford. He was approachable, down to earth, affably dorky and clearly passionate about his work.
I’d take a Sean Murray over an Andrew Wilson any day and I believe the ensuing, personal backlash he received was unwarranted and a drastic overreaction.

But to his detriment, in the two years until it’s eventual release, Sean Murray did not. Stop. Talking.

He was everywhere, even appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and the Sony PR team obviously had a hand in his numerous promotions. People forgot this was an Indie title, that there was only so much to talk about before repeating yourself. And Sean, in his passion for the project, began to make promises that the team simply wouldn’t be delivering.

No Man’s Sky released in 2016 to mediocre reviews and venomous community reaction.
I think the project’s downfall started at that conference in 2014, when a well-meaning guy took to the stage and got carried away. It’s a valuable if cautionary tale.

It’s easy to draw comparisons between Murray and fellow British developer, Peter Molyneux, creator of the Fable series. Both clearly passionate, both have experienced huge negative reaction to their work, both promised a little too much. The key difference between them is that Sean Murray reacted to his critique more constructively.

Rather than shutting up shop, moving on and repeating the same mistakes; Murray effectively went off the grid, transforming No Mans Sky into a richer experience with continued updates and content. In the face of his mistakes, he stuck to his guns and his passion for the work.

Credit to him.

Had No Mans Sky released to Steam or Playstation Store as a more obscure, appropriately priced Indie title; I believe public reception might’ve been a different story entirely. In reality, it began with bad PR and snowballed uncontrollably.

E3 is an exciting time of year for fans of the industry. A brief window into an infamously secretive world and a celebration of some truly excellent, groundbreaking work. But the excitement for me isn’t about spectacle or memes or celebrity appearances. It’s about great games, and presentations from genuine, passionate people with comprehensive knowledge of those games.

I believe the industry can and will do better in regards to presenting itself at E3. But for the moment, come June 9th, recognize the flashcard phrases and disingenuous monologues for what they are.

Watch with measured expectations, identify what looks good to you and enjoy E3 2018.

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