The summer of gaming has kicked off once more. While fans have been clamouring for updates for several of their favourite games for months, publishers have been rather tight-lipped. Enter Geoff Keighley and his Summer Game Fest. A month-long celebration of games, Keighley once again hosted a kick-off to the show. However, this year, it came with a little twist.
For viewers in select regions of the United States and Canada, the show would be played in IMAX format at local multiplexes. Now, the bulk of the crew here at TheXboxHub comes from the UK, but luckily, as a proud Canadian, I strapped on my best Mountie Outfit and took one for the team. Taking a couple of buses and trains out of Toronto and into the neighbouring town of Oakville, I travelled to the only theatre in the country showing the kickoff. How was it? Well, to make a long story short, the jury is still out.
Beginning with the positives, there is something marvellous about seeing games up on the big screen, especially in an IMAX formatted theatre. The game image is sharper, the loudspeakers pick up every last detail of the sound mixing and editing, and it gives a level of legitimacy to the proceedings. Best of all, the event being hosted in a communal space leads to a sense of comradery that is mostly reserved for the E3 conferences in person. All of which is to say, in the wake of the pandemic, there is something to be said for the communal experience.
However, there are some drawbacks to the model that I think will harm the overall adoption of it. Firstly, the price is prohibitively expensive. At $18 Canadian a ticket, there comes an increase of expectations of the overall quality of the event and show, as you are effectively paying out of pocket to watch what are in essence advertisements that you can watch for free at home. Now, that’s not to say there isn’t merit in being excited for such an event. We’re gamers, trust me, I know. I’ve been counting down the days until Xbox’s press conference since their last press conference. But when you are charging the same amount per ticket as Top Gun or Jurassic World, there is an increase in expectations.
Similarly, the show needs to be the right format for the style of event, and frankly, I’m not sure this year’s show was up to par. Between the overall reliance on CG trailers, the prolonged segments for games like The Last of Us that amounted to talking over a still image, and the overall lack of long-form gameplay barring the Call of Duty segment, there wasn’t a lot of footage that truly took advantage of the IMAX format. How can you tell what a game’s sound design is like, for instance, when it’s being drowned out by trailer music?
The content of the show matters for the communal response as well. Making games is a hard, oftentimes thankless job, and putting on a show is similarly difficult. However, at the end of the day, when the consumer is spending money on such an event, there is a desire for the types of announcements that would generate widespread community responses. To be blunt this year, the biggest reaction was a smattering of applause for Modern Warfare and Gotham Knights. There was no moment on par with the Elden Ring, Hellblade 2/Series X and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 announcements of prior Keighley shows, meaning the overall communal atmosphere was muted.
Finally, there are also risks inherent to the theatrical exhibition of games. For instance, several trailers had noticeable frame-drops and screen tearing, and when displayed on a screen the size of the side of a skyscraper, these little issues that can be easily missed become glaringly apparent. There is something to be said for putting your best foot forward, and going on such a screen is the equivalent of putting your game under the microscope.
However, the jury is undeniably still out for the future of theatrical exhibition of game events. The Game Awards, which is scheduled to screen in IMAX later in December, is more than just a show for announcements and ads, it’s an awards show with its own atmosphere. Additionally, with the right reveals, the event could easily become well worth paying the money to see on the big screen. A price reduction or an increase in the perks provided to the customer (this year’s lootbag consisted of a drawstring backpack, a download code for the already free Street Fighter 2, a sticker and pin for Cuphead and a link to 2 songs from the Street Fighter 6 soundtrack) could help increase the overall sales and excitement around the event.
Similarly, if Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo put one of their shows in IMAX theatres, I could certainly see an uptick in broader acceptance of the model. But as is, this first outing left a decent bit to be desired, and time will tell if IMAX will become a mainstay way to watch games showcases.