Every year the gaming community looks feverishly toward the summer months for the industry’s biggest show conference where new games, consoles, and teases will be presented in abundance. The special occasion of E3 is often marked by a “who’s who” of developer and publisher showcases each vying to be the heralded “winner” of the conference. Special guests are wheeled out; actors and celebrities scream blue on their excitement to be part of “[insert big new project]”; long-anticipated games are teased out or presented in all their glory; shock drops are made on the fly to send the gaming community into bedlam; a new surprise horse joins the race for watch in future E3 conferences.
But, after a year away, E3 2021 was unable to deliver much on any of these fronts. With a global pandemic still looming large, E3 2021’s showcase was taken digital this year, and the total lasting impact that COVID-19 was having on an entire industry could not have been starker for it.
Aside from the difficulties of hosting a digital conference (a feat that so far few have been able to crack as is), E3 2021 had far less of the monumental moments that get the gaming industry buzzed than it usually does. Game showcases were, for the most part, flat. Get-you-off-your seat type announcements were largely few and far between. A number of the usual high-profile developer/publisher conferences felt more like an obligatory chore for both spectator and host alike, rather than a celebratory feast of gaming festivities.
Now, that might appear disingenuous to some of the quality games that were on show (and certainly as I highlighted over this past week, the indie devs did come to play this year), but few would argue that E3 2021 will go down as a classic all-timer.
The Digital Experience
Since a deadly virus has prohibited the world over from interacting in person, the rise of “digital conferences” has grown as a stopgap to replicate the in-person experience of the conference show-floor. The likes of career fairs and annual expos have all taken their hand at reinterpreting what a physical conference can look like virtually – and for the most part they have struggled. Making the physical virtual, as it turns out, is quite difficult.
However if anyone were to crack the nut of digital conferencing you might be on a safe bet to back the Electronic Entertainment Expo. Going into the digital conference the Electronic Software Association (ESA) behind E3 promised an unprecedented level of access to the show all from the comfort of your own home. Rather than queuing for hours or trudging through sweaty crowds now you would be able to chat to your favourite developers and publishers while still in your underwear, coffee in hand. “Digital booths” were to be set up by each attending company to replicate the busy conference floor, and in each you would be able to interact with devs, watch trailers, maybe even find access to a demo or two.
“Lounge areas” in the form of forums would offer up that experience of taking a break from the bustle and just sitting for a while to chat to some other attendees. There was even to be gamification to the experience by rewarding players for interacting with all parts of the digital portal and stacking the highest ranked in a table for all to see, proudly, who deserved the moniker of “ultimate gamer”.
But within mere hours of Media Week opening up a few days before the official conference, digital E3 already looked to be something of a disaster. As the digital portal opened we were first confronted by an avatar builder of the most ghoulish creations imaginable – that is, of course, if you could even manage to get into the portal in the first place. Little else encapsulated the E3 2021 experience as much as the nightmare options of this avatar builder. This was to be your face for the conference, and mine was stuck with a floating beard made of wood and cat-like eyes that pierced into your soul. “Hello there, developers. Let me see your game or be damned to the nether realm by the gaze of lumberjack cat-man”.
Excitement of the mii builder over, once stepping officially onto the “digital floor” there was not a whole lot for my hell-spawn surrogate to actually do. Digital booths set by developers and publishers were largely bare, and the chat function allowing you to message the booths did not work. Supposedly these messages ended up becoming emails sent to some unfortunate company admin now saddled with a flood of broken messages, with little they could actually do with them to respond.
Rather than the buzz of trailers and interactive booths promised, many booths only redirected to company websites, if they did anything at all. The ongoing live events promised were broken links to pixelated jpegs. The calendar function, if it had worked, had no use when there was nothing to add to it anyway. Even the gamification aspect was all over the place with points being seemingly awarded entirely benignly. The one safe haven was the (mostly working) forums which were primarily just a smattering of confused attendees wondering if anyone else was having any more success than them with the portal.
It was at least understandable that there would initially be some teething problems, but as media week continued the E3 portal grew further into irrelevancy. Discord became the saviour as media attendants and indie devs alike took to it to interact with each other and set up and carry out interviews and demos. For any future digital conferences looking in, perhaps take a note of this part.
Anticipation then built toward the weekend and the official start to E3. Once the doors would open to the mass public the issues of the E3 digital portal would surely only be exacerbated. And, dear reader, as sure as Microsoft saying the words “included on Game Pass” a couple dozen times, the E3 portal of course entirely imploded right on cue. The night before opening to the public the portal went down for maintenance and remained that way quite some time even after the masses were supposed to be allowed in. When it did come back up little else was added and the same issues were still at large. Barebones content and a half-broken site for all to enjoy now.
Unfortunately, the 2021 mii builder just was not meant to be.
A year’s hiatus during the heights of COVID in 2020 meant anticipation for a 2021 show was feverish. Surely a year out would have every dev and publisher raring to go with new announcements and big teases? Surely with the new consoles settling into their run there would be a slew of next-gen releases to feast on.
However for the most part the developer conferences were largely flat. It became clear throughout that the pandemic was playing its part in keeping some of the bigger projects away from being reveal ready. There was a bright start with Geoff Keighley’s separate Summer Fest event which gave us an announcement for Gearbox’s Borderlands spin-off, Tiny Tina’s Wonderland, and the much-heralded reveal for Elden Ring, George R.R Martin and Hidetaka Miyazaki’s “soulsborne” brainchild. But following this only really the big two, Nintendo and Xbox/Bethesda, had much else worth shouting about.
For Ubisoft there were only so many times that we could see the same clips over again of Far Cry 6, and even their “mic drop closer” of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora was met more by curious amusement than wild excitement. Square Enix gave us a Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy story adventure game as well as the CHAOS of Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin – a game that looks and sounds like a late PS2 title with the complex characterisation of protagonist Jack, an angry man who wants to, uh, kill chaos or something? He didn’t quite make his goals clear…
Xbox’s showcase was a boast for just how big Game Pass is going to be going forward, and how much the Bethesda acquisition was going to see them wheeling off into the distance away from their competitors. But even then Halo Infinite’s ambiguous “holiday 2021” release date seemed more like a statement of cautious hope rather than the bombshell it should be. You’d expect amidst its many other reported development problems that Covid was also once again playing havoc with the project, as it so clearly has with many others.
Nintendo arguably did steal the show as they announced their new Smash character, a Metroid follow up, WarioWare, Mario + Rabbids and an eked-out tease for the long-anticipated sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
But amongst the more mid-tier (and even not so mid-tier) developers’ attendance at E3 2021 almost seemed like a compulsory piece of homework, rather than a chance to show off all that they had. If you’d been hoping for a GTA 6 hint or Bully sequel from Take Two’s show then you’d be quite surprised to have found yourself sitting in on what was more or less just a company zoom meeting, as Take Two instead hosted a diversity in gaming panel – an understandable topic to focus in on, but not one that is going to get the gaming industry roaring with excitement. Capcom’s show could be rounded up by a still image with text stating “we’re working on stuff, okay”. Despite, too, having Elden Ring at their disposal Bandai Namco scheduled their show as a mere 10 minutes focused only on one interview with a dev from The Dark Pictures Anthology’s newest chapter while Warner Bros. Interactive also allotted their time to a Left 4 Dead twin only. Gearbox on the other hand thought it worthwhile to watch long-time magic enthusiast Randy Pitchford excitedly puppy dog his way around the Borderlands movie set in between excerpts of the same Tiny Tina trailer already shown at least 3 times before across the weekend.
I’ll pull back my grumblings somewhat because amongst the many mobile game and remaster announcements it was intensely clear that the gaming industry, quite simply, had been hampered by the last year+ of global restrictions. Unfortunately this digital E3 show just could not quite hit the heights it usually does since production on bigger projects is evidently slower for now, and so were left with a litany of smaller remaster projects and mobile releases since these would be easier to handle for now.
At the very least this digital experience did also give indie devs more of a chance to shine which they took to far better than most of the other bigger studios. From my experience across the week the indie devs were on the ball with preview and demo setups and showed more enthusiasm to the conference than many of the big players.
Hopefully next year will see enough vaccinations and improvements on the pandemic that we will be able to once again attend the conference in person for E3 2022. Otherwise I shudder to think what may happen if my hell-spawn mii avatar is allowed freedom to run amuck amongst the world once again…