For those who haven’t seen this already, Kotaku ran an article yesterday highlighting how the E3 game demos are tightly controlled and usually quite different from the actual released game. The bulk of the article was rehashed information that has been known for a while with a slew of specific anecdotes thrown in to flesh the article out. The tone of the piece seems to be informative but I got hints of empathy strewn throughout as these devs work insane hours prior to the shows and stress the entire event until their demo is shown off. These ideas fell on deaf ears as a majority of comments understood the article to express a distrust of AAA studios. In a sick twist, the same people who express disdain for these demo practices are the same who ultimately made it happen.
Imagine if a big budget game were presented at E3 not as a specifically crafted demo but as a real level from an internal build. There might be a bug here and there, maybe some flat temporary textures, but a working form of the game in some capacity minus the polish. I highly doubt this demo would get a standing ovation during the show and the amount of positive publicity it received from publications would be minimal. Yet this method would create a better atmosphere for a game’s launch. The biggest benefit would be having more resources to work on the game. As designer Sam Bass stated in that Kotaku article, “You are derailing a good chunk of your team for 1-2 months of what is often essential development time and often leaving them pretty burnt out after the fact.” Aside from shipping a game that might not need a multiple gigabyte day one patch, the consumer will be genuinely surprised when the game is better than the E3 demo, not worse.
Despite the positive aspects of this method, it would never fly with consumers. E3 is a hype machine. The attendees, both physical and digital, expect to be shown the latest in technology so they can gasp, cheer, and clap due to some graphical euphoria. If the Sony and Microsoft press conferences have taught us anything it is how integral spectacle is to the E3 experience. Shallow presentations filled with empty words, lights dancing across the stage as developers prance about like rock stars. Entirely vapid performances attempting to entertain to the widest demographic. Vapid, that is the perfect word to summarize E3 entirely, including the demos.
That is the unfortunate truth about them. They exist solely because of consumer demand yet provide nothing of substance for the consumer. As I stated earlier, the disgusting aspect is how these teams put so much work into these demos, because the fans want them, and then have to deal with the resentment from these very fans when the game launches years later. These developers make these demos knowing the final product will be measured up against it. This makes any future compromise, which there will be some, a gut wrenching experience.
I have to wonder, is it all worth it? The companies that can afford to put resources and money towards these extravagant events aren’t the ones that need to. I’m pretty sure that if the next Battlefield, Tomb Raider, or Final Fantasy happened to not show up at E3 they would still get plenty of press coverage from the mainstream publications and no prospective sales would be lost.
Maybe I’m just too jaded regarding the AAA video game sphere. Every year I tune into the E3 livestreams and watch the Sony press conference but I can’t get excited. I watch as the attendees hang onto every empty buzzword, drooling with anticipation and can’t help but feel I’m not the target demographic. The lights and big screens, the over-the-top booths and the bombastic demos are all such a thin veil covering up an industry that is completely insecure, and for good reason. The people who buy the games are known to throw pretty aggressive temper tantrums whenever they aren’t catered to. And E3 is exactly that, a gigantic celebration of everything mainstream gaming.