The spirit of E3 lives on through the game industry’s love of hypo and marketing

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Entertainment, Your guide to the business of the gaming and media industries. This Friday, we’re previewing the massive week of gaming news ahead that’s replacing this year’s traditional E3 conference, as well as suggestions for what to read, watch and play this weekend.

E3 is canceled, except when it’s not

A decade ago, around this time of year, every major video game studio and publisher would flock to downtown Los Angeles to show off their biggest products to a live and (increasingly) online crowd of eager consumers. The Electronic Entertainment Expo, fondly known as E3, persisted even as big industry players like Nintendo and Sony began to pull away, if only because of a shared nostalgia for what these events represent to fans and the opportunity, though a dwindling one, to generate much-needed buzz in an increasingly competitive market.

E3 isn’t happening this year: It got canceled. Twice, in fact, first with the removal of its physical event in January and then the digital one in March. But that hasn’t stopped the game industry from barreling full steam into a June hypo cycle, underlining unlike just how important these events are to game makers that, the Epics and Robloxes of the world, rely on sales.

Welcome to Not-E3. That’s the sarcastic name media folks and other industry watchers have slapped onto this year’s marketing extravaganza. This next week and a half very much has the scope, look and feel of an E3, but without the Los Angeles Convention Center hall and its overpriced, rubbery pizza slices.

  • Sony kicked off the festivities with a 30-minute State of Play presentation for PlayStation fans yesterday, featuring a handful of virtual reality releases for the upcoming PSVR 2 headset and a long-awaited release window and trailer for Final Fantasy XVI.
  • A number of other companies are either participating in Geoff Keighley’s Summer Game Fest on Thursday or doing specific game announcements and reveals, as Activision is doing for Modern Warfare 2 on Wednesday, Electronic Arts did last week for Star Wars Jedi: Survivor and Nintendo this week for Pokémon Scarlet and Violet.
  • Microsoft has the largest presence during Not-E3, with a dedicated digital press conference on June 12 to feature new Xbox Game Studios and Bethesda titles, likely with a focus on its Game Pass subscription platform and big exclusives like Starfield, which was just recently delayed to next year.

Gaming companies stopped needing E3 a long time ago. The game industry likes to use the summer to market new products and generate hype because it helps sell games during the fall and holiday season. But an annual game conference dedicated to the entire industry (notably excluding the important mobile and free-to-play sectors) has been antiquated for quite some time, and certainly before the pandemic made such events logistically and ethically impractical.

  • Nintendo arguably started the shift to digital events among big game companies with its Direct presentations, the first of which started way back in 2011. Since then, scores of other game makers have followed in Nintendo’s footsteps, most notably Sony when it stopped going to E3 in 2019.
  • Many companies have since adopted hybrid strategies, choosing to do scattered virtual events, live showings and one-off digital game reveals when it suits them and to build hype over the long arc of a game’s development.
  • This way, the studio or publisher doesn’t have to rely on a more traditional “all your eggs in one basket” approach to marketing that defined past E3s, in which companies hosted multihour press conferences that risked getting drowned out by the news cycle.
  • A mix of YouTube, Twitch, Twitter and company blogs have also made it easier than ever to reach fans with few intermediaries.

Keeping expectations in check. One of the biggest pitfalls for modern game companies is overhyping their products and disappointing fans in the process. That’s how you end up with Cyberpunk 2077 or, more commonly, having to announce game delays.

  • Microsoft got out ahead of two critical delays, one for Bethesda’s Starfield and the other for Arkane’s Redfall, by announcing them earlier this month, ahead of its Xbox showcase next weekend. But Microsoft is now in the tough position of presenting its Xbox show on June 12 with fans knowing there won’t be any major first-party releases coming for the rest of 2022.
  • Critically, Sony did not announce release dates for PSVR 2 or for its hotly anticipated God of War sequel, and it only felt comfortable telling fans of FFXVI’s release window after already delaying that game last year. But by tempering expectations, Sony was still able to squeeze in some surprises, like the planned PC releases of Marvel’s Spider-Man and Miles Morales.
  • Electronic Arts decided it would not be hosting a version of its standard E3 press conference, typically called EA Play Live. Instead, the company said it would share information on specific releases when it feels it’s ready. It’s a smart move, given that EA’s launch slate is still relatively slim over the next 12 months.
  • The biggest mystery will be Summer Game Fest, which made waves last summer when it featured a world premiere for Elden Ring. Keighley knows he may not be able to top that, but he’s still optimism his live event will be the definitive for multiplatform publishers, even if forces outside his showcase control make it a more understated show.
  • “It’s just going to be different, and that’s what I keep telling people: This is not replacing E3, it’s a different sort of vibe and sense of things,” Keighley said during a Twitter Spaces session earlier this month. “I don’t make the games, so I just sit here and pray that there’s going to be some cool stuff to show to people.”

— Nick Statt

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TGIF: How to spend your weekend

“Stranger Things” — Netflix. I lost interest in “Stranger Things” after the second season; There’s only so much “retro meets gore” I can take. Still, the show has clearly become a cultural phenomenon, and the three-year gap between Seasons Three and Four only seems to have kindled the fire. When the fourth season finally debuted on Netflix last weekend, it instantly became the service’s most-watched English-language show to date. Which is a very long-winded way of saying: Fine, I’ll give it another try this coming weekend. How about you?

The tale of the outlaw nuns — Mel. Looking for an escape from all the bleak news these days? Then dig in and read the tale of the Belgian nuns who quietly sold off their convent’s possessions, acquired all kinds of interesting and odd stuff, and fled the country in the dead of night. Someone should turn this into a movie!

“The Expanse” — Amazon Prime Video. “The Expanse” is one of those shows that has a very dedicated fan base, but not a whole lot of name recognition beyond that base. That’s what led to SyFy pulling the plug on the show after Season Three aired in 2018, resulting in a fan campaign to save the show, which in turn got Amazon to buy and run three additional seasons.

The show itself is set in a universe where civilization is split into three factions: Earth, ruled by a much more gun-ho version of the UN; Mars, whose inhabitants want to turn it into a better version of Earth; and the Belt, an industrial zone home to the universe’s underdogs. There’s a constant threat of war between those factions, coups, deceit, aliens — and somehow, a small gang of friends with a stolen ship and a no-nonsense attitude always finds itself in the middle of everything. Amazon streams all six seasons of “The Expanse” to Prime subscribers, making it the perfect show to binge this summer.

The Last Clockwinder — Meta Quest / Steam. The Last Clockwinder is an intriguing new VR puzzle game with a bit of a backstory: You get to save a mysterious clocktower from sinking by solving a series of puzzles. Some of the tasks are pretty repetitive, but that’s by design: Instead of doing the same thing over and over again, you get to train gardening robots to do them for you by recording small loops of your actions. At first, the set design may be a bit underwhelming — the clock tower basically consists of a series of floors that look very much alike, and there are a bunch of decorations that you can’t interact with at all — but soon, the challenges Draw you in, and seeing all those gardening robots work in unison feels oddly satisfying.

— Janko Roettgers

A MESSAGE FROM QUALCOMM

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