E3 and Consumer Anxiety

Posted by Bobby (89 posts) -

I’ve seen some hate for events like E3 and I can fully sympathize. It’s a bunch of major corporations waging war for your money with ostentatious and often insincere presentations of consumerism. Yet, when you’ve grown up with a hobby you’re so invested in with both time and money, E3 proves to be a kind of exchange. The consumer asks, “what are you going to give me in return for what I’m going to give you?” The great anxiety yesterday, which culminated in Sony’s deft marketing move, concerned a certain level of dread for the consumer-producer exchange. Microsoft, with their draconian mandates about used games and security check-ins, attempted to dictate the terms of the exchange. Granted, the producer always has the upper-hand in these dealings, but there was no room for negotiation.

Image lifted from Polygon

So when Jack Tretton took the stage and announced that there would be no restrictions on used games and that the console need not be always online, the tension was broken. The consumer backlash against Microsoft had furthered a broader negotiation with videogame consoles in general. Criticisms that “we were applauding something we already have” are not fair because the second those restrictions were announced they became the new fact.

When someone with power says they are going to take something away, it has been effectively enacted even if it has yet to be implemented. Consumers were indeed fighting for something they had already lost. And Sony could just as easily gone along with Microsoft, pulling in extra revenue for themselves and their developers, but they took a gamble that it would be in their best interest to continue doing business in a familiar way. It was not an act of good, just a gesture of goodwill.

Sony’s gamble, as I’m sure it will play out, took the upfront cost of this lost potential revenue stream and deferred it to a time further down the road when a significant portion of its sales will be non-transferrable, non-resellable digital purchases. In the end, Microsoft and Sony will both end up in the same digital world as Steam, GoG, iOS App Store, and Google Play. We were so relieved at the announcement during Sony’s press conference that we forgot to ask about the catch, which says a lot about where the biggest part of the industry might have taken consumers.

I like E3. As I explained to a pal on Twitter yesterday, whose comment “nothing like a press event to reveal that everyone in the world is an expert in the ecology of video game development and marketing,” prompted me to consider the reaction of the many of us following along at home, E3 is much like a cooking competition, a mystery movie, or a political debate. We have a knack for following these narratives logically to an often illogical conclusion. These marketing events are created with drama in mind. And, as the respondent, Sony was in the position to close the conversation.

We enjoy predicting the ending because our prediction has no real bearing on anything. The Internet gives us all the power to be pundits for a day, which at once shows us how silly the prediction game is and yet what it takes to make a living doing it. We both know everything and nothing about the games industry. We know what we need to know and are completely ignorant of how these things actually work. But if you Tweet a guess (like my assertion that Persona 5 would be coming to the Vita) and it’s right, it’s an amazing feeling. And, if you’re wrong (which I obviously was) there’s no negative outcome. But professional analysts get paid for being right more often than wrong. The fan succeeds with 1 out of 10. The analyst succeeds with 9 out of 10.

With so much money at stake, industry events are necessarily competitions for a limited resource. In an ideal world, they say, we would all just have small, fast, inexpensive computers that hooked up effortlessly to our televisions to guarantee flawless software compatibility. But isn’t that mostly what a console is? A dedicated box whose promise is ease of use.

We waver between our desire single-use and convergence devices. We wanted phones that were just phones until they proved they could play media and browse the web almost as well as anything else. The consumer negotiation with Apple has always been that despite iOS not being as robust as Android, we accepted the limitations in favor of the benefits of a smartphone that “just works.” Whenever I use Advanced Task Killer on my Nexus 7 to cure the ails of slowdown, I think there may in fact be something to Apple’s pledge.

Image "courtesy" Polygon

The benefit of the computer for games is that it is not only easy to develop for but that it’s easy to publish on. Even without Steam Greenlight or Desura, a game creator can put an installer on their website or publish to the browser. It’s not that we want to use Photoshop on our television, it’s that the “walled gardens” of the consoles don’t have a publishing outlet to support this kind of work. It’s not the hardware that is the barrier here—the things inside a PlayStation 3 are capable of running a web browser with Flash—it’s a policy issue with the software.

So instead of lamenting the console has a restriction, might we not consider it an inexpensive oasis that, with enough support, could eventually be a place to play these games? It’s a tough battle, considering we already have desktop and laptop computers that do that, but it’s an attractive prospect. We like PCs because we they already do the things we want. But would a Good Old Games channel on the Xbox One begin to change your mind?

This is the exchange. As fans of these things we call videogames we constantly negotiate our expenses and desires. Games are not free. Well, some are, but as has been shown time and time again, people with skill appreciate being paid for their efforts.

So, with limited funds we do endless calculations about value: ”I’ll buy this when it hits $40, one $10 game gave me hours of satisfaction while I was burned by another, I’m only going to spend $15 in this free-to-play game...” We build game collections like portfolios, letting the 100+ hours of Skyrim offset the cost of a 5 hour FPS campaign. Just as movie studios and game publishers finance the little movies with the big ones, those of us fortunate enough to have the disposable income to spend on our hobby, our passion, defer risk when making purchases.

E3, in many ways, is just a point in time for consumers to begin plotting the long journey of their dollars. Yes, we get excited for certain games, some of which will change drastically and some of which may never come out. But excitement over one console or the other has less to do with the drama of corporate rivalries and more to do with which of the things that you were likely to buy are you more likely to buy. So, yes, it’s a consumerist capitalist affair and those folk who boycott coverage are probably more savvy than the rest of us, but so long as it continues to produce games we actually want to play, it will continue to be a part of the whole videogames ecosystem.

In the end, the Twitter stream and Facebook feed of commenters who watched the press conferences don’t actually matter. We tend to lend them more credence because they’re written down and published somewhere, but really it’s just the online equivalent of chatting with a friend on the couch while watching something. One month from now we’ll all feel different. Six months from now even more so.

And, in five years, when this has reached its natural conclusion, we’ll look back and say “of course!” But we will always do well to remember that moment of anxiety when things could have (and still can) go one way or the other.

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