E3 2019: EA Play

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I'm still not convinced by the notion that E3 is dying, at least, not in the immediate. It makes perfect sense that when modern social media allows you to beam trailers and gameplay directly to customers all year round, that you're no longer reliant on a one-off expo where you woo the established press to do it for you. However, there are some things you can't do with games over the internet, that you need your audience to be there in person for. Live demos, tournaments, panels, and speeches all fall under that umbrella, and you're seeing more of all of them scheduled for E3 2019. This isn't death for E3 as much as metamorphosis. Along the same lines, while you don't need a physical event to put out press releases on your games, you can hype up streamers and incentivise them to make videos about your games by inviting them to one. Plus, there's still enough buzz around E3 for even companies with independent marketing events to hitch their wagons to the expo. This is why we have the Comic-Con-style E3 panels, the multiple Nintendo tournaments, and EA Play.

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EA Play is Electronic Arts unshackling themselves from E3 and stretching their legs. No longer do they have to work within a limited press conference slot and fixed booth space, and they don't have to erect their kiosks within scenery and atmosphere that someone else set up. But you might think that they'd wield that control to get behind a powerful new lineup of games for 2019 and 2020. That's not how it shook out. At Play, we saw Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, Madden NFL 20, and FIFA 20, but no announcements of anything we didn't know about before, and more time was gobbled up by games released long ago like Battlefield V and Apex Legends. Sims 4, which capped off the event, is a title EA released five years ago. There is a logic here: the industry is more about "games as a service" than ever and doesn't need additional space to promote new releases but does need it to advertise the next batch of content they'll be feeding into their current lineup. And when game announcements aren't something that you require the public to be physically there to receive, it makes sense that you'd focus more on the games that you can give them hands-on time with: the ones that are already roaming in the wild.

But you also have to consider the context around this particular live programme. EA had nothing but scraps on the slate for the rest of 2019 and wasn't announcing anything new. The "Coming Soon" section of their website features only four items, and two of those are their perfunctory annual sports products. I don't mean this to be a statement on the health of EA who look to be financially rosy-cheeked, but there's still something fishy here. Either they're going through an uncharacteristic deadzone of releases, they've ejected a panoply of announcements into other peoples' press conferences and their own post-Play promotions, or EA think the money is going to be in supporting a smaller pool of high-profit AAA games rather than making sure there's always another release on the calendar for next month. Time will tell.

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For now, an E3 presence that included fewer new games and more patch notes didn't make for compelling viewing. Eeking out their news briefing over the course of three hours while trying to match the energy levels of peppy YouTubers made for a show with a chill pace that had these sudden jolts in which presenters begin yelling at the audience or trying to urge them to applause. And the event could neither plug original projects nor expand on the updates for those already on hard-drives. It contrasted poorly with the Nintendo tournaments that streamed the same day because while EA did a lot of telling, Nintendo was busy showing.

We also have to address the ridiculous Battlefield V controversy that occurred just before the event. EA uploaded a trailer announcing that you'd be able to play an evil WWII axis powers soldier who dresses like a fascist, executes allies, and even has the name of a Nazi. At its best, this was distasteful, at its worse, it was letting people who fantasise about being Nazis see a gargantuan force in the industry pandering to their tastes. So people were upset, and EA responded by changing the name of the soldier and insisting they weren't a Nazi, just a soldier fighting for the Germans in this World War II FPS. They also stated that there are no political statements in their shooter about the actual war that was fought for the political control of Europe. A Nazi by any other name is still a Nazi, and their statement on apoliticism read like a parody of the current attitudes of AAA games.

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I've not felt comfortable with what EA and DICE have been doing with their historical titles of late, but the fetishism over armaments and battle during this EA Play felt particularly unsavoury as we were only two days out from the D-Day Anniversary. On a less consequential but still perplexing note, I don't know how you hold an event where you promise that you've been listening to fans and will be introducing a new Pacific Island map to the game and then not make it Wake Island, the Pacific Island setting everyone wants in every Battlefield. Another low point for the stream was the big reveal of Jedi: Fallen Order which looks painfully generic in its design. I hold out some hope that there's a Soulslite combat system lurking under the hood and that that's what the presenters were talking about when they discussed intentionality in the play, but it's otherwise a by-the-numbers action-adventure, not that different from the Star Wars game you could have made fifteen years ago. It's a shame to see a company like Respawn that has been a generator for new artistic and mechanical concepts in AAA games be reduced to telling you about their intention to "Honor the brand" rather than do something creative.

But there were a few nuggets of gold mixed into the silt. I wish we could have heard more about the map changes to Apex Legends, but Respawn's vision of a new hero looks to add some fresh flavour to the battle royale setup. It makes sense that running a class-based battle royale, you have many more opportunities to alter individual player experiences than in a PUBG or a Fortnite. There are already multiplayer games where you can defend yourself by setting down barricades, but I'm not sure I've seen any where you can tether those barricades together in freeform patterns a la The Talos Principle. Of course, additional power to block off entry points to buildings could allow you a little too much comfort in any one of your chosen strongholds, but it might be that that's a motive for Respawn redesigning the map. They need to make sure there's an Apex Legends that prevents players from sealing off whole corners of the level while still letting Wattson use her area control powers.

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Lastly, there was the glimpse we got at The Sims 4: Island Living, the successor to Sims 2: Castaway and Sims 3: Island Paradise. The Sims's content model remains exploitative, and I don't trust Island Living to acknowledge the roots of the aesthetic it wears. Media often whitewashes bamboo huts, flower necklaces, and volcano spirits as being part of an unplaceable "island vibe", but we know where they come from: They're interpretations of Polynesian culture. It's at least some small consolation that, on stage, Maxis's devs acknowledged this and discussed speaking to people who lived in Polynesia to get a basis for the game's style. The studio will also be releasing LGBTQ+ content for the game. The support for pride is inextricable from EA's financial interests, but that update at least comes free when private interests too often claim to be on the side of minorities and then try to force them to buy their way to the product which supposedly conveys respect for them. Lastly, the expansion will finally be addressing that unusual invisible wall that has often existed between sims and natural bodies of water, and will contain a reactive environment which draws attention to the effects of human pollution. I can get behind all of that.

But I do have to note that even when EA made my face light up this year, it was never from showcasing indie games. Even in 2018, the publisher put aside a slot at their conference to let a developer speak about the process of creating something personal and out of the ordinary, but this year all we got was a video covering three indie games released after EA Play that was a starved three minutes long. If the new E3 is more about games as services than one-off releases, then where does that leave independent creators? Because they don't lay down pipelines that deliver new characters, maps, and modes every few months. Their games are released in a fire-and-forget fashion but are often more focused, expressive, and cohesive for it. It's easy to forget how vulnerable these creators are when a slew of indie games hit Steam every year, but a lot of them are still starving artists who live or die on promotion. But people with a vision aren't going to sell you more lootboxes or expansion packs, so what's the point, right? Thanks for reading.

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