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Hype Train: E3 and Broken Promises

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While E3 is always a time for excitement and speculation, it's also a time for more scepticism and questioning than we usually do. The expo might look like video game Christmas to those of us with a passion for the medium. From the perspective of the people who fund the conferences and booths, it's an advertising platform. We wouldn't take commercials for dishwasher tablets or home insurance at face value, but we seem far more comfortable in uncritically accepting the claims of enormous tech companies at gaming's premier marketing event. This would be an issue at the best of times, but I think that turning a rational eye towards the expo is vital specifically now, given that we're experiencing an epidemic of video games that were oversold and underdelivered.

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Audiences have been getting disappointed in computer games from the first days that workers started wheeling cabinets into arcades, but we've hit somewhat of a fever pitch with it, trapped in an endless cycle of fans buying into the hype, getting burned, and then going right back for seconds. And E3 has been instrumental in perpetuating that cycle. We had a generation of overpromising with motion control games, and we've seen the infamous Peter Molyneux speeches, Ubisoft demos, and that one Bioshock Infinite playthrough which provoked so much outrage. However, the last few E3s have promoted disappointments with greater density than those previous, and we've gotten behind many of those lacklustre games with more enthusiasm than we did with most Molyneux or Ubisoft items. Just look at Anthem, Days Gone, Fallout 76, Mass Effect Andromeda, No Man's Sky, Sea of Thieves, or Star Wars Battlefront II.

None of these games was different in person than it was on the stage because the developers who worked on them were purposefully trying to deceive us; they were different because E3 is not the objective window into upcoming titles that we often treat it as. You might be thinking that an E3 demo is more reliable than a home insurance advert because in an E3 walkthrough, a human being shows you a proof of the product in action, and in the case of floor demos, impartial experts can evaluate those products. But forget demos for a second because a pre-rendered trailer seems enough for people to start forming conceptions of what a video game is, even when we know those trailers don't employ game footage or assets. In fact, a pre-rendered E3 bumper is what people began staking their excitement for Anthem on, and we all know how that turned out. And when we do get playthroughs, either live or pre-recorded, they're often not the litmus tests we treat them as.

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In the most extreme circumstances, we make up promises that were never part of the demos and then become frustrated when studios don't fulfil them. Look at the No Man's Sky demonstration or the gameplay trailer for the original Cuphead. In them, we saw vertical slices of titles and then imagined everything that would sit around those slices either based on what we'd ideally like to have seen in the experience or the features that other games in their genres offered. We assumed that No Man's Sky would have a more extensive mechanical framework around the exploratory play and that Cuphead would have regular side-scrolling stages in addition to boss fights, but "assumed" is the operative word there. Neither of those were facts about these games when they debuted at E3. Misconceptions about the industry also skew how we absorb these demos.

For one, gamers tend to believe that games come to a polished and feature-complete state much faster than they do. On the contrary, these projects often remain broken until teams are practically at the finishing line of development. A public-facing build for a AAA game still six months, a year, or even longer out from release is a rarity because those games aren't in a publically presentable state at that point. This is why E3 demos need to be "built" in many instances; scripting, AI routines, animation, and environmental elements may not be in place at the time and so have to be made up. Of course, if someone is developing these aspects of the game separate from the main dev cycle, what they're making doesn't represent the content of the game build that the dev team is working with. And even if they did let the public get a sneak peek of the raw build behind their company walls, that wouldn't be representative of the final game either because, again, it's unfinished.

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The pressure for developers and publishers to fabricate the working elements of the games is only increasing with these recent high profile controversies. Audiences are hot on the scent of substandard play experiences (such as the ones you'll find in a game still being manufactured) and are only too quick to punish when they root them out. It gives developers at E3 a stronger incentive to patch over the cracks in their game, even when they can't guarantee those patches will be in the .exe we'll get twelve months down the line. This is also why, despite CD Projekt Red possessing a floor-ready demo for Cyberpunk 2077 at E3 2018, they chose to show it behind closed doors, rationally afraid of the scrutinous gaze of the end user.

And even when the games aren't scripted, their on-stage players are. It's not viable to build expansive, dynamic, and functioning E3 demos so developers create more of an amusement park attraction where stewards can't wander off-track for fear of the audience seeing behind the curtain. Even knowing this, we tend to imagine what would happen if they slipped down that alleyway or used different items in a fight, but those abilities frequently aren't extant in the demo we're watching, only suggested. Then, putting aside features, you can also find plenty of disagreement between the graphics and performance of E3 demos and those of the games as they appear in stores. Software engineers perform optimisation during the later days of the development process which means they're often unlikely to be done with it by the time of their E3 presentation, and they optimise many games for consoles over PC. It's one reason you see all those glossy roads and that rich ambient lighting in E3 demos but not in the games as they ship. And even if there is a port of the game which is true to the all-singing, all-dancing E3 incarnation, that doesn't mean it'll be the port that your platform of choice receives.

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Another faulty perception which has caused a lot of damage is that game dev involves simply blueprinting what you want your game to look like and then building from that blueprint. In reality, game dev always entails working out what a game should be and can be during the course of the production. For any single feature in a game, a creator may discover that implementing it would break so much of their game that it's not viable for them to do it with the resources at their disposal. Sometimes they discover major design flaws with that feature that would take an egregious amount of time to iron out, or sometimes they can implement the feature, but it turns out not to be as fun as they thought it would be. For all these reasons and more, developers sometimes can't slide every feature down the production pipeline that they wanted to when they first demoed their title. As the creative director of Edith Finch told us last year:

"I think most games you're seeing, by the time they get to you, it's maybe a quarter of what the team had intended. That it has been cut down and simplified so many times, and even that is a herculean effort on the part of many people to make it".

In other circumstances, studios find that the story, art, or mechanics have the potential to be pushed in a direction they didn't conceive of before and so pursue that direction. A lot of E3 demos are made before that cutting down and changing of course is complete, and both the length of time it takes to get a game on its feet and the ever-changing nature of titles in gestation means that demos produced months or years out from release have to be statements of intent rather than product samples. Speaking to People Make Games about his overinflated promises, Peter Molyneux said that the features he announced for his experiences were always what his team planned to implement, and it was a lack of practical possibility rather than honesty that meant they ended up on the cutting room floor. It's been the same story for studios the world over.

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Yet another recurring issue is that you often get to see a game loop once or a few times at a venue like E3 because that's the amount of demo they could churn out and because time slots during press conferences are very skinny. However, in real life, we need hours to explore the longevity of a core loop and see all the ways a game can iterate on it. Sea of Thieves demoed well when the players at the Microsoft conference took their ship to the open waves a single time and came back with their well-earned spoils. It was only when people got their hands on the finished project that they discovered that the game didn't deviate wildly from that loop in the demo and that it was a largely homogenous experience.

Maybe I'm preaching to the choir a little here, but if you're still not convinced overhype is a problem with severe implications, think about the appearance of Fallout 76 at E3. I don't think it's hyperbolic to call Fallout 76 one of the most impactfully disappointing items in video game history, but when it debuted at E3 2018, people were banging on the walls with excitement. It was seen as a glorious return to form for a Bethesda who'd spent the last two or three E3s giving the impression they didn't care. Some journalists raised their eyebrows at the game, asking how Fallout's trademark storytelling fit into a multiplayer format or how persistent settlements could exist on servers where people may build on the same spot or nuke other players' camps. But the community accepted that they were getting a new Fallout that would play a little more like The Long Dark or Terraria than previous entries and was smitten with that mental image. The real 76 was starved for content and story, put little thought into how to unite players, was repetitive, contained minimal endgame, and remained, technically speaking, on fire.

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Even worse, think about Anthem. It might not have been a letdown to the extent that Fallout 76 was, but it was another profound disappointment from Bioware. Yet, not only did it appear as a more seamless and objective-rich game when we saw it at E3 2018, we now know from Jason Shreir's exposé on the game's development that when it demoed at E3 2017, it hadn't even entered production. The "mission" that we saw at the EA conference that year was fabricated whole cloth for the purpose of having something to show the public. And if Fallout 76 or Anthem could make such convincing showings while being such shoddy games, how can we trust any game demo is going to be accurate to the eventual experience? When we look at a game at this expo or any other, how will we know if we're staring at the next Anthem or Fallout 76?

The games community is going to keep getting ripped off if it continues to accept the promises of these companies without a pinch of salt. However angry you might get at developers, publishers, or console manufacturers for not backing up their promises, if we keep blindly accepting those promises year on year, nothing is going to change. Constructive criticism is essential, but getting impotently mad every time we're sold a bill of goods is not a practical series of steps for avoiding disappointment in the future. Turning to events like E3 with a sceptical eye is. It doesn't help that yearly expos like E3 are not designed for us to retread them. You tune in for the show, you get jazzed up to buy some products, and then you put it behind you, but when we don't revisit the expos of previous years and see how the presentations from them stacked up in comparison to what we got, we forget all the times they've done us wrong. What's more, with companies like EA and Sony forgoing E3 to take greater control over the stage for their games, they're going to take greater control over the presentation of them. That means it's going to become easier for them to project a dishonest image of them.

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Given all this, you might ask what the point of E3 is if its depictions of games can be so unreliable, but I think that there is a healthy way to get excited over E3 demos. We can approach them knowing that it's a gamble to invest in their promises, but I wouldn't blame anyone who wanted to take that gamble as long as they're conscious of the high risk at this point in time. It's also valid to feel joy when you see what the intentions of developers are for the games that they're working on. It's just also important to remember that the executives at the top of the pyramid have a financial incentive to mislead and the workers below them often don't have much more of an idea how their game will look on release than we do. So, as we head into another expo, don't be hopeless, but do think twice about what any company is showing you. Thanks for reading.

Further Reading

The Real Stories Behind E3's Glossy Game Demos by Patrick Klepek (June 10, 2016), Kotaku.