E3 2011 Said Look, But Don’t Touch

It’s been a few days since I got back from Los Angeles and I think I’m finally shaking off the exhaustion. It was certainly an odd E3 for me, where developers were just as keen to book appointments with me as I was with them. I felt like half the show was spent doing personal PR — meeting people who wanted to meet me, acting like some sort of weird Z-list blogger celebrity, and generally engaging in a week of shameless self promotion. I’ve been recognized at events before, but this year really cemented that — for better or worse — people know who I am, and like to interact with me.

It’s a good job someone was open for interaction then, since the actual videogames on display this past week left a little to be desired in the gameplay department. As much fun as I had, I left L.A. with a sting of minor disappointment as I realized that the majority of my appointments this year were for hands-off presentations rather than real gameplay sessions. Some of the show’s hottest games — The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, Saints Row: The Third and Aliens: Colonial Marines to name but three — were all demonstrations as opposed to gameplay sessions. When asked to pick my favorite games of E3, I had to stop myself before concluding that I hadn’t laid my own hands on any of my top picks.

Hands-off demos aren’t new to E3. Every year I’ve had to sit and watch someone else play games. As a fat bastard, I frankly appreciated them for the fact that they always provided chairs. However, what once was a helpful respite for fat bloggers has become something of the norm. The predominant theme of E3 2011 was “Look but don’t touch.” I was shocked by the changes made to Prey 2, but I cannot tell you how they felt. I am salivating at the prospect of Gears of War 3′s campaign, but I can’t tell you much more than you’d already know if you watched the demo at Microsoft’s press conference. What, exactly, was the point of my being at these sessions? SEGA didn’t need me there to look at the City Escape level of Sonic Generations when it could just throw the video up onto Youtube and give me the exact same information.

The hands-off approach to E3 this year speaks of a larger issue I feel the industry faces — guarded secrecy and special exclusivity. For a while now, E3 has had a special pre-E3 show for judges, where a number of outlets can get many previews of games published before the show even opens its doors. It further increases the redundancy of the show itself in favor of exclusive access, and makes one question why the actual event is needed. And the way things are going, where coverage requires further exclusivity, will we have a pre-pre-E3? And then a pre-pre-pre-E3?

There was no Darksiders II at E3. The closest you could get to covering the game was by copying the information from the issues of Game Informer that THQ had liberally spread around its meeting rooms. Going to E3 to pick up an issue of GameInformer to get coverage on upcoming games — does that sound ridiculous? That kind of absurd scenario seems to be the way we’re headed.

It’s not that I don’t get the idea of exclusive coverage. A unique news story or feature can be a good thing for both publisher and publication alike and I’ve run a few exclusives of my own over the years. However, I fear we’re taking it a little too far. It’s no secret that Game Informer has locked the world out of several major games this year. It’s had sole and unchallenged dibs on all news concerning major games such as The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and Saints Row: The Third, which may even explain why neither title was playable. The magazine has not just had the opportunity to announce these games, but to drip feed every shred of information to the world with uncontested control. I like Game Informer — it’s a solid magazine and the people who work there are a cool bunch of chaps — but seriously? I’m not allowed to cover my favorite games until Game Informer’s had its fill? When you have to claim sole dominion over a game’s coverage, it sends the message that you can’t compete in a straight, level scenario.

But this is what we’re looking at now. E3 2011 seemed to put the stamp on my hypothesis that games are not getting decent preview coverage, even at one of the biggest events of the years. Maybe I’m just bitter because the highest profile game I got to play was Silent Hill: Downpour and it was utterly vile, but I don’t know what publishers are so afraid of, that they won’t even let their best games get played before the review copies are ready — review copies that are increasingly embargoed until launch day, I should add.

I feel it does a disservice to the readers more than anything else, though. The many millions of game lovers who are not fortunate enough to attend E3 want to know one thing — how awesome the games feel to play. What can we E3 attendees tell gamers when all we did was sit in a dark room and watch a video? A video that the gamers themselves will likely see a week or two after the show anyway? What, exactly, was the point? It may be exciting and pretty to look at, but I don’t need to be there, and I can’t tell my readers something they could only hear from someone who was physically at the event.

E3 is about playing games, not watching videos. At least, it used to be. Next year we might as well all be sent an issue of Game Informer and a flash drive full of trailers if this is the way things are going.

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