Conferences, Trade Shows, and Hype Fatigue

This wouldn’t bother me so much if I didn’t force myself to read, listen to, and follow so many sources for videogame coverage. I am over-saturated with gaming news and commentary by choice, and it makes me cranky. Still, I hate announcement season. I hate the Kremlinology that takes place in the weeks before every conference or trade show, and the endless parsing that immediately follows.

Do you think Sony is going to reveal its motion controller at GDC or hold off until E3? How will Microsoft respond? What does Nintendo have to do to maintain its lead? What games will they announce at GDC, and what will Microsoft keep under wraps for TGS? How’s that going to play in Japan?

And these conversations repeat for nearly all of spring, summer, and early fall, as publishers and manufacturers parcel out hints and teasers from week to week. Stock analysts offer running commentary to help us keep score at home.

“Oooh! It looks like Take Two’s holiday line-up is in bad shape, Peter. I really don’t know what they were thinking there.”

“I’ll tell you what they were thinking, Bob. They were thinking, ‘Boy, I wish GTA 5 would come out already!’ Hahaha! But seriously, it’s going to take a big E3 announcement to keep this from turning into a rout.”

Then there is the self-congratulation that marks so many major announcments: Hideo Kojima sneaking onto the Microsoft stage during the E3 presentation while the MGS alert sound played, Cliff Bleszinski showing up to Microsoft’s GDC press conference with a Lancer and a promise that Gears 2 would be “bigger, better, and far more badass.”

This is not to say I find announcements boring or pointless. You think I wasn’t squealing with school-girlish delight when John Davison said that the next GamePro cover was going to be Civilization V? The day Valve announce Episode 3 (or Half-Life 3 as the case may be), I will probably pour myself a celebratory cocktail and start reinstalling the entire series.

But the wheres and hows of announcements don’t interest me in the slightest, and I don’t care that much about the details, either. I’ve learned to be skeptical of preview coverage and developers’ pre-release promises, which means I’m mostly content to wait for an actual game to be released before talking about it. I dislike the way we’re all co-opted into marketing campaigns as we press for details on an upcoming release (“Tell us about your co-op campaign!” “We’re going to do something interesting and different with co-op.” “OMG, they’re going to do something interesting and different with co-op!”).

I suppose I’m also troubled by the way announcement season often seems to degenerate into a thinly-disguised form of money worship. So much of what passes for industry analysis isn’t really analysis at all, but a series of ‘attaboys for people who are releasing new entries in product lines that have already made a mint, and tsk-tsks directed at publishers and manufacturers who aren’t as flush with exploitable properties. Then, with a nod vaguely in the direction of criticism, the question is asked: “But how is it going to innovate?”

And perhaps that’s why I’m a bit snarky this morning. The idealist in me says that GDC is a time to discuss what works in games and why, and to consider possibilities for the future while revisiting lessons from the past. But we end up talking about which ideas can be copied and whether or not the copies will sell. Then, without a trace of self-awareness or irony, we demand innovative games and “new IP” from companies that are never quite so happy as when they are releasing the same game over and over. And we have turned GDC into yet another platform for them to make their sales pitch.

With the exception of Gamasutra, so much GDC coverage seems focused on the commercial side of the industry. There are far too few pieces like this one from Destructoid’s Anthony Burch, covering Soren Johnson’s discussion of theme. In fact, a glance at Johnson’s Twitter reveals that he seems to be attending a different GDC than the one I’m reading about.

If I’m wrong, if there’s a lot of exciting, thought provoking material that I’m missing, please tell me so in the comments, and feel free to throw in some links. Still, GDC is a good time to rant and air grievances, especially if you remember what GDC is supposed to be about: serious art.

  1. I didn’t even know there were big announcements at GDC this year. They used to have keynotes from each of the big three console manufacturers, which were glorified press conferences, and I’m glad they are gone. On the ground, most of the developers were talking about the ideas brought up in the talks, such as Chris Hecker’s take-down of achievements.

    • Yeah, Hecker’s sounds like it was an interesting talk. In the past, I’ve written some fairly positive things about achievements and still think they can be a good way to help instruct player’s in a game’s mechanics. The example I’ve used in the past is TF2, where class achievements act to give players some direction as they start out with new classes or new weapons. But there are also a lot of crap achievements in that game: my friend Lange is driven insane when he sees a scout just doing double-jumps in the spawn area, because he gets an achievement once he does 1000 of them. On the other hand, a player like me sees that achievement and thinks, “Huh, double-jumping must be an important technique for the scout.” As Hecker was at pains to point out, we need more data on this topic. Right now, I suspect that achievements can be for good or ill.

      I wrote this because I always feel a little burnt-out on preview coverage and industry news, and GDC reminded me of what the rest of spring and summer are going to be like. It’s my least favorite time of year, just because so much of the conversation seems to be about what’s coming out and what is going to sell. The summer season has always struck me as this weird time of year when we a lot of writers and fans start sounding like junior executives or investment analysts, and not like people who love videogames.

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