Another year has come and gone, and with it so has the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). Once a small event for members of the video game industry, E3 now provides over 69,000 people each year with a chance to attend tech demos and developer conferences.
To impress their ever-growing audience, companies pour money into their presentations, create fancy trailers and hire on-stage talent in an attempt to outdo each other (though they claim that’s not their goal. Wink wink). It’s a really big deal, in short.
The biggest games from the upcoming years are shown off to get players excited about spending their money, new gaming consoles are debuted and the biggest names in the industry attend to ensure their products are well marketed. It is a nerdy competition at its finest, which means there eventually must be a winner.
Normally, whichever company had the biggest reveal that year is declared the “winner” of E3. When Bethesda revealed “Fallout 4” to the masses in 2015, it was the biggest reveal that year and so they “won.”
In contrast, some years are boring and completely lacking a giant reveal. E3 2018, for example, will go down in the history books as one that had little to offer. There were no giant secret reveals and E3 has started to become predictable. Players know what is going to happen down to the minute – from the format of the events to the conference drinking game.
Because of this newfound predictability of the E3 conferences, I’m going to focus on the entertainment value of the conferences, rather than the games revealed, to rank each conference.
Here’s are the three best E3 conferences based on how much fun they were to watch.
The first people to make fun of a stale status quo are usually remembered fondly for it, and Devolver Digital did just that at last year’s E3. Behind Mahria Zook’s performance as fictional chief synergy officer Nina Struthers, Devolver Digital made it a point to mock the bigger companies for the way they ran their businesses and their conferences. It was fun, a little bit dark and a refreshing take on the formulae that everyone had become accustomed to.
E3 2018 was much of the same for them. While the big guns at E3 get their own stages and fancy sets – with the exception of Nintendo (sometimes) – little companies like Devolver Digital make do with pre-recorded videos. Set in a fictional location, Devolver Digitals’ similarly fictional CEO “Cinco Miller” steps out onto the stage and begins to spout industry jargon. Things quickly begin to fall apart.
Halfway through his speech about Devolver Digitals new “cutting edge, principle-centered, future tested, high impact, end-to-end mono-nectal alignment in the center sphere” Battle Royale game, “Nina Struthers” walks out onto the stage, snaps his neck and tells him to “Shut your mouth you miserable piece of human garbage.” While Devolver Digitals’ 2017 video had been full of dark comedy, this year they seemed eager to see just how far they could push the boundaries.
“I read on the internet this one time that some of you had some proper shit to say about our press conference last year” Struthers addresses the fake crowd. “That it wasn’t professional, that it didn’t feel like a real video games conference … That it was all some kind of joke. Well, you were super wrong.”
To prove that their conferences aren’t just a joke, Struthers says, this year they have “overly flashy graphics,” “guest appearances from personalities you can recognize and project some misplaced familiarity onto” and “this little guy faking like he is playing a new game on the screen despite it clearly being a pre-scripted sequence.”
This is a 20-minute video making fun of Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, calling its crowd “simpletons” and “stinking bug fuck shit minions.” They even take aim at the cryptocurrency market, launching their own “Lootbox coin” that can only be obtained through loot boxes and whose price fluctuates randomly throughout the day for “no good reason.” The presentation is dark, irreverent and glorious.
Devolver Digital figured out what it takes to stand out among the big companies. Smaller companies like them have to show their uniqueness (and craziness, at times) to grab the attention of players. These smaller companies can’t name drop franchises like “Doom” and “Halo,” so they go off the rails to catch players’ attention.
Above all, it was simply just fun. Devolver Digital brings up topics about the industry we all know to be true but just don’t talk about. Companies are out to get your money. They want you to be invested in games that aren’t out yet, to throw your money at them. Companies aren’t your friends and don’t view you as friends either. What makes their presentations special is that they aren’t afraid to take chances or make enemies, and that’s why they deserve to be recognized as the best conference of E3 2018.
2. Runner-Up: Ubisoft
To be honest, it always feels strange to see a big company be … strange with their conference. Nintendo sometimes does it (they had muppets in their 2015 E3 video) but by now we all know that Nintendo is going to do whatever they want to. Nintendo is weird and can get away with it. Big companies that are largely viewed as serious, though, normally can’t. But somehow Ubisoft does.
Starting with their opening game, “Just Dance 2019,” their conference opens with a musical number featuring a man in a panda costume leading a marching band and a group of dancers from outside the venue and onto the live stage. Really. This was how they started their conference. I don’t even like the game and this got me excited for it.
That alone is worthy of mention, but “Just Dance” was followed up by the creative director of “Trials Rising” riding in on a motorcycle, flopping onto a fake podium and generally acting goofy. After that was a live-action orchestra playing music for “Mario + Rabbids,” but despite these few moments of insanity the conference was pretty standard. They played videos and trailers and did what most conferences did.
The real reason they rocket their way up to second best is a small moment during their “Beyond Good And Evil 2” showcase. Whether or not you know anything about this game is largely irrelevant here. What you do need to know is that it’s a game with a passionate fanbase that took a long time to get made and seems to have actual humans behind it.
The two presenters on stage were animated, excited and stumbled over their words more than a few times (aka being nervous). They were happy to be there, punctuated by a small moment at the end of their showcase:
“We nailed it!” can be heard as they walk off stage. Somebody hadn’t turned their mics off in time, and we got to see a small moment of humanity from game developers. It was adorable. Like the guy who showed “Unravel” off, shaking violently while he did so from nerves, it makes me want the game just because we can see the real passion of the people behind it. We don’t get to see that often.
A host can make or break a conference and, while big companies have names such as Pete Hines and Phil Spencer to fall back on, PC gaming is more fractured. As an unofficial showcase for that fractured platform. The PCGamer conference strives to cover a lot of companies and games and so have no real central figure to lead them.
Enter Sean Plott, known as “Day” online. A longtime host and commentator, Plott is known for being charismatic, funny and overall a genuinely nice guy. He’s also smooth as butter and handles any little mishap with ease.
It’s not a stretch to say that Sean Plott largely is the show here. He handles almost all the talking on his own and carries the major burden in the conference.
Look at the stack of notecards in his hands! Those are all topics for one man to cover on his own! That he managed to do all of that, keep up his energy and handle the technical mishaps in a natural way is astounding. Without him, the show wouldn’t be half as good, and his performance alone was worthy of spot three.
4. Honorable Mention: Bethesda
There were a few moments in Bethesda’s conference that are worthy of note, but not enough to make the top three. Their opening skit tries to show the humans behind the game, inject humor into the conference and make them seem approachable and relatable.
Andrew WK showed up and performed his ass off, despite the crowd not being really into it. They tried to be funny and sometimes were (“Skyrim” on Alexa is great), and they even called out Wal-Mart for accidentally leaking the existence of “Rage 2.” It was a decent conference that just fell a little short. It was what is expected of Bethesda at this point, and it’s a little tired. It had some personality behind it, but nothing like the others.
Where do the other conferences fit in?
For their part, Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Square Enix and EA did show up at E3. They even had conferences and showed off some highly anticipated games. Compared to the four conferences above, however, they were just so … boring.
They followed the patterns that Devolver Digital mocked almost perfectly and did everything they could to just not screw up. And that’s no fun. The weird, crazy, potential screw-ups are what give conferences their flavor.