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For decades, a game theory called the “prisoner’s dilemma” has explained why people who work together do better overall than those who scheme against one another. The theory shows that if the prisoners cooperate with each other, they each receive a light punishment. But if they don’t cooperate, either one or both wind up in jail for years. Each prisoner selfishly wants to escape punishment, but more likely than not, working alone will lead to worse consequences.
The prisoner’s dilemma explains why the 2018 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) took such a weird turn this week. Every year, this important trade show features major announcements and surprises from the industry’s top players. But this year, many companies decided to spoil what would have been their biggest E3 announcements by individually revealing their news (sometimes weeks) before the show. And rather than filling their E3 week press briefings with new surprises, they just … didn’t.
So instead of a huge happening, E3 just happened. Apart from Microsoft’s and Bethesda’s old school press conferences, which were packed with big announcements, the result was a week-long event that felt oddly boring, despite some good news. And I don’t think there’s a good excuse for it, either — this should have been a celebration of great, fully-baked software for mature Sony and Microsoft consoles and a young but well-established hybrid (Switch), all of which will still be in the marketplace a year from now. Like the prisoner’s dilemma, this was a case of almost everyone trying to get ahead of everyone else before E3 week hit.
Here are just some of the things that didn’t feel quite right at E3 2018.
I’m old enough to remember when Shigeru Miyamoto starred in Nintendo press briefings, so it was bizarre to see him pop up first at a Ubisoft presser. Even weirder, Miyamoto was there to support the biggest Nintendo surprise of the week — some extra StarFox content within another company’s game (Starlink).
Yes, a custom version of another company’s game was the biggest Nintendo surprise of the week. Thanks to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (which it announced before E3) and the utter absence of new titles people were hoping to hear about, it was easy to forget the entire first half of Nintendo’s E3 Direct presentation, including Super Mario Party.
There was no Kirby. No Metroid Prime 4. No new Wii U to Switch ports. No Mario Odyssey DLC. No rumored Ridge Racer for Switch, Wave Race, or Retro-developed StarFox racing game. No hardware price drops or new model reveals. And nothing new for the 3DS, period.
What the heck is going on, Nintendo? Where are all of the games from your development teams — the ones that were merged years ago to make more and better games for the Switch? Has the entire company been corralled into creating unlockables for Smash Bros.?
If you love Smash and Pokémon, you were probably happy with what was shown at this year’s E3, even though Nintendo revealed those titles in advance. But for those of us who aren’t fans of those franchises, the next six months — and beyond — are looking really boring for the Switch and 3DS.
After an amazing 2017, that’s a really weird thing to be saying about Nintendo in 2018.
Sony went into E3 looking like a champion, but somehow its press conference was a mess. After assembling everyone in a faux church just to demo The Last of Us Part II, Sony made all of its attendees get up and move to a different venue for the rest of the show — a perplexing decision that viewers at home had to suffer through, as well.
Like Nintendo, Sony revealed most of its announcements before the conference even started, but at least had enough compelling new footage to keep people interested. Only months from release, Spider-Man looked especially great. It also had one big surprise of sorts, the rumored remake of Resident Evil 2, to reveal on stage for the very first time.
But Sony missed out on a huge opportunity to make a much-needed big pitch for the PlayStation VR, announce a permanent price cut for either the PlayStation 4 or Pro, or otherwise take advantage of the huge audience that gathers online for such events. For some reason, it relegated PSVR reveals to trailer drops before the event, depriving its audience of the excitement that surprise Beat Saber and Tetris Effect trailers would have sparked.
Sony did one thing better than either of its rivals, though. Even though the announcement happened before the press conference, Sony came up with a week of E3 deals that included everything from a limited edition console to temporary savings on hardware, accessories, and software. Microsoft had a similar sale, but Sony’s was broader.
There was nothing even slightly odd about Microsoft’s E3 showing … except that the company improbably had the strongest presence, despite its weaker position relative to Sony and Nintendo. You would have never guessed as much from its slick stage show, which leaned heavily on a collection of 50 trailers that somehow didn’t get boring, and included a lot of previously unannounced or unrevealed titles.
Three new Gears of War games were shown for the first time. A new Halo title was announced, along with its engine, and the manga brawler Jump Force was revealed. Cyberpunk 2077 was finally shown, as were Forza Horizon 4, Devil May Cry 5, and an expansion to Cuphead.
Say what you will about how predictable these announcements might have been, but at least Microsoft had a bunch of new games from its own and third-party studios to show off for the first time. Moreover, its presentation flowed pretty smoothly and looked professional from start to finish. All that was missing for the Xbox was a huge hardware announcement — a permanent price drop, a new bundle, or the previously promised yet now seemingly unlikely Xbox VR. At least there were some temporary console, controller, and game sales to celebrate E3.
So many of E3’s biggest titles were revealed before the show. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. Pokémon: Let’s Go. Battlefield V. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Red Dead Redemption II. If it hadn’t been for Bethesda’s kitchen sink-style unveiling of huge franchises such as Doom and The Elder Scrolls, there wouldn’t have been much “new” news on upcoming blockbusters at all this year, unless an annual Madden sequel still counts.
Formerly big third-party E3 events were either absent or muted. Big Japanese companies like Capcom, Bandai Namco, and Konami were relegated to pop-ups in other press conferences, while Square Enix’s presentation elicited yawns. People similarly just seemed to shrug off Koei Tecmo’s Dead or Alive 6. VR hardware vendors HTC and Oculus had only token representation at the show. It really says something that Devolver Digital’s deliberately mocking video presentation was among the most memorable third-party events at E3, and that its announcement of My Friend Pedro for Switch was one of the best pieces of news for that console.
Past E3s stick out in my memories as “the year when people first played the Nintendo 64” or “the first time we saw the Xbox One.” But I’ll probably remember E3 2018 as the show that seemed like a fan convention. There was more celebrating of previously known announcements than big new ones, and Nintendo seemed to be more concerned about game tournaments than supporting its supposedly still-viable 3DS platform.
Next year, it would be great if companies could learn from the prisoner’s dilemma and cooperate, instead of all trying to get ahead of the event with pre-show announcements. In other words, console makers, please save your big E3 reveals for E3. We could all really use the rush of excitement and joy that would bring, and if you time things right, there will be plenty of opportunity for your new titles to succeed in the months after the show.
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