Press Pass: Mid-January Roundup
Do We Need Physical Conferences in a Digital World?
Returning from a long, tiring week in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show has made me wonder just how much value there is, in our business, to actually having journalists come out to trade shows.
Don't get me wrong, going to CES afforded me a lot of opportunities I wouldn't have had otherwise. I got hands on demos with new controllers and gaming accessories. I tried out games that won't be out for months. I met and talked to people I wouldn't usually meet or talk to (including one extremely disgruntled Monster Cable employee who admitted the company's products were sold at a 60-percent markup).
But, in this day and age, I can't help but feel the bulk of the content at videogame conferences could be served up just as well without having journalists leave the house. Why should we stand on a loud, crowded show floor to get a five-minute hands-on with Gran Turismo 5 when Sony could easily send a downloadable demo straight to our PlayStation 3s? Why should we trudge into a crowded, uncomfortable E3 "press conference" (I use scare quotes because they never, ever take questions from the press) when we could watch a live streaming video on our laptops (or even on G4TV)? Why should we interview some mid-level marketing manager in a cramped interview room when we could just as easily do the interview over a Skype videoconference? In short, why do we fly ourselves around the country to conferences multiple times a year when the information we really want could be digitized and sent to us much more easily?
Microsoft might want all Xbox Live users to "jump in" to the next E3.
Apparently someone at Microsoft is asking the same questions. A recent survey sent to some Internet users asked them to imagine "interactive, online, virtual versions of E3, Blizzcon, GameCon, ComicCon, and every other major video game convention were made available through Xbox Live." According to the survey, such virtual conventions would include "20-60 virtual booths," "game trailers, behind the scenes clips [and] exclusive interviews," "live video and audio feeds" of the convention floor, the ability to "watch keynote speeches, speakers, interviews, entertainers, etc." and, most intriguingly, the ability to "download and play demos and/or betas" of games on the show floor.
As a journalist, attending this virtual convention sounds a lot more appealing than hauling my laptop up and down some convention-center floor all week. But as a journalist, this idea also scares the bejesus out of me. Why? Well, as journalists, our stock-in-trade, when you get down to it, is access. Gamers read our reports of shows like E3 because they can't get into E3 themselves, even if they want to. This kind of virtual conference will further erode the already eroding access barrier that separates the gamers from the journalists.
And where does that leave us journalists? Why would someone read a preview of an exclusive E3 build of a game when they can just download and play the demo for themselves? Why would they read a liveblog of a press conference when they can just download and watch the direct-feed video on their HDTV when they get home? Why would they wait for a journalist to write up and post a show-floor developer interview the week after the show when Xbox Live will have an "official," "behind the scenes" interview with that same developer the day the convention starts?
Of course there's no amount of conference virtualization that will totally obviate the need for on-the-scene journalists. A good writer has the ability to focus a reader's attention on what's important at a show, and to add context and skepticism to the official party line presented by the various booths. But in a world where everybody can attend a virtual version of the conference, readers would probably be less likely to accept mere stenography of press conferences and rewriting of press releases as essential convention coverage.
Actually, maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing...
How the Spike TV Video Game Awards Are Hurting the Game Industry
My raw, initial thoughts about this year's Spike TV Video Game Awards can be found in my Games for Lunch write-up of the show's first hour (I did end up watching the whole thing, out of a sense of journalistic obligation). Now that I've had some more time to really absorb the show, though, I can't help but feel that this kind of heavily advertiser-influenced, forward-looking, trailer-filled awards presentation really hurts our industry.
When I say advertiser-influenced, I don't mean the awards themselves -- I'm relatively confident the voting for those was fair and free of commercial interest. No, I mean the overwhelming advertiser influence on the broadcast itself, which was packed to the gills with nearly a dozen "world-premiere trailers" for everything from Green Day: Rock Band to the upcoming "Prince of Persia" movie to a Spike TV show called "Deadliest Warrior." These trailers were not shown during the commercial breaks, but during the awards show itself. They were considered as part of the show's content. Contrast this with an awards show like the Oscars, which until recently didn't even allow movie-related ads during the breaks in its telecast (and even now puts movie ads through what AdAge calls "a hodgepodge of restrictions").
I understand the thinking behind all these world-premiere trailers from Spike's perspective: It has a captive, game-loving audience from "over 180 countries" (if you believe the announcer) -- an audience that's genuinely interested in seeing this kind of footage. Heck, a lot of viewers probably don't even see these trailers as a form of marketing. And for all I know, no money changed hands to secure these world premieres -- and it really doesn't matter to me if it did or not.
What's the word "awards" doing in that logo? That must be a mistake.
My point is, this focus on world-premiere trailers comes at a cost to the quality of the show itself. Consider that fully 12 of the show's awards were announced rather unceremoniously via rapid-fire, announcer-narrated montages that devoted roughly five seconds to each game. These awards had no presenter introductions, no reading of the nominees, no acceptance speeches and absolutely no sense of appreciation for what are supposedly some of the best games of the past year. Meanwhile, the producers managed to find the time to spend many languorous minutes showing off Halo: Reach to a global audience for the first time.
Don't get me wrong. I love MTV's Music and Movie awards shows, which provide a great counterbalance to the more staid awards shows from the various entertainment academies. The crucial difference with those shows is that they both started well after the Oscars and Grammies were already major televised events and cultural forces in their own right, and both in desperate need of some dressing down. In the game industry, the Spike TV VGAs have effectively shoved aside the more official Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences awards, which were broadcast on the sleepy backwater of the Independent Film Channel for the first time last year and which most gamers have barely even heard of. I've even seen Spike TV's awards shortened to "the Video Game Awards" in some advertising and press releases, implying that they are the only awards worth caring about.
More distressing than the creeping sense of de facto "official status" for Spike TV's awards show, though, is the sense that the network doesn't really care about the awards at all. This year's awards -- for games voted as the best of the year -- seemed less important than promotional trailers for games that may very well end up being awful. Not that there's anything wrong with looking at the upcoming year in games. If Spike wants to create an annual "Ultimate Video Game Preview Event" show, I'd be all for it. But shoehorning such content into what's supposed to be an awards show just ends up diluting and confusing the entire experience.
I know that this is a future-focused industry, and that the entertainment media in general is always looking for the next big thing. But an awards show is supposed to be a bulkhead against this tendency -- a chance to slow down and reflect on an industry's annual accomplishments. Spike TV's Video Game Awards show, though, is exactly the opposite. It's not part of the solution. It's part of the problem.
Quote of the Moment
"Unlike its competitors, which use replaceable AA batteries, the PS3?s remote control is glued shut. When the battery goes, Sony customers have to blow $55 on a new controller." --Yahoo writer Anne Kadet proves she does not know how to use a USB cable to charge her PS3 controller.
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