Why EA's E3 documentary reveals missed the mark
EA's conference was the strangest of the three I attended yesterday. Laid out more like an awards show than an E3 presentation, with dinner tables instead of places for everyone to sit, the publisher hit viewers with a strong mix of announcements and demos (kudos for breaking up the melodramatic sports trailers with explosions, dragons and a battleship on a golf course, too). Reveals took a different format this year, with mini-documentaries accompanying games that weren't quite ready to be seen in action yet. For Mirror's Edge, Criterion's next project, Star Wars Battlefront and BioWare's brace of new titles, EA focused more on the behind-the-scenes work and gave us only a few bits of new footage to dissect. I'm not sure it's an approach everyone is fond of.
It was an odd and interesting choice of format, one that maybe taught viewers more about the people making the games than the games themselves. In some ways it was clearly disguising the lack of new things to show, given the early stages of development for these titles, and I guessed at the time that the majority of gamers wouldn't respond too well to this approach. I asked some readers @pcgamer what they thought of EA's efforts, and the reaction was mixed—a few people who responded liked the level of insight into the people developing the games, but there was also a number of folk who clearly thought it was a bad move, no doubt wanting to see a Corellian Corvette plough belligerently into the Naboo Royal Palace while being ridden by seven mighty Yodas.
I'm somewhere in between, leaning more towards the positive side, but I can see why someone not nearly as engaged by the process of making games as me would find the actual amount of footage underwhelming. I think they were nicely made and interesting snapshots of each project in their current state, even if they lacked a bit of energy compared to the trailers for EA games due to hit in the more recent future. What I really appreciated is the fact we weren't just seeing CG trailers and meaningless target footage, or fancy animations like the Crackdown trailer at the Xbox conference—we got to see prototypes and actual evidence of the games as they're being created. The format was just so unconventional that it took a bit of the energy out of the reveal, plus some of the cutting together was a bit clunky.
There's value in trying something different, certainly, and getting a first look at Star Wars: Battlefront in even a basic, look-at-this-speeder-bike capacity got some serious cheers from up on the mezzanine level where I was awkwardly tilting my head to see the screen. The only thing I'm not sure about is how much I actually learned about those new games within that format. The documentaries were a great way of saying something about these titles without really saying anything. I appreciated getting updates on projects that are still too early on to be shown publicly, and yeah, somehow just watching the DICE team look at Star Wars props from the Lucas archive with a bit of John Williams underneath was enough to get me excited in some way about the end result, thus ensuring I'm a continued part of the problem.
The Mass Effect trailer took very much the same approach: poke people with nostalgia and it gets a reaction, but all I really know about the next Mass Effect is it'll look prettier and be set somewhere outside the systems I know. I'm not sure I've actually learned anything about it, or the more contemporary game that the original Mass Effect team is making. Fellow PC Gamer writer Cory Banks called them 'Early Access trailers', which is spot-on in the role they actually play. It felt like they were talking around the games a bit too much.
The alternative would likely have been not to see these faraway 2015 games at all, so this is still the better scenario. A measure of the documentaries' success will be if EA chooses to do the same thing next year when Amy Hennig's Star Wars game is ready for a public showing—I like seeing these talented people getting exposure, but a little more actual information on each title would've made EA's conference a bit more satisfying.