As someone with a background in competitive speech, musicals, and improvisational theater, I’ve had my fair share of presentations where I felt like the audience wasn’t with me. If you’ve ever done anything performative – or ever conducted a training in a professional setting – you probably know the feeling too. You try to work the room with a joke and maybe one dude chuckles. The showstopping moment of your production reaches its end and the applause is weak and scattered. When the time comes to interact with the crowd, no one speaks up and the room falls into uncomfortable silence. I’ve had many such moments during my times on stage, and I was reminded of them as I sat down and watched the EA press conference at this year’s E3.
At first I thought the overall unexcited feel I was getting from the presentation stemmed from my own disinterest in many of the games shown off – titles like Battlefield V, Star Wars Battlefront II, and a plethora of sports games with the number 19 at the end don’t appeal to me and never end up on my shelf. It didn’t take long for me to notice, though, that the crowd physically present at the conference also didn’t seem to love what was happening onstage. I think a lot of factors contribute to that – weak presenters, a small venue – but perhaps the biggest barrier to EA’s ability to deliver an engaging conference was the fact that most presentations had to start with an apology.
This past year, Electronic Arts became synonymous with the problem of microtransactions in video games. They’ve also gotten flack for shutting down studios focused on the development of single-player experiences. Even when they tried to do something positive – including a woman prominently on the box art of Battlefield V – there were sectors of the video game fanbase that lashed out in anger. The impact of a year’s worth of bad press could be felt from the very beginning, and there’s a looming question over the entirety of the conference: is EA going to address all of the issues surrounding their games?
The answer, it seems, varies from topic to topic. The message of inclusivity was driven home, not only during the discussion of Battlefield V but also during other games and rounding out everything at the end of the conference. EA seems to be serious about making fans of all shapes, sizes, and colors welcome in their games. They’re also serious about removing anything that looks remotely like a loot box from their titles – many of the games featured have no microtransactions or only cosmetic ones where you know exactly what you’re paying for before you buy. These were some of the only moments in the whole conference where legitimate enthusiastic applause made an appearance; no “paying for power” to be seen this time around.
As for the single player experience…well, that’s another story altogether. From start to finish, this press conference featured titles designed for multiplayer play either online or locally. Heavy hitters like Battlefield, Battlefront, FIFA, and Madden are obvious choices for a cooperative and/or competitive experience, but even the sequel to the successful single-player title Unravel now has a multiplayer element included, with the whole concept of this game being that not one but two little yarn fellas are on an adventure together. While EA didn’t necessarily use any direct language to say that single player is on its way out, you can see their philosophy from the titles available to play.
So then, a big part of EA struggling to keep the crowd had a lot to do with their battle against negative perception of their brand. Of course, there were a few presentation choices made at the conference that certainly didn’t help things along. When showing off Madden 19, a video clip was shown celebrating the rise of Madden 18 champion Young Kiv – probably the worst possible role model for any teenagers following the E3 coverage this week. He presented Madden alongside athlete JuJu Smith-Schuster, and the chemistry between them couldn’t have been more awkward and forced. From the cocky Kiv starting the presentation with “you here for another butt-whoopin’?” to JuJu’s not-so-subtle mockery of Kiv’s career path (and golly, I don’t blame him), having these two on stage together to sell anything is an instant formula for failure.
Perhaps one of the lengthiest demonstrations of gameplay during this conference was a strategic battle of the new Command and Conquer mobile game. This featured internet personalities InControl and NickatNyte commanding their forces to take control of a nuclear missile and point it at each other’s base. While the casters here actually had some personality and seemed to know what they were talking about, the gameplay itself was hard to read; it was difficult to tell any significant difference between the little units on the battlefield or to understand any of the advantages of one unit type over another. Spending so much time on a mobile title is an odd choice for E3, an event which tends to hold mainly the focus of only the more enthusiastic gamers. The mobile game crowd tends not to view this sort of thing, and the console/PC crowd tends to frown on mobile games. These factors worked together to make this part of the presentation fall flat.
Finally, before I get into the two games that I want to discuss in more detail, I want to take a second to talk about Origin Access Premier. A couple of days ago my pal Geddy over at Nostalgia Trigger posted on Twitter about how the head of Ubisoft stated that he believes console generations are on their way out in favor of streaming services. Our conversation around this statement was brief but pointed: no way! The idea of game streaming hasn’t met much success out in the world so far, so a whole service dedicated to pulling games from the Cloud just seems like an odd idea. It’s bundled along with a subscription service – pay a monthly fee and you get access to a selection of EA games on any number of your gaming devices. It all ties in, says the CEO, to the idea of inclusivity – everyone should be able to play how they want, and this is a way to do that effectively. It also prevents any one person from getting an unfair advantage due to the manner in which they play (another shot at pay-for-power). Only time will tell if this is gonna pan out in a successful way, but I personally think that until streaming games becomes more reliable that this idea is gonna need some work.
Two games in particular were shown off that I think are interesting to discuss – Sea of Solitude and Anthem. Sea of Solitude is an indie title developed by a German studio called Jo-Mei and it’s built on an interesting premise: humans become monsters when they are lonely. A human deprived of meaningful connection with others becomes angry, destructive, and is consumed by darkness. This was the fate of a young girl who features prominently in the story of Sea of Solitude. The game has a unique art style that for me brings to mind titles like RiME, and I imagine that it will have similar gameplay to that game as well. As the lone single-player experience shown off at EA’s conference, this was the main title that grabbed my attention. It looks really compelling and I definitely want to learn more about the game as details are revealed down the line.
Anthem, on the other hand, is a BioWare title that we’ve known about for some time. It’s a new IP that promises a fusion of multiplayer co-op and single-player storytelling. That’s a big promise to make and this conference spent a lot of time talking about how that’s actually going to work. I imagine that the answer will disappoint some folks who were excited for this title. The game has a very clear division between the single-player and multiplayer segments. During missions, you work cooperatively with a team to take down bad guys and reach objectives. Between missions, you move around a hub world by yourself to spend earned resources and to interact with AI characters.
I feel like this isn’t exactly what longtime BioWare fans were excited to hear. The disconnect between the two experiences makes it seem like none of the relationships you form during your time in the hub world will have any meaningful impact on the actual missions. And while it was promised that your choices on your missions will affect the single-player story, you’ll be going through that part of the experience on your own, so the choices you made together with comrades will have consequences that you deal with solo. By choosing to be part multiplayer game and part single-player game, Anthem strikes me as being neither, a title that simply wants to do too much at once.
Overall, I felt that Electronic Arts made some interesting decisions during their conference – some very strategic and obvious, others baffling and odd. Doubling down on inclusivity and ensuring their fans that lootboxes are a thing of the past definitely helps them out (assuming they follow through), but poor presenters and a weak line-up of titles made it hard to stay engaged. I was most excited about Sea of Solitude and I’ll be looking forward to see what comes of it, and I think Unravel 2 has potential as well. Other than that, though, I think I’ll pass on much of what was discussed here.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts, adventurers. Did you check out the EA press conference? What was your favorite game they showed? Do you think EA can really change their ways when it comes to microtransactions in their games? Let me know in the comments below, and be sure to stick around Adventure Rules this week as I continue to cover more of the E3 press conferences!