Two years ago, in the wake of a pretty terrible Digital Event from Nintendo, I wrote up a sprawling article analyzing the structure of each of their digital presentations, and put together a list of guidelines to follow to improve any future shows. With two years and another 5 press conferences between now and then, I decided to expand my initial guidelines and went back to examine every E3 Press Conference since Sony and Microsoft introduced their next-gen consoles. This is the result.
I. Elements of an E3 Press Conference
To begin, I feel it’s important to look at the different elements of any E3 press conference and the benefits and downsides of using each one.
The most basic of ways to show off a game is in a trailer. Generally speaking, there are three kinds of trailers you’ll see at an E3 press conference: “gameplay trailers”, “in-engine pre-rendered trailers”, and “cinematic trailers”.
Of those three, in-engine pre-rendered and cinematic are the most closely related. Because neither usually shows actual gameplay. Their main use is just to provide story details and attempt to set a tone. Of the two, cinematic trailers will more often look nicer, as they are usually animated by a third party, but pre-rendered trailers will often give viewers a better sense of what a game will look like, as they’re produced in the same engine that the game runs in.
However, both are ultimately inferior to gameplay trailers, as they don’t give the viewer any sense about how the game will be played, which is what matters when it comes to advertising video games as anything less can come off as dishonest.
Gameplay Commentary is a sort of hybrid between trailers and gameplay demonstrations. In these segments, someone talks about a game, or a topic relating to the game, while pre-recorded and edited gameplay, trailers, or other visuals are presented in the background. The person speaking can either be on-stage or, like in Nintendo’s Digital Events, simply dubbed over the video being shown.
Gameplay Commentary let the presenter cut together certain facets of a game like a trailer might, but allows more description and information to be presented while still maintaining a tightly edited format.
A Gameplay Demonstration, or just “demo”, is the most in-depth way to show off a title. Demos involve showing the game being played in one or multiple segments, and are the most in-depth way to demonstrate how a game will function. However, they are generally restricted by the part of the game the demo is excerpted from, thereby limiting how much content you’re able to show.
They can be prerecorded, or done live. Normally, live demos are done to prove that the game is real and just as advertised, but means there’s always a chance that things could go wrong– mainly human or technical error. In either case, the presenter can choose to provide commentary to point out specific features and information or let the gameplay speak for itself.
Reels are videos that are cut together to show gameplay and trailers for a handful or titles, usually overlaid with music. They generally spend only a few seconds on each title before moving on to the next game, and as such only usually get across a small bit of information. Usually this is just the name, or depending on the game, it’s looks. Their general purpose is usually just to run through names that viewers may already know, either to fill time or express that there are a number of games the presenter doesn’t have the time to show off any further.
While some presenters will make time in their show for reels just like they would do for other big titles, many have made use of them for transitions or to help open or close the show– either to give viewers hints that there’s even more than they had to show, or to recap what they did.
When a presenter doesn’t have a trailer, gameplay, or a demo to show, but still wants to get information across, they’ll simply get on stage and make an announcement. Usually, this involves titles too early in development to show or non-gameplay related things, such as pricing, release dates, and system and program information. Often involves an image or graphic accompanying to help convey the information visually, and can be mixed into commentary to make the reveal more abrupt and surprising.
Commentary is simply just any talking that is not specifically an announcement. Normally, it surrounds other segments, as it is often used to frame how a game is viewed before or after presenting a trailer or demo. Sometimes, based on the format of the presentation, they’re necessary to transition between one game or another, or they can, in the case of Sony’s 2016 show, be virtually nonexistent.
The most classic commentary in any E3 presentation is what I’ve come to call “The E3 Speech”, in which a big figure from the presenting company comes out on stage, welcomes the audience, tells them how great their fans are, then talks about how great the year has been and how great their lineup is. It’s essentially the same type of commentary that surrounds a game trailer or demo, but formatted to frame the entire press conference, rather than a single segment. There is, of course, another version of the E3 Speech that is more or less the same, just about the ending of the presentation.
Often, presenters will provide entertainment either to be palate cleansers in between demos and trailers, or even to slightly manipulate how the audience feels towards their presentation. Nintendo used these often in their Digital Events by including seconds-long skits to act as transitions in between trailers and commentary, but can be used in a variety of other ways both short and long.
Nintendo and Sony have opened press conferences with orchestras in the past, performing select music from their titles, and several years ago, Ubisoft brought out Jason Derulo to perform instead of simply playing a trailer for that year’s iteration of Just Dance. Among other things, entertainment can also include celebrity appearances, which can take the form of trailers, demos, or simply commentary depending on what the presenter pays those celebrities to do.
II. Structure of an E3 Press Conference
So, now that we’ve laid out the pieces you can fit together to make an E3 press conference, let’s talk about what you need to keep in mind when putting one together.
The Big Three
Think of a press conference like a tent. You want to keep everything up from one side to the other. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the middle of the tent needs to be taller than the rest of the tent, only that you find enough tent poles to keep the ceiling from falling down on you. That’s the point of “The Big 3”: three big, hype-building titles to build your conference around.
The first is the opener. As the first game you show, it sets the tone for what’s to come. If you start out fast, viewers are more likely to get into what you have afterwards. If you don’t, you better hope the rest of the press conference can pick up the pace. That being said, it’s generally not that smart to make this the biggest game in your presentation– if you raise viewers’ expectations with a great opening and then fail to ever outdo that opening, the rest of the games you have to show just aren’t going to be as well thought of by the time you finish. Nintendo learned this the hard way in 2015, when nothing could top the opening reveal of Star Fox Zero.
The second, and arguably most important, is the closer, which can come in a few forms. Often, the closer can be your “one more thing” announcement where you surprise everyone at the end of a press conference full of games with one more, huge title. Whether it succeeds in its job or not can determine how your viewers feel about the entire press conference when it’s all said and done.
The best example from a single company is Nintendo’s 2013 presentation versus their 2015 one. 2013 ended with a bang, with the announcement of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U & 3DS and the reveal of the classic character Mega Man as a playable character. Their 2015 show, on the other hand, ended with a “Let’s Super Mario” video that, at this point, may be considered a form of torture under the Geneva convention.
More generally, the closer is also often your show-stopper, or the “drop-the-mic” moment. It’s the game you show off when you know that anything you show after it could be lost in the shuffle. Last year, Sony made what I thought was a bit of a mistake in not having the epic introduction for Hideo Kojima and his new game, Death Stranding, be their show closer. Spider-Man for PS4 came after and managed to stay above water, but I did feel that it had a negative effect on what they actually closed with– a good but not jaw-dropping demo of Days Gone.
The closer doesn’t have to be your biggest game, but it’s never a bad idea to use it as such. Holding the big game everyone knows about and wants to see until the end can make the viewer’s anticipation for it grow throughout the event. There are downsides, of course. If the viewers know about the game and assume you’re going to address it, a lackluster showing in the middle of the presentation could potentially bore viewers and make them look even more negatively on what else you have to show.
As an alternative to one or the other, likely the best way to close out a press conference– assuming your game lineup is strong enough– is to have your biggest known game and your show-stopper back to back to end the show. That way, you’ll have gotten to your biggest title late in the press conference, at the point where viewers will assume you’re done, only for you to pull out your trump card and blow everyone away.
The “tent pole” game is the most variable. It can be your biggest title, a new surprise, or just something capable of holding the viewers’ attention. Often, presenters may not have a definitive “Big 3” but they’ll have one big title to open, one to close, and a bunch of the attention-holding types of titles spread out throughout the middle to each act as smaller tent poles. Generally, that’s what you want to do even if you do have that huge game in the middle– assuming you don’t pull a 2015 Bethesda and have your Big 3 take up two-thirds of the event’s total runtime.
The “Tentpole” makes sure that viewers don’t look at your lineup and see two good games and a bunch of nothing in between. It keeps their attention over the course of the press conference and makes it easier for titles further away from the opener and closer to stick in the memory of viewers.
Picking the right Elements for the Right Titles
Once you’ve identified your biggest three titles from the rest of your lineup, and you know what reveals and announcements you’re going to make, you need to figure out what the best way of presenting each title is going to be.
The key for every one of these decisions is knowing how much information you want to get across and what parts of your game are better at getting across information compared to others. If a trailer isn’t enough for viewers to understand what a game is, perhaps you should consider using gameplay commentary– so a presenter can explain facets of the game that aren’t immediately apparent while providing gameplay for reference. If you feel that even that isn’t enough, perhaps you really do need to present a full demo of the game to show it in action.
A game may not hit its mark if the trailer doesn’t make it seem all that special, but might gain the attention you want if it’s demoed or talked about more in depth. This is especially important for new IP, as they’re a lot harder to sell to potential customers than established franchises.
And normally, a new entry in an existing franchise won’t need a demo, as players already know enough about the mechanics of the series, and any gameplay changes can often be shown with only a trailer. But there are definitely instances where an established franchise may prefer a demo. The base mechanics may have changed so significantly that it becomes worth showing off in depth (ex. God of War, Sony 2016). But more than likely, the reason you’d want to demo a title– no matter if a trailer would be sufficient– is because the game is just so big that no one watching would be against seeing more of it.
What elements you choose to take advantage of could also depend on how much of the title the player already knows. Like established franchise titles, if you’ve shown off a particular game before, it may not be necessary to spend extra time showing off the title with a demo or gameplay commentary. Ubisoft demoed The Division at least once at E3 for three straight years (albeit, in different press conferences), but by the time the third rolled around, it seemed as if they were spending a little too much time on aspects of the title that everyone already knew. Yet even then, they never showed two demoes at the same E3. If one press conference got a demo, the other stuck with a simple trailer or less.
And announcements aren’t the worst way to bring up a title at E3. Especially if the information you want to get across can be accomplished in a few sentences or less– the most obvious occurrences being a release date, bundle, or beta.
And if you just want to remind viewers that a known title is in development, but don’t feel the need to actually show it off, a sizzle reel is always a viable option.
Element Speed and Spacing
So now you have a general idea of how you want to present each title, so what’s the best order to present them in?
The first thing you need to remember is that the way you present each element of your press conference is going to affect the apparent speed of your presentation. The press conferences I feel had the fastest apparent speed in the last four years were undoubtedly Nintendo’s two Digital Events in 2014 and 2015, and Sony’s presentation last year.
Apparent speed of a press conference is how quickly it seems your press conference is moving along, and how much you’re covering. Naturally, due to how much time they each require, different elements give off the feeling of different speeds. Sony and Nintendo’s press events had such high apparent speeds because they relied on trailers for virtually their entire show.
Ordered from fastest to slowest, the element’s speed go: announcements, sizzle reels, game trailers, gameplay commentary, stage demos, and additional commentary.
Commentary is the most naturally slow merely because it generally spends extra time on a title without showing off more of the game. That’s the other reason Nintendo and Sony’s pressers seemed so fast– they cut out a lot of the commentary to allow the trailers to speak for themselves, and in doing so, spent less time on each title to allow the presentation to move along swiftly.
With that all in mind, one of the most important things to remember about structuring your press conference is to space out the fast and the slow segments. If you spend excess amount of time on each game back to back to back in one part of the presentation, that section is more likely to feel bloaty– which can more easily turn viewers off your presentation if they don’t particularly like what you’re showing.
Alternatively, trailer after trailer after trailer will give the effect that you have a lot to show while also not spending enough time on one game to worry about turning viewers off. But if these segments are in the same press conference where demos are packed together as well, it can increase the likelihood of those demo segments feeling bloaty.
That’s why, when looking at what elements to choose for each title, it’s probably best not to overdo one element or another– especially the slower-paced elements. If you have a 10-minute demo, maybe surround it with 10 minutes-worth of trailers. You need to find the right balance between fast and slow elements to create a good flow throughout your entire press conference.
Reveals are important because they’re often the most exciting part of any E3 press conference. So it’s important to think through how to go about announcing a brand new title.
Of all reveals, brand new IP is the most important to think through carefully, as new concepts are harder to sell. Generally, it’s not that smart to use a spot in the Big 3 for a new IP unless it really blows viewers away– and if you think it will, you better be mighty sure about it.
Ubisoft must have believed this when closing out their press conference last year with Steep, an open-world extreme sports title. An interesting concept for sure, but a mic-dropper? Hard to say. They were, however, smart to give the title more than just a simple trailer– demoing the game and commentating on different features to show that the vast, empty mountaintops were really open playgrounds for players to make their own fun.
And as mentioned before, established franchises may not require as much time as new IP, but giving them more time can often be a good decision as fans are more likely to get excited about games they’re familiar with, and therefore will want to see more of them.
But besides just how much you need to get across, what you also have to keep in mind in any reveal is the tone you want to set and where in the presentation that tone is most adequate. Many reveals like to take it slow and hint at what the reveal might be to let hype build before slowly pulling back the curtains– such as the reveals for The Last Guardian, God of War, Resident Evil VII, or Rise of the Tomb Raider. Others may burst onto the scene, like LittleBigPlanet 3, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, or Sunset Overdrive.
Often the slow reveals work best established games, whereas you may want to be more clear from the get-go what a New IP is and is about. After all, pulling back the curtain to show something no one recognizes doesn’t make much sense.
III. Rules of Presentation
So now you know all the elements of an E3 press conference, what elements you want to use to show off each title, and have a general idea of what order you want to present them in. Now it’s time to think about the mindset you want to be in when you put all those pieces together.
There’s a lot to keep in mind as you’re planning how you’re going to shape your presentation, so here is a list of rules to guide you on your way.
#1. Cut Out the Fat
The key to communication of any form is figuring out the best way to get as much information across, effectively, in the least amount of time necessary. That’s why I’ve talked a lot about how it’s important to figure out which elements can get across the information you’re looking to convey, and to avoid using a more time-consuming method if a shorter element can do the job just as well.
Furthermore, instead of putting someone on stage to provide commentated transitions between trailers as a framing device, perhaps consider just showing off the trailers back to back.
#2. Show Them What They Want to See
There was a funny moment in Sony’s 2013 press conference when they brought out the head of Sony Entertainment and in the middle of a talking on TV and Film, he made the statement, “We’ll make content tailored to what gamers want,” and my immediate response was, “You mean games?”
Microsoft learned the hard way when revealing the Xbox One that putting more emphasis of your gaming press conference on anything other than the games is a mistake. Your company may have film and television ventures in the works, but often, E3 isn’t the place to get into that– or at least not for very long. Ubisoft spent 7 minutes late in their press conference last year talking to the director of the Assassin’s Creed film. 7 minutes is a long time in a press conference to be on a non-gaming topic.
But it doesn’t just mean “stick to games.” Any good marketing department should know what games their fans look forward to, and what announcements and games will generate hype– not merely the games that will sell. EA spends a lot of time every year talking about their new EA Sports titles, and those sell a whole lot every year, but at the end of the day, it’s the Mass Effects, the Star Wars, and the Battlefields that generate the most interest in their press conferences.
It’s important not to spend too much time on games that the majority of viewers aren’t going to have vested interest in. At times, it might be necessary. If you have a new IP and you want to try to explain to the viewer why they should be interested in that game, it makes sense to give it more time than a small trailer. But like I said earlier in the article, you always have to tread lightly to avoid viewers getting into the “hurry up already and get to the good part” mindset, or else all the games you want to show will suffer.
And sometimes you might just not have the games in your lineup to do that. Nintendo in 2015 put out the best they had to offer and nothing landed. The show ended and there wasn’t a huge game for viewers to look to. Of course, this starts on the development end– that year, they had Metroid, Animal Crossing, and Metroid titles. They just weren’t what people wanted to see. But that’s another article entirely.
All that being said, don’t show them EVERYTHING they want to see. You don’t need to play your entire hand, just the cards you need to be successful.
#3. Know When to Slow it Down
When Shawn Layden stepped out on stage at the start of E3 2015, he wasted no time on his E3 speech before saying it was time to get to the games. But rather than just start the trailer, he kept talking. I’ve made it a point to cut out commentary when you can, but often it can have a use. Layden hinted over and over that their first title was The Last Guardian without saying it, and by the time Trico appeared onscreen, the anticipation was deafening. Andrew House did something similar in last year’s press conference when he dropped hints that they were about to bring out Kojima before he emerged in a stylish, path-of-light-forming-before-him entrance.
And years earlier, at their E3 2013 press conference, they took their time slowly and deliberately making one-line announcements that skewered Microsoft’s anti-consumer policies and gaining exuberant applause from the audience. These were announcements that without Microsoft’s policies would have likely been side notes that they quickly glossed over in between games, but Sony knew they were afforded the time because of how their viewers would react to that approach.
And that’s why knowing your viewers is so important. While you have to know what they want to see and know when and how to give it to them, you need to know when they’ll afford you time. When you can add in a little fat to make the rest of your press conference more effective.
Essentially: you need to know when to tease.
#4. Include at Least 1 Surprise
You can show only games everyone knew ahead of time. If people want to see your titles badly enough, you can really do anything. Bethesda’s 2015 E3 press conference proved this. But what really gets people out of their seats and hyped up for your lineup are the new, unexpected announcements. If you need an example as to how that can work, just put the first half of Sony’s 2015 press conference on repeat.
It’s not necessary, and there doesn’t need to be many, but it’s never a bad idea to have a game stashed away for a dramatic appearance on the E3 stage.
#5. Put Emphasis on Upcoming Titles
Jokes get thrown around a lot about how presenters announce titles that aren’t coming out for another 5 years– especially with Square Enix if Kingdom Hearts III doesn’t release this year. This isn’t that far off, often games are announced one year, but don’t release until after another E3 has passed. Often, titles can be announced so early that the developer doesn’t even have the gameplay footage necessary to actually show off their game. This is what’s lead to so many CG trailers in Microsoft and Sony’s conferences, and that one year EA just didn’t have anything besides pre-alpha footage to show for all their hotly anticipated games.
Which is why some companies have tried to stick with games that are releasing in the next year. It’s a good strategy, as getting a vague release date at the end of a trailer or demo can dampen the impact of what was shown. This happened to a small extent with The Last Guardian in 2015, especially because that game had been in development for so long already. Putting up a whole bunch of games with release dates in the same year can make viewers feel that you have a lot to offer them either immediately or soon after, which is especially important if you’re a console manufacturer.
But it won’t always be successful. Nintendo stuck to this in 2015, and the result was that they didn’t have that big huge game to draw attention without the big HD Zelda there. That’s why it’s not a bad thing to have a huge game that might not be out for another year or two. If viewers see a big title off in the distance, it can often make them take another look at all the titles you’re releasing in the interim– since they might be good enough to hold them over until then.
But more than anything else, at this point, sticking to titles that are coming out soon is just good customer relations. If you want to build good will with a consumer-base, you should try to avoid the kinds of practices that consumers find annoying. This is one of them.
The Golden Rule: Respect the Viewer’s Time
Everything I’ve said up until this point folds into this one idea. Avoid wasting the viewer’s time. Whether it be too much time showing off a single game, too long talking in between titles, or talking about things that aren’t game-related. In some cases, it can even be only showing them the things they expected to see. The ultimate goal when making an E3 press conference is making the viewer feel like they’ve gained something from every second they spent watching your show.
Of course, this isn’t always going to work. Every viewer isn’t going to have interest in every game– and they definitely shouldn’t. But that’s what the structure we’ve been going over is all about: to maximize the effectiveness of the biggest, most widely-anticipated titles, and at least keep viewers watching even if they aren’t interested in a particular game.
By following these guidelines, any presenter should have no problem building a tight, well-rounded, and exciting E3 press conference.
Even if you’re EA. Probably.