The importance of E3 on a company’s success seems to vary depending on who you ask and what year you choose to measure. Since its inaugural show in 1995, the Electronic Entertainment Expo has served as the gaming industry’s proverbial nursery, where onlookers marvel at upcoming games in their natal states. Publishers and manufacturers spend millions of dollars on booths, game demos, flights, renting out massive theaters, building proportionally giant sets, all for the hopes of catching the attention of consumers and retailers for the coming year. They do this because their business benefits from a fantastic showing and can easily set off alarm bells with a bad one.
Of course, no one hits it out of the park with absolute consistency. Also it’s almost impossible to pin down any criteria for what a good or bad E3 showing means. It comes down to the response of the consumers watching or reading the news at home. If they’re excited about what a company announces, then it’s had a good E3. And what the audience wants is always shifting. A first party can come out strong one year, build up incredible fan base support and momentum, then crash and burn the following year.
With an eye toward E3 2015, it is appropriate to now go back and look at twenty years of the greatest E3 mistakes and fumbles with the added benefit of hindsight. The damage is rarely everlasting on its own, and a good show can cancel out a bad one as easily as a blunder can erase happy memories, but they quite often have effects that reach out further than just one week.
E3 spun out of the Consumer Electronics Show so that the videogame industry could have its own, dedicated trade fair. Sega intended to make a splash at the first show in 1995. Sega was following up their explosive Genesis with the 3D-capable Saturn, already released in Japan but still a few months away from launch in America. With rival Nintendo still a year away from releasing its SNES successor and Sony nipping at their heels with a September target for the PlayStation, Sega decided to swing for the fences during their first E3 press conference. Sega CEO Tom Kalinske took the stage and announced that the Saturn would be available that very moment from exclusive retailers at a price of $399 (with a $449 Virtua Fighter bundle also available).
This move shocked everyone in attendance, including developers working on Saturn games with no idea that the launch date had been pushed up four months. Studios that that were under the impression they were creating launch software targeting the U.S. release were suddenly left scrambling to get their games ready while consumers were still hungry for software. That only certain retailers had access to the system also angered the ones that didn’t, prompting KB Toys to institute a lifetime ban on Sega products. This especially wasn’t a good time for Sega to be losing retail ground to its competitors, turning a gutsy move into a terrible long-term mistake.
To make matters worse, Sega’s attention-grabbing plan only got buzz going for a few hours before Sony’s conference later that day. The somewhat dry introduction of SCEA President Steve Race became one of the all-time greatest E3 highlights when he took the stage, leaned into the microphone to say “$299,” then proceeded to walk off stage.
Sega learned a hard lesson that year: never bank on a showstopper if you’re the opening act.
Infamous for nearly a decade, Sony’s 2006 E3 press conference was the show that launched a thousand memes. Sony came into E3 2006 as kings, the overwhelming market leader for two generations with no sign of stopping with the PlayStation 3. While the Xbox 360 had beaten it to market, the world still waited with bated breath to see whether Sony would blow past Microsoft’s early launch much as they did with Sega’s Saturn and Dreamcast pushes in previous generations. The ball was in Sony’s court. It would only take a strong E3 conference detailing the system’s launch and its next year of support to dunk it in. This proved to be somewhat more gargantuan a task than they anticipated.
The meandering conference seemed rushed together at the last minute, with no single segment feeling related to any other. On-stage demos were either given flustered narration with nonsensical descriptions said in complete seriousness (“Giant enemy crab” being the most well-known) or were done in equally-awkward complete silence. The Dualshock 3 was revealed alongside Warhawk with a developer in a suit flailing his controller around while the ship he piloted barely mirrored his movements. All of this, however, would normally be fine and could be written off as the birthing pains of a hotly-anticipated system, right up until Sony announced the PlayStation 3’s price.
In sharp contrast to their press conference eleven years prior, Sony was not confident in their new console’s pricing. They saved any mention of it until the end of the show, when current Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai uttered the unheard of MSRP of $599. An audible gasp can be heard from the audience on the archived video when the pricing slide went up and Hirai did his best to press on despite the stunned reaction. Perhaps that was the moment he realized this was not going to go as smoothly as he thought. He would have been right.
In 2008, Nintendo was riding high. The DS had become the most successful gaming platform since the PlayStation 2 and the Wii was well on its way to following suit. The Wii wasn’t just a success, it was a mainstream phenomenon, and suddenly the likes of Oprah and Good Morning America were watching to see what Nintendo announced at their yearly show. Confused and somewhat drunk on this new-found success, Nintendo deemed this to be a transformative moment in how they handled E3 and pushed forward with what many found to be a baffling, muddled and boring hour-long event in the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles. Nintendo was determined to let their growing audience of moms know that they had more in store for their families over the next year, but chose an incorrect time and place to plant this new flag.
To make their new focus clear, Nintendo introduced their new Vice-President of Marketing, Cammie Dunaway, as the host of the show. Dunaway did her best as a new host, but the pacing of the conference with the misreading of the audience that actually watched E3 proved a bit too clumsy. Dunaway would show off a Mother’s Day card from her son and immediately pivot toward introducing Shaun White for an on-stage demo of his new game. The conference continued with similar eccentricities, including Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata coming out on stage dressed like a Bond villain and explaining their new market focus for fifteen minutes, a long buildup to a reveal of a now largely forgotten Animal Crossing title for the Wii, Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime openly and repetitively bragging about sales, and it only got worse from there. A nonplussed and increasingly addled audience sat uncomfortably in their chairs, dead silent, as a veil fell to the ground revealing a drummer with a Wii Remote and Nunchuck in his hands, wildly pantomiming drums loosely correlating to Wii Music actions on the big screen.
Nintendo’s changing focus had been clear for some time, but E3 was a strange choice to present it so wholeheartedly. Since then, Nintendo has tried to reconsider and retool their E3 presence, massaging it to be leaner and more aware of its audiences, but the damage from 2008 was fairly significant. While Nintendo’s fortunes were better served in growing the tent back then, they misaimed with this stage show, proving harmful to future endeavors that relied on support from the kind of audience that dutifully follows E3.
Microsoft was coming into E3 2013 with a bit of a weight dragging behind them. A month prior, they had introduced the world to their Xbox 360 successor and its controversial Digital Rights Management plan, declaring the death of used games on their watch. Nintendo had been thoroughly vanquished as a competitor in the console space and they were no longer a worry to the Xbox One. Sony did not seem to be doing anything daring with their PlayStation 4 and were quiet about whether they were following Microsoft off the cliff on the backs of their DRM scheme. Eyes were on Microsoft to either rescind their plans or explain it in such a way that actually convinces people to accept it and they accomplished neither.
The conference had its share of problems. Alongside a Metal Gear Solid V trailer, Microsoft spokesman Larry Hryb incorrectly tweeted that the highly anticipated game was a Xbox One exclusive, causing a number of angry fans and a very upset Konami to quickly take him to task over Twitter for spreading misinformation. During a Killer Instinct demo, a male producer quipped to a female one, “Just lay back and take it, it will be over soon,” while performing a super combo, an unfortunate bit of scripted dialogue that stood out even amongst the rest of the awkwardly scripted dialogue throughout the show. Most clumsily, a Battlefield 4 presentation was delayed by minutes while the EA developer kept reassuring the crowd that it was coming before walking off stage, only to be pushed back on to it by Microsoft producers insisting that the video would start soon.
Microsoft decided not to mention the Xbox One DRM during the show at all, trying to pivot all concerns to the subject of games. Were it not for the enormity of the story, and Sony’s later refusal to take part in the same restrictive measures, this plan might have worked. Unfortunately for Microsoft, they were put on the defensive, and had to spend the remainder of the week defending their idea and explaining why it wasn’t mentioned during their show. This was made all the more fruitless by announcing a removal of that DRM the very next week, having wasted their entire E3 showing defending a plan they weren’t even going to implement.
It’s a tough business when one mistake can make you a laughing stock for the next year.
Imran Khan is an Atlanta-based writer who tweets @imranzomg. You can find him there the entirety of E3 week trying his best to be funny and failing miserably.