Why E3 2019 has suffered from a worrying lack of gameplay trailers

Despite their leaky hulls, the E3 conferences are the flagships of the entire show that set the tone for the impending week. Trailers, demos, and Keanu Reeves are supposed to sell us on the short-term future of the industry and live up to the big stage they are set on. And while the industry could always use more of Reeves’ wholesome charm, it could use less of vague trailers and hyperbole-laden marketing speak. Aside from Square Enix, each presentation almost solely hinged on trailers at the expense of actual gameplay and live demonstrations. Without many real demos, most of the conferences at E3 2019 felt like faked stunts without much substance.

Substance is what drives E3 conferences and makes them feel like they’re tailored to their gaming audience, rather than just shareholders and investors. Most may be held together by gum and duct tape, but they’re pretty honest looks at games still in development that show that these are real video games that exist. Uninterrupted gameplay lets games speak for themselves more than any trailer or carefully edited speech could show.

But that’s mainly what Microsoft, Bethesda, and Ubisoft depended on. Microsoft’s marquee moment, the aforementioned Reeves cameo, accompanied the Cyberpunk 2077 trailers. The game looks remarkable and may prove that CD Projekt Red is composed of black magic wizards, but these were just pretty scenes that showed what it’ll look like and not what it will play like. And that “play” part is the most important bit. An actual mission would not only have been a good chance to show how the title has progressed over the last year, but it could have given us yet another look at the ambitious RPG on a stage it deserved to be on.

A trilogy of tame E3 2019 press conferences

halo infinite e3 2019

Microsoft could have used it since it didn’t even shine the spotlight on its own marquee titles in a satisfying way as Gears 5 and Halo Infinite only showcased trailers sans any gameplay. It might be easy to assume how a Halo and Gears game would play, but relegating these key franchises to short snippets is an unjust way to treat both series’ fans along with the series themselves. Halo still has some explaining to do especially after Halo 5’s tepid reception and Gears could also use a booster shot, given how it has been going on for well over a decade. These are supposed to be Microsoft’s premier titles, after all.

Bethesda also fell victim to “trailers over gameplay” mentality, which is more disappointing given its suite of original titles. GhostWire Toyko, Tango’s upcoming horror game, sounds interesting and had a trippy trailer, but we have no idea what it plays like. Buzzwords like “action adventure game” aren’t specific enough, even if it will probably be something in the vein of Resident Evil 4 and The Evil Within. Deathloop, Arkane Lyon’s new title, also sounds inventive and is riding off an impressive pedigree, but seeing it would have been more satisfying especially since adjective-laden descriptions will never be as accurate or concrete as actual gameplay.

Ubisoft also didn’t give players much to actually see. Roller Champions was briefly teased but not in a tangible way that showed the mechanics and inner workings of the game. Gods and Monsters was even more subtly revealed as its short announcement trailer was followed by the most nebulous description. Both are entirely new games and are similarly shrouded in mystery that could have been the been the fresh take the conference needed.

But even Ubisoft’s other established franchises didn’t fare as well either. The suite of Ghost Recon Breakpoint previews last month hinted at a big on-stage gameplay reveal, but was instead met by a trailer, Jon Bernthal, and a bored but cute dog. Rainbow Six Quarantine was also met with a pre-rendered trailer that only hinted at how the game played but didn’t even get the luxury of having a cute dog.

Watch Dogs Legion, Doom Eternal, and the exceptions to the rule

e3 2019 watch dogs legion

But dogs were the best part of Ubisoft’s press conference because Watch Dogs Legion had an incredible showing and is precisely what most other games should make their E3 debut. It had a beefy demo that detailed how it will play while also showcasing its distinct hook. Clint Hocking, the game’s creative director, even came out and talked about it some more before finally dropping a trailer that tied everything together. It set a high bar for the rest of the conference that it just couldn’t live up to nor did it make an attempt to.

Doom Eternal did the same thing for Bethesda but in the opposite way. Instead of kicking off a conference full of ambiguous claims and flashy trailers, Doom Eternal closed out the publisher’s show with an extended gameplay sequence. The developers even had time to speak before debuting another trailer with the game’s unique multiplayer. While it would have been nice to see the multiplayer mode in action, we got a good look at what is sure to be a Game of the Year contender in a way that the rest of the show should have learned from.

These landmark moments should have happened in greater frequency since they give the specific presentations something to build themselves around while also giving players a more informed look at what they’re seeing. For example, God of War, Uncharted 2, The Last Guardian, and The Last of Us all showed up at E3 during various years and stole the show but also gave a pretty accurate portrayal of what those games were. Vertical slices with those levels of detail and girth were in short supply at E3 2019 and it made them quite fleeting as a result.

Square Enix’s big breakthrough

square enix e3 2019

Square Enix, however, succeeded where the others failed. Kicking it off with anything related to the Final Fantasy 7 Remake would be an easy slam dunk but Square didn’t just play a trailer and call it quits. Instead, it also took the time and explained what was new and different while also letting the game speak for itself during the multiple gameplay sections and boss fight. The Tifa reveal trailer was also a solid way to wrap the gluttony of other information.

None of the other games went into quite as much detail but most of them didn’t need to. Since a decent portion of them were remasters and ports, a single trailer got the job done in a timely fashion. Dragon Quest Builders 2 even got a lengthy showing that described a bunch of its features, leaving no confusion about what it actually is.

Marvel’s Avengers could have used actual gameplay, but it did have enough in-game footage and words from the developers and actors to establish its tone and visual style. Again, we won’t know what it plays like until later this week and the conference could have used a guided demo but leaving players confused on what the game is wasn’t the overall theme of Square’s show despite the mystery surrounding Outriders and short Dying Light 2 trailer.

E3 is one giant trailer for the video game industry so it makes sense that it is full of actual trailers. But trailers often don’t say what the real game is like because they are either full of rapid-fire in-game clips or just prerendered scenes that obfuscate what the moment-to-moment beats are like. They’re pretty but also pretty unsatisfying when they don’t supplement something more meaty and real.

Far too many games at nearly every E3 2019 conference relied solely on trailers and vague marketing terms that sound good on paper, but concepts can only take a game so far. And this batch of E3 conferences, save for Square Enix meeting the bare minimum requirements, seem to be running solely on those pretty marketing terms and coming up short.