The single spellbinding moment of Microsoft’s Xbox press conference on Monday came about as the result of a technical glitch. Patrick Söderlund, a vice president at Electronic Arts, set up a trailer for his studio’s upcoming game, Battlefield 4, which is the sequel to Battlefield 3. The trailer was entitled “Angry Sea,” but it was the technological seas that grew angry this day, my friends. The Battlefield trailer was pummeled from stem to stern with some unholy mix of glitches and backstage incompetence. First the video flickered, and then the audio cut out.
This audio problem had also afflicted a trailer earlier in the show, a preview for Crimson Dragon, which is a game about dragons. Because it was a game about dragons, nobody gave a shit, and the trailer was allowed to play out in silence. The stage managers were probably out back having a cigarette—again, because dragons. But when this same thing happened to a game where you shoot people, it was a mistake that could not stand—such is the hierarchy of the Xbox at E3, where shooty bits reign supreme.
Thus the event came to a halt as technicians presumably scrambled to make things right, and in that moment, the eyes of the world turned to Patrick Söderlund. He thought he would only be reading a teleprompter, but the gods had something different in mind for him this 10th day of June, 2013. They called upon Söderlund to vamp, to hold the audience’s precious attention while the demons of 7.1-channel audio were exorcised by those who know of such things.
And so it was that Patrick Söderlund told everyone to be quiet, although it wasn’t clear why anybody needed to be quiet for a silent trailer. “We will start over,” he said next. We did not start over. Nothing continued to happen. Then, at a loss, Söderlund said, “I’m fine.” At this time, in this place, those two words had an unexpected beauty. Minutes earlier, Söderlund had been an uptight drone rattling off empty phrases like “a true next-generation engine.” The kind of words that ooze out of executives’ mouths and fall to the ground without affecting a single soul. “I’m fine,” though, are the words of a human being appealing to our sense of empathy.
That humanity is why we get excited when something goes wrong at these big keynote events. When it comes amid a torrent of marketing lies and fake smiles, a snafu makes us perk up our ears. We sense that something real is happening, and that the person on stage will now have to be a person, like us, instead of a “so excited to be here” executive, like nobody. In a way, the “I’m fine” utterance was the first point at which we could perceive Patrick Söderlund to exist. He was talking to us.
“Talking to us” is an exception to the rule at Microsoft’s Xbox events. Their default mode is to address a demographic caricature who was born in a marketeer’s binder. That caricature, as far as I can tell, begins with a 20-something white male who only loves to shoot at things, except he also thinks magic knights are cool, just not as cool as the shooting. Plenty of those people exist, but the other thing about Mr. Demographic is that he just fell off the turnip truck. Everything is new and magical to him. When Mr. Demographic hears a developer of The Witcher 3 describe its “deep tactical combat, completely rebuilt from the ground up” with “state-of-the-art next-gen DX11 graphics,” Mr. Demographic does not feel like he is caught in a time loop of jargon that has been iterating since 1995. These phrases actually possess meaning to Microsoft’s imaginary friend!
Microsoft’s obsession with this idealized audience member has stunted their vocabulary. They only know how to talk to their composite of focus-group pie charts, and it showed on Monday. Most of the usual shoot/kill fare—Battlefield 4: Another One, Titankill, Ryse: Son Of Rome Who Stabs People, World Of Tanks—got oodles of stage time and long, lavish trailers, accompanied by some variation on the “next-gen” script that the Witcher fellow employed.
When it came time to discuss something outside the usual templates, though, Microsoft’s presenters were ill at odds. Below, an indie game from the makers of Superbrothers: Sword And Sworcery, received a perfunctory introduction from Microsoft’s Phil Spencer, followed by a one-minute trailer. The company simply doesn’t have the words for anything outside the usual template.
I don’t need the Below preview to be longer than it was. Nor is this only about indie games vs. studio fare, although independent developers were woefully underrepresented at Microsoft’s show. I’m just desperate to see Microsoft say something authentic—to give us a taste of humanity.
One uncomfortable exchange at Monday’s event showed the perils of catering to Mr. Demographic. An Xbox Live “community manager” and a producer of the fighting game Killer Instinct took the stage to put on a little demo of Instinct. The side-splitting gag of this vignette was that the producer—a man—handily beat the community manager—a woman—and then she came back in a rematch, giving him his comeuppance.
As the producer hammered away at his opponent in the first match, though, he dropped in some ill-advised banter. This included “Just let it happen—it’ll be over soon,” which he said to the community manager as he slashed away at her onscreen avatar. The creepy undertones were made more vivid by the fact that, at this point in the show, the Xbox Live employee was the only woman who had appeared on stage. The guy made a bad joke. It happens, and I’m not about to crucify him for it. It’s hard for me to blame him much at all, really. Microsoft created an environment where the perceived audience is a theoretical mass of pure mindless testosterone. Are we really supposed to be surprised when a bit of misogynist alienation ensues?
If the people on Microsoft’s Xbox team thought of their audience as human beings, they would have acknowledged some of the elephants in the room—like the Xbox One’s extraordinarily confusing used-games scheme or the privacy concerns regarding the always-on Kinect camera, which have only become more urgent as the nation realizes how thoroughly we are being surveilled. If they wanted to speak to people, Microsoft’s executives would not have ticked every box on their Buzzword Bingo card twice over. They know this talk of an “entertainment revolution” is bullshit, and we know it’s bullshit. Yet still they make us sit through this inane emperor’s-new-clothes charade, as they talk at length to nobody in particular.
This is how these events are done in the game industry, usually. It’s not like Microsoft is the only console maker that condescends to its players. Sony and Nintendo have done it on a regular basis, too. Sony did it just a few months ago, in fact. But last night, Sony changed the playbook. Its executives went ahead and talked about used games, assuring players that buying, trading, and lending software on the PS4 would be as simple as ever. They showcased a wide variety of games, refusing to pigeonhole their concept of the modern-day player (or the modern-day developer, for that matter). They promised not to make your console “phone home” to a nanny server. And they priced their new machine $100 lower than Microsoft’s.
Yet the substance of Sony’s riposte to Microsoft is almost less important than the fact that they made all these announcements with humor and swagger. It did not feel like Sony was talking past us—this was not a grim parade of humorless suits who were deigning to give us their attention. They made jokes and poked fun. The audience responded. What a difference it makes when you acknowledge the existence of the human beings in the room. Sony’s team spoke to us, and not because a technical glitch forced them into it. I bet Microsoft’s people now wish they had spoken to us when they had the chance.