Zulu After Dark: We Should Talk About Virtual Events

OPINION KLAXON

THOSE of you who pay attention to my social media musings (hello, both of you!) will be aware that I’m not a fan of “Virtual Events”, aka “A video livestream as a product launch”.

For fairly obvious reasons “Virtual Events” have been replacing physical ones since early 2020, since a certain virus has made international travel all but impossible for Australians and even domestic travel has ground to a halt because of uncertainty around border closures and which state’s turn it is to emulate East Germany this week.

I know quite a few of my games journalist colleagues like virtual events for various reasons, which they’re entitled to, but this is my column so I’m using it to voice my dislike of them instead – and not just because I like finger food and upbeat techno music playing in the background when I’m learning about new technology.

When I’m at a physical event, whatever is going on there has my undivided attention. The kids are in outside school hours care. My wife knows I’m away at a work thing. My other clients (I freelance for a number of places to pay the bills) know that on this day/week/etc, I am unavailable as I have a pre-existing commitment. Whatever is happening at the event is my focus, and that means as a result there will almost certainly be a story out of it – possibly even more than one (definitely more than one if it’s a big event) and likely a lot more involved than just “this is what the press release said”.

Virtual Events might be necessary at the moment, but they’re also one of many things I’m going to be juggling at the same time, too.

When I’m watching a “Virtual Event”, it’s basically the same as a YouTube video or Twitch stream and the simple reality is it’s just one of many things I’ll likely be juggling that day as a result. My other clients still need things done, the dishes won’t do themselves, the kids still need to be picked up from school – you get the idea. As you can imagine, that has flow-on effects into other areas like “How in-depth the story is”.

While this has basically been games journalism for nearly the past 18 months or so, it’s really been what passed for E3 2021 that has finally gotten me to say “We really need to wrap this “Virtual Event thing up as soon as reasonably possible”.

Overall, I thought E3 was a pretty lacklustre affair this year from a gaming journalism perspective. Far from being the highlight of the gaming year calendar and a source of stories which would potentially keep me going for months, I got a couple of showcase wrap stories and not much else out of it.

Under normal circumstances, I’d be at E3 in Los Angeles in person, not only experiencing the announcements (maybe having been alerted to a few choice tidbits under extremely strict NDA beforehand, so I knew what to keep an eye out for), but also talking to the game developers, industry executives, and other games journalists.

That didn’t happen this year. I didn’t even get any of the announcements under embargo early, meaning I had to be awake at 3am to watch them just like anyone else because of the time difference. I received exactly zero interview opportunities with developers or anyone involved in making the games, and received zero hands-on opportunities with early versions of the games.

These things will do doubt become available in due course as the games get closer to release, but they weren’t available as part of the traditional E3 period and basically I was coming at the whole thing from exactly the same position as any other Antipodean gamer.

E3 (photographed here in 2018) really works better as an actual event than a virtual one, at least from my perspective.

Basically, from my personal perspective there wasn’t much point to doing much journalistically with E3 this year because I didn’t have access to that “beyond the press release” stuff that I usually do, and all the game announcements etc were covered by US/EU media because the announcements were dropping at sensible times for them, instead of “the middle of the smegging night” like it was for us – and would be there ready to go when the rest of us woke up.

Nevertheless, the GOA team (including myself) did persevere and put together a range of stories about E3 – but it wasn’t nearly on the same level that we’d be able to do it if there was an actual E3 event which someone (or ideally, multiple someones) from the team had been able to attend in person.

I accept “Virtual Events” are going to be with us a bit longer for obvious public health reasons, hence the “as soon as possible” aspect. I’m not saying “Let’s go back to 100% physical events tomorrow”, because that isn’t possible and even if it was a lot of people would still, understandably, be a bit hesitant about going. I’d also like to stress I’ll still be attending Virtual Events because as a journalist I need the information from them to write stories about the event/games/products. Just because I’d prefer to be there in person doesn’t mean I’m not interested in the thing being announced or the event itself.

What I am saying is that if PR companies out there are looking at their plans for post-COVID era and thinking “Do we really need to fly all these journos to our product launch/event, when we could just do it virtually and save some money?” the answer from me is “If you want a proper, involved story about the thing, then yes, you do need to fly us to events and lets us touch the new products and play with them and talk to the people who made them so we can understand them properly and write about them in more detail.”

In the meantime, however, I – and my industry colleagues – will have to keep being used to setting alarms for unsociable hours and drinking a lot of coffee (or tea, if that’s their thing) in our continuing quest to bring you the latest gaming and technology news so you don’t have to get it yourself.

Royce Wilson is GOA’s Technology & Features Editor and posts on Twitter as @RoyceWilsonAU, unless you disagree with him – in which case he isn’t on social media at all and you must be thinking of someone else.

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