Playing the Public Relations Game at E3

E3 MS Press Conference

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend E3, the largest gaming event of the year and an indicator not only of the current health of the industry, but of the technology that will carry it through the next year. 2009 was a show of rebirth for a conference traditionally mired in spectacle and hype. Stepping into this year’s event after the previous two was like stepping off of an airplane, the pressure dropping around me, and the atmosphere felt as justifying as it did celebratory – once again E3 was about the fun and excitement of being a gamer. And the first step to getting gamers excited at E3 is to know how to communicate with them.

Now that E3 is back to its former glory, it is once again a battle for hype between the three biggest companies: Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony. “Winning” E3 requires more than just showing incredible technology – there’s nothing BUT incredible technology at E3 – it takes a great presentation of that technology to build maximum anticipation, and doing that requires a great public relations strategy.

It’s important to consider how each company’s position going into E3 influenced how they chose to present themselves. Sony has been on the ropes due to flattening PS3 sales and general losses in their gaming division. After projecting a 30% increase in system sales for 2010, Sony needs to move consoles this year, so most of the industry was expecting a PS3 price drop at E3. Nintendo has been stuck between a rock and a hard place since they announced Wii Music last year. They’re struggling to hang on to their newly discovered casual audience while keeping their hardcore fans happy. This played into the attendees’ expectations as most were looking for a huge franchise installment announcement like Zelda, Mario or Metroid. Microsoft was probably in the best position going into E3. Other than their rumored motion sensing technology, no one knew what to expect, a factor that definitely worked to their advantage.

Given Sony’s relative dearth of PS3 sales, a PS3 price drop for the console was all but confirmed. But when the curtains fell on their press conference without a word about a PS3 price drop, most were a little confused. Rumors of a Slim PS3 surely affected Sony’s strategy – it’s possible that they pushed such an announcement to a later date in order make a bigger splash. From a PR strategy standpoint, the timing and impact of an announcement can greatly impact consumer attitude, so it’s plausible that Sony, in dire need to sell consoles, would push this announcement to a later date to maximize the ‘surprise’ factor, potentially producing greater coverage.

Whatever their reasoning, by not making such an announcement Sony may neglected to address a big question in the minds of consumers and many in the industry alike. This is a company that always holds its cards close, and the PR team at Sony may well have a convincing reason for keeping quiet, but their E3 showing was likely a setback – hopefully, for them, a temporary one!

Nintendo, with two diametrically opposed audiences, was in a difficult position heading into E3. They’re trying to straddle the line by simultaneously positioning themselves towards both their loyal audience and newer fans. The divide between what Nintendo wants to do and what their loyal fans want them to do was most obvious when they unveiled the Wii Vitality Sensor. Iwata’s unveiling didn’t appeal to the E3 audience, and it may have further convinced traditional gamers that Nintendo just isn’t catering to them anymore. Nintendo compared the Vitality Sensor to Brain Age and Wii Fit – two highly successful products that have greatly expanded the gaming audience – but they gave few specific details on how the Vitality Sensor would be used to play a game. For the E3 audience, a more substantial demo might have made a more positive impression.

Nintendo seems to be viewing their floundering reputation with hardcore gamers as a mere obstacle to be overcome, instead of priority #1 – and perhaps they shouldn’t in their general communications practices, given the wider scope of their modern audience. But E3 is a bubble of hardcore gaming, and Nintendo might have served its PR needs better by focusing more on the new Mario and Metroid titles, instead of another peripheral.

Microsoft came into E3 with complete control of their fans’ expectations. How? By not having more leaks than the Titanic! Sure, there were rumors about motion sensing technology, but those details were so light that the actual product was bound to be a surprise. By maintaining control of their audience’s expectations, Microsoft turned an above-average presentation into an exemplary one and stole the show. With surprise appearances from Ringo Star and Paul McCartney, Microsoft positioned the Xbox 360 as the premier platform for Beatles: Rock Band – the latest iteration in what was recently reported as the #3 gaming franchise in the market today, with over $1 billion in sales to date. Factor in Hideo Kojima’s announcement that Metal Gear Solid: Rising would be making its way to the platform, and that’s a compelling composite of major announcements, both from a mainstream and hardcore standpoint.

Microsoft succeeded in demonstrating how they’re bridging the gap between gaming and mainstream entertainment, something neither Sony and Nintendo seemed to accomplish. The announcements of increased Netflix quality, as well as Facebook and Twitter functionality are features that hardcore and casual users alike will enjoy. And Project Natal showed fans that Microsoft is confident in the direction Xbox 360 is going and will continue to explore new technology to enhance their entertainment experience. By communicating effectively Microsoft managed their fans’ expectations very well, and was therefore able to leave the E3 audience feeling satisfied that they’re working to provide their fans with the ultimate gaming experience.

Both Sony and Nintendo showed some great software, but by not fully addressing their fans’ concerns about the future of the respective platforms, they missed a big opportunity to connect with existing owners and potential new owners and therefore fell flat. Microsoft addressed their fans’ needs directly with compelling content, exciting new features for Xbox Live, and Project Natal, a piece of technology that could turn gaming, and entertainment, as we know it upside down. Generally the companies with the most positive buzz were the ones that best addressed the needs of their consumers. Announcements or discussions about revolutionary technology failed to sink in if the company was not directly addressing the needs and expectations of their fans.

There was one company that sent a message at E3 without even attending, and that was Apple. Given the recent explosion of popularity surrounding mobile apps and mobile games on the iPhone, I partially expected Apple to be present, soliciting the iPhone as a gaming platform. Partially, because as enigmatic as Apple is, they would be playing a fool’s game going after the gaming community when they practically have the entire rest of the world waiting in line to get an iPhone. It makes sense that Apple would not play the public relations game at E3, but instead play their own game. Both Sony’s PSPGo and Nintendo’s DSi are picking up on Apple’s new market of gamers-on-the-go by offering content via download, and well-established publishers and developers are rushing to produce mobile content to stake their claim in this lucrative market as well. By staying away from E3 Apple sent the message that the mobile market is their game, and anyone else is going to have to play by their rules. So it will be interesting to see if, after denying the significance of the iPhone, whether each of the two other major handheld players will be able to contest Apple’s market share.

If there’s one thing E3 has taught me about the gaming industry, it’s that the fun and excitement of gaming are as much a part of the industry as the business itself. In the fast-moving world of technology, disruption and change can come from anywhere, but the experience and culture of being a gamer will always be about having fun, and its great to see developers and publishers exercise their understanding of that notion. See you next year!