Event Report: EB Expo 2016

Disclaimer: Most of the photos attached to this piece were taken before the showroom floor opened to the public.

EB Expo 2016 was the quietest it’s ever been. I don’t know if overall numbers were down, or the lack of booths meant thoroughfares were larger than usual and therefore traffic density was down and it just felt quieter, but either way EB Expo 2016 was the smallest it’s ever been.

This isn’t a bad thing.

While it missed the pomp and bombast of previous years, it meant a more intimate experience. Which is something I just don’t associate with EB Expo.

See, to me, EB Expo has always been about the sell. Stores. Products. Consumers. A humming throng of capitalist commodities (inanimate and animate) ready for sorting, packaging, wrapping. Selling. EB Expo is, after all, run by Australia’s largest video game retailer.

Money rules and the palace is video games. We are cashed-up serfs, farming our lives away in the money forests of real life employment, paying our tithes to our retail overlords and in exchange for exclusive front row seats to bloody public digital executions in the flavour of chainsaw bayonets and this year’s killstreaks.

This year felt different.

 

For a start, EA weren’t there. I don’t blame them. They have Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2 in the works – both of which had public betas over the last month or so. Why show up to demonstrate a product to a specialist audience that has probably already played what you’re going to demonstrate? That’s two big shootybangs down.

Activision were there with their shooter offering – the annual Call of Duty. But buzz around The New CoD has been falling year over year for a while now as people have been fatiguing of endless iterations of the same formula. Infinite Warfare’s booth was still large and constantly slammed, but the lines were shorter and the aura projected by those in line was duller, more reserved than usual.

Peripheral manufacturer stalls were more subdued than previous years. Headache-inducing perpetual electronica no longer spewed from huge giveaway stands and it’s hard to dispense boxes and boxes of free shirts and lanyards with a skeleton staff. Instead, one-on-one attention was valued, feeling more like an actual salesroom with sales staff addressing individual sales questions.

2016’s holiday game lineup is unexciting and bland, and EB Games knows how to avoid a turd.

Instead, EB Expo focused on the good. That meant new hardware from Xbox and Playstation.

Microsoft had a large presence, showing off their new technology. The Xbox One S was on show, playing VR Minecraft and Forza Horizon 3 in 4K HDR (which was breathtakingly beautiful). Playable versions of Gears of Four was there, as was Dead Rising 4. Xbox even flew out studio heads of Coalition, Playground, and Capcom Vancouver for a keynote. Mafia 3 also had a showing, but it was only a video demonstration rather than a live gameplay demo.

Oh, and the head of Xbox himself – Phil Spencer.

You could probably say that Xbox won EB Expo 2016.

Sony, on the other hand, focused on its own hardware update. The PS4 Pro wasn’t there, but PSVR had a large showing. Regular punters could line up (for quite a while) to get their hands on Playstation’s very decent VR hardware, giving the masses a taste of “immersive” gaming.

I didn’t take part, mainly because I’ve already experienced it and found it good but not tectonic, but also because I missed booking a Resident Evil 7 VR session. More significant was the presence of Horizon: Zero Dawn, which had a playable demo if you were lucky enough to get in.

Other companies were there. Bandai Namco had Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 and the latest build of Final Fantasy XV. Ubisoft had Watch_Dogs 2, Steep, and For Honor. Bethesda had a large Dishonored 2 booth, which everyone told me was pretty great.

It felt good to wander the scant booths, pick up a controller, give something a go, then move on. Fewer people meant shorter lines meant more games, and this year was the first one where I didn’t feel overwhelmed by a pressing need to be everywhere all at once or else I’d miss something important.

One thing I did pressure myself to see was at Nintendo. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was there by appointment, and I made sure to make an appointment. Nick has already given his impressions of it and mine align mostly with his, so I won’t bore you with anything more than OMG ZELDSPLOZION.

Other attractions included the ESL eSports arena, Freeplay area, cosplay, Epic Gaming laser skirmish, and the “Mountain Dew VeloDrone”, which had something to do with caffeinated citrus beverages and flying remote quadcopters or something. I don’t understand it. But it was there.

Another special guest in attendance was Paul Harris, who choreographed the wand battles of the Harry Potter film series. He held a number of very-kid-friendly stage demonstrations and workshops that involved a younger crowd, showing off his personable and accessible teaching style through wand battles.

The annual EB store was also there, back and bigger than ever. It took up maybe a third of the expo dome area, full of shirts and plushies and Pop Vinyls and statues and tat and faff and one or two video games for good measure. They’d even store and ship your purchases to your door if you didn’t want to carry them back home with you, which I thought was a nice touch.

New this year was the artist’s alley. Rather small for its inaugural appearance, nevertheless a number of artist stalls selling posters, drawings, dice, leathergoods and other handmade items plied their wares. It felt strange, out of place, and incredibly personable. I really enjoyed the creative vibe emanating from the small, well-hidden group.

Mixing handmade items into the same area as EB’s megastore was jarring, but it put forth a strong statement, one linking the means of production with the monolith of consumption.

EB Expo 2016 was a strange beast, and I’m not entirely sure what to make of its fusion of high production marketing, small exhibitor showing, earthy artist’s alley, and mass-market consumption. I like an intimate gaming experience, and an expo where I feel like I matter.

EB Expo 2016 felt like it was torn between giving me what I want, and giving me what the market wants. It’s unfair to expect more of it than its roots dictate, and EB Expo as its own hyperconsumer megalith has its own charm, but this muddling of the personal and the impersonal feels like a halfway point, an experiment, a stop in a journey to either full-blown pop-culture festival or reversion to capitalist clockwork machine.

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