VGX Shows the Days of Earth-Shattering Surprise Announcements are Behind us

So the Spike VGAs continue their course into total irrelevance, having crossed the threshold where they’re not even important enough to be the title of their own show (now called Spike VGX).  In this year’s joke of an awards show, Joel McHale nearly fell asleep in the middle of hosting, over half the awards weren’t even aired, and Troy Baker beat out Troy Baker for best voice actor. But nobody really watches the VGAs for the awards anymore, and nobody could be more aware of that than Spike. It’s all about the “viral” videos, the celebrity cameos, and stunts like concerts that exist only to fill time. Oh, and also the exclusive trailers and game reveals.

This year brought with it a whole slew of footage from various games, mostly from games that were entirely expected. We saw new gameplay from Dying Light, and some underwhelming trailers for Titanfall, Destiny, Thief, and pretty much every other big title slated to release next year. Mixed in with the predictable lineup were four announcements for new games, exactly one of which was actually surprising.

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VGX featured three “Secret World Premiers” spread throughout its schedule. The first came right up front: Telltale and Gearbox are working to bring us an adventure game based on Borderlands. This might have been quite the shocker, if not for the studios’ previous collaboration on Poker Night 2 and Gearbox’s penchant for outsourcing their game production. The specifics and timing of this announcement couldn’t have been foreseen, but something of this nature was bound to happen at some point.

The second “reveal” of the night wasn’t a “Secret World Premier,” but a scheduled announcement about the Tomb Raider series. Rather than showing us a sequel, or a spinoff, or anything actually exciting, Square Enix chose to spend their time unveiling Tomb Raider: The Definitive Edition. The edition is a next-gen port of this year’s lauded Uncharted clone that features all the game’s DLC, a digital comic and art book, an improved character model for Lara, and enhanced hair physics.  Even if that were remotely stimulating, Amazon leaked the edition a month ago.

The second secret premier was tied to an insipid twitter campaign, with the spike crew only revealing it after #VGX had been tweeted enough times. After all the hype and buildup and mass spamming, we finally saw the trailer midway through the show and learned… that Telltale is making the Game of Thrones game everyone knew they were making a week ago.

The final world premier, which by process of elimination must have been one hell of a surprise, was set to be a quiet, understated affair. The developers of quaint indie gem Joe Danger wanted to reveal their newest project, and it seemed nice of Spike to oblige them. Then we saw the game: No Man’s Sky, a procedurally generated, persistent, massively multiplayer space exploration game where every star and every planet is a place you can go. It was mind-blowing, especially coming from a four man team.

The thing is, I don’t think a much bigger team could have blown minds at all. As the other three “big reveals” of the night show, this industry is lousy at keeping secrets. The more people have their hands in a game, the more likely it is that someone’s going to accidentally open a store page early, or add something they shouldn’t to their resume, or just tell a friend about the awesome thing they’re working on. The more worth keeping a secret is, the more impossible it is for a big studio to keep it. Yet the bigger a studio is, the harder they seem to try.

Ubisoft has maintained an ironically draconian level of information control over Watch Dogs, and they’ve managed to avoid any major feature leaks, but even they couldn’t truly get one over on the internet. Watch Dogs was hailed as the best surprise of E3 last year, but the trailer was online days before the show. The only reason they were able to create any sort of upset is because people weren’t yet aware of the brand.

With big sequels, or licensed properties like Game of Thrones, it’s entirely hopeless. People are always hunting for new information about such things, and the internet allows any tidbit to propagate instantly. There’s almost no point watching these things any more, since any good info is known – or at least strongly suspected – weeks in advance.

People can be trusted, but only in small groups, and this is is giving indies a huge advantage when it comes to building hype. It seems like at every trade show and major event, you get one or more small games that come out of left field and grab people’s attention. Most of the time, indies don’t even have to try to keep things secret before they take off. This year the PAX floor was stolen by Crypt of the Necrodancer and The Stanley Parable, as part of an ongoing trend that’s seen the Indie Megabooth come to dominate the show.

Kickstarter is shifting the playing field a little, allowing bigger studios to profit from announcing games early, but it’s rare for that to equate to a huge, public unveiling (Mighty No. 9 being the obvious exception). The more you look at it, the more it seems like the days of earth-shattering surprise announcements are behind us. Hopefully, though, more and more little guys will have a chance to make a big splash.

Also, maybe it’ll leave some room in awards shows for the awards. Or more YouTube nonsense. I’m a reasonable man. I know what my money’s on.