Second only to PAXAus, EB Expo is considered to be the bridesmaid of Australian pop culture and gaming expos. After an inaugural showing on the Gold Coast in 2011, the expo has been held annually in the Dome, and exhibition halls 2, 3 & 4 of the Sydney Olympic Park Showground (for those Sydney Royal Easter Show attendees- that’s all of the food pavilion, arts & craft, and show bag halls) since 2012. The event is run over three days and attracts the big game publishers and thousands of attendees every year (over 38 000 people in 2013). It is a legitimate event and one that I always eagerly anticipate.
To quench that anticipatory thirst and avoid FOMO, I have attended all three days of the past 4 EB Expos- twice as a Pokemon Trading Card Game demonstrator, once as a member of the public, and now as a member of the media- so I feel I am well positioned to comment on the evolution of the event. Past EB Expos have had a less consumerist feel than other events on the pop culture and gaming expo circuit e.g. Supanova (which might be a surprising statement to make given that EB Expo is owned and operated by a retail chain) but they are usually less gaming-centric and community focussed than PAXAus. It occupies a weird but ultimately positive space in the middle ground.
While all the AAA titles announced at E3 that respective year are usually playable or presented in some capacity, the peripheries offered at EB Expo are often a bit of a dice roll. Previous expos have been host to free to play FIFA tournaments, Robot Wars demonstrations, the opportunity for lessons from a renowned light sabre choreographer from the Star Wars films, a pavilion dedicated to League of Legends, a live Good Game show, Q&A panels a la PAX, copious amounts of free or winnable merchandise (coining the “eBay expo” tag), and much, much more… And the signs were positive for this year, with the online EB Expo app and website indicating that there would be a dedicated Pokemon area, the Sydney Brick Show, a Good Game unplugged live show on each day, a Mountain Dew Velodrome, professional CSGO and Smash tournaments to spectate, lessons from the choreographer of wand battles in the Harry Potter films, and that the Homegrown gaming and Retro gaming areas would make a reappearance.
Are you sensing a but? There is a but. Quite a few buts.
I encourage you to indulge in some happier times with Will’s EB Expo 2013 Wrap-Up and Bernadette’s 2015 Hands-on Before the Show. A little bit of context and perspective (and tautology, apparently) might help you to understand why EB Expo 2016 would have me considering whether to relegate the bridesmaid of expos to the singles table.
For members of the media, Day 1 of EB Expo starts early. Armed with a media pass and an inflated sense of my own self-worth, I hit up the show floor at 8 am (an hour before the general public). This year, it felt like there were fewer publishers present- though Playstation (combined with Activision and EA), Xbox, Ubisoft, Nintendo, 2K, and Bethesda were all in attendance, so perhaps it was the configuration of the displays and the lack of promotional material that made the main hall feel so empty.
After a quick scout of the games on offer, I found myself playing as a knight alongside 2 other members of the media and a guy dressed as Deadpool in one of the five multiplayer modes of Ubisoft’s For Honor. In this demo, we fought as a team against four Samurais (controlled by other members of the media) and their hordes of minions, in an effort to capture key points on the map. The game hinges on being able to strike and block effectively- choosing between one of three directions to match or outwit your opponent. At the Ubisoft presentation, For Honor’s creative director, Jason VandenBerghe, described the game as having the “excitement of first person shooters with the intensity and intimacy of combat.” I thought about stealing that quote because it so aptly describes what I thought about my half an hour hands on with the game. VandenBerghe also reminded everyone that there is a co-op mode. A perfect excuse to buy For Honor when it comes out on Valentine’s day next year.
Steep was one of Ubisoft’s two other playable games. It still strikes me as a series of mini-games made from the action sports that didn’t make the cut for Just Cause 3.
Ubisoft also showed off demos of Ghost Recon: Wildlands, Watch Dogs 2, and South Park: The Fractured But Whole. These were held as intimate viewings in sectioned off cubes- with 30 people or less being led through a demo by a member of the Ubisoft team. The Ghost Recon: Wildlands footage was a scripted demo with exclusive footage of the El Pozolero mission (a prequel to the E3 demo). The game is visually impressive, the gameplay is exciting and varied, and the plot is appealingly over-the-top.
However, my pick for game of the expo was Watch Dogs 2. Twice, I watched Josh Cook (art director for Ubisoft Toronto) take attendees through a live demo of this game. And twice, I was excited by the setting, the writing, the voice acting, the characterisation, and the options available to players. This is an open-world, sandbox game that encourages complex hacking and creative gameplay with a variety of lethal and non-lethal combat options and a plethora of high-tech gadgets (including two types of drones). Watching Josh plant incriminating evidence on a random civilian via a phone hack- causing a local gang to show up and execute her, then the police to respond- re-affirmed my need to buy this game. And then the aggressive K9 units showed up. “We couldn’t make a game called Watch Dogs without actual dogs,” said Josh, “And not just K9 units. There are friendly dogs too.” Take my money, Ubisoft.
Ubisoft’s only other playable game was Just Dance 2017. Every year, Ubisoft set up a large stage at the front of their display at EB Expo and PAXAus, and encourage members of the public (supported by professional Ubisoft dancers) to dance along to the tracks included on their latest title. It was a successful gimmick again this year- the game consistently drew a crowd, and it was one of the few activities that kids could really engage with. The music also helped to liven up the otherwise quiet show floor.
Despite the absence of an Assassin’s Creed title and the copious amounts of associated promotional material, Ubisoft had an excellent showing at EB Expo. They put together an inviting display, delivered engaging presentations, and offered a variety of games to play.
This year, PlayStation was primarily about the PlayStation VR. The ridiculously long queues to test the VR titles that were on offer (there were at least 4 different VR “games”), meant hands-on time was a limited commodity. It wasn’t until I used my exhibitor privileges on Day 2, that I was able to score a 10 minute trial of a Luge simulator. And it wasn’t very impressive. Admittedly, this Luge simulator was not the most exciting game, but the PlayStation VR has also failed to impress me in the past.
Other games on show at the PlayStation booth included EA’s FIFA17, Horizon: Zero Dawn, The Last Guardian (which looks like it stepped out of 2008), Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (which, despite the initial backlash, had half the expo queuing up to play it) and NBA 2K17. Right at the back of the pavilion, hidden away behind a partition, was the Skylanders display. This intrigued me more than anything else. There is a new Skylanders game being released in a couple of weeks, but you wouldn’t know it.
Activision’s Skylanders used to have pride of place on the show floor. The display would be packed with kids and their parents eagerly trying out new Skylanders figurines on one of the many consoles set-ups to play. And, traditionally (if you count three years in a row as enough to create a tradition), players would walk away with an EB Expo-exclusive Skylanders figure. Seeing Skylanders demoted to the back of the Playstation display, with only three or four consoles set-up to play, and no exclusive figurine in sight, strengthened my suspicion that EB Expo was trying to move away from being identified specifically as a family-oriented event.
The Xbox display was quite conservative this year. All their current major titles- Forza Horizon 3, Dead Rising 4, Minecraft, Gears of War 4- were playable to some degree. However, there were no frills outside of a Christmas tree-zombie feature to promote Dead Rising 4, and a couple of promotional cars in the Dome. This is in stark contrast to previous EB Expos, at which Xbox displays would dominate half of the Dome. Further, while PlayStation offered FIFA17 to play, Xbox offered FIFA16. Weird.
One of the big drawcards of this year’s expo was the keynote speech to be delivered by the head of Xbox, Phil Spencer. After a series of promos for Forza Horizon 3, Dead Rising 4, and Gears of War 4, Phil Spencer delivered what really was just an Xbox sales pitch. He dedicated a lot of time to emphasising the gamer-centric, gamer-friendly approach of Xbox- specifically the forwards compatibility of games, cross play, and play anywhere features.
When Spencer began to talk about Project Scorpio, the energy in the room changed. The way he delivered his discussion of this console, suggested that there might be an exclusive reveal coming… However, the keynote concluded with a replay of the Project Scorpio promo video from E3. Disappointing.
Bethesda, 2K, and Nintendo were also in attendance. While Bethesda offered a hands-on with Dishonoured 2, and 2K brought Mafia III, Nintendo brought a handful of old favourites- e.g. Mario Kart, Smash Bros., and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. With no new games on offer (except the new Zelda title, which was hidden away from the crowds and only playable for contest winners), it felt like Nintendo were only there because they felt they had to be.
There was also a homegrown gaming section. A number of students from the Academy of Interactive Entertainment were showing off their games. I felt it was a bit unfair that they were hidden in darkness, behind the PlayStation display.
I don’t know if it was due to the few playable in-demand games on show, the lack of interesting side options, or the number of people who attended the expo (though there certainly seemed fewer than past years) but there were queues. There were queues everywhere. I walked past way too many people standing next to signs that read something along the lines of “at this point, there is a 2-hour wait to play this game.”
What’s more, these queues were not isolated to the plebs but also applied to the red carpeted express gamer lines. Why? There were so many people walking around with an express gamer pass ($199 ticket for one day) or ultimate gamer pass ($749 for three days) that there didn’t seem to be anything particularly express or ultimate about them. It just reminds me of a quote from a certain someone…
For those who were tired of queuing to play video games, there were a range of filler options (aka peripheries) that were available to anyone on any kind of ticket. Here is a quick summary of the options that I had time to engage with.
The Retro Gaming area, a series of monitors hooked up to old school consoles, returned for a second year. There is something endearing about watching 30-somethings reminisce about consoles from their childhood and watching tech-savvy children confused by games that were conceived before they were. I remember one little girl asking her father- “what’s a Kazooie?”- only to be met with a blank stare. Wouldn’t we all like to know, little girl.
The LoveSac relaxation area- a zone with a multitude of giant comfy bean bags that were free to lounge on- offered a welcome respite to the business of the show floor. Rarely was there a moment when one of the LoveSacs was unoccupied. A good addition to the expo. A good piece of marketing.
The 360 degree Cosplay camera- stand on a platform, 3, 2, 1, strike a pose. Whether it was a clever recreation of a midair chokehold using “the Force” or simply a mistimed jump- every 360-degree photo brought some kind of joy to subjects and spectators.
The CSGO and Smash Bros. tournaments were held in the pavilion that housed Riot’s League of Legends at EB’s 2014 expo. While not quite as extravagant as Riot’s set-up, the professional CSGO and Smash Bros presentation and casting drew a good number of expo attendees and created quite an atmosphere.
Free Nuka-Cola! Though not in the glass bottle (and therefore without the bottle cap we all want), served for free, out of a trailer on the show floor and with a giant PipBoy giving a thumbs up of approval… free Nuka-Cola was a refreshing addition to the expo.
At EB Expo 2014, the Good Game team hosted a live trivia show to a packed arena. It was the perfect end to the expo and an excellent way to move attendees off the show floor. This year the Good Game team held a series of smaller but similar shows called Good Game Unplugged. They followed each one with a meet and greet. As always, the Good Game team were very welcoming to fans of all ages and preferences- to the extent that Nich “NichBoy” Richardson obliged when a man asked him to sign a pair of used underwear… The only downside to these live shows was the additional $10 ticket required to attend. A disappointing money grab- should have been included in the initial ticket price.
The Sydney Brick Show, while a cool display of a variety of Lego-like creations (and with a crew of lovely brick artisans manning the exhibit- shoutout to Pete!), it seemed somewhat out of place- a bit of a random addition and often overlooked because it was hidden away in the retail area.
The emphasis on retail. Why are a Pokemon store and a Harry Potter store two of the draw cards? This, along with the plethora of novelty knick knack stores, pop culture shops and a guy trying to sell paintball experiences. Who wants to pay X amount of dollars to enter an expo just so they can spend more money on merchandise they could buy elsewhere? Don’t mind me while I flip tails and hurt myself in confusion.
Unlike previous years, EB Expo did not feel like a very accessible event.
Families struggled to keep children entertained all day, as many of the games were far from G or PG rated, and family friendly titles were often hidden away or presented with little fanfare (Nintendo, and Skylanders). This is completely out of the control of EB, and there is more at stake for developers and publishers than worrying about what games will be ready in time for a minor expo- so this comment on the lack of family friendly games on offer is more of an observation rather than a criticism.
For older gamers, the long queues left a sour taste in many mouths. Having waited hours to play just a couple of games, one boy commented that there was no point in buying a ticket unless it was an express pass. Conversely, I overheard someone with an express pass arguing that it offered nothing express. A restriction on express tickets would improve their functional value, but I guess that’s not how a commercial business operates…
On the topic of raking in profits, I wonder if publishers were more conservative with their displays this year because they chose to be or because EB increased the cost of display space? Either way, with the dozens of knick knack and pop culture stores littering the Dome (instead of grand rigging banners, Battlefield tanks, and publisher displays that abused the word verticality), the expo felt very cash-grabby and less like a video game-focussed expo.
A return to the old days of panels, trivia, Q&A sessions, merchandise to be won, general crowd interactivity, and tournaments to be played in, would be much appreciated. Otherwise, EB Expo may lose its bridesmaid status and be relegated to the singles table with Supanova and OzComicon; the conventions that just show up for the free canapés.