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Summer Game Fest is fast approaching, and Geoff Keighley is ready to get out of the house.
“Last year we were kind of, building the plane as we were flying it with the festival because it was the middle of COVID, game companies didn’t know what they were doing,” the curator and veteran video game journalist tells The Hollywood Reporter of the fest’s first go-round, which came together “in a matter of weeks” due to publisher, developer and fan demand and rolled out over several months during pandemic lockdowns, travel restrictions and the general sense of chaos and uncertainty. “It was very patchwork, it ended up being all these events across the summer.”
And then comes the crunch: “I couldn’t leave my house, so I ended up learning to broadcast on Twitch from home. It was insane, I was running the reveal of the PlayStation 5 controller off my PC hoping my home Spectrum internet didn’t cut out,” he laughs (luckily, the connection didn’t drop).
This year’s event begins with an in-studio kickoff on June 10, complete with special guests and musical performances — Keighley describes it to THR as “a bigger moment in time.” He says there are over 30 games involved, and things will be more organized this year because people have had more time to plan things out. “It’s going to be a big blockbuster two-hour showcase.”
But still, there’s a big element from the 2020 event that will return. “What will carry forward from last year is this idea of making a truly digital event that anyone around the world can access,” he says, referencing the fact that with something like an E3 or Comic-Con, consumers often have to “pilgrimage to a certain city, buy an expensive hotel room to take part in these things.”
And there lies the mission for 2021: “I really wanted to build something that’s truly digital, so whether you’re in Los Angeles or you’re a fan in Sweden or India, you can have the same experience around games.” He continues, “We’re going to maintain that idea of global universal access to information, but do things in a more organized fashion with more production value around it, too.”
“I finally get to leave my spare bedroom,” says Keighley, speaking to THR on Zoom from this very bedroom.
As far as curating a show with so many moving parts, this is a process that involves meeting with developers, viewing trailers, sometimes receiving builds of games ahead of time. Along the way, Keighley keeps two key things in mind: “With my showcase shows, I really like to make them agnostic, and also eclectic.” Explaining the former, he says that the platform he offers is one where anyone can come and show content — there’s no preference as far as platform or any other defining factors. “If you’re making a cool game, we’re open for you.”
The eclectic part comes in with Keighley’s aim to have the “biggest game in the world” appear in the show alongside “a small little independent game” from a singular developer. “I like that mix, and that alchemy of having big, small and medium-sized games.”
Of the latter, Keighley says that he takes “the most heart” from exposing young upstart teams in one of his shows, and their game being discovered by the world. “It means so much to me that we can help accelerate the success of something that deserves to be seen.”
He adds that the right mix of genres is also important. “You don’t want to have eight racing games or three MMORPG’s that all look the same.” As Keighley highlights, this is largely what he has been doing for the last two decades: figuring out what mix of titles to offer in a showcase or event of some sort.
As someone who has played games, written and spoken about them for three decades, Keighley attaches himself to the “feel” of a game. “Sometimes it’s the art style, sometimes it’s the fidelity of the animation, sometimes it’s the narrative approach,” he says of what tends to grab his attention. “I always say that a game has to have something that it does exceptionally well that you can look at and say, ‘That’s world-class.'”
For events such as Summer Game Fest, Keighley will take a chance on things knowing that audiences will show up for the “big anchors.” He recalls that last year during Gamescom, there was a small game called Teardown from Swedish developer Dennis Gustafsson. Describing it as “a really cool voxel-based game with all this destruction,” Keighley says that he often has to go and find titles like those. “Those developers aren’t really knocking on our door or emailing us.” In cases like that, Keighley browses Steam and other online spaces to find indie devs and interesting games.
Keighley notes that over 500 games from around the world submitted to the Day of the Devs component, after which a list was curated with previews planned for the SGF showcase. “I love that we can have this big kickoff event with massive games, right into this indie showcase with a lot of titles. “My hope is that people aren’t tuning in to my show and saying, ‘Well I saw exactly what I wanted to see.'” Rather, the idea is for more discovery, for people to find what they came for and see titles they didn’t know about it.
Keighley is not, and has never been, a game developer, and is aware that sometimes the challenge is accepting that the things he might want in a specific event are just simply not ready. (Later, he speculates that it might not be until 2022 that a more regular stream of big game releases will return). On that note, Keighley acknowledges that many have been challenged by being forced into work-from-home situations. “I do think there’ll be good games this year,” he says, adding that expectations should still be managed in terms of what’s shipping this year and ready.
Considering whether Summer Game Fest is something that will happen every year, Keighley says that he’s getting into the mode of having “a big event” happening every quarter. This year’s fest will be followed by Gamescom at the end of August, and The Game Awards in December. Physical components could be an element of Summer Game Fest in 2022, he suggests, but things are up in the air. “I think there’s the possibility for the show to have a physical component, but it’ll always be digital first,” he says. “I’ve thrown out the idea of maybe Summer Game Fest will have expos in multiple countries — something in L.A., also something in London, something in Japan.”
He believes physical conventions will come back in some form, but the onus is going to be on those event producers to create experiences that encompass more than simply lining up to play games at kiosks. “I think a lot of the physical events over the past year have really struggled to digitize their experiences,” he says, adding that it will be interesting to see how E3 does, which takes place in June right after SGF’s kickoff event. “The comic-cons and things like that have struggled to prove their relevancy, especially in a world when so many of these content producers or game companies can speak directly to fans and do their own digital events. You have to add value, you have to do something more around it.”
Whether or not future years warrant a Summer Game Fest, Keighley’s vision is to continue coming up with these showcase-type events on a regular basis. Looking to June, Keighley says “I hope it will be a big month for games overall.”
And in the confines of Keighley’s quarters, one gets the feeling that it’s always a big month for games. Quizzed briefly about recent titles he was “wowed” by, Keighley summons Returnal, which he played “far too much of” on the PlayStation 5. “When you feel the raindrops in your controller, it’s the kind of stuff that I wasn’t expecting.”
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