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Lasers, flames and Keanu Reeves - Xbox show us the wisest way to waste money at E3 2019

An image of Phil Spencer at the Xbox E3 2019 conference
(Image credit: Casey Rodgers/Invision for Xbox/AP Images)

There’s a popular phrase in marketing, dating back to the 19th century American merchant John Wanamaker: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, the problem is I don’t know which half”. In the digital era, it’s lampooned as a relic of a bygone age, with most advertising attached to endless statistics around reach, engagement and return on investment. At E3 2019, Xbox didn’t just waste half its advertising spend, it obliterated it in a display of lasers, fireworks, flames, a life-size Lego supercar and ONLY THE ACTUAL KEANU REEVES. The Xbox E3 conference was a reckless, wasteful ode to times past - and, as such, a complete triumph.

Conventional wisdom dictates that the E3 games show is a regal folly and the press conference is its court jester. Pre-recorded gameplay streams, as championed by Nintendo’s slick Nintendo Direct demos - or, more recently, Sony’s State of Play broadcasts - are the best way to show off your game to the widest audience; and the concept of companies competing through costly stage shows antiquated and needlessly antagonistic. Conventional wisdom is an ass. The Xbox E3 2019 show was a glorious, wasteful triumph of emotion over logic - and Microsoft’s genius might be wasting their money when rivals chose to sit out.

Keanu Reeves reduces the crowd to mush at the Xbox E3 2019 conference.

Keanu Reeves reduces the crowd to mush at the Xbox E3 2019 conference. (Image credit: Casey Rodgers/Invision for Xbox/AP Images)

When Keanu Reeves stepped on stage, a colleague sat next to me - a 10-year industry veteran of relative unflappability - entered a state of near-catatonic shock. We pinched each other’s arms. We cheered and traded grins down the aisle of seats with delighted strangers. Outside the show hall, the talk was all "How good was that?", with many declaring it the best E3 cameo of all-time. If the Microsoft Theater wasn’t rowdy enough when Reeves appeared at the end of the Cyberpunk 2077 trailer, the ripple of shock when they opened a small door at the side of the stage could be felt on the hairs of your arms. They can’t? Can they? OMIGODKEANU! The highlight, of course, was Keanu describing Cyberpunk as breathtaking, only for someone to shout "You’re breathtaking!".

In cold engagement terms, that’s the creation of a meme that endless marketing roundtables could never legislate. Emotionally, it just felt good. Like you were part of an unscripted pantomime, or - as trite as it sounds - a ‘moment.’ And while Keanu was the highlight, Xbox pulled out all the stops to make its conference the best physical event it could be: on-stage fireworks, a blinding laser, sensational cinema-scale 4K monitors, bass notes loud enough to rupture your internal organs, a life-size Lego supercar. A preposterous Gears of War mood video scored by the world’s hottest pop artist. Tim Schafer making jokes at Microsoft’s expense.

This sheer stagecraft and pageantry is what E3 has always been about - and if the interactive entertainment industry can’t engage in such glorious folly, then where else? The history of video games has been defined by big E3 moments: Shigeru Miyamoto appearing at the 2004 Nintendo conference waving a Zelda sword and shield, Sony’s Ken Kuturagi holding aloft a silver PS3 the size of his head, crowds of hundreds gathering to watch the Metal Gear Solid 2 trailer every hour, on the hour, for three days. For further proof of the power of a live event versus a pre-recorded stream, look at Ikumi Nakamura bounding onto the stage at the Bethesda E3 2019 conference. With a simple wave and an honest admission of on-stage nerves, everyone watching felt emotionally connected to the reveal of Nakamura's enigmatic new game Ghostwire.

Even E3’s press conference disasters lent otherwise faceless corporate publishers some personality and edge, like the time comedian Jamie Kennedy ‘died’ on stage at the Activision conference, culminating in a chat panel with himself, skateboarder Tony Hawk and Guns n Roses drummer Slash. Or that infamous / amazing Konami E3 2010 conference where developer Tak Fuji promised ‘One million twoobs’, before the crowd were treated to live Lucha Libre wrestling. Not to mention the developer who refused to step aside during the Silent Hill Downpour demo while staring into his colleagues' soul. Ubisoft’s Mr Caffeine. The list goes on.

Do these moments of comedy help to sell games? It’s almost impossible to track, but it’s worth noting that purchasing decisions - especially around complex items - are often emotional, not rational. Neuroscience and behavioral science can dramatically improve sales performance, claims the influential Hoffeld Group. A Harvard Professor argued that 95% of buying decisions were subconscious. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio did studies on people with damage in the areas of the brain where emotions are created. His biggest finding was that they all struggled to make decisions. Even when presented with the simple choice of chicken or turkey, with no rational way to decide, they were unable to choose.

I posed a (slightly leading) Twitter poll to ask if people felt more favorably about Xbox after their E3 2019 conference. Of 900+ replies, 86% of people felt more positive / neutral about Xbox, with only 14% feeling more negatively. Given the intensely polarising nature of Twitter, with many die-hard Sony fans voting against Xbox, this suggests a positive afterglow for Microsoft from the conference.

Regardless of the science, it's far from ludicrous to suggest that Sony used its E3 2013 conference to change the direction of the impending PS4 vs Xbox One console war. With Microsoft having threatened to control the trade of pre-owned games, Sony took the opportunity to shoot a reactive video which better captured the public mood, which explained how to trade games on PS4. The news was relayed at the conference with delightful restraint by CEO Jack Tretton, leading to 30 seconds of deafening applause. When the crowd finally died down, Jack added, understatedly: “I guess that’s a good thing”. A moment of stagecraft, sure, but in cementing PS4 as *the* home for gamers, Sony’s console went on to outsell just shy on 90 million units (Jan 2019) vs just short of 42 million Xbox Ones (Jan 2019). In pure revenue terms, at circa $200 a console, you could argue that Sony’s 21 second E3 video was worth $9.6 billion.

Keanu Reeves, and Xbox’s delightfully anachronistic E3 2019 conference, is unlikely to have such a significant impact, and there are bigger arguments about the lack of game footage in the presentation, or how well the mood of the room translated to the home viewing audience who will ultimately decide Microsoft’s fate. What is true, is that among the journalists, developers, influencers, business people and fans who attended the Xbox conference - who are currently swapping tales across Los Angeles conference halls, show floors, and bars - I’m yet to hear anyone talking about Sony. Xbox might have wasted tens of millions of dollars putting on a show, but to quote Keanu Reeves, the reaction of those who attended can be summarised as "whoa."

Keep up to date with the best E3 2019 games in our regularly updated list.

GamesRadar+'s Global Editor-in-Chief. Loves spreadsheets, percentages and, to a greater extent, The Walking Dead, Metal Gear Solid and 33% of the game modes in Star Wars: Battlefront.