No matter the season, Geoff Keighley is never far from your screen. In warmer weather – well, this week, in fact – Keighley is responsible for all things Summer Game Fest, the gaming showcase which has played host to the games industry’s flashiest news and announcements in recent years. By winter, meanwhile, the games journalist and presenter is back to hosting The Game Awards – a show which celebrates each year’s greatest hits and provides a glimpse into what the next 12 months will bring. A writer-turned-host who’s now arguably the face of the games industry, Keighley acknowledges his position with a laugh: “Now I’m just Mr. Video Game Awards, right?”
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When industry staple E3 was cancelled due to COVID in 2020, it was Keighley who stepped up to organise Summer Game Fest. In a practical sense, the show is a necessary way to keep fans in the loop about the world’s most exciting up-and-coming games. However, it also fills a spiritual void that was left with the departure of E3 – which is still yet to return. For the industry, summer is synonymous with sun-soaked conferences starring big-hitters like Nintendo, Sony and Xbox. Having the year’s biggest announcements crammed into one hectic event meant E3 held a special place in the hearts of gamers – and when that was jeopardised by the pandemic, Keighley created Summer Game Fest because he didn’t want that magic to die.
“I think it’s important for the industry to come together for a big moment! I love the cross pollination of games and ideas,” Keighley tells NME. “That’s something I hope we can continue with Summer Game Fest. We’re proud that we built it in the pandemic and continue to build it – I think it’s important because we love that moment in time. For my whole life, since I was a young boy, I always loved the summer[‘s] big video game moments – we’ve got to keep it going!”
Looking back, Keighley says a lifetime of “big video game moments” first fuelled his desire to carry E3’s torch. From being “wowed” by Nintendo’s 1996 reveal of Super Mario 64 which took the series into 3D for the first time, to Summer Game Fest’s jaw-dropping Elden Ring trailer last year, Keighley explains: “When I was a kid [and] going to E3, I got excited about those press conferences and those big announcements, and I’m sure in some ways that inspired me to say, hey, let’s keep this going- let’s create those big moments for fans. There are definitely moments from my childhood that inspired me to do what I’m doing today.”
However, the industry has undergone major changes since Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto was wowing young Keighley with Super Mario 64 – namely, the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc with what publishers considered the norm just several years ago. Despite the dramatic shake-up, though, Keighley believes the games industry is “in a great spot overall” – even if 2022 has turned into what he calls a “COVID gap year.”
“COVID has finally caught up with the game industry [with] a lot of delays. So I think there are fewer games coming out in the second half of this year than we’d like,” admits Keighley, though he also notes that the first few months of the year were still crammed with the releases of major games like Elden Ring, Sifu, a Destiny’s Witch Queen expansion and Horizon Forbidden West.
The rest of 2022 looks quiet for major game launches (Starfield and Breath Of The Wild 2 have both been pushed back to 2023), but Keighley – who has spent his downtime obsessed with “awesome” Zelda-like Tunic and Valve‘s Steam Deck – is optimistic that our favourite games don’t always need to come from major publishers to make it to the spotlight anymore.
“We’re seeing a lot of outside funding and independent teams being able to find success and do things on their own,” explains Keighley. “Last year’s Game Awards, we didn’t have any announcements from EA or Ubisoft, and it didn’t matter as much because there’s so many independent studios out there that are making really interesting things. That’s exciting to me. You don’t have to go through a big traditional publisher anymore to really get noticed and make a game – I think that’s going to allow for even more creativity.”
It’s not the only trend that Keighley is optimistic about; in fact, Keighley feels delighted by how far gaming has come in recent years. Laughing, Keighley recalls applying to a university years ago and mentioning CD ROMs in his application, resulting in a confused call from the admissions staff to ask what that meant. Back then, Keighley says the general public “didn’t understand or get games,” but today, Keighley thinks they’re recognised as a “powerful creative medium to both tell stories, but also to build and create things.”
“Gaming is ubiquitous now – everyone plays! I think the introduction of these new cloud and streaming platforms [like] Game Pass, just makes gaming easier to access and more palatable to more people. I think games have firmly established themselves as the top of the food chain in entertainment. Those of us that have played games have always felt that way but now, I think they’ve been rightfully kind of anointed as something really special. And still, all of us love to watch movies and watch streaming shows – I think games are right in the mix with everything else out there. It’s a good time to be in games.”
“And [with] the whole streaming world around it, [gaming’s] just changed so much,” he continues. “Games, as I said, have taken their rightful place at the top of the entertainment landscape, but it certainly hasn’t always been that way. I think everyone’s now realised if you do put the time in, it’s a powerful experience.”
The rise of subscription-based services like Xbox Game Pass and PS Plus have been one of the industry’s biggest developments in recent years, and it’s yet another area of gaming that Keighley is optimistic about. In particular, he hopes the market will create a better environment for smaller, shorter games to thrive.
“I like short session games. I think that’s one of the things subscription services like Game Pass, I hope will introduce – like: ‘hey, here’s a two hour game- play it, have fun!’ It’s not [about] this old math that everyone used to do where it’s like: ‘oh, it’s only eight hours of gameplay for $60. So that equates to X dollars an hour, right?’ When I play a game, and I get hooked on something, it’s all I can think about. It takes over my life, and I just have to finish it because there’s no other way for me to think about anything else until I get that game done! That speaks to the power of the medium, but it’s also tough when it’s like…my whole weekend is just gone, because I’m playing a game. You get older, you have other obligations in life. And that’s why I hope there’ll be more games that are distributed in different formats. It’s not a negative thing to have a game that’s a little bit shorter!”
With all that said, Keighley does note that although he’s “anxiously awaiting” a proper subscription service from Nintendo, he’s “not a believer” that everything will suddenly become subscription-based, and says major games like Grand Theft Auto 6 will likely remain too valuable to put on a subscription service from day one.
Elsewhere, the last few years have seen the industry experimenting with the metaverse, a term for hosting digital events that were previously performed in person. Earlier in the year, Roblox vice president Jon Vlassopulos told NME that artists will be able to “launch and sustain successful careers virtually” without having to turn up to venues and play in-person, while a slew of the music industry’s biggest stars – from Ariana Grande to Lizzo – have put that into practice with gigs in Fortnite and Roblox. Back in 2019, Star Wars fans will have spotted Keighley hosting an exclusive clip premier for The Rise Of Skywalker in Fortnite months before the Coronavirus pandemic pushed these types of events into the mainstream.
Though certain industry giants such as Xbox head Phil Spencer have questioned the validity of Silicon Valley’s idea of the metaverse, Keighley says he’s “very excited” to see how the concept will change storytelling for game developers, and hopes it will be used more in the future. “I love [metaverse storytelling], and everyone going through a story experience together. I hope there’s gonna be more of that moving forward. I think it’s really fertile ground for creativity and innovation.”
“I just try and stay ahead of what’s next and what’s exciting,” adds Keighley, who says that he feels “very lucky to do what I get to do” with Summer Game Fest and The Game Awards.
Getting to spotlight the future of gaming is where Keighley is happiest, and he has no interest in leveraging that position to make a game of his own. “I’ve never seen what I do as a gateway to go and make my game,” says Keighley. “That used to always be a question: ‘Hey, you’re a journalist, when are you going to go work as a game company?’. I’ve never seen that as my end game,” he adds, though says he’d “love” to do a podcast or documentary if creating Summer Game Fest and The Game Awards didn’t take up so much of his time. Still, getting to create those shows and put game developers in the spotlight isn’t something he’d trade.
“These developers work for years to create their projects, and the fact they entrust us to share them with the world… I’m very humbled by that, and I’m grateful that we get to share that work with the world so personally. It’s fulfilling.”
Continuing, Keighley shares that the responsibility of announcing these projects is something he takes very seriously: “When we have one of these bigger shows we have sometimes 30, 40, 50 different people who all trust us to share their news with the world. So you want to do right by them, and that’s what keeps me and my team up at night: making sure that we are as close to perfect as possible for these partners.”
With Summer Game Fest right around the corner (June 9, mark your calendar), Keighley couldn’t be happier with how far the showcase has come, as well as where he’s at professionally. “I’m deeply, deeply honoured that people bring us their work and want to share it with the world.”