Is E3 Obsolete?

Last Updated July 5th, 2021

The E3 show floor is looking pretty sparse this year. Electronic Arts, who normally has one of the biggest booths at the show, has decided to skip it entirely. Activision, another large third-party booth, will be absent as well, along with Disney Interactive and Wargaming. Nintendo, once again, won’t be holding a press conference, opting instead to show their new trailers via Nintendo Direct. While they are listed as participating, rumor has it that they, too, won’t have a presence on the show floor.

Many gamers are up in arms about the sudden drop in E3 participation, but this isn’t even a new trend. Last year, Sega skipped E3 for the first year ever. Valve and Rockstar haven’t been to E3 in ages. Company after company is dropping out of the conference, and these aren’t just tiny indie developers who couldn’t afford the cost of a booth.

It makes us ask: is E3 obsolete? Do we even need it anymore?

Why Hold a Conference?

To answer that question, let’s look at the purpose of E3, and of conferences in general.

Conferences are a way to get like-minded people together in the same space, and talking about the same thing. In the case of E3, the Electronics Entertainment Expo, the purpose is to EXPOSE people to new ELECTRONIC ENTERTAINMENT (or, in simple terms, let them check out new video games).

Showing the public and the press a new product brings a lot of benefits if you are a game publisher. It drums up hype for the upcoming release. It gives you valuable feedback on how people will react to your game. It lets you see what was expected, and how your game lives up to those expectations. Heck, sometimes you even pick up ideas for new features simply by listening to what fans say!

Then there are all the benefits on the business side. Aside from the countless meetings that go on behind closed doors, you can use the event to gauge your release day sales by looking at the crowd’s reaction. If you get a negative response, you can either allocate more funding to the team to fix it, or pull the plug on the game all together. Showing people your game before it comes out is just a good idea.

For more on the case for E3, check out what the ESA, the organization behind E3, has said about the conference in response to recent skepticim.

The Price of Publicity

Private press events are expensive. You have to find a space to rent out, hire people to demo your game, and hire security to make sure that only the people you want get in. Then there are the travel expenses. Either you shoulder the travel expenses for game journalists, or risk every out-of-town publication not showing up. And considering that “out-of-town” covers anyone in the international press, these bills can get quite big very quickly.

If you hold your demo at a conference like E3, everything becomes a lot more manageable. Instead of renting out your own event space, you just have to rent out a booth. Instead of paying for travel, the conference holder will subsidize travel expenses.  You don’t have to worry about hiring your own security as the event space will have their own.

Not to mention that it makes it easier on game journalists as well. Instead of going to a million discrete preview events, they can knock out a whole year’s worth of previews in one week! The free food given to us by the event space is also a nice plus.

So conferences are, basically, a cost effective way to show your new games to the public.

Or at least they used to be…

Technology Changes Everything

Back in the days of print journalism, conferences were golden. The internet was young and websites were rare. Press releases were either held as events, recorded, or mailed. The news cycle was slow compared to the 24-hour cycle we have today. A game would come out and it would take weeks or even months for it to be reviewed. And people were OK with waiting for that info, because we didn’t have many options for quick and direct info delivery.

This means the rate at which developers and publishers released new info was also slow, meeting the public’s expectations. A couple of big announcements would release every month, and that was about it.

Back then, this was the main way developers and publishers would interact with the public. There were no news feeds, forums, or social media. Gamers rarely heard about a game before release unless they read about it in a magazine, heard about it at their local game store (which still involved a measure of games journalism), or saw an advertisement for it on TV. So making it easier for magazines to cover your product was in your best interest.

And E3 made it really easy! Not only for the publishers and developers, but for journalists as well. It was headline news. Instead of getting drips of info here and there, you got a huge dump of info about a ton of games all at once. You would pull out all the stops to make sure every single major title at the event was covered. It was the most information dense issue you put out all year, and gamers everywhere would eagerly await your E3 special.

But times have changed. Now we get new gaming news every day directly from game developer’s blogs. Trailers originally had to be watched by a reporter and then written about, whereas today you can just stream them from YouTube. Instead of giving your demos at a convention booth, you can simply let gamers download demos directly to their consoles. Publications upload multiple new text and video editorials every day! Information density has simply gotten more extreme in the Internet age.

Nintendo Drops Out

Nintendo was perhaps the first to figure this out. Year after year, they would hold a gigantic – and expensive – keynote event. When live streaming became the norm, they streamed this event, live, to gamers everywhere. The greater games press and a couple of lucky fans would come and see the press conference in person, and would then go home and write about it, or tell all their friends and family for some sweet word-of-mouth advertising.

But after live-streaming became the norm, nothing the attendees wrote could get to the fans before Nintendo could. Even if an attendee had a working Internet connection (which is always spotty in big event spaces) and even if they were live tweeting, blogging, and updating directly from their seats, it would still hit the Internet, at best, seconds after Nintendo live streamed it.

That’s not to say that games journalism is worthless. All those tweets, blogs, updates, and articles give perspective on big announcements from the mouth of a hopefully unbiased third-party, who isn’t invested in a game company succeeding or failing.  But these journalists are being shown the exact same trailers and exact same keynote speeches as the fans at home. They could just as easily – no, more easily – liveblog the event from the comfort of their own home in their underwear. At least they know their Internet connection would work.

So, why spend the money on a big conference space when you could do the same demos from your offices for practically nothing?

Why, indeed?

Thus Nintendo, one of the Big Three first-party game developers, stopped having press conferences at E3, and more would soon follow.

The Slow Demise of the Booth

While it became rapidly clear that spending a ton of money on a standalone event might be a bad idea, the E3 floor show is dying a much slower death. It’s still a pretty good place to show your game off to the public (the portion of the public that can attend E3, that is), and hands-on experience is completely different from watching a trailer. But a couple of years ago, companies started experimenting with letting gamers download their E3 booth demos at home. Sega, Nintendo’s rival, was oddly enough one of the first companies to do this, allowing gamers to download the E3 demo of Sonic Generations shortly after E3 closed.

Many other companies followed suit, making their demos available during E3 week and letting the general public get their fill. This was much better than waiting in line for hours with people of dubious hygiene. Once again, you could do this from the comfort of your own home, instantly, in your underwear.

Online demos are both more convenient and less expensive, but booth demos still persist, possibly because their problems aren’t as obvious. For example, many booths are redundant. Take the huge setup for Street Fighter V at the Capcom booth at last year’s E3. There was also a huge setup for the same game at the Sony booth, showcasing it as a third-party PS4 game. The lines at the Capcom booth stretched across the hall, while the lines at the Sony booth were non-existent – mostly because few people even knew the setup was there. It was like a secret area that only people in the know were able to use, which was neat for long-time attendees, but didn’t do Capcom or Sony any good.

There are also plenty of years when companies spend money on booths that don’t show us anything. Two years ago, Capcom’s booth was nothing but remakes. That same year, Konami had a huge booth dedicated to Pro Evolution Soccer and JUST Pro Evolution Soccer. I can’t tell you how many years Sega’s booth didn’t have one major console release. It sure seems like a lot of money, time, and effort for these companies to tell us “eh, we’ve got nothing.”

The only thing booth demos grant these companies is greater control over who sees their demo and how, but there’s limited value in that. Maybe it allows a booth rep to explain away a glitch but, frankly, in our world of post-release patches and content updates, I’m not even sure anyone cares about glitch demos anymore.

The New Digital World of E3

What is the advantage of E3 these days, now that all your info can be given directly to the consumer?

Well, it’s a gigantic weeklong party where game journalists are treated like gods and, as a game journalist, I’m in favor of that. But as a businessman, I have to say that E3 isn’t as enticing as it used to be. So when companies like Square Enix save their big reveals, like Final Fantasy XV, for the Tokyo Game Show, I’m not surprised.

But I think there is still some worth in the ceremony of E3. I like that there is a week when all the new game info comes out. I like that gamers wake up early just to drool over live streams, and I enjoy playing the brand new, semi-broken game demos of games that won’t even be coming out for another two years. I like a big game festival, like PAX, but with a real focus on trying new stuff. I like that there’s a sort of rite-of-passage for new game journalists in going to their first E3.

I like the tradition, but tradition doesn’t fund multimillion-dollar events.

With money as the driving factor, eventually most of these AAA/E3 press conferences are going to die. They just aren’t going to be worth it when everyone with an Internet connection can get the info instantly. But E3 will exist in meatspace long after that. The desire to show people your game face-to-face is just too powerful. I think maybe in another 10 years or so, even booths will die in favor of downloadable demos. EA and Nintendo reducing their E3 presence has been a blow, but when Sony or Microsoft duck out, that’s when E3 folds.

Nothing good lasts forever. Not even in gaming.

On the upside, this also means that we will have streamlined the game publicity process to the point that previews and reviews can be done without ever leaving home. That’s incredibly good news for small indie devs who couldn’t afford to go to a big event like this. It also means the world of game journalism will open up to people who don’t have a travel budget. Despite the lack of ceremony, it will be better for everyone. And, hey, if VR catches on, maybe the entire E3 experience will take place in virtual space! Sony already experimented with similar concepts in their failed PlayStation Home.

Who knows, in 10 years, maybe we will all be waiting in line with people of dubious personal hygiene from the comfort of our own homes, in our VR headsets and underwear.

Living the dream. 

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