Video games are here to stay — that much should be obvious. We've come a long way since the days when people who enjoyed gaming were considered weird or (gasp!) nerds. Sure, the medium still carries its share of stigma, but just about everyone plays games in some fashion these days.
The medium's triumph was inevitable once Internet-capable computers made it into most homes in the developed world, and once most people began carrying tiny computers in their pockets or purses. People who would never have considered playing a video game 20 years ago are only too happy to kill a few minutes messing around with Candy Crush Saga or coming up with baroque terms in Words With Friends. The same muscleheads who beat up nerds for playing video games a decade ago now work out those murderous aggressions on 12-year-old strangers in Call of Duty.
But as games have grown — and grown more profitable! — the nature of the medium has changed. So, too, has the industry. The fact that game publishers have polarized into makers of very expensive retail products or makers of very inexpensive mobile phone games should come as a surprise to no one by now; the industry has been moving in that direction for years. In Japan, the schism isn't happening, it's long since happened. The same thing is going down in the U.S., squeezing all but a tiny number of middle-tier publishers into the mobile or independent space as the business migrates to extremes.
As the industry changes, so too must E3. After all, E3 is the main trade event for the games business and has been for 20 years: A place not only for the press to gush over the next big things but — more importantly — for publishers and retailers and venture capitalists to get together and figure out what to fund and what to sell in the coming months. Amidst the corporate pep rallies and flashy booths, it's easy to forget that the real mission of E3 is to let retail buyers get a sense of what's big this fall so they can play kingmakers.
Retail is only a single facet of the games business these days, though, and it's quickly losing out to digital distribution — services that require no big central events, and no seasonal buys or preorders. E3 is fun to watch from afar and interesting to cover up close, but the show has faded into a mere shadow of what it was a decade ago. Granted, that former self was often a bloated mess — a business wallowing in excess — but even so, E3 wasn't only packed with spectacle a decade ago. It was packed with publishers and games... something that nowadays seems less true with each passing year. A glance at the E3 2015 show floor map reveals more empty booths than in previous years in both halls of the L.A. Convention Center, and notable players like Sega won't even be present (Yu Suzuki's forklift trolling on social media not withstanding). Meanwhile, the ESA has opened the show to "prosumers" — fans, basically — presumably in an attempt to bolster the event's drooping attendance numbers.
Video games may be here to stay, but I'm not convinced the same holds true for E3. Unless the show evolves to make itself relevant to the changing reality of video games, I can't imagine it limping on for much longer. At this point, showing up to E3 seems almost a game of brinksmanship for many publishers; big companies sinking insane amounts of money into grand press conferences to prove they're serious contenders. But then you have Nintendo, who realized they could get even better PR by ditching their conference altogether and broadcasting streams of announcements and demos all week long. The company dominated forums and social media last year despite their "conference" consisting of a pre-recorded video, and this year they've divorced themselves even further from E3 by dropping the small gatherings of press for their traditional streams and post-show roundtable. Nintendo capitalizes on E3 without really playing the E3 game, and it seems only a matter of time before everyone else follows suit.
By no means am I suggesting that I want E3 to go away, or even that it should. It's a valuable rallying point for the industry — or for the industry's old guard, anyway. But the companies we know and love and patronize represent only a fraction of the business these days, and a fraction that seems to have hit a plateau. E3 needs to evolve or die. Hopefully, it will evolve.
Whatever the case, though, my gut feeling says we're at an "end of days" point for E3. This is my 12th time to cover the show, and over the years I've watched it struggle to keep up with the changing nature of the business it represents. The independent and mobile game spaces continue to grow while big-budget packaged retail stagnates, and the people who run or exhibit at E3 still haven't figured out how to embrace those new sectors. I suspect we'll see even more attention paid to indies at Sony and Microsoft's conferences than was last year, but the emphasis will still be on Uncharted and Halo. Certainly Bethesda's pre-show conference was all about going big. And while that strategy works well for some of the major players, the divide between the handful of giants and everyone else only continues to widen. A dozen super-publishers aren't enough to sustain E3, and therein lies the show's challenge
This will be the driving focus of my E3 writing this year. Not a prophesy of doom, but rather a search for signs that the event is changing — or, possibly, ominous hints that it remains mired in the past, waiting for an extinction event. I'll have my fingers crossed as I take my demos and meet with developers. Games are here to stay, and I hope E3 is, too — whatever mutant form it has to take in order to survive.