What Does the Future Hold for E3?

What Does the Future Hold for E3?

Gaming's biggest annual event isn't really the biggest anymore. How will the evolving nature of video games change E3 in the coming years? Team USgamer contemplates the future.

Jeremy Parish, Editor-in-chief:

Next week we'll be covering the 20th Electronic Entertainment Expo (it would be the 22nd, but I don't count those two sad years it took place in an aircraft hangar in Santa Monica). Two decades is a long time in video game years! When E3 debuted back in 1995, the PlayStation hadn't arrived in the U.S., Nintendo was still calling their upcoming console "Ultra 64," and Microsoft was more concerned with licensing Rolling Stones music to promote a new operating system than with joining the console race. Much has changed in the years since E3 first split off from the Consumer Electronics Show, and for the most part those changes haven't been kind to E3.

Honestly, this year's E3 has shaped up to resemble something an awful lot like those dire Santa Monica events. The show may be in its usual convention center locale, but a lot of major publishers won't be showing up, or else they'll be showcasing their games off-site in nearby hotels. The event has been hurting for several years now, and at this point it kind of feels like Vince Vaughn's final scenes in True Detective: A bloody, dying corpse dragging itself across the desert through sheer force of desperation. At some point, it's going to look back and realize it's actually been dead for the past 50 yards or so.

Jaz, you've been attending the show from the very beginning, so you have the clearest perspective on all this. What's your take on this year's E3?

Jaz Rignall, Editor-at-large:

Video gaming's yearly jamboree is in a tough spot right now. Historically, and I'm talking all the way back to the 80's when the video game industry was still part of CES, it's been a trade show whose primary purpose was about generating Q3 and Q4 retail sales. Gaming companies would meet with brick and mortar stores to show their wares and book orders for the holiday season. It was important for those publishers and developers to make a really impressive splash to show retailers that they a) had good products and b) had plenty of money to market them, thus bringing customers flooding into stores.

The other aspect of E3 that has traditionally been important for gaming companies is building good press and industry buzz for their products. That essentially gave publishers two very good reasons to attend the show. Nowadays, however, the rise of digital distribution has taken the edge off the importance of retail, and there are numerous conventions throughout the year where gaming companies can show off their games, such as PAX, the Sony Showcase, and even the San Diego Comic Convention. I even think the rise of open and closed Betas has become a part of many companies' marketing programs, enabling them to get their products into consumers' hands as way of a demo.

The point being that the dramatic changes the industry has undergone over the past decade, combined with the sheer expense of attending E3 is causing some companies to question its worth. And this year we're seeing some publishers going solo with their own standalone mini-events. It's clear that E3 needs to change with the times, but what should it evolve into? Or has its time passed? I guess that's what we're about to discuss. Over to you, Mike.

As the game industry shrinks into conservatism, so too does E3… and the opportunities for outlandish weirdness at the show. Like Ravi Drums.

Mike Williams, Associate Editor:

I think Jaz hit on the salient point here. There's no reason to throw everything at E3 anymore. For one, there's a ton of other events that you can reveal a game at: PAX East/West/South, Gamescom, EGX, San Diego Comic Con, and more. I'm seeing some games at E3 that I've already seen at other shows.

Then there's the publisher-specific events, like the PlayStation Experience, Blizzcon, Firaxicon, EVE FanFest, Quakecon, and Paradoxcon. Don't feel like starting your own live event? Go online! Nintendo has had a ton of success with Nintendo Direct on YouTube and other reveals have simply happened on a developer's official Twitch channel.

The second point is that there's no reason for everyone to flood the market with games during the holiday season. It used to be that publishers would show their wares at E3 and try to rise above the pack prior to a fourth quarter launch. These days, while sales are stronger during the holiday season, publishers have that there are other months in which games can find success. We just reached June and have already had a ton of great releases this year, including Overwatch, Dark Souls III, XCOM 2, Fire Emblem Fates, Far Cry Primal, Uncharted 4, and Doom.

Part of E3's hustle and bustle was because it was the only game in town. That might've been true 20 years ago, but these days, companies have a ton of ways to reach consumers. Even on the retail side of things, the major games are always carried regardless and smaller games have digital storefronts like Steam, PlayStation Store, and Xbox Store. I don't know what the answer is when it comes to fixing E3, as I honestly just think the show will have to contend with being one of many. The time period is still useful for publisher, hence the local EA Play and Ubisoft events, but there's no real reason to be on the E3 showfloor outside of convenience for the press.

Kat, being on the West Coast, you end up going to events on a regular basis, do you get much out of E3 at this point?

Kat Bailey, Senior Editor:

I do, actually. One point I think a lot of people are missing is that E3 is still gaming's single biggest event. The whole world converges on LA for E3, and not just the gaming press either. E3 is the one week out of the year that all eyes turn toward the videogame industry and our hobby matters. Granted, publishers don't always put their best foot forward for E3, but the fact that it's based in the U.S. and serves as the debut for many of the year's biggest games allows it to take on a global importance that other events can't match.

Much has been made about the decline in influence of these "event" games - Stardew Valley's outsized success on Steam is proof enough of that - but they are still front-and-center for mainstream audiences. We can spend all day extolling the virtues of our favorite niche games, but the games that will ultimately dominate the holiday season will be familiar names like Madden, Call of Duty, and Watch Dogs, all of which will feature prominently at E3 (if not necessarily on the showfloor). EA, Ubisoft, and Activision may not have a physical booth, but they will all still be there in one way or another, with the former two hosting press conferences.

Mostly, publishers are realizing that it's not really worth having a massive booth on the showfloor. Why share the spotlight with Microsoft, Sony, and your competitors when you can piggyback on E3's hype with your own event? I for one am delighted that EA is hosting an offsite event rather than trying to cram me into their customarily awful booth. I'll be a lot more worried about E3's clout if publishers actually stop attending the show entirely, which was Tokyo Game Show's fate. As it is, E3 2016's show floor will be less crowded, but I'm not really sure I agree with all these dire predictions.

What's your take, Nadia?

Sony pulled out all the stops to make its 2015 press conference an exercise in fan service, but it's hard to imagine anyone being able to load that much wish fulfillment into this year's presentations.

Nadia Oxford, Contributing Writer

I think you’re onto something, Kat. Ironically, E3 may be losing its relevance for game enthusiasts who keep their ears to the ground, e.g. all of us, but there’s no denying E3 still has considerable pull for the world at large, and I don’t see that changing in a huge hurry. The mainstream media will send reporters and photographers to E3, but they’re not going to do that for PAX (except maybe for a “lol look at these stupid millennials cosplaying as Marvel superheroes” fluff-piece, God help us).

I still get excited about E3 and everything that comes with it, but at the same time I can’t say I’m sad to watch E3’s hype cool down a touch. Heck, most of us on-staff have been covering the event in some regard for over a decade, and let’s face it -- we’re not spring chocobos any more. E3 takes a lot out of the people who cover it, both physically and mentally. If the industry wants to spread out its big reveals across several events through a single year, I’m A-OK with that. But I don’t think that means E3’s life force is on route to be snuffed out.

Something I told Kat and Mike earlier is, I think we’re witnessing a kind of maturation of E3. Look at how many game reveals happened in the week leading up to E3 this year: Watch Dogs 2 and Injustice 2 are a couple of good examples. Just a few years ago, we’d be seeing those trailers on a screen in a darkened theatre. Now E3 itself will (presumably) be dedicated to a lower-key showing of the game you know is coming. Sure, these “spoilers” make for fewer mind-blowing moments -- no “Reaction Guy” meme-fodder here like we had with the Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess reveal oh-so long ago -- but I think a more subdued E3 fed on a lowered-hype diet is beneficial for the show, the industry, and the people who are involved in both. We’re all getting older and creakier (sorry).

Jeremy, you have far more hands-on experience with E3 than I do. Do you think maybe your dire prediction for E3’s fate will wind up being more of a transition than an out-and-out death?

Jeremy:

I think E3's addition of (limited) general attendance this year points the way toward the show's future. As Jaz mentioned, its original purpose — a business convention to allow publishers to make sales to retailers — has been greatly diminished by the fact that game publishing has largely moved away from retail. I think the number I saw recently was that annual retail releases have decreased by about 75% over the past decade. That tracks with how the show has shrunken in that time; while it still occupies a fair amount of floor space, the density of different games being shown in those two halls has plummeted. Publishers are putting out fewer games each year, and fewer publishers are dealing with retail.

I don't think E3's central purpose will ever go away entirely. As long as there's a games business, some publishers will want to get their products into stores, and June is the ideal time for retailer buyers to make their holiday purchasing decisions. But the show's place as the big centerpiece event for major reveals will continue to diminish as the industry evolves. Separate console generations look like they're about to go the way of the dodo, with incremental upgrades taking their place. So E3 becomes more like Apple's annual iPhone press conference, where you don't get shocking, amazing announcements of things you've always dreamed of but rather the latest revision of the perpetual consoles.

Instead of being the place to go for having your mind blown — something the game industry no longer does anyway, now that everyone plays it safe and avoids risk — E3 scales down a bit and becomes just another event throughout the year. But thanks to its positioning and importance for sales, it continues to pull in important development talent and first-look demos… and as it increasingly opens its doors to the public, it begins to compete more directly with the likes of PAX and GamesCom. A link between developers and the public.

Or am I just crazy? Bob?

Nintendo's shift away from standard press conferences no doubt saved them tons of money, allowed them to present carefully controlled demos with no Skyward Sword-like interference frustrations, and began a domino effect of publishers abandoning E3 itself.

Bob Mackey, Senior Writer:

I don't think E3 will ever go away for good. If anything, it's slowly transforming into a more public-facing event for the sake of survival. Rather than having to wait for information to filter through the press, video game fans have been able to stream the many conferences for a while; I'm actually working the show from home for the second year in a row, simply because these days you really don't need to be there. Sure, you can sit in line for four hours to play one of this fall's hottest new releases, plenty of other events now exist where you can do exactly this without having to travel to Los Angeles. Just by sitting on your couch, you can absorb all the same information we do, except you won't be forced to subsist on eight-dollar slices of grocery store frozen pizza for a week.

While the traditional press presence has shrunk a bit to allow in YouTubers and streamers, E3 still serves us and publishers in a huge way simply by giving us access to people. Interviews happen at other events, obviously, but E3 is basically the one thing everyone has to attend. And while most of the time we're there to talk about their new games, E3 offers plenty of possibilities to pick the brains of industry legends that would otherwise be inaccessible. You may need to distract a PR person to make this happen, though.

Ultimately, we human are creatures of habit, and E3 isn't likely to disappear, simply for a fact that It's Just a Thing We Do. It may change in shape, size, or function, but regardless, we industry folks are all going to work our butts off extra hard for one week in June until some sort of Mad Max scenario eventually happens to California. A word to the wise: Ubisoft runs Barter Town.

So I guess we're in agreement that E3 can never die?

Mike:

I don't think it will ever die. Organizational inertia will keep E3 alive for a very long time, I just don't think it's the only game in town anymore. E3 Week is important because everyone is there to cover the games and the events surrounding the games. But E3 the show is increasingly less important, because publishers can simply run their own events.

These events have a few benefits: the press is going to come, because without a showfloor booth, this is the only way we're seeing these games. Fans actually have a chance to play the games, which will help with word of mouth. And the growing coverage of YouTube and Twitch creators is easily handled, instead of having to go through the rigamarole of E3's registration.

E3 tried to tackle the latter problem last year with its "prosumer" program, allowing publishers a certain number of badges they could give away to the YouTube and Twitch crowd. But that's really a kludge, an attempt to fix what's seen as a growing problem. They really need some way to tackle these new forms of coverage and I feel they're slow to move in that direction, possibly because they're trying to keep the "professional" feel of the show alive.

I honestly don't know what the answer is for E3 moving forward.

Six years ago, Konami published so many games that the company needed its own bizarre press conference. Today, the company barely publishes games at all. That's the industry, and E3, in a nutshell.

Jaz:

I think the big question to ask is why are companies breaking away and doing their own events? Is it to stand out? Because they believe something is missing from E3? Because it's less expensive? Or simply because E3 no longer serves their needs?

Bottom line, you can't have a show if nobody turns up, and that's really the crux of the issue here. How long will the show be viable if big companies don't pay big money to cover the exorbitant expense of renting the LA convention center? Or perhaps we're overreacting, and there really isn't that much of a problem? Perhaps the future of E3 is simply a smaller event, with the big publishers doing their own thing during E3 week, with mid and lower-tier companies still attending the show, because it's not economically viable for them to go it alone?

Mike:

So E3 would become something like South by Southwest? A whole bunch of smaller venues within a general area during a specific period of time?

Jaz:

That would definitely make sense — it's already evolving that way, so if E3's organizers could embrace that, perhaps they could build a show around that concept. It would make for a more interesting E3, that's for sure.

Jeremy:

I'd be OK with that… but if that does turn out to be the case, for the love of god, can we move it out of downtown L.A.?

As a wise man once said, "As long as two executives want to expense a lunch meeting, E3 will always exist in some form."

Kat:

It's hard for me to say what E3 has to do to evolve. On the one hand, it only focuses on one very specific aspect of the industry. True, it has a PC gaming show and an indie area; but it doesn't really encapsulate the magnitude of the success of, say, Hearthstone or Clash Royale. Then again, it may not need to. E3 may be best-suited to being a showcase for the year's biggest triple-A games. In other words, a mucher noisier version of the Cannes Film Festival.

In the short-term, I really don't think that E3 is in that much trouble. It's still the biggest event of the year; and even publishers like EA are "pulling out," they're still holding press conferences and piggybacking on the event's energy. E3 streams on Youtube, Facebook, and Twitch will pull in thousands of views just for the press conferences alone. It's a long way from the sadness that is TGS, which is now mostly dominated by mobile developers.

In the long-term, E3's relevance will mostly depend on the relevance of triple-A gaming. In the past few years we've seen tentpole games dwindle as big publishers become more risk averse, but they've also doubled down on the likes of Fallout 4 — games that have the potential to be true mega-hits. Those are the games that E3 was pretty much made for.

So basically, call me in 10 years. It may be that the no-console future has finally arrived, Nintendo and Microsoft have pulled out of the industry, and triple-A games have dwindled to nothing. If that's the case, then I think E3 has plenty of reason to be worried. Until then, I expect it to be just as noisy and exhausting as always.

It'll be fun. I think.

We're at E3 next week, covering the year's biggest gaming event. Be sure to check out all our coverage on our E3 2016 hub!

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