E3 finally has reason to be worried

Time to wave goodbye

The ‘E3 is dying’ angle has become something of a cliché over the last five years or so. Every year there will be a few sites eager to toll the bells for the industry’s most famous expo, yet every year it returns, dominating the games news as it does so. This year however, the idea seems to have some weight behind it. There’s reason to believe that in just a few years, E3 will be severely weakened – if it’s still around at all.

E3 used to be the gaming event of the year. All the biggest announcements were made there and only there, with little more than juicy rumours and the odd review to keep journalists busy for the six weeks before. This state of affairs has slowly but surely reversed itself over time, to the point where last year’s show contained almost nothing that hadn’t been explored in detail weeks or even months before. This year, all three console manufacturers have made their big announcements and/or will make their big announcements outside of E3. This includes two brand new consoles. Rockstar aren’t going to bother attending at all, and they have GTA V this year.

Make no mistake, E3 2013 will still be a grand affair. Very nearly almost all the publishers, big and small, will be there (not to mention dozens of peripheral manufacturers who see the expo as an excellent way of gaining publicity). There will be big-name games, some of which will open themselves up to people outside their respective companies for the very first time. The point is, though, that it’s a safe bet that we already know about almost all of these games. From a consumer’s point of view, all that will be new is a handful of screenshots and a tidal wave of trailers.

Except that this time round, that’s not strictly true.

Iwata and bananas are coming down the stairs…

Nintendo recently announced that they will be making an undisclosed number of their E3 demos available to the public – in the US at least – via Best Buy stores. For the first time, one of the biggest names in the industry will be offering playable versions of their E3 showcase (albeit in a somewhat restricted way) to the public at the same time as game journalists. This, combined with the Nintendo Direct broadcasts which are now fairly regularly fed to the public, could be a glimpse of the future which is destined to drag E3 kicking and screaming out of the picture. Time and time again, other companies follow Nintendo’s lead. This would be very different to mimicking hardware and software ideas of course, but… could it happen?

Let’s step back a moment and consider the bigger picture. The most important question, surely, is: Why would companies even want to abandon E3? After all, Nintendo are still to attend this year, despite the public demos and Nintendo Directs. The answer is simple: Money. It’s been well documented that the industry is now in the bizarre situation where a major release can sell multiple millions of copies within just a few weeks, yet still underperform. It’s well known, too, that many companies have been shut down (or have been forced to shut themselves down) over the last few years due to the harsh economic climate. In the games industry of 2013, it’s obvious why companies are drifting away from the world-famous, but expensive, E3.

On the other side, why would companies want E3 to stay? The oversimplified answer is, of course, that it’s an excellent way of promoting products they have on shelves or will have in the near future; which it is. There is a possibility though, however small, that Nintendo’s approach could – eventually – reach its natural conclusion. Nintendo Direct is clearly produced with a minimalist budget, but it does exactly what it is intended to do. Relying on these broadcasts alone for announcements would save Nintendo a lot of money, and it’s highly unlikely that this fact hasn’t occurred to executives in various other companies (as well as within Nintendo itself of course) Just take a look at Xbox Wire, launching just in time for the official announcement of Microsoft’s new machine. Much more intriguing, however, is Nintendo’s new decision to give the public a chance to play several E3 titles for themselves.

If that picture accurately depicts an “exciting” time on Xbox Campus, you shouldn’t hold your hopes for the next Xbox too high.

At the moment, the aforementioned demos are set to be limited to Best Buy stores in America and Canada. There’s no indication that they’ll be democratised worldwide via the eShop – though we can but dream. Imagine, however, that it became the norm for advance demos of all big titles from all big companies to be available for consumers to play in their homes. Were this used as an alternative to setting up booths at E3, it would be an immensely cheaper way for publishers to show off their upcoming games, and consumers would be excited about playing snippets of upcoming titles months in advance. It’s a win-win from a business perspective. This would essentially be preaching to the converted, however. It could be argued that this is essentially what reports from E3 are already doing though – this is one expo which has never been embraced by mainstream media.

Naturally, publishers would be reluctant to let the public get their hands on a game that they know full well will look shabby at retail, never mind in an alpha or beta state. This issue is already tackled via the medium of flattering trailers, however (not all games at E3 are playable). Personally, I would be fascinated and – heck – even excited to see what such a development would mean for games journalism (such as it is). Getting an E3 pass isn’t nearly as difficult as you might think; in fact, since they tiered entry a few years ago, it’s actually much more difficult to qualify for a fully-fledged Eurogamer Expo press pass. The upshot of this is that E3 is crammed full of sweaty kids with backpacks playing journalist, with professionals in the true sense of the word in the minority. Now, I’ve seen many hobbyist writers who I genuinely believe to be more talented than all or almost all of their full time counterparts. The sad truth is though that the overwhelming majority of such writers quite frankly stink at what they do, which in no small part contributes to the sorry state of what passes for videogames journalism today.

A certain type of writer reports back from E3 with the stench of ‘I’ve played this cool stuff you haven’t so listen up’ permeating their work. Others rely on shaky, badly lit, muffled off-screen video footage from the show floor for hits, as they know that many people will desperately consume every last morsel of information regarding unreleased games – because, of course, they have to rely on secondhand testimony. Others still simply do their best to report back from the expo, but need guidance to sharpen their writing that they’re just not getting. So what would happen if E3 demos were handed to the public in parallel to reporters? Or even if most games appeared at E3 only in video form? Said reporters would effectively be rendered useless.

In this situation game journalists would really, really need to up their, well… their game. Interest in video and demo impressions would plummet, as only those without the relevant devices and/or an internet connection would be unable to play these games for themselves. In order to grab and retain the attention of readers, journos would have to provide consistently engaging writing with a unique, addictive angle (perish the thought). Worst of all, with all these financial cutbacks, there might not be any more free posters and t shirts!

The ball is money, and Joe Hart is… company… metaphor…zzz.

There are still certain elements that could not be replaced by direct marketing, which is why there’s a good chance E3 will never die out completely. When there’s at least one new console at the show – such as this year – it won’t be possible for consumers to experience the unreleased machine for themselves at home. Interviews, too, can never be amply replaced. There’s a world of difference between a developer fielding unexpected questions from various interviewers, and the overly sterile ‘interviews’ carefully crafted by publishers and deemed suitable for public consumption.

With Sony and Microsoft seemingly determined to push “social” gaming and breaking down barriers between advertisers and consumers respectively, such a future almost seem inevitable. If – and I do realise it’s simply an ‘if’ – this does come to pass, would the millions of dollars saved result in more risks being taken with development? Unlikely; but it would at least almost certainly make the future of the industry as a whole a lot more secure.

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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