The Direct Approach
In 2010, Konami had a rather awkward and low-budget E3 press conference. The presenters did their best to communicate new ideas and features, but it was tough to break through the obstacles of thick accents, awkward skits, and a crowd that just didn't seem to want to be there.
So in 2011, Konami began to stream their conferences online. Instead of having to rent a physical space, pay for plane and hotel tickets, spend time working on skits and hoping all the demonstrations functioned properly, they could now control the message. Well rehearsed, well edited and well translated, the streamed presentation carefully captured footage without the additional costs of a dog-and-pony show at E3. They've continued with these streamed conferences each year since.
Due to backlash from studios and publishers claiming the event was simply too expensive, E3 downsized in 2006 to a much smaller event from years previous; however, this downsizing was reversed. In 2009, E3 returned to its colorful, spectacular glory. The event continues to be expensive and cluttered with analysis from every press outlet, web forum and twitter account about who “won,” who “lost,” and who was most disappointing. In the afterglow of the big shows, there’s not often much public attention paid to the cost-benefit analyses of the presentations. Perhaps there should be.
While Konami could not completely avoid the dog-and-pony competition by switching to streaming, they've at least avoided being turned into Internet memes and unflattering YouTube mash-ups.
This year, both Nintendo and Square-Enix also skipped E3 presentations in favor of streaming content. Capcom continued to stream gameplay of upcoming games, a community-focused endeavor that has been going on for several other events, such as PAX Prime.
I am not going to claim the bell tolls for E3. However, it is becoming clear that E3 itself is losing more and more of its purpose for publishers. When the event started in 1996, the only way consumers could get news of it was through monthly gaming magazines. The industry was smaller, with fewer press and fewer developers seeking the limelight. Studios were made up of fewer people. There was also more time to control the message, as any information from the event wouldn't be hitting newsstands until July or August.
Things are different now. News sites are pumping out new information for games on the hour every hour. There are thousands of game journalists and journalist wannabes cycling the same information through social media networks. Publishers and studios are fostering communities.
When they downsized E3 in 2006, streaming content was not yet popular. UStream and Justin.tv weren't founded until 2007, and Twitch.tv, a gamer-centric subsidiary of Justin.tv, not until 2011. In these few short years since E3 first down-sized and regrew, the quantity and quality of companies and personalities streaming content on the Internet have exploded.
E3's downsizing was inevitable — it just occurred too early. No one was ready to let it go. The press doesn’t need to mediate between studios and consumers — at least not as much as it used to. Konami, Nintendo and Square-Enix have already switched to presenting their content in a rehearsed, clean, efficient manner at a lower cost than renting out a massive space in L.A. in a desperate hope to impress a group of tired, distracted, weary journalists. As time progresses, more and more studios are going to start cutting out the middleman and streaming directly to their audiences as well, particularly where language and distance make on-site presence cost more in both effort and cash.
This is nothing to say of indie developers finding their home at events like PAX East or PAX Prime, either. While many smaller studios likely can't even afford a closet at E3, let alone lay claim to the little time journalists have available, they are finding plenty of potential customers and even fans at more public-oriented conventions. Word of mouth spreads, enthusiasts discover new games that would have otherwise flown under their radar, and devs get to communicate a clear, passionate message.
I do not believe E3 will die. That's about as bootless as proclaiming that PC gaming or handhelds are dead. The big-budget presentations put on by companies like Microsoft and Sony aren't going anywhere, either. There's still a purpose to these events, and there remains some sense of excitement even amongst the cynical. Otherwise, why would we all follow along? Being snarky on Twitter isn't quite worth that much of a time investment.
Yet I do believe the event will become less important, for consumers, for press, and for the studios putting the show on. Smaller studios will eventually abandon it, more companies will insist on streaming information, and fans will count the days to the next PAX, Gamescom or Tokyo Game Show. Maybe one day E3 will even open to the public in an effort to maintain a sense of importance, or it may retreat back into its roots of courting commercial distributors.
But one day it will be a shadow of its former self, and we'll be left wondering why we cared so much at all about one week in June.