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E3 struggles to find its purpose

The week of E3 is huge, but the show itself is long in the tooth, shrinking, and shedding exhibitors; the ESA needs to find the courage for serious reform

What is the point of E3? I ask not in a snarky tone, but one of genuine curiosity, tinged with concern. I'm simply not sure what exactly the show's organisers, the ESA, think E3 is for any more. Over the years, what was once by far the largest date in the industry's annual calendar has stuck out in various new directions as it sought to remain relevant, but it's always ended up falling back to the path of least resistance - the familiar halls of the Los Angeles Convention Centre, the habitual routine of allowing only those who can prove some industry affiliation to attend. For all that the show's organisers regularly tout minor tweaks to the formula as earth-shattering innovation, E3 today is pretty much exactly the same beast as it was when I first attended 15 years ago - and by that point, the show's format was already well-established.

There's one major difference, though; E3 today is smaller. It now struggles to fill the convention centre's halls, and a while back ditched the Kentia Hall - which for years promised the discovery of unknown gems to anyone willing to sift through its morass of terrible ideas. Kentia refugees now fill gaps in the cavernous South Hall's floor plan, elevated to sit alongside a roster of the industry's greats that gets more meagre with each passing year. This year, attendees at E3 will find it hard not to notice a number of key absences. The loss of Konami's once huge booth was inevitable given the company's U-turn away from console publishing, but the decisions of EA and Activision to pull out of the show this year will be felt far more keenly.

"E3 has an identity crisis. It wants to be a global show in the age of the local, in an age where "global" is accomplished by pointing a camera at a stage"

Hence the question; what's the point? Who, or what, is E3 actually meant to be for? It's not for consumers, of course - they're not allowed in, in theory, though the ESA has come up with various pointlessly convoluted ways of letting a handful of them in anyway. It's for business, yet big players in the industry seem deeply dissatisfied with it. It's not just EA and Activision, either; even the companies who are actually exhibiting on the show floor seem to have taken to viewing it as an addendum to the actually important part of the week, namely their live-broadcast press conferences. Once the realm only of platform holders, now every major publisher has their own - and if EA and Activision's decision to go their own way entirely, leaving the E3 show floor, has no major negative consequences for them this year, you can be damned sure others will question the show's cost-value next year.

The problem is that the world has changed and E3 has not. Once, it was the only truly global event on the calendar; back then, London had ECTS and Tokyo had TGS, but there was no question of them truly challenging E3's dominance. The world was a very different place back then, though. It was a time before streaming high resolution video, a time before the Internet both made the world a much smaller place, and made the hyper-local all the more relevant. Today, E3 sits in a landscape of events most of which, bluntly, justify their existence far better than the ESA's effort does. Huge local events in major markets around the world serve their audiences better than a remote event in LA; GamesCom in Germany and TGS in Tokyo remain the biggest of those, but there are also major events in other European, Asian and Latin American countries that balance serving the business community in their regions with putting on a huge show for local consumers.

In the United States, meanwhile, E3 finds itself assailed on two sides. The PAX events have become the region's go-to consumer shows, and a flotilla of smaller shows cater well to specific business and social niches. GDC, meanwhile, has become the de facto place to do business and for the industry to engage in conversation and debate with itself. The margin in between those two for a "showcase show that's not actually for consumers but sort-of lets some in and is a place for the industry to do business but also please spend a fortune on a gigantic impressive stand" is an increasingly narrow piece of ground to stand on, and E3 is quite distinctly losing its balance.

A big part of the reason for that is simply that E3 has an identity crisis. It wants to be a global show in the age of the local, in an age where "global" is accomplished by pointing a camera at a stage, not by flying people from around the world to sit in the audience. It wants to be a spectacle, and a place to do business, and ends up being dissatisfying at both; it wants to excite and intrigue consumers, but it doesn't want to let them in. The half-measures attempted over the years to square these circles have done nothing to convince anyone that E3 knows how to stay relevant; slackening ties to allow more consumers into the show simply annoys people who are there for work, and annoys the huge audience of consumers who remain excluded. The proposed consumer showcase satellite event, too, will simply annoy companies who have to divide their attention, and annoy consumers who still feel like they're not being let in to the "real thing". Meanwhile the show itself feels more and more like the hole in the middle of a doughnut - all these huge conferences, showcases and events are arranged around E3's dates, but people spend less and less time at the show proper, and with EA and Activision go two of the major reasons to do so. (It's also hard not to note, though I can't quantify it in figures, that more industry people each year seem to stay home and watch the conferences online rather than travelling to LA.)

"[The] week [around E3] deserves to be served by a better core event, rather than inexorably moving towards being a ton of media events orbiting a show nobody can really be bothered with"

The answer to E3's problems has to be an update to its objectives; it has to be for the ESA to sit down with its membership (including those who have already effectively abandoned the show) and figure out what the point of the show is, and what it's meant to accomplish. The E3 brand has enormous cachet and appeal among consumers; it's hard to believe that there's no demand for a massive showcase event at the LA Convention Centre that actually threw its doors open to consumers, it's simply a question of whether ESA members think that's something they'd like to participate in. From a business perspective, I think they'd be mad not to; the week of E3, loaded with conferences and announcements, drives the industry's most devoted fans wild, and getting a few hundred thousand of them to pass through a show floor on that week would be one of the most powerful drivers of early sentiment and word of mouth imaginable.

As for business; it's not like there isn't a tried, tested and long-standing model for combining business and consumer shows that doesn't involve a half-baked compromise. Tons of shows around the world, in games and in other fields, open for a couple of trade days before throwing the doors open to consumers over the weekend. Other approaches may also be valid, but the point is that there's a simple and much more satisfying answer than the daft, weak-kneed reforms the ESA has attempted ("let's let exhibitors give show passes to a certain number of super-fan consumers" - really? Really?).

E3 week remains a big deal; E3 itself may be faltering and a bit unloved, but the week around it is pretty much the only truly global showcase the industry has created for itself. That week deserves to be served by a better core event, rather than inexorably moving towards being a ton of media events orbiting a show nobody can really be bothered with. The organisers at the ESA need to be brave, bold and aggressive with what they do with E3 in future - because just falling back on the comfortable old format is starting to show diminishing returns at an alarming rate.

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Latest comments (12)

Nick Parker Consultant A year ago
E3 is less relevant for the sharp end of the games business - digital. E3 has failed to lose its image of an expensive platform to display over-inflated egos from a bygone era, despite some big names dropping out. GDC has grown but has maintained its remit of a cosy club where developers rub shoulders in earnest engagement and where attendees leave with useful learnings and new contacts. I know where my travel expenses budget is going, not the City of Angels.
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft GermanyA year ago
I also notice that each year I meet more and more interesting people in Köln. That pretty much summarizes it for me.
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Maarten Brands Director, Cook & BeckerA year ago
I'm actually in LA during E3 for business but can't even be bothered going to the convention center. What's the point? I'll watch a summary of the press conferences online and have meetings in a nice hotel.

Also, still having to email industry credentials (even after attending 10 times in the past, registering with the same email addresses etc.) is such a drag.
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft GermanyA year ago
@Maarten Same form Gamescom, if that helps. Been going there every years since I'm with Ubisoft and I still need to register from 0 each time.
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Maarten Brands Director, Cook & BeckerA year ago
It could be worse. To exhibit at New York Comic Con I had to fax(!) all the forms last year :)
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Alan Wilson Vice President, Tripwire InteractiveA year ago
And the relevance of ESA in general... ?
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing A year ago
E3 was a product of limited retail space and interest meeting an industry with an abundance of physical products. Who do you have to convince to carry your product these days? Certainly not Steam and certainly not the remaining brick and mortal retailers who have become just as much about renting shelf space to companies as they are about keeping their own stock.

E3's main product has become media attention and its currency is now online pre-orders from end customers. Going public like gamescom is no solution. Gamescom is great, if you have a media or exhibitor badge, if you can make appointments in the business center. But if you go there to see a new game for the first time and maybe play it, so you can then tell all your friends, gamescom is a miserable experience that defies its intention. Gamescom's only success is as a social event. You can always find social interaction at gamescom, video game interaction comes at a premium.

Both E3 and gamescom are deeply flawed events, which need to evolve into something more coherent. Gamescom is closer to the truth though. Small backstage business area to make the remaining deals and big consumer facing event to get nationwide attention and nationwide mainstream sales.
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James Prendergast Research Chemist A year ago
@Klaus

If E3 has most of its value as a media circus for the consumer then why not go all in on that front and scale back the developer side of things? Do you think that would work?

From my perspective as a consumer, E3 week is the gaming 'Christmas' each year for me as I unwrap the concentrated news of events and spectacles to come. It does well to focus consumer attention on the ecosystem as a whole because otherwise there's not enough bombast and attention in the usual year-long drip feed of information that elsewise goes on and none of the other conferences have as much media output or product information for the consumer to latch onto.

Even though I know it's become less relevant, I still look forward to E3 week each year. Maybe it's just nostalgia for those halcyon days of computer fairs and other social gatherings? But usually I and other like-minded people gather in an IRC channel and dissect and discuss the 3-4 main conference presentations as they are streamed live. Love it! :)

Edited 2 times. Last edit by James Prendergast on 5th June 2016 9:10am

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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing A year ago
Someone correct me, if I am wrong, but I was not under the impression that having a good E3 was still a milestone. At this point, if a game is shown, the development is more or less funded. Either to the satisfaction of the developer, or the secret cut off point the publisher has set for itself. But once you are part of the big presentations of E3, you will get released come hell or high water. It is an exception that a game such as Prey2 is canceled.

Hence from my perspective, the value proposition of E3 for the developer looks like this. Either you go there for PR in one of the big shows, or you get drowned out on the floor. If you are too small to be part of the big shows, then you will have to do the legwork of promoting your game mostly without E3.

When it comes to backroom deals, E3 will have its place, but the games industry will more closely resemble the movie industry and not professional sports. There will be no draft event, deals will be made all year around, making E3 less important to that end and other big gaming culture events more important; i.e. gamescom, Pax, GDC. Just in terms of PR, it might get more important having a TwitchCon booth and dragging famous Twitch streamer into your booth so they log into their account and stream your game to their audience for one or two hours. Not that it would hurt doing that during any other convention.
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Jorge Bedoya C Lawyer, Gamer A year ago
I definitely hope that's the case because I chose Gamescom instead of E3 this year. I've heard great things about it specially when it comes to networking.
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Alex V EIC, NGNA year ago
I am sorry but this opinion piece is literally re-posted every year. "Is e3 still relevant"? "DO we need e3"? "How can E3 evolve"?

It's all the same every year, but the show goes on and does well anyway.
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft GermanyA year ago
@Alex

You see less presence of smaller studios on E3 that prefer to save their announcements for Gamescom. That is changing year after year, which is normal. It's not like its going to collapse from one year to another, but it's definitelly loosing the fire it had ten years ago.
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