E3 2021 more or less accomplished what it set out to do. The show was, in the end, little more than some thin connective tissue between independent events organised by major publishers and platform holders, but perhaps that was enough.
The result created some buzz and some spectacle, focusing media attention and giving consumers who tuned in to the various feeds a sense that this was an exciting week for games news. Microsoft, in particular, managed to use the event as a platform for a major and much-needed overhaul of its first-party software pipeline, and the sense that the company had a "great E3" on that front is in some ways actually more important and transformative than any of the individual software announcements.
E3 was also, however, notably incomplete. It was incomplete in some very obvious ways, of course; the absences of Sony, EA and Activision Blizzard were very noticeable, and as the event wraps up there's definitely a sense that we're all now waiting for the other shoe to drop. EA is hosting its own online event in late July, and Sony no doubt has plans for the summer as well. The return of E3 to the calendar after last year's skip hasn't changed the fact that running an event away from the bustle and noise of the E3 week is very tempting for large publishers who can easily garner attention for a solo showcase, meaning that we're going to see a repeat to some extent of 2020, when announcements and showcases were scattered across the summer months.
There's a strong sense that even companies who participated in E3 haven't shown their full hands. Does anyone really think that we've seen a full Christmas 2021 line-up?
The sense that E3 was incomplete, however, doesn't just come down to the absence of a couple of major players -- something that the show has always had to deal with, with various different major publishers or platform holders choosing to avoid or downscale their show participation at different points in the event's history. There's also a strong sense that even companies who participated in E3 haven't actually shown their full hands at this point; to put it bluntly, does anyone really think that we've seen a full Christmas 2021 line-up at this point?
Back in E3's heyday, that wasn't even a question. The trade show existed at this point in the calendar precisely because retail and print marketing schedules for the coming winter were being drawn up; if you wanted to launch a winter blockbuster, you needed to be at E3 making a big splash in the halls and striking deals for shelf-space and magazine covers in the back rooms. When consumers walked into game retail stores in October or November and saw point-of-sale materials, shelf space devoted to specific games, and magazine covers featuring the season's biggest blockbusters, they were generally seeing the outcome of deals that had been struck in Los Angeles back in May or June. A major game launching without a big E3 showing wasn't entirely unheard of, but it was very rare precisely because there was a practical business function to the trade show, with building hype and interest among consumers being a secondary function that was mediated through magazines and, later, specialist websites.
The world we're in now is very different. We already know Nintendo has developed a propensity for announcing games in Nintendo Direct streams and launching them within a matter of weeks, but they're far from alone in moving towards this model. The window between announcement and launch has become a very flexible one, with some games providing regular public updates for years before launch, while others are in players' hands within a few months of being revealed.
Complicating things further -- at least from the perspective of how consumers engage with games in their pre-launch period -- is the resurgence of the playable demo, a concept which was moribund for quite a few years before re-emerging a few years back in the form of multiplayer public betas and, more recently, in the guise of time-limited single-player demos for games like Resident Evil Village.
Square Enix's demo for its Final Fantasy-branded Soulsalike, Stranger of Paradise, takes this concept even further -- it's effectively a very early E3 "vertical slice" build that they're letting PS5 players tool around with for a little while. This is the kind of code that a publisher would never have allowed into players' hands in the past, but now we live in an era of Early Access and public betas, so why not make your E3 vertical slice into something players can download freely for a while? The result is that even though the game isn't going to release until 2022, Square Enix had playable code in players' hands within literally minutes of the game's existence being announced -- albeit with a few problems at first.
The window between announcement and launch has become a very flexible one, with some games in players' hands within a few months of being revealed
It's sometimes tempting to talk about the shift to digital distribution as though it's an event that has already happened, but the reality is that it's an ongoing process -- not just in terms of digital sales continuing to gradually outstrip physical sales, but also in terms of the industry grappling with the actual potential of digital distribution and what it means both for existing business models and for entirely new ways of doing business. The Stranger of Paradise demo is a good example, but in a broader sense, so is the realisation that fundamental shifts in the industry's business and logistics models have completely changed the calculus around when and how games get announced and launched -- and that there are now many, many different ways of accomplishing those things.
Hence the EA event that's confirmed for July and the Sony event that we all know must be coming down the pipe in the next few months are really only the tip of the iceberg. Activision Blizzard will want to talk to the public at some point in the coming months, one imagines, and there were other publishers who had an E3 presence but only in the form of lip-service - Take Two, which merely hosted a panel and didn't talk about games at all, is the most egregious of those - or whose conferences felt like they were holding a fair bit back (Capcom was especially notable on that front).
Much of what those firms will reveal in other events and showcases in the coming months will be 2022 titles, of course, but I wouldn't want to stick a flag in the ground and say "this is definitely the final Christmas line-up" for them either. I feel like if Microsoft had ammunition in its satchel, it wouldn't be keeping it dry at this point but for everyone else (perhaps most of all Nintendo), one wonders if the lure of picking a quieter week for a big reveal of a game releasing very soon is one that they can or indeed should resist.
From a consumer perspective, this is great, of course: this year's release schedule is a bit uneven in places, not least due to the obvious scars which COVID inflicted on some development timescales, but there is nonetheless a bumper crop of games on the way. The chance that there are are a few more waiting in the wings to try and pull focus with a dramatic appearance down the line is no bad thing at all. From a business perspective, it's a little more tricky; it certainly presents problems when we try to think in terms of the old-fashioned "winners and losers" narratives from shows like E3 or other major events, though the diversity of the audiences being targeted and the business models being employed should already have rendered that kind of talk obsolete years ago.
The reality is that the industry is much smarter and more aware of how to build hype and interest for different types of product now than it ever was before, and the Internet has created countless opportunities to run very different kinds of campaign that fit the game's specific requirements. Often, those campaigns just aren't going to involve an attempt to garner attention during a busy week like E3. For industry-watchers, this means that what was once a clear lens on the whole industry's plans for the year has just become another occluded and frosted attempt to see more than a few months ahead.