Conventional industry wisdom suggested that this year's Gamescom show was facing an uphill struggle. It was closer to E3 than many were comfortable with, and Sony, who could formerly be relied upon to be a "tentpole" for the event, chose not to run a press conference - SCEE will turn up at Paris Games Week in October instead, but many of the company's big autumn announcements are likely to be made at dedicated events in the run-up to the Tokyo Games Show in late September. Ultimately Microsoft, a company with much work to do in continental Europe, was the only platform holder to hold a press conference. Was this the beginning of a belly-flop for Gamescom?
"The seemingly 'damp squib' nature of Gamescom is a consequence of viewing the show from a single angle..."
Spoilers: no, it was not. Attendance numbers, both public and industry, rose once more, and according to an analysis by ICO Partners, the volume of media coverage generated by the show was 25% higher than in the previous year. Yet it's undeniable that Gamescom was a bit of a damp squib for much of the games press. Shorn of major announcements not only from Sony but from a number of large publishers who supported the show but did not use it as a platform for announcements, the show ended up being all about a handful of Microsoft announcements, a new World of Warcraft expansion, and bits and bobs of new footage from previously announced EA titles. How does this meagre haul of headline-worthy news square with the uplift in coverage for the undeniably successful show?
Actually, these things are not contradictory - they simply require that you take a wider and more realistic view of what the games press actually consists of today. The seemingly "damp squib" nature of Gamescom is a consequence of viewing the show from a single angle; the endless hunt of the traditional games press for stories of global import, game announcements, and platform news that impact upon gamers across a wide swathe of Western markets. This isn't an approach that sits well with news from the niches; stories about games that are only seriously popular in certain geographic regions (especially non-English speaking ones) or with certain demographics (especially non-male, non-thirtysomething ones) are of minimal interest to the traditional games media. That's not for lack of trying on the part of some very talented and enthusiastic writers and presenters, but it's a current reality of the market in which they operate.
"When journalists who travel from the UK or USA to Gamescom express disappointment at the show, they forget that the show's raison d'etre is not to enthral people in the USA or the UK..."
That's one major part of the reason why the "semi-pro" media has become so incredibly important in recent years - indeed, some of the YouTubers, podcasters and Twitch streamers who would cheerfully bracket themselves as "semi-pro" are resolutely professional (and, as documented in editorials past, some are much more aggressive and hard-nosed in matters of money than most of the traditional games media has ever been). These people can fill up the niches and flow into the cracks which traditional games media rolls over obliviously. We hear a great deal about Anglophone YouTubers like PewDiePie or the Yogscast, but there are also tons of YouTube channels out there appealing to all sorts of gaming audiences, from the very core right through to the very casual, and crucially, they also broadcast in all sorts of languages. Pretty much every country has native language gaming YouTubers, podcasters, and streamers who are powerfully influential media within their own niches.
That's relevant to the story of Gamescom because it's been a building block of the success of the show over the past few years. Big announcements from the likes of Sony were important, sure, but when it comes down to it, Gamescom would still be a major, relevant, and important show in its own right even if it were only a leading games show for Germany, German-speaking territories, and their surrounding countries. That's a huge market, and we only generally see the tip of the iceberg; the sliver of shared ground where the Venn diagrams of Germany's market and its interests intersect with the UK's market and interests, or the US' market and interests. When journalists who travel from the UK or USA to Gamescom express disappointment at the show, they forget that the show's raison d'etre is not to enthral people in the USA or the UK (if it were, the show would be located in the USA or UK), but to represent and satisfy the interests of local consumers, creators, and media.
"In short, the world's gaming trade shows have Balkanised; they have become more local, more focused on serving the needs and interests of the games markets in their home territories..."
This isn't just a story about Gamescom, though. The same calculation will also be true of Paris Games Week in a couple of months' time. It's true to some degree of Eurogamer Expo in the UK (though that may be less obvious, as the shared Anglophone nature of the US and UK tends to create an illusion of market overlap). It's been true of the Tokyo Game Show for years, leading to regular pronouncements of the show's inevitable demise from the western press, even as attendance and local media interest has grown year on year. It's certainly true of the likes of Seoul's G-Star expo, Shanghai's ChinaJoy and Sao Paulo's Brasil Game Show, all of which enjoy huge local interest and little or no coverage, beyond occasional curiosity, from the traditional games press.
In short, the world's gaming trade shows have Balkanised; they have become more local, more focused on serving the needs and interests of the games markets in their home territories, and certainly not interested in competing with E3 as the forum for big console announcements and global media briefings. Indeed, E3 itself is arguably just as Balkanised as any of the others; to pretend that the kind of games which enjoy space and attention at E3 are "the norm" while those that draw crowds at TGS, G-Star, Brasil Game Show, or Gamescom are "regional" is to engage in a fairly thoughtless bit of Anglo-American geocentric fallacy.
This is happening at least in part because the market itself is becoming much more regional as it expands. The core demographic can be pretty remarkably consistent across regions; there are unquestionably differences between what a Japanese core gamer, a Chinese core gamer, a German core gamer, a Brazilian core gamer, and an American core gamer want to play, but by and large they can come to some kind of accommodation with one another's tastes, resulting in global mega-hits from Counter-Strike to Final Fantasy, from Metal Gear Solid to DOTA and beyond. Once you expand the demographic, though, you start to wiggle your way into much more regional niches; cultural, social and aesthetic differences become more pronounced, and developers emerge in each region whose speciality is creating games and experiences that work for their regional audiences.
"It would be a great shame if the blossoming of great regional showcases for videogames were to have a shadow cast over it by unrealistic expectations that they will all be E3 in miniature..."
There's no point in those developers travelling halfway around the world to show off their games to audiences for whom they weren't designed and who won't enjoy them, and equally, there's no point in the media who thrive on these games - often semi-pro media, YouTubers and streamers and the like - travelling around the world to make videos about foreign games their audience doesn't care about. Of course, occasionally something comes along that slices through that logic and turns a local aesthetic and flavour into a global hit, but these exceptions are no basis for a rule. By and large, outside the traditional core (and even within it to some degree), the diversification of the market is creating a second-order diversification along regional lines.
Trade shows and media are just surface effects of this much deeper change in how our industry and its audience are organised in relation to one another - but that effect is worth bearing in mind when assessing reportage from a games show or event. I have little doubt that the upcoming Tokyo Games Show is going to be one of the least relevant TGS events ever for the international press who traipse over to Tokyo for it each year, and many will be disgruntled; but it will probably have record visitor numbers, fantastic local media coverage, and very satisfied local exhibitors. It would be a great shame if the blossoming of great regional showcases for videogames were to have a shadow cast over it by unrealistic expectations that they will all be E3 in miniature, and will all have something to satisfy the demands of the Anglo-American audience.