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The industry has changed immensely since E3 debuted in the 90s, but critics who say that E3 has lost all relevance are missing the point, says Gamasutra editor-at-large Chris Morris.

Chris Morris, Blogger

May 30, 2012

5 Min Read

There are a lot of people -- and media outlets -- complaining about E3 these days. That's typical around this time each year. The stress of finalizing a schedule and the dread that comes as you realize you're about to go the better part of a week running at 100mph with little (to no) rest is daunting. But this year, the complaints seem more pointed, with lots of people opening wondering if the show has outlived its usefulness. With all due respect, that's ridiculous. In the past two years, the video game industry has undergone some of the biggest changes in its history. Mobile and social games have exploded onto the market, stealing casual players at an alarming rate. Hardware and retail software sales have taken a few solid left hooks. And the days of a mid-level hit being a good start for a new developer are over. The games industry is no longer the console-centric industry it once was, but to say the show has lost its relevance is shortsighted. E3 is a circus -- a cabaret of the highest order, full of pomp, circumstance and blatant showmanship. Some people love that. Others hate it. Still others see it as just part of the process of getting things done. It's loud, expensive and sometimes garish -- but it's a noisy enough event that it inevitably draws the attention of the national media. And that's very much the point. E3 started as a show for retailers -- and while they're still an important component, the show evolved years ago to become a media event. And there's no better indication of that than the extended foreplay gaming sites (and even mass media) have with the show. E3 stories start long before the gaming press gaggle descends on the Los Angeles Convention Center -- whether it's rumors about what will be said or early confirmation on games that will make their debut there. And the stories generally last for a week or two after it ends. By the time all is said and done, the better part of a month is focused on the show and the companies who attend. Could that attention occur in a world where there was no E3? Sure, to a limited extent – but the majority of those stories would be "one and dones". Quick rewrites of press releases that are forgotten by the end of the day and never warrant follow-ups. With E3 in the mix, a smart publisher can keep their game in the headlines for a much longer period, helping boost pre-orders and awareness. Some of the grumbling about this year's E3 likely stems from announcements by Microsoft and Sony that they don't plan to discuss their next generation console platforms – and that Nintendo has spilled most of the beans about the Wii U already. (Some are also complaining the company doesn't plan to announce a price or launch date, but that's just smart marketing – giving Nintendo the chance to own another news cycle down the road.) That skepticism assumes two things: 1) Microsoft and Sony are telling the truth and 2) Nintendo's lineup won't bowl us over. Both are dangerous assumptions. Of course, Microsoft and Sony would obfuscate any plans to tease their next gen systems. To do otherwise would not only scuttle retail sales of the current generation, it would kill any surprise at the show. (Let's not forget the constant denials about David Jaffe's Twisted Metal remake, which ended up being the grand finale of Sony's press event two years ago.) And if we've learned anything over the past six years, it's that underestimating Nintendo (and its appeal to the world at large) is a fool's mission. Even if gamers have to wait until next year to get our hands on the Xbox 720 and/or the PS4, that only means a slight delay to the spike in console gaming excitement, making those "Is E3 relevant" voices fade back into the woodwork. The current interest in mobile and social games is undeniable and publishers are shifting to showcase those. Zynga plans to attend this year's show (to seek partners for its portal). And EA's mobile division is being marketed as aggressively to media (if not moreso) than its other offerings in the pre-show days. Obviously, that doesn't help smaller developers, who have seen their games go viral, but as mobile gaming matures, it's likely to become dominated by a small collection of big publishers, just as traditional gaming did. Two of those big companies are already at E3 – and several of the other companies in attendance could become powerful mobile forces. And while it's easy to forget, since mobile and Facebook games are still a new and exciting category in the space, let's not overlook the fact that console hardware and software sales are still a $16 billion-plus industry. That's hardly something to sneeze at. E3 is evolving. Maybe not at the pace some people want or in the specific direction they think it should, but that hasn't dampened excitement surrounding the show for people outside of the insular group who attend. And while detractors will point to the growing number of other video game-focused trade shows out there, one fact remains: E3 is the first stop for media and other taste-makers to get exposed to the big games of the coming holiday season and the coming year. It gives publishers a tremendous bang for their buck – and helps them start the road show that leads to PAX and Gamescom. And love it or hate it, it's still the industry's premiere event, something that will keep it relevant and necessary for the foreseeable future.

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