I had a chance to check out the E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) trade show - http://www.e3expo.com - in Los Angeles this week, alongside some of its related press events.
I thought it might be useful to write something up for those who didn't attend - or are intrigued about where the show, which is the dominant 'consumer-centric video game show' in North America, is going.
And actually, I don't think 'E3 week' is going anywhere right now - but some of the physical constituent parts of it may be shifting around.
Here's the six key takeaways, from my view:
1. E3's value is transitioning to be video/streaming-centric.
This shouldn't be a surprise, what with the rise of YouTube & Twitch. But it's clear that E3's value to the big game platforms, publishers & devs is for games to make announcements at the pre-show press conferences, and then appear on both their own streaming shows and others during the week.
So for example, a notable Sony game would kick off with a trailer at the Sony press conference on Sunday, then appear on Sony's 'live from E3 stream' sometime on Tuesday to Thursday, while also appearing separately on the GameSpot stream, the official Twitch stream, the YouTube Gaming stream, etc, etc.
This multiplies the press value of E3, while getting the word out to lots of parallel audiences. It also becomes much more of a direct messaging-centric play to the Internet as a whole. The 'written word' and talking to the traditional online press for non real-time write-ups matters too. But I think it matters notably less than it used to, particularly because games are inherently a moving graphics medium.
2. E3 is becoming about publishers/platform holders talking to their own audiences directly.
The fact that EA and Activision opted to no longer have their own booths for E3 seems to be related to just this point. These publishers can talk to their audience directly just as well by holding offsite events and press conferences like EA Play, without needing to have space on the show floor. EA also internationalized its consumer outreach by having EA Play in London as well, making it more geographically diverse.
(And of course, these publishers still support E3 co-organizer and industry association ESA by being a member and funding government lobbying and other pro-industry outreach. It's just a reallocation of funds.)
Plus, it's not opting out of E3 week. EA and Activision can still get their games on the streams of the platform-holders and third-party editorial sites anyhow, and into the booths of the platform-holders. (There were EA games at the show, just within the Sony booth, for example.) So these publishers are participating, but redirecting funds to more direct marketing - and posting their own videos and running streams, too.
And yes, publishers like Ubisoft and Take-Two were still happy to be on site, so it's not the case that everyone finds exhibiting at E3's Expo to be unhelpful. It's just not mandatory, and it definitely used to be, if you were a serious (console/core) game publisher.
3. Publishers/platform holders are competing with independent media on getting the information out.
In the past, it used to be the case that you needed to work with independent editorial sites to get the word out about your game.
But with the rise of content marketing strands within publishers in recent years, you now see similar interviews and streaming on Sony's 'Live From E3' video stream and IGN's/GameSpot's. In many cases, the publisher streams are hosted by personalities who were previously journalists or do independent work on the side. And there are obviously official blogs and social media to double down on this effect.
Does this mean the 'independent media' are a tiny bit less important at E3? I think it likely does. The independents are useful for increasing reach. But there are more opportunities to use platform-holders (both streaming platforms and console platforms!) to get the message out, and if you release high-quality trailers, YouTubers not present may re-run them with reaction videos and commentary.
So it's about stoking the Internet's positive echo chamber. Independent streaming or written media are an additional route to doing that, but not the only one.
(One side-effect here: the fan-centric nature of publisher and platform PR, as a main channel, makes it more difficult for the media to be questioning or hard-hitting as well, since it will contrast oddly with the rest of the coverage, and publishers have their own streams to fall back on.)
4. Many of E3's attendees are not key decision makers - if that matters?
As has been the case at E3 ever since the amount of retail buyers diminished many years ago, a lot of E3 attendees aren't key business decision-makers for E3's exhibitors. Many also don't seem to be video game trade professionals in any traditional sense.
There are obviously exceptions to that, and 'influencing the influencers' is key, so it's not the case that the E3 attendee base doesn't matter. They're generally people who care about core console games and have managed to rustle up a pass. It's just the age-old issue of whether E3 should be open to the public, as Gamescom has been for a number of years.
I would argue it should be, and it seems that the ESA are trying to back into the consumer angle via the late announcement of 'E3 Live', a small tented area outside the Microsoft theater which they said they have given away 20,000 tickets to. (I was in a location overlooking it on Tuesday night, the first time it was open, and I'm not entirely sure that it was large enough to fit that many, but it's a start.)
It's unclear where the plan goes from there, but the main E3 event appeared to stretch to fill the disappearance of majors like EA and Activision on its show floor, including a cavernous mobile/social lounge area & bringing back 10 years worth of Into The Pixel pictures in an ESA Foundation lounge. Not being able to say that they reach consumers is presumably stopping a certain amount of selling into the main E3 show floor going on - to LootCrate, who were happy to be at 'E3 Live', for example.
So perhaps going fully consumer-centric, with a business day up front, is just what E3 needs for revitalization. Or it would be, if key partners like E3 and Activision hadn't decided to forego the show entirely and in some cases build new wholly-owned events.
The end result at this stage is unclear, partly because the ESA and its members seemed to have trouble getting a consensus to add consumer aspects to the event, which has aided the rise of PAX and other game fan events. (Disclaimer: I do help to run the Game Developers Conference, another event that abstractly competes with E3. But I think most people would agree that people go to GDC and E3 for different reasons.)
5. E3 doesn't represent all - or even a majority - of the games industry by dollar.
For better or worse, E3 is a large console/PC game event at heart, due to its creation as part of an association of traditional publishers. So if you look at the dollar figure represented by companies exhibiting at E3, it's been gradually diminishing as a percentage of the whole for a number of years.
In particular, the massive rise of mobile gaming and PC online games hasn't been well reflected by E3, although the ESA is certainly making noise this year about having more non-core games at the show. Quite a lot of this seems to be semantics around how you count individual exhibitors in pavilions, though, and by square ft, the show is still overwhelmingly a core console game (and core gamer peripheral) show.
Virtual reality did get a bit of a boost at this E3, though, and may be an area for future growth as the installed base grows, and deeper VR games get created. It's a bit tricky to demo to a gigantic mass audience because of the one-on-one slower demos required, but it's an area to monitor closely.
As for the other areas, mobile free-to-play gaming - where a lot of the dollar growth has been coming from - just doesn't demonstrate that well in a trade show environment, and many of the creators of the top-grossing iOS games are not long-time ESA members - or choose not to show those aspects of their portfolio at the show, because they know core console games go over better.
Elsewhere, some large 'traditional' game events like Gamescom (Disclaimer #2: we have a partnership to do GDC Europe alongside Gamescom, but we also like going to E3!) have been definitely getting a bit further into eSports and online PC gaming than E3 has.
But it's a tricky tightrope, particularly in terms of how you attract the right attendees to appreciate these areas if the show is not officially for 'consumers', as E3 isn't. And dedicated eSports events are plenty able to sell out arenas on their own. Plus, then you're competing with consumer-level events like BlizzCon which are publisher-run and much more targeted. Splitting the difference is very tricky.
And then there's those PC/Steam hits that have sold millions of copies without ever doing conventional advertising or being at a physical trade show/event - a whole other, potentially worrying demographic for E3. And as the market continues to splinter, it's difficult to be all things to all people.
6. The parallel content economy of YouTubers/Twitch-ers has a diffident relationship to E3
Following on from the point about the 'digital native' PC games that haven't really ever had a physical presence to sell copies - the same is true for 'digital native' YouTube and Twitch broadcasters, many of whom seem to have a neutral attitude to E3.
These broadcasters need to keep putting up videos or streaming every day, and often have games (one, or several) that they specialize in playing. It doesn't benefit them to take a week off from streaming to travel to LA - or to scramble to file reports from the road where Internet speeds or streaming locations may not be well suited for their work.
In addition, these YouTube stars are amazing at bonding with and talking to their audience, and being entertaining players/commentators. But interviewing people or demonstrating unreleased games on site at a trade show is not really their core competency - or, really, what their audience wants them to be doing, especially when they'd need to hire cameramen to make it happen.
This higher barrier to entry means that there's a large set of the most-watched game streamers who will cover E3 tangentially, if at all. Their viewership wants them to keep on with those Overwatch streams, rather than commenting on things that they can't play right now.
This fact doesn't reduce the short-term hype effect of E3 invading people's social media streams. But in the long-term, the reinforcing effect of their favorite streamer playing one game continuously will be much higher than the one-off trailer. (Of course, how most-played YouTuber games get to _be_ that way is a whole other can of worms...)
This isn't all to say that E3 is 'doomed' - something that people were somewhat pre-emptively yelling after the news broke about a number of publishers skipping the show floor this year. In fact, large chunks of the show are still downright vibrant.
And yes, there's still a critical mass of important games, developers, and announcements at the show, which I honestly enjoyed attending - and I've probably been to a majority of E3s since the late '90s Atlanta era.
But trends are certainly shifting. I'm not sure why the decision of E3 to add consumer elements has been so agonized-over among E3's member companies. But this prevarification - alongside the rise of parallel markets in games beyond the core and a new 'born-digital' breed of game players and game stream watchers - is going to make the next few years an interesting, complex time for the market as a whole, and E3 in particular.