E3 2016: The Shifting Role of E3
This year’s E3 more than ever had most of the biggest announcements revealed before the events themselves. Going into the show we knew that both console manufacturers were planning upgraded iterations of their console, both of which seemed focused on 4K. We already knew about Sony VR and most of the biggest games on show had already been announced or leaked. Crucially, this year we heard less complaining and agonising over leaks than we’d had in previous years, and the shift away from over reliance on the conference itself seems intentional. But why are these changes taking place?
The Gamer is King
Since the advent of reliable HD streaming being viable for most of their customer base (although admittedly even in the US and Europe that can sometimes be unviable in certain areas) the old model of presenting to a room full of press that disseminates the info to the masses has been made redundant. With different Camera-angles, the ability to watch things back on the fly, and direct feed video of the games being shown you often get a better view at home than those sitting in the hall.
Sony and Microsoft have finally realized this, and have taken a lot of the investor speak and marketing waffle out of their E3 events. Sony, especially, has done what gamers have been begging for; they gave us rapid-fire games with the absolute bare minimum of talking in-between. The barrage of games only subsided to briefly talk about PlayStation VR. What Sony did was long overdue. They finally realized the audience for the press conference is at home and not in the hall. The only purpose of even having an audience anymore is for them to cheer at your reveals and keep members of the press from feeling slighted. Microsoft too seems to be in the process of making this shift in focus away from those in the hall.
As recently as 2010 Microsoft showed the complete opposite of this understanding with their now infamous “Everyone in the audience gets a free X-box 360 slim!” They seemed one hundred percent focused on pleasing the press in the room and oblivious to the scorn this would garner from the audience at home. The gaming press didn’t help matters with some defending accepting free goods, but others revealing they had refused the gift because it was against existing policy. Back in 2010 it seemed E3 was still seeing itself as mainly an ‘industry show’ with the gamer playing second fiddle.
Surprisingly, Nintendo was the first one to realise the new reality with their 2013 switch to the Nintendo Direct presentation format. I say surprisingly because of their glacial adoption of online features within their flagship consoles. Nintendo Direct is now well and truly established and they’ve extricated themselves very successfully from the cycle of E3 press conferences. I think Nintendo has done a better job without holding a press conference.
If you’re communicating directly with your audience, it doesn’t matter if an announcement comes just before E3 or not. Indeed, getting info out early might help it punch through the noise of the busy news cycle. Since information is now so readily on demand there is less risk of spoiling a big live reveal since big live reveals have less meaning when most gamers now get their news at their own pace on social media.
The Fall of the Gaming Clergy
It may seem like an odd comparison, but in the past I’ve compared the role of games journalists to the roll of Catholic priests in the past. Before you say it… no, not in that way. I’m talking about their role as an intermediary between publishers/developers and the gaming public. In a time before live-streaming and instant social media, they were the primary source of news from events like E3. They were the conduit through which we gained information about the event.
The biggest losers from the changing way E3 is carried out are actually the gaming press themselves, with companies slowly but surely going more and more directly to their fans and customers. It’s almost as if the big publishers and console manufacturers are only just remembering that the internet exists and that basically allows them to do everything the gaming press can but with a greater level of control over their message. I would say this was a bad thing if the gaming press had fulfilled its role as consumer watchdogs, looking out for the consumer at every turn, but this historically wasn’t the case. More and more we see the calling out of bad practices and the sceptical analysation of promises coming from singular consumer focused voices or members of the gaming public, not games media at large.
Fundamentally what this allows us as gamers to do is have access to direct information from the gaming companies and then draw our own conclusions with the crowd-sourced help of our peers. This is far healthier than relying on the gaming press who often act as mouthpieces just restating PR releases verbatim. When the promises are coming direct from the publisher or console manufacturer there is no pretence of impartial analysis or unbiased reporting.
The gaming press does still have a role though. Many of the games on show at the headline E3 events also had hands-on demos for the assembled press and industry people to play. What are seeing is a shift from E3 being about headline grabbing reveals, which were almost all leaked or shown pre-E3 this year, towards hands-on impressions being the real purpose of E3. The role of the press is no longer to bring us up to date with conferences we might have missed in past years but to convey the one thing online streaming still lacks; the physical experience of playing the game. The increased non-press numbers at this years event underscores this shift.
E3 isn’t Going Anywhere
What we’ve seen is more a natural adjustment to reality than a seismic shift in the gaming landscape. E3 still allows developers and publishers to show off early games in a controlled setting with a somewhat closed-off guest-list. E3 isn’t totally redundant yet, but its significance on the gaming calendar is diminishing with every passing year. We talk about announcements “around the time of E3” as much as we talk about the conferences themselves now. I think this is actually a positive change. We can get a lot of the big headline grabbing reveals out-of-the-way and then focus on what is tangible; gameplay demos of actual games. The corporate bleating and painfully dull marketing presentations also won’t be missed as we transition to mercifully shorter and more entertaining E3 conferences.
E3 is becoming more focused on games and gamers, and I don’t think anyone would argue that’s a bad thing.
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