E3 2016: The Shifting Role of E3

E3 2016 header

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.

Zero Dawn Screenshot

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.

E3 audience PS4

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.

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.
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