The state of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) this year is strong, but that’s not necessarily a good thing for everyone involved.
For those who haven’t kept tabs on the gaming industry’s longest running and, arguably, most important convention, for the first time in over ten years, E3 was open to members of the public who purchased tickets this year. The move was a pretty clear response to the waning importance of exhibiting games on the E3 show floor. Over the past two years, due to the advent of streaming services like Twitch and YouTube, most of the breaking news that comes out of E3 press conferences became available to the general public. Alongside this development, the existence and popularity of other gaming conventions, like PAX, gave people the opportunity to play unreleased games outside of E3. Both of these changes to the landscape of video game marketing led to a decrease in participation from publishers at last year’s show. Electronic Arts (EA) even went as far as holding a separate event at the same time as E3 after dropping out of the Expo. So, while E3 still served a function as an opportunity for people in the gaming industry to meet and show off their work, the fact remained that the show was becoming less relevant to the marketing arm of the games industry and less lucrative for the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the organization that manages E3.
Let’s take a look at how the show worked out for all the parties involved.
Large publishers, developers, platform holders, and the ESA itself had a really good E3. The annual press conferences that preceded the opening of the show floor revealed fairly strong catalogs of upcoming games all around and also managed to avoid catastrophic gafs. Say what you will about which conference was best or who “won” E3, but nobody had a big foot-in-mouth moment or a general lack of games to show that characterizes a truly awful E3 press event. On the show floor, these big companies won all over again with thousands more people getting hands-on time with their games and potentially spreading positive word-of-mouth. Even the positively massive crowds and interminable lines the public attendees caused can ultimately be spun into a positive by the heavier end of the gaming industry. “Look how much interest there is in our new game! People waited for four hours to play a fifteen minute demo!” At the Activision booth they went to the trouble of printing poster signs saying the lines were at capacity. How helpful, both for attendees and especially for photo and video journalists who no longer have to walk the entire length of the line to get across the point that it’s full. The ESA also allowed for the selling of merchandise on the show floor for the first time in a while so bigger booths had a chance to recoup some of the investment in the show directly. All this adds up to a show that is useful for marketing big games and lucrative for the host of the show.
Established games media outlets, including Journalists, YouTube, Twitch Talent, and Social Media Celebrities all had a good, or at least a not bad, E3 this year. If this seems like a weird set of people to group together, that’s probably because these are the folks for whom the experience of E3 revolves around appointments and not waiting in lines which is based on whoever marketing companies decide is important. For pretty obvious reasons, publishers and developers want to make sure that these folks get hands-on time with their games, so they arrange appointments ahead of time. These folks come to E3 with an itinerary for each day so that they know where to go at what time to see the games they need to see. This means that the main impact on this group of the changes to the show for this year amounted to increased difficulty navigating the show floor and long waits for food. While these are surely unpleasant developments it’s hardly enough to say the show was a net negative for anyone in this group.
Small indie developers and publishers had a rough show this year. The show floor of E3 revolves around the massive, expensive booths of the larger attendee companies. This forces smaller booths to the fringe of the show floor making them easy to miss. Smaller publishers and developers usually can’t afford to set up the kind of demo stations that help to mitigate the negative aspects of playing a game on a crowded, noisy show floor. Finally, small companies have much smaller staffs which means that the individual members of the team need to shoulder more of the burden of running an E3 booth, which is by no means a small undertaking.
Less established games media organizations had a less than great E3. This may be a bit “inside baseball” but there is a point at which a games media outlet has enough of an audience to be able to successfully negotiate E3 appointments. If you don’t have enough of a reach you have to wait in line like everyone else, which is understandable; there is only so much time each day to hold appointments and companies need to budget their time in a way that will reach the most people. The end result this year was that games media from smaller publications and channels got hands-on time with about half as many games compared to last year, if they were lucky. This had less of an impact on YouTubers and Twitch Streamers because simply being on the show floor at E3 is a bit of a source of content for their style of coverage, but if your content model doesn’t really include a form of vlogging, this was a rough year to be at E3
Anyone working at one of the booths had a really rough show this year. Attending E3 while working at a booth in years past, either as a volunteer or a paid staff member, was a bit of a mixed blessing. Working at these booths can be a grueling experience and the bigger the crowd the more difficult that job becomes. In the past, the difficulty of working at the booth would be balanced by getting to play some of the games at other booths once your shift was over. This year it was fairly impractical to actually get to play much of anything unless you were first in the door of the convention center or had all day to wait in lines, so if you worked at a booth you weren’t realistically going to get to play much this year.
Attendees who purchased badges had a bad E3. Some people will get stuck with a raw deal and be happy because they don’t know any better. Based on some of the anecdotal reports coming out of E3, a lot of the people who bought passes this year were fairly satisfied with their experience. They are wrong. They deserved better than what they got out of this show. They deserved things to do that weren’t waiting in line for four hours to play a twenty minute demo, buying merch or re-watching the same trailer they saw at a press conference. Having said that, a massive show like E3 can’t be reinvented in a single year, and a lot of the problems of this year’s E3 can be fixed, more on that later.
As usual, the cynicism of the marketing that surrounds E3 was impressive. For those who haven’t attended, a lot of the ways that games are presented at E3 betrays a lack of faith in both the ability of an audience to contextualize a game as well as a game’s ability to speak for itself. Game play presentations are often guided by staff members with a script geared toward directing attention away from a demo’s flaws and trailers are often given commentary meant to do the same. Companies adopt increasingly complicated jargon to describe the nature of a given game’s exclusivity to a given console. And on and on and on.
The addition of 15,000 public ticket holders to the show brought some fresh security concerns along with all the new faces. The scene at entrance to the convention center on the first day resembled some kind of mass protest and once the door opened the rush to get inside was somewhat rowdy with a few people getting knocked to the floor. There was a fight on the floor at one point. Overall, security seemed generally lax as evidenced by the ability of Rami Ismail of Vlambeer Games to gain access to the show floor without having his badge or bag checked.
So what would make E3 better for next year?
First, hire more security. The venue was made to seem secure from the front but clearly there were non-public entrances that were not sufficiently guarded. It would be worthwhile to spend some more money to get someone to watch the side doors to the place and maybe check some bags for knives and blunt weapons which the sniffing dogs can’t detect.
Second, put more demo stations at booths. Perhaps move all theater and vendor space outside of the main halls to make room. If Sony insists on having a representative explain how Detroit: Become Human’s take on protest movements isn’t reductive let them do it somewhere that isn’t the main floor of E3. I understand that these booths are a major investment and that retooling them will be expensive, but the potential payoff of having thousands more people get their hands on your playable games must be worth the expense.
Third, create an Industry Day for the show. GamesCom, the European market’s answer to E3, uses a similar model, separating the industry and fan days so that professionals have an easier time getting around for at least part of the show. This model also makes a bit more space for smaller media outlets and less established YouTubers and Streamers since attendance on an Industry Day would be smaller, which would allow more industry badges to be issued. Another plus to this setup is that it gives booth staff a day of lighter lines so they can see some games before the fan day flood of humanity.
Finally, improve overall communication about what is going on at the show and where it is happening. The E3 Coliseum, a new series of fan focused events like discussion panels and stage shows, took place at a venue down the street from the LA Convention Center where the rest of the show was held. These events were only going on during the last day of the show. Also, the lack of reliable LTE service in the Convention Center made the convention’s app containing the facilities map practically useless. The general information infrastructure of the show was somewhat lacking and could be improved by clearer communication to attendees ahead of time.
According to the ESA’s wrap up press release for the show, 68,400 people attended E3 this past week. That seems like a pretty clear success on paper, but anyone in attendance could see some major opportunities for improvement. The question remains, though, will ESA use this success to make the show better next year, or simply rest on their laurels?