Since 1995, the Electronic Entertainment Expo has been an annual gathering of the gaming industry. Usually in Los Angeles and usually around May or June, developers, designers, writers, journalists, and PR folk would descend upon a hapless city in droves, wreak havoc, and leave the scene of the crime like a night of bumper cars gone awry. At its biggest, it drew 70,000 people to the Los Angeles Convention Center, an unwieldy amount of bodies confined to a single sweaty downtown location.
The ESA (Entertainment Software Association, the organization that runs E3 and does a rather poor job representing digital rights) then tried to trim the fat and move to an invitation-only scheme in Santa Monica, but the industry revolted. “The spectacle,” they would yell, “the spectacle is it!” To that end, they do have a point: 2005 was the biggest year for E3 attendance and it was the first year to be televised on any network. The ESA stuck with it for a year before calling it on their botched experiment and the droves came back.
The original purpose of E3 was to get games and hardware into the hands of buyers for stores and chains so that they could decide how much to stock and thus evaluate budgets and sales projections. It was, by all accounts, an industry event. As it ballooned out to ridiculous proportions and as journalists, bloggers, and TV crews crashed the party, all of those formerly upfront industry sales meetings took place in secret, to the point where few attendees were event aware that there was a hidden, back alley E3.
This ushered in a new iteration of the flashy carnival that focused almost entirely on educating the press and thus educating the mainstream consumer. It was easy to do because everyone would show up; this was the show to go to. Writers would mostly get a straightforward info dump with some nice presentation around the edges and PR would rely on those staffed keyboard jockeys and freelancers to filter out and disseminate key pieces to their readers. The Internet existed but in only in such a nascent form. Information was still collated and groomed for fine display to hungry masses.
Whether this was because the technology was not capable or the sources of said information found the process too time-consuming is an unknown (it was a mix of both most likely). However, once the television barrier was broken in 2005, something clicked: direct access was possible. Over the next few years, it eventually became commonplace for all the big pre-E3 (prE3?) press conferences from Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Ubisoft, EA, etc. to be streamed in some form online. Sony started to show their stuff in Home and Microsoft would stream through some Dashboard portal.
But this was direct, shared access. Even to this day, all of those press events that are streamed provide access to their feed and drops for websites. This is so they can capture their own footage or stream their own stuff over the actual presentation. It was a concession of the fact that not everyone that wanted to watch the conference had the aforementioned proprietary access points.
Apple, however, showed it was possible to host one-off events and still draw in a crowd. Granted, this is Apple we’re talking about here and they offer some of the most popular products in the history of products, possibly even rivaling the sales of the Bible, but they did make the point: if you had things that people wanted, they would pay attention no matter the location, time, or medium. People would travel to and pack into the Moscone Center in San Francisco or watch illicit shaky cam streams or read multiple liveblogs just to see what they were doing.
Nintendo has been making similar moves with their Nintendo Direct events. Nintendo Directs are online streaming broadcasts that simply sum up and present new games or hardware or goals for the next quarter or so. Sometimes they’ll stack them up multiple times in a week or month. And they are, for the most part, very successful. Just last year was indicative of the movement: their E3 event was egregiously lackluster, but people went bananas over everything they announced in the following Nintendo Direct stream. It was puzzling at the time, but now it makes sense.
It makes sense because just two weeks ago, it was announced that Nintendo would not be doing its usual E3 press conference. It was shocking at first, but then they said that those Nintendo Direct events would take place, as would smaller meetings during the gigantic June gathering. And then news hit that 2K, who had one of the largest booths last year (all right, so it was more like a set of huge meeting rooms on the show floor), would not be present at the convention. Like, at all. Take-Two Interactive will just be taking meetings during the week.
Combine that with the fact that since the rebirth into the grand spectacle that it once was—or as close as the ESA will allow it sans disturbing amounts of booth babes and billion-dollar setups—E3 attendance has only manage to hover around the low to mid 40,000s. Last year, in fact, was a 2% decline from 2011.
The epiphany that direct access is possible is spreading and the question of E3’s value is forming. There are many journalists that I know last year simply watched press events on G4 despite being just a block away in their hotel rooms. Bundled up previews aren’t as important anymore as they are largely distributed via Steam and PSN and XBLA codes or through traveling press tours for the bigger titles. This, of all years, appears to be the first notable movement of the question why bother with E3?
Covering E3 is tiring. It is a week of nonstop work. You wake up at seven in the morning, sit through meetings and presentations, walk back and forth through a seemingly endless convention center for 10 hours, talk to developers, transcribe audio, write up countless preview and news pieces, and then head out into the night to mingle with the industry. You’re lucky to get four hours of sleep. And all of that could be rectified in PR just sent out codes and press releases and the big publishers and manufacturers had accessible online streams. So why bother?
Well, even after my relatively limited experience with actually attending E3, it became very clear to me that there is one absolutely clear advantage to collecting every single person in the industry, dumping them into 867,000 square feet: the atmosphere. To anyone who has been to a concert after listening to the entire discography of the artist they are about to see or a live improv show after seeing dozen of clips on YouTube can attest, it’s different when you see something in person, surrounded by other people, and experiencing the collective call and response.
It is, after all, the entire reason conventions like PAX and Comic-Con exist. People like doing things with other people because the feelings you have aren’t just heightened but they are altered. There is definitely a mob mentality to it all. When fans cheer to watch a trailer five times in a row at EVE Online’s Fanfest or thousands of people fall silent at god awful joke, you respond with an amplified and psychologically restructured voice. And that passion at what is an otherwise grueling endurance run of gauntlet-like interviews, previews, and handshakes is necessary to keep you going, even if the yelling and cheering is unseemly at what is supposed to be a professional event (seriously, people, lock it up. It’s embarrassing when you hoot and holler for an exceedingly violent kill in a trailer and enraging when you act like sexist assholes to the fantastic women of the industry—and yes, that includes the promo girls and booth babes. Also, stop cosplaying if you’re wearing a press badge).
This extends to actually meeting people. Unless you live in San Francisco or New York and know a few people up on the food chain, it’s hard to get any personal interactions with the editors of your inspirational outlets and designers of your favorite games. But at E3, you can just bump into Vinny or Brad from Giant Bomb and chat them up (if they’re not busy rushing off to an appointment) or see Hideo Kojima lounging at an after party. This is how you expand your network, and in the games industry, your network is everything. If you don’t know anyone, you’re pretty much worth nothing. But one solid endorsement from a reputable figurehead and you’ve got a foot in the door. Remember when I said that part of the E3 workday is heading out to parties? That’s work. You are meeting people and establishing connections.
Also, collecting business cards is kind of fun.
And as a smaller outlet run by a smattering of people in locations all over the world (none of which are San Francisco or New York), this may be the only way to get some hands-on time with hardware and software. Destructoid’s Dale North and what I think is the entirety of ScrewAttack are in the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex, but they are big names. We rarely warrant a personal visit to our nonexistent offices or a flight out to see a few hours of next month’s hottest game. Someday, maybe, but not now. Now we gear up to go to E3 and PAX Prime and QuakeCon and PAX East and…you get it.
E3, as far as I can tell, is on the path of CES; it simply trails by several years. It got big, blew up, and is on a course to be a smaller, more dedicated showcase of the industry. Big names will pull out their monolithic support but still appear here and there to show support and keep up in the headlines, but the convention will continue to double down on what Internet streams and press releases can’t copy: the people and the atmosphere.