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E3 2017 Shows a Convention at a Crossroads

We knew E3 this year would be different, but I'm not sure those of us in the media were prepared for just how different.

The addition of 15,000 public fans certainly made for a more crowded convention hall, but not one that breaks any attendance records. There was more congestion in part because the new attendees seemed more prone to pausing mid-walkway for photos or to look around, but that's an honest mistake. And with more costumes and a general atmosphere of fandom surrounding the event, it did take on a different tone reminiscent of shows like PAX or Comic-Con.

None of this is necessarily negative. Some inconveniences are understandable as the show adapts and changes. But the addition of the general public is accelerating the changes that have already been slowly creeping in on E3. If this year's crowds are any indication, it's very likely that this year's event will be the fulcrum on which the show pivots to its next stage in the life cycle. 

"These are the conversations I heard right before Santa Monica," one game journalist observed, referencing the infamous 2007-2008 rebranding of the event. Then, the ESA was concerned that the spectacle was getting too expensive for publishers. In hindsight, it was that such an expense was wasted on a press that was increasingly savvy and less wowed by flashy fanfare. The logical next step, then, wasn't to cut out the spectacle, but to bring in the audience most receptive to it: the fans.

This was foreseeable. Two years ago I wrote an editorial, just before E3, arguing that Nintendo was leading the charge on the inevitable future of E3. In the years since, press conferences have even further lost their usefulness to the actual press. With very rare exceptions, we don't even attend in-person. They can be covered better from the comfort of our homes or hotels. This year, we broadcast live reactions from a couch.

Besides, the companies don't really want us there anyway. If they're going to go through the time and expense of planning a stage show, they want fan engagement. They want investors to hear screams of joy that translate to dollars and pre-orders. They want influencers who will tell their viewers about the great party and how excited they are for this year's line-up. The press can and is sitting out, and being replaced by consumer culture.

Sony has recognized this. A company whose press conferences used to be known for stuffy dialogue and sales charts has turned into a trailer bonanza, with only brief appearances by any actual humans to introduce the games or guide viewers through live demo sessions. Those who attend the conference live can look forward to special effects like pyrotechnics and live actors laying still, upside-down, for several minutes, before suddenly animating to life and thrashing around. It's a spectacle, different than Nintendo withdrawing from live events, but no less catered directly to fans.

This year the expo itself underwent a similar early, transitional step. By allowing in the public, the ESA has opened the floodgates for publishers to message their core audience directly. We've heard some accounts that publishers didn't have much time to prepare for the change this year, which makes sense for a show that is prepared half a year in advance. Assuming the public is allowed in next year, and there's no reason not to, publishers will surely be organizing their booths and engagement strategies around them.

At the same time, it's difficult to see how this new form of E3 is serving any of its stake-holders very well. Booths this year were overcrowded, with long lines that prevented most fans from playing any more than one or two AAA demos per day. The media was consistently late to appointments due to the increased crowd size, creating a cascade effect that impacted other media appointments afterward. Developers privately expressed frustration with passers-by who scoffed at the technical problems present in early builds that aren't representative of the final product.

The show this year was simply serving too many masters. It seems soon publishers and show organizers will be forced to pick a lane, and with that choice, the press will likely have its role further diminished. Publishers are finding they can take their announcements directly to fans, and this year, they can take the flashy booths and game demos to fans too. While this year's event was still targeted toward the press with fans attending in a secondary role, that ratio is bound to flip, and likely sooner than we know. Those of us who watch this industry professionally need to be prepared for that eventuality.

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