Was E3 2021 still worth it to developers?

A look at how E3 has evolved over the years and the relationship that developers have with the show.

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For more than two decades, E3 has arguably been the most important event in the gaming industry, where the biggest names from around the gaming world gather to share their creations. In 2021, video games make up the biggest entertainment industry in the world, far surpassing film and television. With another E3 in the rearview mirror, and with how the industry’s approach to events has shifted to online presentations due to COVID-19, we wanted to see if E3 was still worth it to developers.

A change in practice

Nintendo's booth at E3 2019
Nintendo's booth at E3 2019

For many years, E3 was the quintessential gaming event, with only a handful of smaller events sprinkled throughout the year. Over the past several years, we’ve seen publishers and developers host their own solo events, where they make their major announcements and update fans on what’s coming next. Sony has pulled out of E3 in favor of their own State of Play presentations, and even Microsoft decided against paying for booth space at the last in-person E3 in favor of doing their own thing across the street at the Microsoft Theater.

It’s easy to make the case that developers can save themselves a good deal of resources and stress by backing out of E3 entirely and hosting their own event on their own terms. The counter-argument to that would be that E3 is the biggest gaming event of the year, and still provides the biggest opportunity to get eyes on a game.

It’s this duality that seemed to be on full display this year. E3 2021 was held as an entirely digital event as a result of the pandemic, with many of the big players taking part in the digital format. This included Xbox and Nintendo, whose livestream presentations pulled in hundreds of thousands of views.

Where independent games shine

It could be argued that indie developers have the most incentive to participate in E3, as the massive viewership can be life-changing for a new project and the team behind it. Soup Pot is a game that got its initial reveal earlier this year during an ID@Xbox event. However, it was an appearance at E3 that proved to be a game-changer for the upcoming cooking simulator.

“We saw a 300-percent increase on wishlists in our Steam backend. It was super significant and really helped our game a lot,” said Gwen Foster, technical director at Chikon Club, currently working on Soup Pot.

Foster also talked about how E3’s transition to a digital event has made things particularly different for the Southeast Asian studio.

“The reality is game events in the U.S. or Europe can cost a lot of money, and if you factor in travel time, someone from Asia, like us, would really need to set aside a week or two to settle and travel. There’s a physical toll with going to in-person events.”

Though Foster does express her love and appreciation for in-person events and getting to meet new people, she states that a lot of money and resources are saved by doing everything remotely. That said, the team’s workload in regards to preparing for E3 and coordinating plans remains the same.

The big dogs come to play

Ubisoft's booth at E3 2018.
Ubisoft's booth at E3 2018.

Ubisoft is one of the biggest companies in the gaming industry with franchises such as Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and Watch Dogs in their lineup. The French-based studio has also been a longtime staple of E3, usually saving some of its biggest announcements of the year for the show. I got in contact with Leon Winkler, director of international events at Ubisoft, to get his take on the current state of E3 and how the company approaches it.

Coming off of the second straight year in which E3 was held digitally due to COVID-19, Winkler also spoke to the potential of being back in-person at E3 in Los Angeles in the future. “We are confident that both our players and teams are looking forward to meeting each other in person again, once the global health situation allows it.” Ubisoft has also been a mainstay of the E3 show floor, with massive booths serving as a means to promote upcoming games and connect with players on a more intimate level.

Winkler wrapped things up by sharing that Ubisoft is “thinking about how to evolve our presence in a way that works for both the people onsite as well as for those who will join remotely.”

Keeping E3 season alive

Devolver Digital is a publishing studio famous for its array of indie games and over-the-top E3 showcases. That said, Devolver isn't actually an official partner to E3. Instead, the publisher strategically plans its events in close proximity to E3, as a means of cashing in on the hype of what we refer to as "E3 season." I got in touch with Robbie Paterson, marketing manager at Devolver Digital to chat about the state of E3. During our talk, I asked Robbie about the importance of E3 in today’s gaming landscape.

If you’re familiar with Devolver Digital, you know that the publisher has pulled no punches when it comes to taking jabs at E3 over social media and within its presentation skits, typically starring Nina Struthers.

Devolver Digital, like many other video game publishers, has hosted its own presentation events separate from E3. With this in mind, I asked Patterson if he still finds it necessary for his team to have a presence around E3, considering all the benefits in going solo.

Though Devolver Digital is not an official participant at E3, the company certainly benefits from E3 season. From scheduling its showcases just hours away from official E3 events, to building its own booth in the parking lot across the street from the Los Angeles Convention Center during E3, it's clear that E3 generates a level of hype and excitement that can extend to everything in its proximity.

Paterson went on to further emphasize the significance of E3 for Devolver Digital, sharing that E3 2021 was the biggest show yet for the publisher. That’s no small feat, especially when you consider that Devolver has been a staple of E3 for years.

Proving its worth

Over the past few years, there’s been extensive debate about whether or not the industry still needs E3. With companies like Sony proving it can pull in massive viewership and promote their games while also skirting the use of resources and stress associated with E3, many argue that the expo’s relevance is shrinking with each passing year. Even official partners like Nintendo have opted to hold its own digital conference adjacent to E3, rather than in-person at the actual show. Despite all of that, E3 has demonstrably continued to be a worthwhile venture for developers both big and small.

For independent developers, E3 is often the biggest stage that their game will get, from a marketing standpoint. Even for those that choose not to officially appear at E3, the hype surrounding "E3 season" is a major tool in and of itself. The swirl of excitement surrounding the event is enough to pull in eyes from around the globe, even when a showcase isn't actually an official part of E3. To ask "is E3 still worth it?" is a loaded question. While the official show itself may have lost steam over the past few years, the general excitement surrounding the season of E3 is still alive. While many of the industry's biggest studios have opted out of partnering with The ESA for the official event, their behaviors, such as scheduling events within the proximity of E3, shows that the event's name and reputation still hold a tremendous value.

Contributing Editor

Donovan is a young journalist from Maryland, who likes to game. His oldest gaming memory is playing Pajama Sam on his mom's desktop during weekends. Pokémon Emerald, Halo 2, and the original Star Wars Battlefront 2 were some of the most influential titles in awakening his love for video games. After interning for Shacknews throughout college, Donovan graduated from Bowie State University in 2020 with a major in broadcast journalism and joined the team full-time. He is a huge Star Wars nerd and film fanatic that will talk with you about movies and games all day. You can follow him on twitter @Donimals_

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