We're witnessing a large shift to the industry's biggest event, and this one may just be permanent.
In January, EA announced it would be abandoning its massive booth space at the entrance of South Hall in favor of a public "EA Play" event to be held in both Los Angeles and London. That now appears to be the first domino in a series to fall. Just this week, Activision, Disney, and Wargaming have all announced plans to nix their own booths, each with their own rationales and plans to engage with the media and fans in other ways. Between all four, though, one factor is the same: E3 doesn't make sense for their goals.
Part of this is a movement toward more direct fan messaging throughout the industry in general. The increased prominence of streaming personalities, including in-house personalities like Nintendo's Treehouse, have reduced the influence of the press. We're no longer the gatekeepers--we arguably haven't been for quite some time--so a large-scale event that caters exclusively to us simply may not be worth the investment.
We can see this trend particularly clearly in the approaches from EA and Disney. EA's event will be fully public, and while it's likely that press will be able to see games early at judges week, and skip the lines at EA Play itself, we won't have the same kind of exclusive access we're used to. Our voices will be joined by potentially thousands of L.A. and London natives who frequent NeoGAF, Reddit, or our own Chatty community. Disney is also planning to spread its announcements throughout more fan-oriented events, like D23.
Wargaming was even more blunt, stating outright that as a digital download company, a retail-oriented show simply doesn't make sense. Digital distribution currently augments the retail channel rather than replacing it. As we move ever-closer to an all or even mostly digital future, more companies like Wargaming are bound to decide that an event tied to a physical place isn't for them. We're likely to see other digital retailers following suit this year.
Activision, by comparison, is remaining relatively traditional. Its statement on the subect implies that while it won't have its large booth on the show floor, it will still be utilizing the E3 conference area in Los Angeles to hold private meetings with press. While it doesn't get as much attention as the large spectacle of the South and West Halls, the Los Angeles Convention Center has a number of private conference rooms that are usually rented out by smaller publishers and indie developers. Though we're not certain, this seems to be Activision's new approach.
This would actually be very similar to how Activision usually operates. Its booth has been large and flashy with gigantic screens showing off footage of their latest games, but all of the press interaction has taken place behind closed doors. As opposed to many publishers which simply funnel press into the public areas with skip-the-line benefits, Activision had a special area on the second floor of its booth. This area was always relatively quiet and subdued, and not altogether different than the E3 meeting rooms. As far as press is concerned, it will be an almost identical experience. The only thing missing will be the flash for general attendees, who surely have other opportunities to see the latest Call of Duty trailer.
Still, the absence of Activision will be keenly felt, if only because its footprint was so large. EA and Disney's booths were massive too, and Wargaming was mid-sized but still substantial. These are already huge gaps in the show space, and organizers are likely reshuffling to make sure they don't appear as an empty vacuum. The reshuffling would have to continue, constantly, if or when more publishers and developers drop out of the show.
Those with long memories may recognize this would be the second time that E3 has undergone a seismic shift in the last decade. In 2007 and 2008, the ESA responded to publisher pressure to downsize the event, which became the "E3 Media and Business Summit." Instead of the 60,000 visitors of the the previous year, the 2007 show only brought in 10,000. The 2008 show dropped to 5,000. It was criticized sharply at the time, resulting in a return of E3 as we know it. These more recent moves signal that while that change may have been too early, it was always inevitable.
Between the diminished role of the press and the decentralized industry as digital takes over, E3 was always bound to be downsized again. It appears that this time, publishers are simply taking the iniative themselves, rather than pressuring the ESA to make structural changes. Ultimately, the result is the same. E3 will be smaller than before, by scale if not by attendance, and its announcements will mushroom out to surrounding events that are more targeted.
What may seem like the start of a constricting trend is actually the continuation, and perhaps the culmination, of a change that began ten years ago. It's difficult to say just how quickly the face of E3 will change or what it will become once the dust settles, but it's unlikely that this time it will go back to the way it was before.
Steve Watts posted a new article, Opinion: E3 is Changing, This Time for Good
The major publishers are still going to talk and release footage of their games the only thing that changes is the format. Considering that most gamers watch these events as a live stream it doesn't really make a whole lot of sense to have a physical presence at E3. Its probably just as effective to run your own stream and not have to worry about scheduling or length.