It’s a few months until this year’s E3 Expo, the game industry’s annual gala trade show in Los Angeles, and several major exhibitors have said thanks, no, we won’t be there. Electronic Arts was the first to go, deciding to give up its primo space at E3 in favor of an event called EA Play, which will be held across the street and open to all.
It wasn’t long before EA’s chief rival Activision said it, too, was bailing. Then VentureBeat reported that Wargaming, which makes World of Tanks, would bow out—as well as Disney. One can be dismissed as a fluke, and two as a coincidence, but three is a trend and four is a hemorrhage. And it’s too soon to know the extent of the damage, because there’s still plenty of time for more publishers to join the No E3 Club.
Gaming fans who hang on every E3 announcement shouldn’t be worried, though. E3 is the symptom, not the cause. While each individual publisher has its own reasons for pulling out of E3, the mass exodus is probably stemming from a substantial shift in how games are sold and played, and a refocusing on consumer-oriented events.
It seems like you could discern EA’s rationale from looking at where it’s going. EA Play sounds very much like what you’d do at EA’s booth at E3—play game demos—but in an environment entirely controlled by EA, meaning it can let fans into the show. For all of the people who sneak into E3 (or the few thousand lucky fans who won E3 passes last year), the industry’s biggest trade show is limited to those in the business and those who cover it.
If Electronic Arts has decided that only reaching the business and media is no longer worth it, and that it would prefer to invite gamers directly to experience its upcoming games, then striking out on its own is the best option. At this point, perhaps the only thing that could bring it back to E3 is if the Entertainment Software Association were to open it up to the general public. It hasn’t indicated that it will, but its hand might be forced.
Activision is a little different, in that it hasn’t announced what it’s doing instead of E3. The next installment in its venerable Call of Duty franchise will be presented by Sony, probably during its PlayStation press event, or at Sony’s booth, or both. The decision to skip this year may be driven by the fact Activision won’t have many new games to ship this year: Blizzard’s Overwatch will be out by the time E3 rolls around, Destiny isn’t getting a sequel this year, and Guitar Hero isn’t getting a sequel at all. A new Skylanders is coming, but two games is a slim reason to have an E3 booth.
Same with Disney, which has said that it won’t release a new Disney Infinity game this year, but instead keep supporting the 3.0 version it released in 2015 with new levels and characters. That may not justify an entire E3 booth, either.
And as for Wargaming? Consider what the online game maker told VentureBeat: “From a strictly business perspective, E3 just doesn’t fit our current direction. It’s a show that is very centralized on retail product, and as a free-to-play digital download gaming company, we’ve realized that while the show may be a good fit for lots of other publishers and developers, it’s currently not a great fit for us.”
Whoa, slow down. What was that about who is and is not a good fit for E3?
To understand why these publishers are pulling out of E3—or rather, why they feel comfortable with the decision to pull out of E3—we may want to remind ourselves what E3 is.
“It’s a place where gamers go to play the hottest new games!” Nope.
“It’s where game publishers show their latest games to the media, so they can write about them!” Nope. That is incidental.
E3 is a trade show, at which makers of packaged goods try to convince wholesalers and retailers to buy large quantities of their forthcoming products. At bottom, as Wargaming said, it is about moving retail product. Of course, the Entertainment Software Association has attempted over the years to expand E3’s mission. But fundamentally, this is what E3 is for.
And here’s the rub: every videogame publisher is, to one degree or another, in the process of becoming Wargaming.
If you’re Activision, a disc in a box may still be a significant part of your business, but one that is rapidly shrinking. You’re putting a handful of new boxed products on shelves a year, then continuing to support those products with downloadable content or subscription services throughout the year. You want to get the word out to fans that the updates are coming, but E3 doesn’t reach fans directly. If it’s not the right fit for Wargaming, that means it’s increasingly not the right fit for anyone.
You may be old enough to remember that E3 was canceled in a decade ago. (Reports had it that Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, and Electronic Arts had all reached a joint agreement to bow out of the show—an armistice, if you will.) The following year everyone met in Santa Monica for an event that was called “E3” but was actually a series of game demos in hotel conference rooms scattered around the city. This was an attempt to preserve the hype and nonstop media coverage that had grown organically out of E3 but without E3 there to prop it all up. It was unfulfilling for all involved, and the full show was back by 2009. It’s been on death watch since.
But E3 might yet be opened to the public. The show is likely to offer more tickets for exhibitors to give away this year, and if the exodus of publishers causes further declines in attendance, opening the doors to all and sundry might be a way to fill the halls (and maybe lure those publishers back).
But a public E3 isn’t really E3 anymore; it’s more like a fifth Penny Arcade Expo. If you’re used to sitting at home watching the announcements and news from E3, you’re participating in the events that grew up and around E3, not E3 itself. Without a trade show at the center of everything, there’s no reason for game publishers to cluster all of their announcements for the year into a single week in June.
They may continue doing this a few years just because of momentum, but what we’ll likely see, with an E3 of diminished importance, is a spreading of big announcements and first-look gameplay demos more evenly throughout the year.
In other words, E3 as the epicenter of all things gaming has an expiration date, as do we all, if you like.