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E3 is dead, Long Live the digital festival

James Lees looks at the 'death of E3' and the rise of digital festival

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Image Credit: Sharad Kachhi, Pexels

E3 has been king since 1995. Originally a huge trade show for video games, consoles, accessories and merchandise, it became more like an advertising tool over the years, even opening up in part to the public in 2017. But, as the internet has developed and practices have changed, many questioned the relevance of the event. In 2020, like with so many things, Covid-19 came and killed it.

The idea of holding an event attended by tens of thousands of people in May 2020 was a non-starter, so the event was cancelled. There were some murmurings about an E3 online, however, perhaps not surprisingly with the timescales involved, nothing ever came about. More tellingly however was E3 online for 2021 was being planned.

Details are scarce and rumours abound, but it seems like there was a plan to hold the usual big draw of the main presentations online and have a bunch of other digital events surrounding it. However, right at the start there was talk of big-name developers like Bethesda and EA snubbing the event over the huge price tag for an online-only event and it wasn’t long before the whole thing was cancelled outright.

The problem is that developers have realised they can do it themselves without having to pay six figures or over to the Entertainment Software Association – the people who organise E3. Nintendo stopped doing a press conference as early as 2013, instead of putting together the first ‘Nintendo Direct’ which was a pre-recorded presentation and releasing it during E3. Other developers too had begun to move their presentations out of the actual E3 venue and shifted it to just before the event itself. This shift was perhaps inevitable but Covid-19 sped things up enormously.

In 2020, the big market players were forced to create their own online presentations, such as PlayStations State of Play or EA’s EA Play Live and others from Xbox and Ubisoft. Now that they’ve seen that these can get just as many viewers and are far more flexible for likely a fraction of the cost will they ever really want to go back?

It’s not just the AAA developers that are benefitting from this new trend of online showcases. As an indie in the days of E3, the only way to reach such heights was to be shown off in the ‘PC Gamer Showcase’ which could only exhibit a handful of games. Now however there are a growing number of indie showcases such as ‘The Guerrilla Collective’, ‘The Indie Mix’, ‘The Escapist Showcase’ and the ‘Wholesome Direct’.

The banner many of these events fell under last year was ‘Summer of Games’ which promoted events for AAA Devs, Indies and the middle market with things like ‘The Future Games Show’.

It’s not just the presentations that made up E3 and it’s not just the presentations that have adapted to our new times. Another big part of the event was the hands-on demos of the games that you got to watch on YouTube as you almost certainly didn’t get to go. It’s here that Steam has stepped in with its introduction of the ‘Steam Game Festival’.

Having run a few times now each of the festivals has offered literally hundreds of limited-time demos to download and play as well as a 24/7 schedule of live streams and developer interviews. The key is that games can only be featured in one festival so you’re sure to find something new every time. With demos often being small and snacky it’s not hard to download a dozen or so and blow through them in a couple of hours seeing what deserves a coveted place on your Wishlist.

This isn’t perfect of course, with so many demos and the relatively hard-wired Steam interface you often only get to make a snap judgement based on some key art and a title. This means that you’re inevitably going to miss something and browsing can be an arduous affair. Perhaps a more curated zoning system or a way to download a bunch of random demos (with filtering to make sure you’re not going to get something you’re totally disinterested in) would help? Those old demo discs were exciting after all.

So then, what is the future of the video game trade show? It seems inevitable that the presentations will stay and more demos will be inbound. But could things be even better?

Devolver Digital is well known for poking fun at the games industry and E3 in particular. Its increasingly wild and disturbing press conferences somehow manage to have a plot stretching over years. In 2020 responding to the cancellation of E3 they released Devolverland Expo, a free game on Steam that lets you explore the abandoned show floor as it might have been. This features a 3D first-person exhibition where the game booths are far larger and more ostentatious than they ever could be in real life complete with its own secrets and a boss fight.

Whilst an AAA published games conference might be a bit of a pipedream there are those who are working towards making it a reality online. In your year or so of online meetings you may have come across the rather broken ‘Town Halls’  in which you create an avatar and then are able to walk around in a world reminiscent of Habbo Hotel with proximity chat rooms you can dip in and out of.

A few online events like MAGOnline have been testing the waters using technology to live-stream video screens above virtual booths. NPCs allow anyone to gain information whilst the developers might be engaged in conversations and arcade cabinets allow people to access demos of upcoming games in a mix of downloads and links to Steam. These can be a little janky and of course no real substitute for a live event but it offers some insight into where these kinds of things could go.

With all of these changes, it seems clear that whilst E3 might be back in 2022, it won’t be the titan that it once was. There are lots of options and maybe even more exciting future possibilities.

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