E3 is dead, and it’s a damn shame

Farewell then, E3. Yesterday’s announcement that E3 2023 has been cancelled (opens in new tab) is, make no mistake, the final act for what was until very recently gaming’s showpiece event: The big summer extravaganza, the royal rumble where all the major platform-holders and publishers were crammed into the same space for a few days and had to directly compete with one another. This cannot be overstated: These companies alternately loved and hated the annual totting up of who had ‘won’, as well they might after having paid millions for the privilege.

It’s an event that changed vastly from its early days as a mostly B2B conference into a shop window for the world, becoming the marquee moment for any given gaming year and the single most exciting time to be a gamer. And in the end it didn’t change enough or, arguably more the case, the industry no longer wanted what it had to offer.

The first E3 set the tone and, while in 2023 some context is necessary, 1995’s stage presentation by Sony is still one of the industry’s most ruthless mic drops: Some would say this was the moment Sega died (as a platform holder anyway), and the old duopoly of the console wars was replaced forever. The Sega Saturn was coming to America and Tom Kalinske gave a presentation announcing a retail price of $399 including Virtua Fighter and, fearful of Sony, announced an earlier release date than PlayStation, in the process pissing off a bunch of major US retailers with exclusivity deals.

When the time came for PlayStation’s E3 announcement, Olaf Olafsson, then the head of Sony Computer Entertainment America, gave a brief talk before summoning Steve Race to the stage. Race said simply ‘299’ and walked off stage. The hollering and applause from the audience are instantaneous. Sitting in the audience, Kalinske turned to a colleague and said “oh shit.”

“I don’t think some of our Japanese colleagues slept that night.”

Phil Harrison

You’ve probably heard about that moment before. You might not know it was up in the air until the last moment, with Sony determined to work out just how low it could go in order to enter the market as aggressively as possible.

“It was the opening event of E3, but the real discussion took place the night before in a hotel room where we all sat around and planned what the price was going to be,” Phil Harrison, then of Sony, told me in 2020. “It involved a lot of very, very last-minute and very… I don’t think some of our Japanese colleagues slept that night. I think they spent most of the time on the phone and sending faxes back and forth with Tokyo, just to make sure that it was possible to do what we were planning. But [the $299 price] was an aggressive move.”

Harrison may not mention Sega here but, make no mistake, this was aimed at Sega. Point being that at the very first E3 you have this huge changing of the guard moment where one company’s presentation is blown out of the water by another’s, and things would never be the same again. In all likelihood PlayStation would have smashed Saturn regardless of what happened at that E3 but this is not the point: It would be like analysing the Rumble in the Jungle without acknowledging what Muhammad Ali did outside of the ring.

Riiiiiiiiiiiiidge Racer!

Cue dozens more moments like that over the next 24 years (opens in new tab), with the industry’s big players conscious of E3 not just as a showcase for their own wares but a spot in time where they would rub shoulders with the competition: And in the case of platform holders, often take them on directly. The onus was always on serious announcements (new hardware, new first party exclusives, absolutely batshit and simultaneously visionary stuff like Project Milo) and for players it was fabulously exciting to have that conflagration and argue about who won and who lost a given year. I remember watching in 2015 when Sony re-announced The Last Guardian alongside Final Fantasy 7 remake and, unbelievably, Shenmue 3: Whatever happened afterwards, whenever I think of my experiences in games I think of that night.

But the chest-beating is only half of the story. I’ve been lucky enough to attend E3 several times, with my last being 2017 when the show had the relatively new element of allowing punters as well as industry types on the floor, and while the show floor and the presentations matter, what was special about E3 was the face-to-face contact. It’s hard in this light to ignore what Covid has done to society more generally, with in-person events still out-of-favour among some, but much as I now spend half my life on Google Meet and email, it is not the same and this is particularly acute when it comes to these things.

It’s not just that journalists had the opportunity to meet developers and have a demo and a chat, but that the industry itself was doing this. A great spectacle I witnessed one year was Shigeru Miyamoto walking around checking out other games and the crowd parting to let him and his retinue through, then people following in the wake to see what he’d look at next. I once interviewed a Lionhead designer who said he’d seen a similar thing while on the Fable stand with Peter Molyneux, who muttered something like “you’d think he was God.” Not to mention that time Steven Spielberg checked out Battlefield 4 (opens in new tab).

Those moments of perspicacity and human friction only come from putting the whole industry together in one place and, while Gamescom and TGS gamely soldier on (and are fantastic events), it is deeply sad that E3 won’t happen again. The ESA is trying to be bullish about this event’s future, but don’t buy it. This thing is as dead as Dillinger, and not necessarily because it deserved to be.

Keigh-3

There are many game events that will jostle in the aftermath: PC Gamer’s own PC Gaming Show (opens in new tab), which debuted as part of E3, will continue, while sister event Future Games Show will take place during mid-June.

But let’s be clear: The ESA is made up of the same companies that would form the backbone of any ‘normal’ E3, and they just didn’t want it (opens in new tab). The industry felt it no longer needed this event. But look at who’s celebrating. The show had barely been cancelled when Geoff ‘Game Awards’ Keighley posted a bunch of unseemly tweets, which are probably more understandable when you know he had tried to be the man to revamp E3 rather than directly compete with it. Even so, eating someone’s lunch and then celebrating the fact feels a bit crass.

We’re now in the age where announcements are spoonfed.

Summer Game Fest is no replacement for E3. There is an alternate history here where the ESA and Keighley came to some understanding and we still had a vibrant, in-person event that was equally as important, but instead the ESA’s inability to move on has left it here. The Summer Game Fest is pay-to-play and straight marketing, but that’s what the big publishers want. And let’s not cast Keighley as some rapacious villain when the ESA was every bit as cut-throat in its heyday, happily price-gouging for stand fees and the like, and has belatedly realised the world has changed.

E3 was always about marketing on some level, but Summer Game Fest is a marketing reel and, while there remains the capacity for the occasional human surprise (as with the Elden Ring stage-crasher at the Game Awards (opens in new tab)), there’s nothing like the messiness and unpredictability of shoving everyone into a vast convention centre for days (and nights) on end.

This was an industry event, originally a spinoff because games companies felt CES wasn’t giving them the respect they deserved, that became a global industry event as games grew faster and larger than anyone predicted. And maybe the ESA didn’t know how to handle that growth beyond cashing the checks.

As platform holders and publishers became more moneyed, and the risks of the industry became ever-higher, to a company they all sought one thing: total messaging control. E3 with its two hour stage presentations, the burial ground of many an under-prepared executive, and its days and days of direct contact with the media and the public and closed-doors confabs, was an unpredictable element. And these companies don’t want or feel they can afford that.

It’s too bad. This was the calendar event that brought the games industry together, and let the sparks fly. We’re now in the age where announcements are spoonfed—Nintendo Directs, slickly crafted Ubisoft presentations, endless one- or two-hour showreels where nothing can go wrong—but there’s nothing behind the curtain. God forbid that these companies should have to go up against one another directly.

Why do it when they can focus on direct marketing and pretend there’s nothing else out there? That’s exactly what the games industry wants. It’s certainly what Summer Game Fest and all their dedicated events will deliver and, if nothing else, that’s why I’m mourning the event that, over the course of its history, saw hackles raised and sparks fly. It’s game over for E3 and, if the games industry has its way, there will be no continues.



Source: PC Gamer

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