E3 is an illusion, but at least it’s a pretty good one.
This was the second year the public could buy tickets to the show and, despite a few hiccups, it looks like everyone has settled down about that change. E3 has always been one big commercial, but the ubiquity of livestreaming — and the increasing rarity of playable games, now that titles are announced so far from release — means that being there physically has never been less important. Your seat at home, in many ways, is a lot better than the view that attendees get.
E3 is like a concert where, instead of seeing U2, you see a commercial for U2’s next album.
We expect and hope for big surprises, and there are many folks who think that learning about a game’s existence before the show lessens the impact of that all-important reveal or first trailer. And those surprises are often how we judge whether E3 is “good” that year. With such a lack of emphasis on the show floor itself, E3’s main value is the way it organizes interest into one week.
The idea that it’s still some grand event that’s still mostly tied to a specific place is an illusion: Those dates are important for news, trailers and interviews because we all agree on them. Your booth at E3 doesn’t really matter anymore, but your announcements do. And everyone saves big news for the dates around E3, because that’s when everyone is paying attention. Why is everyone paying attention? Because that’s when E3 is. It’s a marketing god that only has power because we all know when to pray to it, and holy shit, do a lot of people show up to pray.
And the reason we agree upon those dates? The roots of the show were planted when writers had to actually show up, play games and interview people before filing stories that would be physically printed somewhere. The world has changed around E3, but marketing has revolved for a very long time around whatever dates the show is on. Going to the event itself is almost beside the point these days.
And this isn’t even a criticism, because I love the new E3. I enjoy watching how companies announce games, and seeing the things they decide to emphasize when trying to sell those games. Sometimes even the announcement that a sequel is on the way causes people to react with pure joy. Some trailers and demonstrations are so good that they can almost work as stand-alone short films. Some companies focus on what we can expect in the future, while others are forced to basically apologize for an hour. The show keeps a pace of news and announcements that no other artistic medium even attempts to match with its own big events.
2018 was a good year for E3 to really to settle into its new identity a little. It’s too early for big hardware announcements, and going in, we knew most of the games that were going to be discussed. But I think it was a successful show based on my own personal metric, which is whether there were more games announced that I want to play than time I’ll have to play them. In other words, am I being overwhelmed by what seem like good choices in gaming after the show is over? 2018 was an easy “yes” to that very simple question.
The lack of bombshell announcements doesn’t subtract from the number of high-quality games on display, but the gaming industry’s insistence on secrecy and surprise feels increasingly anachronistic. Movie studios, for instance, don’t like it when images or footage leaks, but they rarely attempt to hush up what they’re working on once it starts filming.
Publishers could start spacing out announcements throughout the year, and Nintendo already kind of does, but no one wants to miss out on the feeding frenzy of interest and eyeballs that takes place around E3. Epic Games could have held its first big Fortnite tournament on any date and people would have watched in huge numbers, but why not hold it during E3, when the company knows that players and fans will be glued to their laptops and phones while thinking about video games? It would have been silly not to ride that wave.
And it’s good for the press as well. While the show floor itself may matter less than it ever has, the timing of all that news puts pressure on company executives to make themselves available for interviews they may try to avoid throughout the rest of the year. E3 is when publishers and platform holders try to sell the industry on their vision, and that means having their decision-makers available to discuss and defend that vision.
E3 may be more of an illusion than the annual special event it’s cracked up to be. But it’s an effective one, and the way it’s organized currently works out pretty well for everyone, while also giving everyone something to bitch about. That’s convincing evidence that its current state is the best possible compromise.