Talking Point: Are E3 Conferences a Dying Breed?

E3 is changing

9am PDT, Tuesday, E3 week. For Nintendo fans, this time and date is akin to New Year's Day, ringing in the next big batch of games Nintendo has to offer and beginning a week-long celebration of all things gaming. Nintendo’s E3 press conference has created some magical moments over the years, from the reveal of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess in 2004, to the infamous “my body is ready” line from Reggie in 2007. While they're not all winners, every conference brings with it a level of excitement, pointing us all towards the new horizons Nintendo is aiming for in the coming year.

But this year, something seemed different. Gone were the on-stage demos, and gone were the rapid-fire carousel of games that accompanied the years before it. In their place came a very formal run-down of what Wii U was, followed by awkward set-piece stage moments with third-parties. And the other major presentations from Sony and Microsoft didn't seem to fare any better, resulting in many journalists calling this one of the more average E3s in recent memory. So what has changed to reduce so radically the excitement coming out of E3 2012?

Let’s first look back at Nintendo’s most recent home console launch E3, the Wii event in 2006. The whole conference was arguably nothing short of brilliant, with stage demos of Twilight Princess and Wii Sports mixed in with announcements for Metroid Prime 3: Corruption and Super Mario Galaxy, creating a rapid-fire conference focusing on the games that made you not only want the console, but aided your understanding of the concept. It didn’t matter that many of the games shown were coming out post-launch because the primary audience of journalists and gamers understood this. E3 in 2006 was about the gamer, and what was coming in the next year.

Since then, and perhaps as a direct result of Nintendo’s strong showing in 2006, the gaming landscape has changed considerably, with a new influx of gamers more aware of the Wii brand than ever. The positioning of E3 as an event has also changed – this is no longer an event exclusive to experienced gamers, as the rise of new gamers has ultimately introduced the non-gaming media to E3; Nintendo’s potential reach with its conference only grows when more varied media outlets arrive, emphasized by the newfound television presence, something Nintendo was keen to capitalise on during its main conference.

This unprecedented level of coverage changes the scenario dramatically. No longer is Nintendo advertising to informed gamers about the entire year ahead, but rather a variety of consumers. The event now becomes all about reaching a target audience, and focusing in on what is coming sooner rather than later.

With Wii U particularly, it had to be about the launch games. If Nintendo wants to maintain the so-called 'casual' audience with Wii U, it must give them reasons why it's a necessary upgrade from Wii, something that a new Metroid game arriving in 2014 will not achieve. We’ve seen with the 3DS the outcry that followed the huge games list unveiling at E3 2010, which masked the eventual three month game drought post-launch. This was perhaps due to an audience that didn’t quite understand why that Mario game they were promised wasn’t available on the system when they bought it.

So with the face of E3 changing the question has to be, do the E3 conferences have any real place for the core gaming audience any more? Certainly E3 as an event maintains its lofty position as the height of the gaming year, but could there be a better way of delivering to the audience of enthusiasts, especially given that the conferences are now much more akin to advertising showcases?

In an unprecedented use of social media and technical ability, Nintendo may have created a solution to this ever increasing problem. While the conference itself was a very formal and direct affair, Nintendo decided to produce three further showcases throughout the week, using social media to keep gamers fully informed about what was transpiring in Los Angeles.

The curveball from Nintendo this year came in the form of Nintendo Direct, which wonderfully stole everyone’s thunder a day before the conference started.

While now an annual event, the developer’s roundtable this year had a much larger focus on providing demo time for all of Nintendo’s first-party Wii U offerings, something that in previous years would have been in the conference itself. An in-depth look at a game is not something a casual fan will necessarily be interested in, yet for an enthusiastic gamer it's a unique and valuable look into the inner workings of the industry; so creating a separate event seems like the natural solution to the problem.

This was followed up by a second video conference on Wednesday, this time focussing solely on the 3DS after Wii U dominated the main event. But that wasn’t the only change. With a far smaller scope for the presentation, the 3DS conference allowed for a more informal setting, showing games off fully and with a steady pace, rather than the bombardment of sizzle reels the main conference demands. The informality also allowed for a far more fluid presentation with third-parties, rather than the disjointed and forced back and forth’s between the executives the conference presented. Quite simply, the 3DS sub-conference was everything that E3 was back in 2006, albeit on a much smaller scale.

While all these are expected at E3, the curveball from Nintendo this year came in the form of Nintendo Direct, which wonderfully stole everyone’s thunder a day before the conference started. The pre-E3 Nintendo Direct gave Nintendo a unique chance to showcase some of the less stage-worthy features of Wii U, and with over 80,000 viewers online at its peak, it's clear that this approach to news delivery works, especially considering the buzz it caused on social networks such as Twitter later that night.

So with Nintendo Direct now becoming an ever-present staple of Nintendo’s content delivery throughout the year, does Nintendo need E3 anymore? Certainly Nintendo Direct is the perfect platform to deliver updates throughout the year, and with E3’s shift away from core gamer focused conferences to entertainment showcases it would be easy to just write E3 off as a lost cause. But the fact is that E3 still remains as the pinnacle of the gaming year, and as such Nintendo needs to perform when it matters. The nature of E3 has changed over the years, and with a wider audience than ever hanging on every word of the conferences, it's understandable why they have become entertainment driven rather than game driven.

Ultimately a balance needs to be struck. The big games have to make it to the big conferences as they need to create waves when everyone is watching. But perhaps the main event for core gamers will begin to shift away from the conferences and towards the smaller events held throughout the week, where the essence of E3 2006 is allowed to breath and games get a full shake-down in front of the public. And with Nintendo Direct, Nintendo has the perfect platform to continually remind us and surprise us with new titles throughout the year. It’s a balancing act, but one that Nintendo started to get right this year.

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