When E3 revealed that it would run a digital event this year, it drew interest because of some notable participants – in particular, Nintendo and Xbox – but also plenty of weary sarcasm to match the buzz. E3 as an event arguably only has itself to blame if some feel jaded or downright indifferent to it, as it trended towards preposterous false hype with each passing year. In 2020, with world events taking centre stage, the whole thing was cancelled and no ‘digital’ equivalent was able to come together.
Of course, E3 2020, prior to its cancellation, was shaping up pretty badly anyway. Back in 2019 the ESA (Entertainment Software Association) had outlined plans to rebrand it as a celebrity and influencer-led ‘festival’, as opposed to an industry event that also catered to the public. It had been sliding away from being an ‘industry event’ in the typical sense for a number of years, but the plans backfired and various senior executives and prominent figures walked away; let’s not forget Sony was long gone, also. So, before the world got turned upside down, E3 2020 was in trouble.
With that in mind it’s understandable why the response to E3 being ‘back’ this year is drawing a mixed response. That said, from a Nintendo fan perspective it means we have a good idea of when we’ll get some form of Direct / Showcase / Treehouse presentations, and that’s no bad thing. There are enough big publishers taking part to suggest that, at the very least, E3 week will once again bring some reveals, showcases and buzz.
Of course, the idea of taking an expo exclusively online was done by events of various sizes last year, and will continue through 2021, at least in part. As things level out in our real lives, though, it’ll be interesting to see how real-world expos come back, and whether they reach the popularity and significance they once held.
A big part of it will rely upon the appetite of gamers. The meat and drink of the expo business is the tens of thousands of fans that descend on the halls to see and play demos of the latest and greatest games. Then, of course, the events rely on relatively hefty fees from the exhibitors themselves, from the massive booths of the 'big three' right down to single screen displays.
There's little doubt that the bigger events with major corporations behind them, such as PAX, EGX, Gamescom, etc, will return in a more conventional form as soon as allowed. This will also be particularly good news for Indie developers and publishers, as in-person events can be lifechanging moments.
Often you just have a meeting, and when the connection is strong it's a springboard. A few emails later and suddenly people who only met in a sweaty hall a week earlier are going into business together.
Though 2020 brought us various 'online expos' and people naturally met in video calls, LinkedIn and so on, it should be remembered that face-to-face meetings at industry events are — or were — a huge part of the business. Games, collaborations and publishing deals often come together at the industry-specific GDC (Game Developers Conference) and also 'consumer' expos. Sometimes deals are quite literally done at the events but often you just have a meeting, and when the connection is strong it's a springboard. A few emails later and suddenly people who only met in a sweaty hall a week earlier are going into business together.
These events are also a big part of strengthening existing partnerships; an expo week is full of dinners, drinks and parties, all with the goal of getting to know colleagues and business partners better. Whether you're more a 'client dinner' or 'industry party' person likely depends on your age and approach to networking.
And of course, events like this give small companies huge opportunities — after securing a coveted appointment — to pitch and talk to the big fish. Indie publishers may get to present their wares to Nintendo / Sony / Microsoft execs, and Indie developers may get noticed and picked up by a powerhouse like Devolver Digital, Team17 or Thunderful. This will have continued to some degree 'virtually' in 2020, but this author would bet that some real gems are still waiting to be noticed that, in a normal year, would have been snapped up and funded.
All of this activity often happens in corners of bars and cafes, or in separate 'business halls', where there's actually room to breathe and the required passes have eye-watering prices. It's a slightly greyer, more boring side of the industry — people sitting around tables talking about development costs and revenue shares — but so many of the coolest games we play are born out of talented small teams getting vital support and backing from these meetings.
So, yes, it'll be fun when we can all go to expos again and engage in some mass hype about the biggest and best games. More importantly, though, talented Indies with wonderful games to share will be in wall-to-wall meetings, and new games will be born.