The coronavirus pandemic has caused many events to be delayed or cancelled. One of the biggest casualties in the gaming world was E3 – the Electronic Entertainment Expo – which is held annually in California. E3 has been where big companies would make their biggest announcements: consoles from the Sega Saturn to the Xbox One, and so many games, from GoldenEye to the still-unreleased Elder Scrolls VI, all debuted at the event. It has been the biggest and most significant event on the calendar for games companies for years. But is it on the way out? If it does return next year as promised, what will the impact of its absence be in the longer-term?
There have been rumours for a few months now that a remaster of the Mass Effect trilogy is in the works – and I was at least a little disappointed that last night’s EA Play didn’t include it. But setting that aside, the presentation was a huge success – and crucially, for the vast majority of its audience watching at home, was no worse for not being part of a massively expensive event like E3.
Nintendo pioneered the “direct-to-consumer” digital marketing years ago with its Nintendo Direct presentations, and no longer attends the main E3 event. Sony has followed suit, and didn’t attend last year’s E3 either. Both companies have been successful with the kind of presentations we saw from EA last night.
If you’re a regular reader you may recall that I used to work for a large games company. I wrote marketing material and website content for them for several years, and in that capacity I attended two iterations of Gamescom – Europe’s answer to E3, held annually in Cologne, Germany. These events are big, hot, overcrowded, and something the vast majority of a company’s audience will never be able to attend in person. The two Gamescom fairs I attended were interesting, but overall I found them to be uncomfortable experiences. While working took up most of my time, I was able to slip away a few times to visit other companies’ stalls and see a few speeches and bigger events, and that was vaguely interesting. When I look back on those experiences I guess I can say I’m glad that I had the opportunity to attend, but on the whole it’s a far more comfortable experience to watch the events on a live stream from home.
And this is what companies like EA are, I suspect, beginning to realise. Why go to all the expense of building a big stage, renting a building, flying out hundreds of people to Los Angeles or Cologne – which must cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on top of producing the marketing material to be shown off – when a smaller-scale presentation like this can be taken care of in-house? What benefit does E3 or Gamescom offer any more that an event like EA Play doesn’t? It’s working just great for Nintendo, doing it this way, so why not for other companies too?
Presentations like EA Play feel like a natural progression in the way big games publishers interact with their audiences. E3 made sense when it debuted in 1994, as it brought together different games companies and journalists – and there was no way to directly market their products in the way that social media and live-streaming allows. But an event like that feels kind of dated in 2020, and the benefits of attending the event are only seen by a tiny fraction of the company’s audience who are able to be there in person. It might make those people feel great – as well as showing off to journalists (who are themselves increasingly seeming like dinosaurs in a digital/social media age) – but doesn’t actually do anything for the majority of people who will watch from home.
In fact, the dangers of a live presentation before a large audience are great, especially when compared to the safety of a pre-recorded presentation. There are many instances at such events where things went horribly awry: the notorious “Mr Caffeine” at Ubisoft’s E3 2011 conference, for example, or the moment at Blizzard’s 2018 convention where an underwhelmed audience member asked – in front of the whole world – if crappy mobile game Diablo Immortal was “an out of season April Fools’ joke”. Yep, live events can go very wrong indeed – another great reason to avoid them.
At the end of the day, most people want to get some information about the latest games from their favourite developers and maybe see a few trailers showing off those games actually being played. They aren’t interested in hours of fluff, and as they can’t attend the event in person, they don’t get to wander around checking out different booths or conferences, nor picking up the freebies handed out by interns and volunteers. The audience wants to see gameplay and get key facts like release dates, system requirements, and the like. This information is able to be much more easily and concisely communicated in a pre-recorded presentation like EA Play.
I enjoyed last night’s EA Play far more than I’ve enjoyed any recent E3 or Gamescom event. It ran through a number of games, some of which I had never heard of but are now on my watchlist, and it dropped a great new trailer for Star Wars: Squadrons, which is a game I’m looking forward to. By trimming the fat that would usually be part of a live event, like transitions between trailers and live moments, changing presenters, inevitable glitches, and so on, EA Play was great to watch. I really feel that these kind of presentations are going to be much more important in future, and events like E3 and Gamescom will decline. I don’t expect either of them to disappear entirely, at least not imminently, but as companies realise that not only does switching to this kind of broadcast have less risk and is probably more enjoyable for most viewers, but will also save them a lot of money, it’s a no-brainer to skip the big conferences and communicate directly with fans.
Aside from the lack of news about Mass Effect – which I’m still holding out hope is in the works – EA Play was a great success. And if their marketing team has been able to get the word out so thoroughly that even someone like me knew in advance that the event was coming up, that should confirm the power of social media as a marketing tool. One of E3 and Gamescom’s big selling points has always been that they’re huge events that pull in audiences – but if a company like EA can manage to drum up support to get hundreds of thousands of people watching their presentation live, with over half a million more (at time of writing) watching the event after its initial broadcast, that argument is no longer valid.
Presentations like EA Play are going to become the norm across the industry sooner or later. Whether that will be to everyone’s advantage – or whether it will consolidate the power of the existing big publishers and companies, further pushing out smaller ones and making it harder for anyone new to get started – is unclear, and those are valid concerns. But EA will find that this summer has been a success despite the lack of E3. Will they return next year, or simply opt for another presentation like this one?
All games mentioned above are the copyright of their respective developers and/or publishers. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.