Vague Patch Notes: Do video games really need trade shows anymore?

Bart, stop creating a diversion!

The past few years have seen some really big seismic shifts in the game industry. In the time that I’ve been working here alone, we’ve gone from an environment in which physical sales were still very important to one in which GameStop appears to be slowly dying off from a failure to sell itself. We’ve watched companies move from seeing free-to-play as the mark of failure to one in which it’s functionally the industry default. We’ve watched… well, lockboxes. It’s enough to just say “lockboxes.”

And that’s all in the decade or so of my professional game writing; this is glossing over the changes making the PC a viable gaming platform for the average consumer, the shift in console standards from the post-NES boom, and the fact that being online even for single-player games is kind of a thing now. Not to mention that, again, my current profession is one that literally did not exist when I graduated from high school.

You know what hasn’t changed that much, though? Trade shows. And when I think of that melange of changes, I find myself wondering if we shouldn’t have been keeping some of those elements while we jettison conventions like E3, PAX, and the like for good.

One of the effects of my age putting me on the high end of millennial is that in many ways, video games as mass-market entertainment has dovetailed to an extent with my own personal development. I was born the same year as the Great Videogame Crash, which meant that I was the perfect target audience when Nintendo hit the scene later. It was a Big Deal when my parents got me a subscription to Nintendo Power, easily the best video game magazine of all time.

Nintendo Power really was great, and not just because the magazine tended to feature lavish full-color maps of levels assembled painstakingly and accurately or intricate boss strategies. No, it was also great because this was a window into the world of that mysterious land of upcoming games, a shrouded realm of foggy promises and vague allusions that you could only hope would reward you with something cool in the future. It was one part strategy guide, one part marketing fluff, and one part steady indoctrination for the ubiquity of the Nintendo brand explaining that this was the best gaming would ever be, purchase Nintendo products and don’t even think about giving those filthy liars at Sega your parents’ money.

Of course, this was also the early ’90s. If you wanted to browse the internet for games, you would either have to wait a few years for Netscape Navigator to be a thing, or you would have to go browse the bizarre subthreads of newsgroups looking for information. Basically everything you got in terms of information there was third-hand information at best. This was fine, since basically no one was on the internet at the time.

Yes, this was a few years out.

The first E3 was in 1995, but it was hardly the first trade show of its type. Indeed, I remember one issue of Nintendo Power eagerly calling out its coverage of the CES convention (I think it must have been the ’94 CES) on a front-cover starburst. New games! Things to look forward to and spend money on! Fascinating new toys that you would never know to look forward to without being told!

Do you know what a company needs to do now to get you to hear about a new game announcement? Send out a press release. Seriously, Square-Enix could announce Final Fantasy XVI tomorrow with one email. If the company felt really ambitious it could just send out a tweet and announce it in a week after people fall over themselves speculating and offering free coverage. It’s happened before.

Trade shows were born and gestated in an environment with very few options to disseminate news, but the motives that made them intensely relevant years ago are increasingly less important. Retailer communication has improved. Consumer communication has improved. Big, splashy events are no longer the only way to get coverage for something major.

In fact, they’re arguably detrimental to getting a focus on your game. Historically, every single Final Fantasy XIV expansion has been announced at a specific fan festival devoted to that game. Nearly every World of Warcraft expansion has been announced at BlizzCon. All of this allows for people to focus in on that announcement rather than getting pulled in several different directions at once. It’s not like the thick crowds of PAX, forcing me to run around and cover seven or eight titles in one day and evaluate them all on a melange of exhaustion, overstimulation, and fast food.

Of course, the argument from there goes that these shows aren’t really about the press; they’re about the fandom. And that in and of itself is a problem because trade shows as an aggregate seem to be unclear if they are about the fandom or about press coverage or about the industry. They cater to all and wind up not quite serving any.

This is the griffon.

I’ve talked about this a bit before in one of my favorite interviews, but the issues with who is meant to be getting something out of these events remain. This article in particular was spurred in no small part by the announcement that E3 seeks to further stuff influencers into its halls next year, people who aren’t press, aren’t under any ethical justification to disclose what influence might be applied to them, and generally don’t actually require an event for them when you get the same pop from just… the influencers directly showing up.

It all gets a bit weird when you realize that “influencer” is functionally a euphemism for “very popular person.” It’s like hanging out next to Keanu Reeves in hopes that people will think you are also cool.

There’s a lot of good reasons why increasingly, large publishers are just not bothering with E3 and do their own things. Nintendo has found a lot of success with its Nintendo Direct releases, Sony and EA can largely support their own ecosystems, and you can’t convince me that Microsoft doesn’t stick around more from momentum than anything. The industry has gotten much bigger, and lumping everything under the header of E3 seems to no longer serves much purpose.

Again, there was a time when these trade shows mattered a lot. But trying to time announcements for the trade shows is no longer helpful in an era when everyone is always connected at all times and you don’t need these focus points. There’s still plenty of space for fan conventions, but not for these gatherings to serve as major flashpoints where tons of big things get announced full of flash and spectacle.

It all made sense when you were communicating through layers of obfuscation, but those layers are gone now. And especially with the state of the MMO market, when everything can effectively be communicated online based on the very nature of the format, these big shows have long reached their end of life. Time to drop the trade show format.

If the industry could just go ahead and agree to do that before March of next year, that’d work out particularly well for me.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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