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

    
18
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.

18
LEAVE A COMMENT

Please Login to comment
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most liked
Subscribe to:
Reader
rosieposie

We definitely don’t need the rancid pool of poison that is E3. Especially given the recent news how the ESA is taking further steps to ‘control the message’ of what comes out of these ‘shows’.

Reader
styopa

Completely agree.
Trade shows are a relic from days when that was the primary way for a studio to communicate with the public(press) in a high-bandwidth way. It was far more efficient for these studios to glom together in a show, and all the reporters to go to that show, than for reporters to haul their ass to every single different dev studio for the interviews and press info.

Now they’re just vastly overrated media circuses where nothing new is learned (that wasn’t already posted to their web page, or their dev blog, or twitter, or reddit) since the day before. Frankly, it’s a junket for the overstaffed marketing team to justify fat expense accounts and loot the trinkets for stuff they want.

Funny story: I know a fairly significant networking-hardware company whose marketing “team” was – no kidding – something like 25% of the company’s personnel. A….surprising….number of which were extraordinarily pretty young women. I knew one of the women in HR, who revealed for comparable staff levels, these young women were making a good 20%+ more than other people in the company. Glass ceiling, indeed.
They sent 18 people to CeBit in Germany, along with their trade show display and some three big trunks of free gewgaws, tshirts, etc. Between the looting performed by the marketeers back at HQ before they shipped out, and the looting pre-show during setup by this crack team of pillagers, what was available to give away for the show was less than 1/3 of what they supposedly purchased for the show.
This came out because the Tech director responsible for the show was irate when they ran out of handouts by the end of the 2nd day, sent a scathing letter to marketing, purchasing, ceo, etc. “How did this happen?”…purchasing said “dude we provided TONS of stuff”.

Trade shows were somewhat worth the trouble before the internet. Now? No.

Reader
Hikari Kenzaki

So, I can really only speak to Pax Prime/West, but having seen coverage of things like E3, I think it’s possible E3/Gamescom/etc are increasingly losing their relevance.

It’s also possible that as someone in media, you are focusing too much on what you get out of it, informationally, in that role.

PAX isn’t just about big displays of new, high budget games. In fact, there are only a handful of really big displays on the 4th floor. I avoid them entirely and focus on the other things that are there:

1) Great panels on pretty much everything in gaming culture.
2) Lounge areas for just sitting around and playing games (tabletop, CCG, handheld, retro consoles, you name it).
3) Vendors for dice, mats, and other gaming paraphernalia as well as physical games themselves.
4) Small publishers and Indie devs (probably my favorite and most important part of the show) who you would probably never hear of if you didn’t see them at a show. The probability of you stumbling upon them on the internet is slim and the various game platforms are invested in directing you to the popular games/publishers that will keep pulling in more money.
5) Charities and community outreach. Groups like ExtraLife, AbleGamers, LGBTQ+ gamer groups and so on.

And that’s just in the convention center itself. PAX takes up 7+ other buildings around it.

Reader
Jim Bergevin Jr

Everything that you point out at the bottom half of your post is easily gotten at your typical convention – both ComicCons and GamesCons. That is really Eliot’s point in that the Trade Shows as they are (or were) are completely unnecessary at this point. As fans, we are better served through those conventions that already exist. As an Extra Lifer myself, our guild does dozens of Cons every year, and have no need to bother with the Trade shows.

Reader
Hikari Kenzaki

Since you’re making a distinction, PAX is more of a con than a trade show, personally. And we just did 4 days at PAX here in Seattle for ExtraLife and it went really well. But Eliot put it in the trade shows, so, it’s there.

Reader
Mark Jacobs

I have mixed feelings about this. If the question is “Do we really need today’s kind of trade shows?” I’d say no. But, if we could have trade shows that are really industry-only events, weren’t an excuse to gouge the companies, I’d say yes.

One thing that trade shows that can’t be replaced is that even though we are all connected as Eliot correctly points out, trade shows allowed up and coming developers to go to a show and line up interviews with prospective publishers/VC/etc. who are all in the same place. Nothing beats the ability to have a lot of meetings, in person, with the folks that you want to work with going forward. It also allowed them a chance to get lucky (more on this below). Plus, using Dark Age of Camelot as a perfect example, by being at E3 in 2001, we not only had lots of business discussions there, but we were able to get a huge burst of press coverage that helped our initial visibility/sell-through immeasurably. Those are two elements that can’t be easily/cheaply replaced since most indie developers don’t have the budget to fly everywhere to meet people nor to buy high-end influencers like EA did with Apex.

While Kentia Hall was considered the low-rent district for E3 for years, deals were made by companies who couldn’t afford the “better spaces” and developers there were able to get their games in front of people that, most likely, they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. I know that publishers/vcs/etc. would do walkthroughs there to see if there was a diamond in the rough as I did the same thing myself and I saw them there as well. And while you can get that attention now because of connectivity, discoverablity of new games is bad enough on places like the Apple Store, Steam, etc. and it is hard for developers to get direct attention/discoverability. Being in Kentia might not have been great, but it did mean that people from all the publishers/VCs/etc. did walk around there so you had a chance to be discovered and talk with prospective partners.

Industry-only trade shows have dropped in importance no doubt and their time might be done but their loss will absolutely hurt indie developers as well as other folks who only went to E3 for the meetings. Like I said above, nothing beats have a lot of important industry people gathered in the same space for a few days. I know lots of people (I was one of them) who used to go the GDC just for the meetings. The same was 100% true for E3. This is even more important these days since the world is not just playing games, but making them as well. Back when we were developing WAR as well as post-launch for Dark Age, my schedule was literally booked with every available slot from the time I woke up till the time I went to bed. So much so that I insisted that I get an hour break for lunch (along with one of our rooms) so that I could either eat and chill or just walk around. It was the same for any other successful developer. That was both incredibly helpful and necessary for Mythic and our games.

Again, we can live without the current shows easily but the impact of the loss that they have/had on the industry as a whole is not easy to quantify.

Reader
Jim Bergevin Jr

I see the point of an Industry only type of shindig. There are other business industries that still do them – specifically for the purposes of in-industry networking so to speak. They do have value in that regard in that the general consumer isn’t a part of the show, which allows for “real work” to get done.

In terms of Indie games getting their names out there. You don’t have to buy influencers like EA and Mixer did. There are some large communities out there who are more than happy to have their members showcase Indie games. Twitch Kittens is a big one and I have had the pleasure of being able to play and stream a great number of awesome Indie titles that I otherwise never would have heard of because of them.

Reader
Mark Jacobs

Jim, absolutely. The thing to keep in mind with E3 is that it didn’t die because it wasn’t effective. It died the first time because of costs of being there. ESA doesn’t want to talk about that but some of the publishers did say so publicly. While the pubs bear some of the blame for cost escalation, the stuff that went on in LA in regards to what it cost to be there was high, really high. E3 was really effective and if costs could have been controlled better by both ESA/LA and the pubs, it would be effective still but I fully support the publisher pullout for a host of reasons.

Now, because of the change in how/who covers games it might not be what it once was but I think it would still be useful. However, part of the problem is that you want to have the show in California because of the number of publishers/developers/etc. that are there but that means higher costs.

It’s a shame, I loved the old E3 and being there made a huge difference to Mythic Entertainment and the success of Dark Age of Camelot as it did for other teams. It might be a relic of past times but it was an important one for many a team.

Reader
Anstalt

I still like the trade shows, despite the fact I’ve never been to one.

The things I like about them:

* They tend to have a ton of announcements in a short time frame. As I only follow the MMO genre closely, these trade shows mean I can usually see almost all the big news in a short time period, so I miss out on less.

* Indie studios can’t afford to go, and I generally don’t like indie games. Whenever I look for general gaming news on the net, 90% of it is about shitty indie games or early access bollocks, and that drives me away. Trade shows help me avoid that

* I’ve always enjoyed the big shows put on by Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo. I’m generally a PC player but have always had at least one console in the house. The big shows from the big 3 give me a good insight into the company ethos behind their current or next consoles. For example, the E3 where MS announced the xbone convinced me never to buy one – because 75% of their announcement was about making it a home entertainment system, hardly any about the gaming and virtually nothing about split screen. If I’d only looked at the stats, I might have got one, but having watched the show I knew it wasn’t the console for me. (I got a Wii U instead, despite it’s relative failure its a console built around split screen which is what I use consoles for).

What I’d like to see changed:

* Less meaningless fluff. I know there is an unavoidable amount of marketing crap in a trade show, but I’d love to see much less of it.

* More talks / info from game designers. I’m always curious to hear from the actual designers of a game, to find out what drove them to make the game and what they want players to experience. This sort of info is usually pretty lacking but would greatly benefit us in our purchasing decisions. For example, I’ve noticed that the RPG genre has been getting progressively worse in terms of gameplay, instead doubling-down on story. This severely pisses me off as I hate stories in my games, I want to play the game, not watch a generic story! Talks from game designers should help me better understand whether I’ll like a game or not.

* More technical talks, specifically about game engines. So many games are built upon similar engines but we never seem to hear a huge amount about them beyond a few highlights. I’d like to know more about what the engine is geared towards, what genres it is suited for etc.

Reader
rafael12104

Ah, the old trade shows. I remember Comdex, the Computer Dealers Exhibition show. That was the shit, back in the day. It was the place were new computer tech was announced and demonstrated. And, to be honest, it was a gateway for a young Microsoft used, for example, to build its empire. Lol.

As for today’s shows, trade or not, I’ll take Pax over the lot. E3 is fun, but less and less relevant. Pax east and west are much more informative, IMO.

I see continued value in shows, but I also don’t see why shows have to be begging for AAAs to join them. The audience and hype generated should be enough to keep the shows going.

Reader
Patreon Donor
Loyal Patron
Schlag Sweetleaf

.

Reader
Mark Jacobs

Funny story. When E3 was first cancelled I said in the studio that it would be back because both the unions and women who worked the show would want to get it back because it provided such a huge boost to their incomes. The union was making a ton off those shows (“Oh, you want to move an extension cord from one plug to another? $200 please”) and nonsense like that. And in terms of the models who worked the show (they were never paid enough to put up with the shit that they had to), it was a nice boost as well.

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Greaterdivinity

Wrote a long post and deleted it but for a shorter version…

From the evil marketing/communications perspective, yes. I may hate going to them (not a fan of huge crowds), but they’re still super powerful tools to connect with media face-to-face and have a really controlled way to deliver information and messaging. Even if they’re expensive as all sin.

But I’d like to see the shows tighten up their focus a bit more. PAX for consumers, GDC back to proper biz/development focus (no more Epic bringing a damn llama rodeo machine and handing out swag to attendees, that’s for consumer shows). E3 for industry/media again, unless they want to ACTUALLY try to replicate gamescom at-scale and with that level of organization which…I have no faith in the ESA in. Other one-off shows like TwitchCon/Oculus Connect/EVE Fan Fest etc, sure. Some are very product specific, but others can bring in external partners to exhibit, but with a clear focus for the most part.

There’s still value in them, but maybe we don’t need a major event every month (or multiple in a month).

Reader
Eamil

Yeah, the thing about PAX is that it grew as a “trade show” in direct response to E3 making stupid decisions in the late 00s, but when E3 reversed course developers still used PAX as an extra trade show. Which is fine for indie developers that would struggle for attention at E3, but the big names have no particular need to be there.

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Greaterdivinity

It’s a consumer show with tons of foot traffic, the big boys absolutely aren’t going to miss the opportunity to set up dozens of stations and sell people on stuff.

Not to mention you can bet your britches that PAX actively courts them. These events aren’t cheap, and indies don’t have a ton of cash handy (hence why many will often try to get into others’ booths or you’ll see a bunch at a collective indie booth), so they need to rely on your Ubisofts and EAs or whoever else shows up to buy big booth space at a premium. The alternative is dramatic increases to ticket prices which…would kinda undermine the whole point of them being consumer events.

Reader
Randy Savage

Something’s gotta get the nerds out of the house

Reader
McGuffn

That’s what the Rick and Morty sauce at McDonalds was/is for.

Reader
Randy Savage

Ah yes.. the McRib for nerds