The annual trade show has been a tremendous success for two decades, and that success is undermining its own relevance.
The Electronic Entertainment Expo hits Los Angeles next week, and the biggest players in the gaming world will be there showing off their newest titles! Except for Blizzard. And Rockstar. And Respawn. And Bungie. And Valve. But outside of arguably the five most significant third-party developers, everybody should be there.
While some of these no-shows are expected, and some of these companies could see their games represented through publishing partners (Counter-Strike: Global Offensive will be at the Microsoft and Sony booths, for example), the absences in aggregate suggest that E3's role in the gaming industry is changing. A decade ago, major players sitting out the show simply didn't happen. At E3 2002, Blizzard was showing off World of Warcraft. Rockstar unveiled Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Respawn co-founders Jason West and Vince Zampella signed a long-term publishing agreement with Activision for their upstart studio Infinity Ward. Bungie talked about using Xbox Live to deliver an online version of Halo. And even though it was a bit early for Valve to show off Half-Life 2 (it would make its first public appearance at E3 2003), the original Xbox version of Counter-Strike was confirmed during the show.
The biggest difference between E3 2002 and E3 2012 for these developers is that they are bigger outfits and they now have the leverage to call their own shots. They don't need the spectacle of E3 to make their game announcements seem like a big deal. There's no need for them to fight each other for attention during E3 when they could choose from about 51 other weeks each year and be the talk of the entire industry. So now that they have a say in the matter, they're opting not to be there.
"When so many of the biggest and best developers don't see the value of appearing at E3, the show can't help but feel less vital, less essential."
This trend prompts a number of questions, most obviously, "Is E3 as relevant as it used to be?" The short answer to that is no. The industry doesn't rely on E3 the way it used to. While it's still the most important convention on the gaming calendar, it's no longer the comprehensive industry overview it used to be. When so many of the biggest and best developers don't see the value of appearing at E3, the show can't help but feel less vital, less essential to the industry.
In some ways, this is a natural outcome of E3 being a successful show. The Interactive Digital Software Association trade group (now the Entertainment Software Association) was formed to foster the growth of the industry, and E3 has been the biggest event on the group's calendar for 18 years. In that time, gaming has grown from a hobby for kids into a Supreme Court-recognized form of protected speech, a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon enjoyed by all ages and on just about every device with a screen, and a $100 billion global industry that produces blockbuster hits of such size that they no longer need an E3. The industry's biggest games are events in and of themselves, and the companies that make them have little incentive to dilute the impact of their unveilings by slotting them into a week jam-packed with competition for people's attention.
It's worth noting that with the exception of THQ, all of the aforementioned companies are no-showing E3 because they can afford to. E3 helped the industry get to this point. It helped these companies establish themselves and drew attention to the hits that earned them leverage. The fact that they no longer need E3 is a signal that the show isn't as important to the industry as it used to be, but it's also a signal that the show has accomplished what it set out to do.
It's a little like Apple and the Consumer Electronics Show. Apple doesn't participate in CES, and it doesn't need to. When the iPhone titan rolls out its newest models and products, it does so at its own press events that become the talk of the industry for weeks surrounding each show. CES may still be the place to go to take the temperature of the market as a whole, but it's no longer home to the biggest announcements because there are 800-pound gorillas out there that have outgrown it.
With the industry landscape shifting, it now falls to the ESA to reshape E3 in kind. In order to justify the show's existence in the future, the trade group needs to find the format that best serves the industry as a whole. That might mean a stronger emphasis on emerging trends like free-to-play and mobile gaming, or perhaps a reactionary shift to focus on packaged retail games. Unfortunately, the current model attempts to be the same thing it's always been: a comprehensive overview of the industry as a whole. But thanks in part to the success of E3s past, the industry is simply too big to pack into a single event, especially when its best and brightest have no inclination to show up.