It looks like the biggest publishers will be absolutely fine without big conferences like E3, but indie and mid-size developers may fall behind during this new normal.
The transformation of E3 from the preferred platform for gaming’s biggest announcements to a fan-focused event, coupled with the news that Sony would not be attending the 2020 conference, raised questions about the show’s relevance long before the onset of COVID-19. In normal times we might have seen companies gradually shift away from E3 in favor of their own showcases, but instead game makers were forced to try their hand at decentralized announcement events overnight. So far, it looks like the biggest publishers will be absolutely fine without big conferences like E3, but indie and mid-size developers may fall behind during this new normal.
Major publishers like Blizzard and PlayStation have been putting on their own events, complete with big reveals, for years. Fans and media pay attention to these announcements no matter where or when they happen, so it makes sense for them to control the message and avoid competing with hundreds of other announcements. It’s not unlike how Apple pulled out of CES in favor of their own events. In contrast, smaller companies with less buzz surrounding them benefit from the mainstream attention E3 brings to gaming. Big, boisterous, industry events cause people to pay attention to announcements they otherwise might miss, and livestreams are not a perfect replacement.
The reception to the June 11 PlayStation 5 reveal demonstrated that Sony is one of the companies that is fine skipping E3. Plenty of people were eager to hear more about the successor to one of the most popular consoles of all time, and the event had the highest average minute audience (AMA) of recent similar gaming events like the Game Awards or the Xbox E3 2019 briefing.
Ubisoft showed AAA publishers can generate interest in standalone events even without something as significant as a console reveal. The Ubisoft Forward 2020 stream on July 12 had higher viewership than the company's E3 2019 broadcast, as gamers tuned in to see the Far Cry 6 trailer, which was teased after a prior leak. Viewership wasn’t just due to organic interest, though. The publisher announced watchers would be rewarded with a free PC copy of Watch Dogs 2, and demand for the title caused the company’s servers to be overwhelmed. It should also be noted that the company’s misconduct controversy did not seem to impact viewership or interest in the Ubisoft game lineup in the short term.
Big publishers don’t need E3 if they can generate hype through the promise of big announcements or other incentives to watch, but not all game makers can rely on this strategy. For example, the PC Gaming Show, which focuses mainly on a wide range of indie to midsize games, experienced lower live viewership on its official stream in 2020 than in 2019. Without the likelihood of headline-grabbing announcements, some viewers may not have felt it was worth tuning in when the event wasn’t already part of wall-to-wall E3 press conferences.
The results of switching to remote conferences in 2020 show that AAA publishers are fine skipping E3 or other events if they so choose, at least when it comes to generating coverage. However, smaller publishers and developers benefit from proximity to bigger announcements. The organisers of virtual events like Guerrilla Collective and the Future Games Show should be commended for putting on showcases this summer, but these probably can’t replace the attention-grabbing value of a big conference. (That’s to say nothing of the non-marketing benefits of events including business development and networking opportunities.)
Until big in-person gaming events return, the most successful small developers will be those who can form partnerships with platform holders and top publishers. This allows them to get their games in front of consumers when they are keeping an eye out for the biggest announcements. For example, the indie game Bugsnax from Young Horses generated buzz after its trailer debuted during the PlayStation 5 reveal. For companies that aren’t AAA publishers or associated with one, the current environment will limit their exposure to potential players and has shown just how valuable these gatherings can be.