E3 felt different this year, and not in a subtle way. For the first time, the Entertainment Software Association sold 15,000 tickets to a video game trade show that had previously been accessible only to industry insiders and the press. And E3 transformed to meet them, building physical spaces that served as temples for the digital worlds they represent. Game developers have always built massive structures for E3, but these served a different purpose. The result was an event that felt less like the corporate schmooze-fests of yore and more like a glimpse of gaming’s theme-park future.
Walking into the Los Angeles Convention Center this year, you saw a much more vital show than in years past. Fans wearing the new neon-yellow expo badges hung out in a Wolfenstein-themed diner, posed for Instagram pictures on top of a Shadow of War-themed dragon, and lined up for burgers at a Far Cry 5 food truck named the Meat Wagon. Cosplayers — once a rarity at E3 — were out in force this week. And the fans I spoke with seemed to be relishing the experience.
“I’ve been reading about E3 for 20-plus years — and this was the first year I had the opportunity to come,” said Bernadin Carzo, who traveled from Atlanta to attend. “Never do you get a chance in Atlanta to play an unreleased game.” Lines were long — fans waited up to five hours to play a 10-minute virtual reality demo of Doom or Fallout 4 — but for the most part fans simply seemed happy to be there.
E3’s other constituencies were less enthusiastic. The press grumbled about all those extra bodies, especially on Tuesday, when the show floor opened for the first time and getting from booth to booth could take eons. But by Thursday most of the kinks seemed to be ironed out, and the show floor looked like the likely future of E3: a mix of industry types, the press, and fans, with the expo organized to serve all three.
Regardless of how you feel about the new E3, most people I spoke with agreed that it had to evolve. Thanks to the internet, big game developers can now reach a massive audience any time they choose. That’s one reason E3 is now two days longer than before — EA and Bethesda now pre-empt the conference by holding massive events of their own, with their own hand-selected groups of fans and journalists, and broadcast them live for all to see.
Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo all live-stream their big press conferences as well. The games press can easily cover most of the event’s biggest announcements from their pajamas wherever they can find a decent Wi-Fi connection. In such a world, E3 needs a new reason to exist. And it appears to have found it in giant physical installations that encourage sharing on social media and general buzz building.
Last year my colleague Chris Plante likened E3 to an amusement park where the main attraction were the games. On Sunday, the amusement park was made literal. Bethesda, maker of such giant franchises as The Elder Scrolls, Dishonored, and Fallout, hosted hundreds of people inside a miniature theme park named Bethesdaland. Attendees sipped Fallout-themed Nuka Cola beverages while waiting in line for a fully functioning Ferris wheel. Elsewhere, fans ate spare ribs next to a giant Doom monster and drank cocktails in a sleek Prey-themed lounge.
Sony’s presentation at the Shrine Auditorium on Monday continued the theme. An event that can sometimes feel like a series of YouTube trailers strung together was augmented by a series of wild theatrical touches. There was a sitar band accompanying an onstage waterfall with images presented onto it for Uncharted; an onstage foliage to frame the revelation of Monster Hunter World; and to cap it off, ear-splitting pyrotechnics to accompany the gameplay trailer for the next installment of the interminable Call of Duty franchise. Journalists mostly shrugged at the presentation, but fans were enraptured by it, and snowy confetti fell from the sky.
If E3 does continue further down the path of fandom, it won’t be alone. Gamescom and PAX East have already carved out large niches as fan-friendly gaming festivals open to the public. But what sets E3 apart, at least for now, is the presence of the giants: Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft, along with a huge second tier of developers whose games command fan bases in the millions.
How long they remain — and in what capacity — remains an open question. Blizzard, maker of World of Warcraft and Overwatch, has held its own fan festival annually since 2005, bypassing E3 and selling more than 25,000 tickets at $200 a pop. EA left the show floor last year in favor of holding a fan event Saturday elsewhere in LA. Nintendo maintains a presence on the show floor but broadcasts announcements directly to fans rather than hold a press conference during the show. It’s not difficult to imagine a world where Microsoft and Sony do the same.
I hope they don’t. I attend E3 as a journalist, but in my heart I’m also a fan — glad for a chance to play Shadow of War before the rest of the world, just as any of my game-playing friends would be. An E3 geared more toward average people would ensure that thousands of fans leave LA as ambassadors, doing the hard work of promoting developers’ games for free. Turning digital games into temporary physical spaces is time-consuming and expensive. But at a time when consumers crave new experiences above all else, game developers may just find that it’s worth it.