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Is it make or break for E3?

When publishers like and EA opt out – and Nintendo shows up with just one game – what kind of E3 are we going to get?

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E3 2015 - Los Angeles Convention Center

Well, this will be an interesting E3.

E3 is the marquee event in the gaming calendar. It’s the one time of year when all eyes look to what the industry – and video games in general – has to offer. However, when publishers the size of Activision and EA opt out, and Nintendo decides to show up with just one game, it’s almost certain to have an impact. But how significant will it be?

Nintendo’s decision is part of their broader strategy to duck out of the console arms race until next year. However, only having one game on show is problematic. The likelihood is that the new Legend of Zelda game will impress, but the knock-on effect is that this year’s E3 will be much lighter on content than is usual. Nintendo’s E3 showings, whether good or bad, are always a draw for attendees and never fail to provide the press with thousands of column inches.

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EA’s departure from the expo, although a surprise, doesn’t mean they will be absent from the E3 discussion. They are holding their own event, EA Play, at the same time and will host a media briefing on the Sunday before E3. This approach is enough to ensure that they are part of the conversation without actually having to go to the party. This is a problem for E3 organisers, the Electronic Software Association (ESA), who will effectively have EA – and Activision, to name two – riding on their coat tails.

In many ways it’s Nintendo who have led the charge on this approach. When they first announced that they would eschew the traditional E3 media briefing in 2014 it was put down to their struggles with the Wii U. As it turns out, Nintendo’s digital broadcasts have become a highly effective method of controlled marketing communication. With slick production values and content full of knowing humour they are a far cry from Nintendo’s often awkward live E3 briefings of the past.

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Nintendo’s E3 digital events have side-stepped traditional media channels by speaking directly to an audience in their own language. And – in a physical sense – this is what EA are doing too. They are bringing their message to a smaller but no less dedicated community at event where their games are the sole focus. They won’t have to compete with Square-Enix or Warner Bros or Ubisoft, or the general chaos of the E3 hullabaloo.

The problem for E3 is that it’s become caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s position as a venue for buyers and sellers to meet and for business to be done, seems secure but this sits uneasily against a media and consumer landscape that is constantly evolving and screaming for inclusion.

Social media has made marketers of us all and the press are increasingly becoming middlemen that big publishers believe they can do without. Endorsement from ‘real people’ can amplify and legitimise a marketing message just as much – if not more so – than traditional media coverage. The ESA needs to find a way of accommodating each of these audiences without losing the magic that makes E3, at its best, something to look forward to.

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Events like PAX, Gamescom and the Tokyo Game Show give both the press and public the opportunity to attend. In contrast, E3 has always been an exclusive club, open only to industry employees and media. However, this week the ESA announced that it will also hold its own public event in the shape of E3 Live. It’s an admission from the ESA that things need to change and must be seen as a stepping stone to E3 proper becoming more accessible. If E3 Live is a success – and 20,000 people are expected to attend – it will be no surprise to see it absorbed into the main expo within a year or two.  And if this happens the ESA will have a chance of tempting EA, Activision and Wargaming et al back to the fold.

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The worst-case scenario for the ESA is for more publishers to go it alone, further reducing E3’s significance. Although one factor that may prevent this is the memory of 2007’s E3, which saw events distributed across a series of hotels in Santa Monica. It was good news for cab drivers but for no one else and the experiment was universally deemed a disaster.

For E3 to be at its best it needs to be big, it needs to feel important and it needs all publishers to want to be there. Opening the doors to the public – even in a limited fashion – is a step in the right direction.

This year’s E3 could go either way. Let’s hope that despite the absence of some big names it’s a good show. And let’s hope it serves as a reminder of why E3 is important and what we could lose if it continues to fragment.

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Thumbsticks editor and connoisseur of Belgian buns. Currently playing: Paper Mario: The Origami King, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and Pikmin 3 Deluxe.