This year—for the first time since 2006(!!)—I didn’t have to cover E3 for Kotaku, so I got the chance to experience the event as a reader and a fan, watching presentations and press conferences for stuff that excited me, instead of what needed to be written about.
It wasn’t great.
I know talk of “the death of E3" and games writers musing on the future of the show are as tiring and old as the show itself, so I’ll try and spare you that here. But the one thing that kept striking me again and again over the week was the sensation that, this year in particular, none of this needed to be happening.
E3 became and remains the premier video game industry event because of the immense importance of its news. It used to be about a small number of massive press conferences, where everybody’s favourite companies would reveal their biggest and most exciting releases of the year, all in the one place, all at the one time. The weight of these reveals has diminished over the last decade, though, as more and more publishers have decided to hold their own E3 events, and others like Nintendo and Sony either shift their attentions to video presentations or skipping E3 entirely.
We now live in a world where we get big reveals all the time, all throughout the year, not just during company’s own events—like Nintendo Direct videos—but at an increasing number of fan expos and minor shows as well. So the days of E3 being worth the excitement that went into it have been long gone.
Muscle memory is a weird thing though, even at a cultural level, and despite everything I’ve just said (and which deep down you surely know already) fans just keep getting excited about the idea of E3, if not its diluted reality, and so once again in June 2021 millions of people got ready to settle in for a week of events and get excited for new stuff.
We somehow got not enough and also way too much.
The global Covid-19 pandemic, and its resultant lockdowns and shutdowns and work from home orders, has wreaked havoc with the video game industry. With offices closed, and access to everything from motion capture to sound recording studios impacted, development on countless major projects has been stalled. Loads of games due in 2020 slipped to 2021, and games due in 2021 have been pushed back to 2022 (or even later).
And that has had a knock-on effect on new games, the real treasure of the E3 experience, as titles we might have expected to see debut on the big stage in 2021 aren’t yet ready to be shown, or maybe haven’t even started development at all as publishers work to get their delayed games out the door first.
It’s helpful here to think of video game development—at least at the larger end of the economy—as a production line in a factory. Ideas go in, they get injected with money and art and code and work, and at the end of the line a video game comes out. E3 is where the world sits with grabby hands waiting to see what rolls off the line, but over the last 12 months, nothing has gone into the machine, and so little is coming out at the end of it.
Never before, and maybe ever again, will there be so little to show for a year’s worth of blockbuster video game development. With human crowds locked out of E3 for a second year running, and the big end of the industry trying to work with one hand tied behind its back, it would have been understandable—even admirable—if E3 could have taken stock of events and just taken the year off. Stick up a sign on the door that said, “Please understand, things have been bad, we’ll see you again next year!”
We have so many other shows, and other times, and other ways to tell the world about video games that we could have easily taken 2021's reduced stock, spread it out over some other events and given each company and game a little time in the sun of its own.
But that’s not how capitalism works, and E3, being the principal trade show for a billion-dollar global industry, is no exception. The machine is never allowed to stop, ever. If new games aren’t coming out then E3 will simply show the old ones again. And if new games aren’t ready to be shown, then publishers will just show what is ready. Not enough big games to fill all the streaming slots? Just cram a bunch of smaller games into the spotlight instead and turn them into bigger games by virtue of the light.
Can you believe that, in a year where almost nothing big and new was announced, the week of E3 consisted of 17 separate shows. 17 shows! Get absolutely fucked. There remained some big traditional ones, like the Microsoft + Bethesda showcase, and Nintendo’s was fun, but three video game websites had their own events, and VR had its own show, and a tiny company that makes boxed games had its own show...
The onslaught of events created a scenario where simply keeping up with what was on, let alone what was being announced, was exhausting. E3 2021 felt like a show that never ended, and I sure was having to put in a lot of work to stay on top of things for someone who wasn’t getting paid for it. The math just doesn’t check out. In a year where there were precious few games to talk about, we got more shows and more games than ever thrust in front of our eyes?
Please note I won’t begrudge individual companies or developers here, from big AAA publishers to the tiniest indie efforts, because everyone has games to sell and this remains a great way to do it. A diminished E3 is still a huge event for someone trying to sell a video game. As someone who simply enjoys them, though, looking at E3 2021 as a forest and not a bunch of trees, it sucked.
Not because of the games shown, or the lack of games shown, but the format we had to endure. From my perspective, as someone just wanting to find out about cool new video games the same way you were, the week as a whole was butter spread over too much bread. A whole series of events that were basically ‘this meeting could have been an email.’ There wasn’t a single big reveal I could have called a “megaton” in the grand old E3 tradition, and yet it’s going to take me weeks to dig through all the interesting little indie games appearing in their stead because too many of the damn things were shown off.
Maybe next year things will be back to normal, as bleak as that normality had become over the last few years. Vaccination rates and a return to pre-Covid crowd levels will put sweaty gamers and press back in the seats of live press conferences, huge crowds will press flesh in the LA Convention Centre and developers who have been allowed back into the office will have big new games to show off once more.
But it sure would have been nice if, for one year at least, we could have realised things aren’t always normal.