Let’s Not Get Physical – Gaming Moves to Digital Showcases

6th June 2023



Senior Account Manager on the Alfred London Games and Tech team, Niall De’Ath, reflects on the future of a post E3 world


On the 30th March 2023, something previously unthinkable happened. The world’s largest and most recognizable games conference came to what appears to be a permanent end. E3, which stepped into the limelight in 1995 as a veritable gaming mecca, may have stepped out of the limelight for good. 

E3 was a vitally important time of year for the industry. It promised a deluge of new titles, access to cutting edge technology and set the editorial calendar for the year for media outlets. Studios and developers planned their marketing programs around tentpole announcements at the conference. 

With its absence, fans and industry professionals alike naturally wonder how this has happened, and what it means for the industry at large. But, as with many major changes to trends, it’s a sign of the times.

E3 was a victim of a new games industry, not one that appeared overnight, but instead a result of changing business models and increasing corporate demands. The world E3 thrived in has moved away from the values and expectations that gave physical conferences the foundation they needed to succeed.

There are a myriad of reasons why. Live service game models have reversed the need for yearly releases from publishers, which has led to a far smaller number of AAA releases, once the highlight of the show, being announced. Increasing development and marketing costs following years of steady inflation have kept budgets tight, leading publishers to struggle to justify the overwhelming costs of purchasing stands and travel for a large team. Further to this, the digital news landscape has incentivised shorter form, easy to digest information that simply doesn’t prepare consumers to engage with the time commitment needed for a large scale event.

But these factors have been present for many years, the reason why E3 finally came to an end was a result of a major event in human history; the pandemic. It wasn’t the pandemic itself that saw an end to E3, instead it was the gap in E3 attendance that saw the conference’s value undermined. 

In past years, the industry saw E3 as a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ proposition. Do you spend vast amounts of money to attend, or do you skip it and risk a public backlash? It was a difficult situation as prices inflated beyond control, but the pandemic resulted in E3 (at the time) temporary cancellation. A year without E3, but sales, to the surprise of many, actually increased, or at the very least remained consistent. During this brief window, many publishers and developers with a need to showcase new IP’s and titles experimented with digital events. This was the real threat to E3.

Digital events, previously dismissed as not being able to generate the same interest as physical showcases, proved themselves to be cost effective, impactful and exciting to consumers. Messaging, timing and overall control was now in the hands of the publisher, no longer constrained by the show runners themselves who needed to fit in advertisements and competitors. For the first time in the industry, they controlled everything.

This has resulted in a significant shift in how publishers are looking at events, moving to a system of owned showcases as a primary form of advertising and leaving events behind. But while this has been successful for larger companies, it doesn’t leave many opportunities for smaller studios to share the limelight as they could with traditional events. The cost of running a personal showcase still remains high, and with no guarantee of visibility that trade shows can offer. So what can be done to mitigate this?

Sharing the space with platform holders such as Microsoft and Sony is the initial choice, but requires intense competition to secure a slot. Smaller showcases can be created at lower costs, but require an element of promotion, normally with an associated media partner to boost the reach of the content. Other methods include incentivising viewership, such as first access to demos or discounts exclusive to live viewers, however this relies on an established interest in products shown.

In truth, the industry is still working to understand how best to leverage this new future, and answers will only come with experimentation and testing the strength of existing models. It’s certainly worth considering if your marketing pipeline for a title needs a live event or platform showcase. There’s an opportunity to leverage creative PR executions to drive noise beyond sharing the stage with live events or platforms (of course – this is where Alfred can help!)

Is the live event gone for good? It’s too early to tell, as consumers are hungry for traditional showcases and demand their return. But without proper incentives and value for the largest publishers in the industry, the current system could be here to stay.

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