E3 is approaching fast, but can the biggest games show on earth cover the emerging game markets?

Real shows versus virtual shows

We’re at that time of year when we prepare shiny demos for the all important E3 show; where buyers for the big chains place or affirm their pre-orders – hopefully – for our latest creations, and marketing budgets are set in plenty of time for the long lead up to the Christmas season.

Or at least that is the case for those of us still making shrink-wrapped games for physical distribution. If a game is to be distributed purely digitally, then these big chain pre-orders no longer apply.

Marketing budgets still need to be set, but a time can be chosen to gauge the public interest that is not at exactly the same noisy time everyone else is clamouring for attention. In fact it can be done much closer to the time of release as much of the marketing will be online too, with shorter lead times required.

In addition, much of the growth of our industry is no longer covered by E3. The focus at E3 tends to be on console, handheld or otherwise, and only tangentially embraces new platforms like iOS, Android, and the web via Facebook et al.

THE SHOW BUSINESS

This all sounds very straightforward. We need physical shows for physical goods, so perhaps the days of the big shows like E3 are numbered? Look at the Oscars and the Cannes Film Festival for the film industry.

Well, we have the BAFTAs, which do a great job of evangelising games post-release, but E3 still has an important role pre-release, perhaps closer to the spirit of of the Cannes festival.

The hullabaloo created by E3 is very good for our industry, both for hardware and software. It builds anticipation for the gamers in the audience too, me included. Although as many will also have experienced, there is a bizarre effect that even when I am at the show, I found I still tend to hear many of the new announcements online, and some of the most interesting games and technologies are shown behind closed doors.

This set me thinking about how the most expensive parts of the show – the expensive stands in a very expensive LA setting – are possibly the least useful to the wider gaming community.

NOISE ANNOYS

From the games point of view the really useful bit is the journalists getting together from all over the world and kicking the collective tyres of the forthcoming releases, and the buzz and excitement it creates. For a long time this usually happens away from the show floor, even at different external venues, partly because the show floor is too noisy.

The irony of this is it defeats a big part of the purpose of the show – to show off the games. Much of the growing ‘indie’ and more social side of the market are not covered by E3 either; it is perhaps too expensive and doesn’t feel relevant.

The excellent BAFTA awards were further extended this year to cover social network games, and associated with the awards we saw a great deal of coverage for one of my favourite games of last year, Limbo, even though it didn’t win.

The function of the BAFTA awards is very similar to the Oscars in film and is a big part of the PR for the industry as a whole, including the great indie side, for games post-release.

E3 is a great venue for shrink-wrapped games pre-release, and doubtless EA will show some of Playfish’s output, but we will see soon whether it expands to cover the ever more important online space like XBLA, PSN, iOS, Android and social networking. Or perhaps we need something new.

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