Opinion: Steve Boxer looks back at the evolution of E3

Today, E3 seems like the most monolithic of institutions, but it wasn’t ever thus. The first one I attended was the second ever, in 1996, and it had a very different cast of major players. I was taken out by the long-forgotten 7th Level – the only publisher to get Monty Python games into the shops – which turned out to be handy, as I had 7th Level’s owner Bob Ezrin (the biggest big-shot record producer in Hollywood) to show me around town.

Unlikely as it may now seem, there were times when we thought E3 might fall off the calendar. In 1997 and 1998, it decamped to Atlanta, a truly scary city (and yes, I’ve visited Compton, Watts and South Central during E3s of yore) which I’ve never felt inclined to revisit. Then there was the disastrous Santa Monica ‘downsizing’ of 2007: attending that, from a journalist’s point of view, would have been pointless, and 2008’s return to the Convention Center felt like the show’s death throes. But it came back, and flourished.

So the apparently rock-like E3 actually waxed, waned and evolved over the years, and the same is true of the games industry itself.

In the early years of E3, we’d make a beeline for the stands occupied by the likes of Acclaim, Ocean, Eidos, GT Interactive, Domark, US Gold, Gremlin, Broderbund, Infogrames, Midway and Atari. When the show started, Sony was a young upstart trying to establish itself, while Microsoft would inevitably show a new iteration of Flight Simulator on PC.

"There were times when we thought E3 might fall off the calendar."

Steve Boxer, freelance writer

In 2017, there will be technology on show which would have felt like it belonged to the realm of sci-fi in 1996. Surely, Microsoft will dominate the 2017 show thanks to Project Scorpio, ramming home its message of being the first console to provide native 4K output. It will be interesting to find out whether Scorpio has a snappy name (odds on Xbox 4K, anyone?), how much it costs (in the 1990s, the likes of the 3DO and Philips CD-i were launched with $700 price-tags) and how Sony reacts; the already unconvincing PS4 Pro will look even more so in comparison with Scorpio.

It will be interesting to see what games Microsoft has lined up, and look out for a welter of Sony marketing deals with publishers. Meanwhile, back in 1996, we had VR, but nowadays it actually works properly, and has moved out of the arcades. Could this year’s E3 be the one in which we finally discover Facebook’s world-conquering intentions for Oculus? And will an irresistible, killer VR game finally emerge?

One of the very few constants throughout E3’s existence has been Nintendo, and after the tumbleweed of the Wii U years, it’s fabulous to see the Japanese veteran attending with a top-notch console. It’s about time third-party publishers started to back the Switch and, as ever, it will be fascinating to see what first-party games Nintendo has up its sleeve.

Back in 1996, I spent my entire working life arguing in The Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph that games weren’t just for bedroom-bound 13-year-old boys. At least nobody who attends E3 in 2017 will have to make that tedious point. E3 and the games industry may have had their ups and down over the decades, but both have progressed immensely.

Steve Boxer is a veteran freelancer who has written about video games since the early 90s. These days he contributes mainly to The Guardian, The New European, Empire, Pocket-lint, Checkpoint and TechRadar. Past outlets include The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Mirror and Edge

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