2012 was my first E3 experience, and it followed the script for what game writers and those who follow the industry consider a typical E3. Publishers and platform holders conducted press events, broadcast live online or via G4 and Spike television, and the show floor was the typical chaos of booming bass, bullets, and booth babes. Nintendo even had 3DS units tethered to women who would stand with you as you played. It was everything that I had heard tell of, and easy to imagine colleagues, retailers, investors, and developers running through the same routine year after year.
When Nintendo announced it would not be holding a customary press event — opting instead to hold separate, smaller events for the press and their retail partners, while reaching their devotees through Nintendo Direct videos — there was much written and spoken about whether this signaled one of two things: the end of Nintendo, or the end of E3. Many, myself included, were quick to question the logic of giving up what had been Nintendo’s highest-profile platform from which to speak to the casual and mainstream consumer. After all, how would the USA Today’s and CNN’s be able to spend the only 30 seconds or three paragraphs all year that paint gaming in a positive light if they didn’t have a perfectly manicured stage show to distill pertinent information?
But maybe this is the beginning of the end for the Electronic Entertainment Expo after all. Recently, Nintendo announced that 100 Best Buy stores around the United States and Canada would be presenting exclusive public demos of content shown at E3. Unlike Germany’s Gamescom or Seattle’s Penny Arcade Expo, E3 is not a public event. Giving the general consumer who shops at stores like Best Buy, Walmart, and GameStop the opportunity to experience these titles months, and possibly years in some cases, before they come to market is an extremely shrewd business decision by Nintendo. Showing off a game is one thing, putting it in the hands of your consumers is another entirely.
In many ways, the Ouya, the Android OS-based console that set Kickstarter records last year, seems to be taking a page from Nintendo’s playbook. The Ouya will be holding a public display of their console in a parking lot near the Los Angeles Convention Center, just blocks away from the buildings where the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One will be making their own hands-on debut.
E3 is a show designed by and for retail partners, a callback to a time when walk-in purchases and boxed distribution were king; when the only way you learned about the goings-on were through EGM and Nintendo Power magazines. In this age of digital content and instant access to information and analysis — not just from “professional video game journalists,” but from bloggers, YouTubers, tweets, and Redditors — the tack taken by Nintendo and Ouya may be the herald of a shift in how we cover games. By taking their vision directly to the consumer and eliminating the middleman, companies manufacture and tailor their message as they see fit. The Ouya is an example of how that landscape is shifting, it epitomizes all of these changes by its very being: a console that is entirely digital, funded through alternative methods rather than traditional corporate holdings, and those purchasing directly from Ouya will receive their consoles before they’re available in traditional markets.
Sure, these strategies could backfire. Public perception of the Wii U has been on the decline, and early dev kit units of the Ouya released to Kickstarter backers have been picked apart and found wanting. But these publishers are not looking to discerning critics or close-minded ‘industry experts’ for their feedback; they’re aiming straight at the heart of their loyalists, banking on their goodwill and fervor to silence the din of criticism. It could work. And if the showings for these machines manage somehow to impress the press and the public, what Microsoft and Sony show could be overshadowed — and all because one is in your hand right now, and the other isn’t, and won’t be, for a long time. And for an event like the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the place where the middleman is king, it could spell out an unceremonious end to what was once gaming’s crowning achievement.