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E3 and GDC cancellations are forcing the gaming industry to think like Nintendo

Streams are the best option for many companies as coronavirus takes its toll

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The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) announced today that E3, North America’s biggest gaming conference, is canceled. As effects from the coronavirus continue to ripple across the games industry, many developers are turning to streaming to solve their woes in the interim.

As part of its statement today, the ESA says it’s “exploring options with our members to coordinate an online experience to showcase industry announcements and news in June 2020.” Shortly after, a Microsoft spokesperson told The Verge that the health and safety of employees, fans, and partners worldwide is a top priority. “We support the ESA in its decision to cancel E3 following increased public concerns with the COVID-19 virus. E3 has always been an important moment for us to show what’s ahead from Team Xbox,” the spokesperson said. Microsoft will also hold a digital event to “celebrate the next generation of gaming with the Xbox community.” Devolver Digital announced it will also stream a conference.

Canceling events early can help slow the spread of diseases by preventing a surge in cases. Other gaming-focused gatherings, from esports competitions to Minecraft Festival to GDC, have already been dissolved or postponed. The city of Austin canceled SXSW ahead of its scheduled March dates. In other metropolitan areas such as New York, officials are encouraging residents to adhere to social distancing policies that include working from home where possible and avoiding public transportation. Gaming companies such as Microsoft, Bungie, and Nintendo have enacted work from home policies.

Just yesterday, GDC organizers said it will stream some of its planned talks via Twitch. It’s an imperfect solution, but better than nothing. For trade shows like E3, many companies have spun down their on-site presence in favor of streaming announcements. Some companies, such as Nintendo, have spent the past several years forgoing a traditional press conference in favor of Nintendo Directs. Other companies, including Sony, typically live stream their events ahead of the show’s floor days.

GDC isn’t really focused on announcements, though. The annual conference is an opportunity to attend lectures by fellow gamemakers and meet people within the industry. It’s a learning experience, say industry figures like Anita Sarkeesian. “It can be a make-or-break event for many attendees hoping to find funding for their game or make the connections necessary to land a job,” she tells The Verge. “While digital conferencing and online connections offer some avenues for networking, there are definitely valuable aspects of in-person conversations and impromptu run-ins that are lost amidst online scheduling and email introductions.”

It’s hard to say what the effects of these cancellations will be, but GDC may provide the best case study. Now that it’s canceled, many developers have found themselves out of money, meetings, and experiences. Organizations like Gamedev.World and Wings have stepped up to try to help scrambling developers by spearheading fundraising efforts. Sarkeesian, Christopher Vu Gandin Le, and Jae Lin soft-launched the Games and Online Harassment Hotline, a text-based emotional support resource for the gaming community.

“GDC’s postponement creates many ripple effects, particularly for less-established game developers, who had risked, invested, and staked much of their livelihoods on attending the conference,” Sarkeesian says. “Facing such a drastic shift away from their high expectations and hopes (and instead finding themselves now in a deficit), it’s understandable that some developers are experiencing fear, stress, anxiety, or despair.”

Even events not directly tied to GDC have suffered. Train Jam is an annual game jam that brings creators across the US, beginning in Chicago and ending in San Francisco, started by developer Adriel Wallick. The travel-based train trip is a way for developers to meet others in their industry and work on quick-turnaround projects together; many, but not all, developers who participate are also on their way to the conference. Wallick said that while the event can exist without GDC, it can’t “if it’s putting people’s livelihoods and health at risk.”

The WHO has declared the new coronavirus a pandemic as of today, the first since H1N1. Infections continue to spread, with new cases popping up every day. Canceling major events is not only practical but responsible in order to minimize damage as much as possible, and it’s doubtful that events like E3 will be the last to decide against continuing. It’s hard to discount how much will be lost in the form of developer relations. But how companies choose to adapt in the wake of this, and what methods they use to communicate remotely with their audiences, will shape how the industry looks for years to come.