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In the post-pandemic games industry calendar, E3’s absence looms large.
The former biggest name in games events has famously struggled to revive itself in a landscape now dominated by digital showcases and direct to consumer marketing.
E3’s struggles contrast with the successful return of Gamescom, which overcame a number of similar challenges to assemble a show last year that attracted some 265,000 attendees.
Speaking to VGC at this year’s convention, head of Gamescom Christian Baur said the secret to the German show’s success is that its plans didn’t depend on those attendees returning at all.
“If you look around, you will see fewer and fewer of those booths with hundreds of game stations where people are expected to just engage with the games, but you can see a ton of booths that have a stage at the centre with a lot of video and live streaming equipment around it.
“And that’s basically their strategy, to use Gamescom as a stage to create content and then to expand that content out into the World Wide Web to reach gamers all over the place, and not only those who attend Gamescom.
“That’s something we want to facilitate and something we want to enhance, and that’s basically where I believe the future of events like Gamescom lies – to breach the barrier between what’s happening on-site and what’s happening digitally, and to make sure that what’s happening on-site can be accessed by everybody who’s interested in it.”
On the death of E3, Baur said its removal from the calendar presents a “huge challenge” for Gamescom, as it previously benefited from developers planning code for the US show and then bringing it over to Cologne a couple of months later. However, he claimed Gamescom’s pivot to digital and away from just hands-on experiences means this is less of an issue than it could’ve been.
“We can’t make our strategy dependent on E3, because E3 is unfortunately way too unreliable to do so,” he said. “We have to have our own strategy, we have to have our own vision, we have to have our own starting point, regardless of an E3 or a Summer Game Fest.
“Gamescom is Gamescom, and Gamescom is big.”
In a post-pandemic world, why do you think physical events are important to the games industry calendar?
Well, I wouldn’t narrow it down to physical events, because we are a hybrid event, and I think this is also the way forward. We have a lot of digital initiatives, we’re trying to connect people from all over the world with what’s happening at Gamescom, and that’s also the strategy that many of the exhibitors have at Gamescom.
If you look around, you will see fewer and fewer of those booths with hundreds of game stations where people are expected to just engage with the games, but you can see a ton of booths that have a stage at the centre with a lot of video and live streaming equipment around it.
And that’s basically their strategy, to use Gamescom as a stage to create content and then to expand that content out into the World Wide Web to reach gamers all over the place, and not only those who attend Gamescom.
That’s something we want to facilitate and something we want to enhance, and that’s basically where I believe the future of events like Gamescom lies – to breach the barrier between what’s happening on-site and what’s happening digitally, and to make sure that what’s happening on-site can be accessed by everybody who’s interested in it.
And that’s why I believe there’s still a very good reason for physical events such as Gamescom to take place, because you can magnify whatever you do a hundred-fold if you do it at a place like Gamescom because so much happens at the same spot, so much comes together.
And that’s only part of the reason. The other part is when it comes to business contacts, they live off personal contact. We are human beings after all, and you can build trust and engage with new relationships and negotiate deals much better face-to-face in one place than if you do it via Microsoft Teams or Google Hangout or whatnot.
Gamescom, again, like GDC or other places, is a great place to do so, because everybody’s here. We have about 25,000 to 30,000 trade visitors here and there’s a ton of people who come here to create new contacts, to foster relationships, to build trust, to pitch their games, to pitch their products, and others who are looking to buy products, to invest in game studios or to get licensing deals.
For example, we also have an Investors’ Day where we bring together investors, some bringing capital from outside the gaming industry, to look for promising investments in the gaming industry. And that’s something that’s taking place here, and that’s something that can build bridges at a physical event easier than it is at a purely digital event.
Those are the benefits for trade visitors, but could you speak more about the benefit to consumers?
From my experience, as a gamer myself, what’s great is when it comes to video games and the passion we have about video games… the perception that we have about video games is a very digital one. So usually the only sense that you have is an audio-visual sense, using a keyboard and mouse, or a controller. But here you get the haptic feeling of an all-encompassing brand experience, and people love to engage with those brands, and those brand worlds, and those franchise histories.
If you look at what Xbox is doing, where you can really dive into what it means to be an Xbox fan, and you have it everywhere around you – you can smell it, you can feel it, you can see it, you can hear it – with all your senses you can perceive what video games culture and passion is all about, and you can do that together with many, many others.
And that’s also key to the point because we take a lot of pride in being the biggest community event where people come together once a year, communities meet here. Whether it’s Counter-Strike clans, or MMORPG guilds or whatnot, they all come here to meet once a year and explore and discover new things.
“If you look at what Xbox is doing, where you can really dive into what it means to be an Xbox fan, and you have it everywhere around you – you can smell it, you can feel it, you can see it, you can hear it”
And then, of course, there’s the whole thing about the indie area, where we have 250 or 300 indie studios showcasing their newest games. It’s curated content so we make sure that there’s a certain standard there, and that’s where the indie developers have direct contact with consumers and can gather direct feedback.
And the consumers can ask questions like, ‘what did you think about when you decided to introduce that feature to your game?’ or, ‘Why did you choose to go with that art direction?’ or whatnot, and they can build bridges between the guys making the games and the guys playing the games.
Because in the end, those minds are very much alike. People get on here quite well regardless of whether they’re players or game makers, and that’s the magic of Gamescom – everybody’s at home, everybody can be happy to have a passion for video games.
Do you think you’ve benefitted from some of the fatigue around digital events that ballooned during the pandemic?
Absolutely. I truly believe so. I don’t have KPIs to point to that conclusion but my gut feeling tells me that we definitely did, and I think Gamescom last year was the best example. We really struggled to put together a show – everything happened at a very late point in time, unlike in other years – but in the end the consumers really voted with their feet.
They proved that they want to come back here, and want to come to Gamescom, and want to be together in a physical event, and I think that’s partly because of the fatigue of digital events. We did not expect to have 265,000 people last year, that was beyond our expectations, and I’m very, very pleased that we had so many coming here and I’m glad that they trusted in our capabilities to put together a great show.
All that we do at Gamescom, we do very closely with the games industry. We have different boards, we have different interaction channels with the games industry. We’re trying, together with them, to create an experience for the players, and I’m glad that the players trusted in our ability – as an industry and as an event – to deliver them a unique experience.
You alluded to the challenge of putting a show on after the pandemic. Where are you at in terms of where you were pre-pandemic?
The thing is, 2019 was the last show we did before the pandemic, which was actually my first Gamescom in this role as director. Before that I was an exhibitor. But 2019 broke all records when it comes to Gamescom. It was an all-time high, we never had more visitors, we never had a larger reach, we never had more exhibitors or floor space rented out.
So it would have been very difficult to pick up from where we left off in 2019, regardless of whether there was a pandemic or not, because it’s always difficult to put something on top of an all-time record. Even though we had a good trajectory, it’s harder to grow the bigger you get.
And then the pandemic happened, and everything got a lot more difficult. It’s taken a lot of work and a lot of commitment – again, from us and from the industry – to put together a show like we did this year.
And this year we are again kind of picking up where we left off in 2019 – we have more exhibitors than we had in 2019, the exhibitors are more international than they were in 2019, we have 230,000 square metres booked in floor space which is more than 2019.
We will not have as many visitors coming to the show as we did in 2019 but that’s also by design because I believe that the quality of attendance for those who are here at Gamescom is going to improve if there are fewer people around.
And we’re still talking huge numbers – I can’t really say what we’re targeting but it’s going to be underscoring the fact that we are the biggest games event in the world, and we’re really going to put an exclamation mark out into the world there.
When it comes to the amount of visitors, there’s also a strategic aspect to it, because as a matter of fact we can not scale the amount of visitors that can come to the show. At some point it’s just not fun for the people to come.
2019 felt very crowded in the consumer areas.
2018 was even worse, even though there were fewer there. We had less space available for the people in 2018. But 2019 was nuts, it was more about trying to think of ways of how to channel the people’s movement through the area than about trying to think about how we can provide a great experience.
We cannot scale that, because we cannot say, ‘okay, we will have 400,000, 450,000, 500,000 people on the show floor. That’s not going to work. It’s going to reach a tipping point and then things are going to go bad. But where we can scale up, and that’s what we’ve been doing really well, is in the digital sphere. And our approach, I think, was something we did really well during the pandemic.
We decided, ‘OK, we do not want to create an event in the digital space, and then we expect everybody to leave their natural digital habitat – to leave Twitch, to leave YouTube, to leave Steam – and then come to a new Gamescom website and experience Gamescom.’ That’s not going to happen.
“We cannot say, ‘okay, we will have 400,000, 450,000, 500,000 people on the show floor. That’s not going to work. It’s going to reach a tipping point and then things are going to go bad. But where we can scale up, and that’s what we’ve been doing really well, is in the digital sphere.”
What we wanted to do is to replicate, in the digital sphere of the gamers, what’s happening to the people when they come to Cologne. Because if you come to Cologne during Gamescom, you can’t miss Gamescom – it’s everywhere, all over the place.
And that’s something we wanted to replicate in the digital space, where gamers are, and that’s what we did. So if you’re a gamer and Gamescom’s taking place, you’ll see it on Twitch, on YouTube, on Steam. We have a huge Steam festival. We worked with Epic to have a huge Epic Games Store promotion for Gamescom. And all over the place – if it’s Discord, Facebook, Instagram, yadda yadda yadda.
Wherever gamers are, there’s going to be Gamescom, just like what it’s like here in Cologne, and that’s how we can actually reach the audience size for the exhibitors here on-site, and then I think we’ve found a good way to funnel the audience onto the exhibitors’ content. And I think that’s basically where the growth is going to be in the future for us.
In terms of your place in the industry calendar – with E3 going away this year, and having not been around for a good few years now – does that present a challenge or a benefit for you?
Challenge. It is a huge challenge for us. We were kind of lucky for many years because, as a matter of fact, what happened was… E3 was a media-focused, behind closed doors event. They experimented with having normal visitors coming to the show but it never really took off.
What happened is in the industry calendar the studios knew that at some point in April they would have to do a vertical slice of a build, then QA that vertical slice of the build, then get that vertical slice presented at E3 behind closed doors for the media. And that build is then going to be first put into the consumer’s hands in August.
And that was great, because we had a build that was more or less bug-free, and was tested, and people knew basically what the reactions of consumers were to those builds, and they were prepared in their communications, so that was a very comfy situation for us. And that’s gone to a large degree.
However, so has the strategy, as I’ve mentioned, of trying to have as many consumer interactions with a game at shows like Gamescom. That’s also gone, so the necessity of having this mechanism of having a build at E3 that’s then used at Gamescom for consumers for the first time, that necessity is not there any more.
What Summer Game Fest does, and IGN’s Summer of Gaming does, is replicate the other part of what is necessary for a place like Gamescom, they basically pick new announcements that are being made, things are being put onto calendars, and then at Gamescom people can explore more about why they should care about these things.
At E3, that’s where the hype started, now it’s at Summer Game Fest where the hype starts, and at Gamescom the hype is either underscored, or maybe people are managing their expectations with consumers more.
Assuming E3 doesn’t come back, how do you adapt to a world without that big US show earlier in the calendar year? Would you consider pushing up and taking that slot?
No. Never. We can’t make our strategy dependent on E3, because E3 is unfortunately way too unreliable to do so. So we have to have our own strategy, we have to have our own vision, we have to have our own starting point, regardless of an E3 or a Summer Game Fest.
Gamescom is Gamescom, and Gamescom is big.
To your point earlier, I’d assume you have to consider that perhaps it’s now a world where there’ll be less pre-release code available for shows like this, that’s been prepared and is ready for consumers to play. Does that force your hand somewhat, and lead to things like the more experimental booths you mentioned?
On one hand, it is a shame and I think those who prepare code are going to benefit from it hugely. But as a matter of fact we have to look at the business model of video games nowadays and that’s not the same as it was a couple of years ago.
It’s not about the day one sales or month one sales, it’s about the live operations of the game. And it doesn’t matter if you released your game last year, you still have a good reason to come to Gamescom to engage with your community, just like Fortnite did in 2018 for example.
They didn’t even have a game station, people couldn’t play the game there, because nobody needed to, everybody knew Fortnite already. But they built an adventure playground with slacklines and climbing trees and whatnot, and everybody just experienced the brand, and experienced what they do in the game but physically.
And I think this is the way forward, because the business and the industry are changing and we have to think about ways to integrate live operation games and how to integrate experiences with those. And of course with mobile games – if you look at events like G-Star in South Korea it’s predominantly mobile games, and in the west it’s really difficult to find large conventions like Gamescom that have a significant amount of mobile games.
“We can’t make our strategy dependent on E3, because E3 is unfortunately way too unreliable to do so. So we have to have our own strategy, we have to have our own vision, we have to have our own starting point, regardless of an E3 or a Summer Game Fest.”
Marvel Snap is leading the way there, and they’re really committed to conventions, they’re really committed to driving a player-centric strategy. And they come to a place like Gamescom and they have a full booth where Devil Dinosaur is four and a half metres high, and that’s cool.
So I think we need to have a different strategy, we have to outsmart what’s been in the past and think about what’s happening in the future.
Gamescom’s success will also have been helped by the logistics of Cologne and its convention center.
Absolutely, that’s among many factors. But I was really shocked when it comes to discussions about a city’s safety, when that becomes an issue for an event. That’s something that I think is a risk that’s very difficult to mitigate for events organisers and I think that we are very lucky here in Cologne, and in Germany.
Not only because we’re in the heart of Europe – we’re something like 40-60 miles to France, or to Belgium, or the Netherlands, or Switzerland, Austria… even to Poland it’s not very far, to Denmark – but it’s also a mostly clean and safe city. The whole experience of coming to Gamescom is very special here in Cologne.
Did you know that Cologne is the party capital in Germany? For hundreds of years the Cologne Carnival has been an institution in Germany and the people in Cologne are very famous for their passion for celebrating.
Even after World War II, the people of Cologne were the first ones who actually got permission from the Allies to have their Carnival run again and have a festival going on again, I think it was in 1946 already. It’s crazy.
So to celebrate together with many, many other people is part of the Cologne DNA and that’s why I think Cologne and Gamescom work so well together.
On security, it must have been a concern for you with the person who invaded the stage during Opening Night Live. What are you guys doing to ensure that sort of thing doesn’t become more prominent? Is this something that concerns you?
Always. Absolutely, always. Our security measures have increased over time and we’re trying to make the whole experience as safe as possible for everybody who attends. [It’s not only about] people who are stage-crashing, we’ve also had issues with creators who were walking through the halls with their communities dragging along behind them, breaking things.
We’re very specific and very clear about ‘this is our playbook, if you want to come to Gamescom these are the rules and you have to play along’. Otherwise, you can’t come, or you shouldn’t come, or you will be removed from the place. We’re very transparent about that, and that’s not even concerning those high-risk situations like yesterday at Opening Night Live.
In the end it was good because the whole intention of the person was just something silly, but of course, if somebody with bad intentions would have tried to do the same thing, that was a big risk. And I think it’s something we have to take really seriously, and we have to think of ways we can improve security.
And I really must say that the security guys, they work as planned and as intended, but it’s always trying to find the balance because we don’t want to build up barriers between the audience and the content, but at the same time we want to keep people safe.
So that’s why every bag is checked, everyone walks through an electronic scanner before they come in, to scan for metallic objects and other stuff. But we’re continually trying to improve the situation in terms of security measures, and at the same time we’re asking people to learn about the rules.
That’s why we’ve also introduced our Safe Space Policy that we’ve made public. We want to give people the tools that let them report back if they notice something off, as soon as possible, to the right people so that we can act upon it.
In the end it’s always an iteration. We are as well-prepared as we can humanly be when it comes to a large event like this, and at the Cologne Messe they’re really experienced with that, they have a lot of these events.
We’ll have the vice chancellor coming to Gamescom today. We previously had the chancellor Mrs Merkel coming to Gamescom. So our security protocol is at the top of what it can be, and at the same time I believe that we’re doing a really good job of not making it noticeable for the majority of people who come here.
Should we read anything into the fact that there’s now been two incidents in a year at Geoff’s shows? Is there a trend here, from where you’re sitting?
We’ve been expecting somebody to try and do that, what happened yesterday, and that’s why the security was where they were, and that’s why within seconds the guy was actually crowded up by the security and taken off the stage, and then the police were there, and he was reported to police and everything..
So we were prepared for that situation, we’re always prepared for that situation, and to me it’s abstract to think of it as a trend. For the majority of security issues there’s no question about it happening or not happening, or if it’s happening at an increasing rate, you just always have to plan for the worst, and you always have to plan as if it was going to happen for certain.
“We’ve been expecting somebody to try and do that, what happened yesterday, and that’s why the security was where they were, and that’s why within seconds the guy was actually crowded up by the security”
So it doesn’t matter if this is going to happen more, or less, or whatnot, we have plans in place thinking ‘okay, this is going to happen and we are prepared for it happening’. It’s unfortunate, what happened at Geoff’s show, the guy who did it actually did it on live TV in Germany before, asking for GTA 6. We are aware of people trying to do these things, and we are working under the assumption that it’s going to happen. Not if it’s going to happen, but that it is going to happen.
What’s been the biggest challenge in attracting the biggest companies back to Gamescom? Nintendo wasn’t here last year but it’s back this year. Microsoft was here last year but it was a much smaller space than it has now.
You have to be a reliable partner. Because they have to commit large budgets early on in the process, and you have to be 100% reliable. This is at the core of what we are doing – we have to be reliable, and we have to stand by our word.
In May this year we had our first meeting about Gamescom 2024 with the largest exhibitors. We are really early on in the process and we are 100% reliable. Whatever we promise we will do, we will do. We don’t expect people to put faith in us, they have to know that when they come to Gamescom they can rely on us.
Do you think, in hindsight, that a key turning point was during the pandemic, that it was so important that you were able to come back quickly and not leave too much breathing space with the event gone?
We felt that if we wanted to get successfully through the pandemic we needed to happen during the pandemic, people must not forget about it.
One of the challenges you must not forget is that the pandemic was two or three years, depending on where you were on the planet. So if you were 13 years old and then the pandemic happened, you didn’t go to your first concert, your first festival, your first camping experience with a bunch of other peers.
None of these physical events happened, so what we lost was a fraction of a generation who have never made that first step into their first on-site experience with large events, they didn’t learn that. And if you were 16, now you were 19 and your last concert was three years ago. So it’s a long time and you may think it’s unnecessary, or whatnot.
But we can actually see from all the live events – if it’s concerts, or live events like Gamescom – they are coming back. People are really, really happy to come back here. And I think when it comes to Gamescom in particular, we have a large community. And it’s something we’ve learned from the games industry – because many people who are working for Gamescom are from the games industry – we are fostering our community.
We’re staying in touch with our community, we’re providing content to our community, we care for our community. We make sure that our community grows with us. And I think that was the key, that we provided cool content for the community, even during the pandemic.
When all they had was doom and gloom in the news, there was this one week in August where everybody was like “oh, actually, life is great, and I’m really looking forward to this new game I’m going to play with my friends and everything is cool.” I think it helped us very much to get through it.
And we always took it as an opportunity. Even when I started this job, I came in to make Gamescom more international and more digital, and many of the things we did during the pandemic – we did some experiments that didn’t work out, but the strategy was always the same – we wanted to create the tools and the activations to extend what’s happening on-site into the World Wide Web.
So during the pandemic, we just said, ‘OK. Now it’s not going to happen on-site in Cologne, but it’s going to happen in a studio in LA, it’s going to happen in a studio in Berlin, it’s going to happen in a studio all over the place, but the concept, the strategy is still going to be the same – we’re not going to do anything that we can not reuse after Gamescom comes back’.
And I think that helped us a lot, and we made some tough decisions, made some hefty investment into our digital strategy, and now it pays out, and it paid out last year already. And I can only say thanks to Cologne Messe who were believing in the vision of us as an industry and where we thought that we need to take events like Gamescom. They believed in our vision and helped facilitate that.
So, Nintendo’s back, finally. Xbox has its biggest booth ever here. When are you going to get PlayStation back?
You’d need to ask PlayStation that. I cannot answer that for PlayStation.
Obviously, that must be something that you’re enthusiastic to do, it seems like the final piece of the puzzle in terms of your offering.
I mean, I’d love to have them back, and PlayStation is a member of our association, and it’s also a member of the two boards that we have that strategically develop Gamescom. And we have a great relationship with PlayStation, I don’t want to tell them how to do their job, they’re helping me to do my job. All doors are open for PlayStation – whenever they’re ready to come back, we’re ready to have them back.
But I must say that the indie area is what I want to take pride in. We have a hall, 10-2, which is about 2000 square metres of indie developers showcasing their games. Let’s talk about them a little more, because those guys have a passion, they’re there driving the avant-garde in the games industry, they’re bringing in new concepts to games, they’re bringing in new art styles to games, they’re being bold, they’re being experimental, they’re being crazy, they’re being wild, they’re being creative.
I think this is basically where we should put more focus, because the video games industry is a lot about idealists, and that’s where they are. That’s where you can talk to them, that’s where you can experience what they’ve really put their hearts into, and I’m very proud that we have them, and that they stay, and that they’re bigger than they ever were.