EGX 2021, entrance, empty, people

EGX 2021: a round-up

After attending digital events, I was looking forward to being back at EGX.

I’ve attended every year since 2012 and was excited when I heard it was returning to the ExCeL centre in London after being cancelled in 2020. It was always a great place to catch up with old friends and check out upcoming video games, as well as have the chance to chat to creators about their projects and see them present during developer sessions.

It didn’t work out exactly as planned though. Pete and I arrived shortly before 10:00 on Thursday morning, 07 October 2021, and then headed into the exhibition hall; and we headed straight back out again less than five hours later, not bothering to return the following day despite having bought tickets. We always knew that things were going to be different thanks to the continuing COVID situation and went with an open mind, but it was such a disappointing experience.

So what happened? And what were the takeaways from our first real-world event since 2019?

The highlights

I think perhaps the best thing about this year’s EGX was that it gave people a chance to connect again. We met up with friend-of-the-blog Phil who we hadn’t seen since in person before the first lockdown here in the UK in March 2020, and it was so nice being able to hang out and be almost ‘normal’. We played some Micro Machines and Point Blank in the retro area, had some lunch with a cheeky beer for his birthday, then realised we’d spent over 90 minutes chatting when we should have been playing demos.

That feeling of normal is something we’ve all missed out on during the past 18-months. Lockdown hasn’t been entirely bad for me personally – I’ve enjoyed working from home and having more free time for family, exercise and finishing video games – but it has been easy to feel unsettled occasionally too while we wait on news about the pandemic. Being back a real-world expo, walking around the ExCeL and feeling safe to do so thanks to increased space gave us a moment to feel grounded again.

The lowlights

Let’s get this out of the way first: there were far fewer games on show than in previous years and many of them were already released for purchase. There were none of the usual stands for PlayStation, Xbox, Switch and Twitch, and the triple-AAA area was noticeably empty. Someone on Twitter replied in response to a photograph I posted saying that there ‘was always going to be a heavy reliance on indie games or big dev talks’. This wouldn’t have bothered me at all because they’re my preference, but…

The Steam Game Festivals this month and in July meant I’d already completed demos for most of the titles I was interested in, including Best Month Ever! by the Warsaw Film School and Rosewater by Grundislav Games. And the stand for the one game I wanted to try, Conway: Disappearance at Dahlia View by White Paper Games, was constantly full due to only three spaces being available. This meant I didn’t play anything outside of the retro zone and it was all rather unsatisfying.

I’ve always enjoyed the developer sessions and they’re usually one of my highlights from the show. However, there was very little going on this year: only one presentation caught my attention, but we didn’t get to see it as it had been scheduled for the Friday and there was no point in going back for a second day. It seemed that many time slots had been filled by either the EGX or Rock Paper Shotgun teams playing a game – and quite frankly, I can watch people playing games on Twitch from my sofa, without having to drag my butt to London.

On that note, many of the members weren’t even there in person on the Thursday at least. While walking past the EGX Live stand, we saw Dorrani Williams from VG247 on one of the monitors explaining that he and his co-presenters were ‘there in spirit from the comfort of their own homes’. It felt like a poor display the first day of the event and as though the hosts couldn’t be bothered to turn up for their own show; and viewers watching the streams on the EGX Twitch channel reported muted audio and buffering.

When we tried to enter the over-18s section at around 11:00, we were advised by a member of staff that it wasn’t going to be open for another two hours and were given the impression that this was down to a problem with the stand. I later read online that the titles displayed in the area, Deathloop and Back 4 Blood, weren’t hooked up for multiplayer and didn’t make use of dedicated demos. Attendees simply had to sit down and pick up from where the last person left off.

These factors led me to post a tweet which said my recommendation was for people not to buy tickets for the weekend if they didn’t already have them. Speaking as someone with a family, I didn’t want other parents to face spending money, time and effort in arranging a booking along with travel for an event which wouldn’t even fill an entire day. Several people replied to say they agreed with this, one of whom went on to start the #EGXrefund hashtag.

The future

EGX 2021, people, stands, empty

An announcement which called it a ‘successful in-person event’ was posted on the EGX website not long after the show had closed. While I don’t agree with their description, I’m on the fence when it comes to issuing refunds. The £22 cost for a day ticket felt appropriate for an expo – but there definitely wasn’t enough to keep attendees occupied for seven hours, let alone all four-days on a £75 super-pass, and it’s this I feel the organisers should consider apologising for.

They have a lot of work to do to convince everyone that it’s going to be worth attending their next event. The first step may be to issue a statement which expresses regret and explains the difficulties they had (although I think it’s unlikely we’ll see them do this). The next might be to ensure they reveal the line-up earlier next time around, rather than tweeting a weird pre-apology a week in advance and then waiting to share the schedule three days before the start of the show.

After the disappointment of last week, Pete and I were holding out hope that the Rezzed expo early next year would make up for it. This has always been my favourite show in the gaming calendar thanks to its focus on indie games and smaller developers, along with its cosy atmosphere at the Tobacco Dock. It’s sad then that the decision has been taken to scrap the brand and replace it with two EGX events: one in Birmingham in March and the other in London in September.

We bought our tickets for EGX as soon as they were released this time around. We won’t be doing the same again for Birmingham however, as our recent experience has taught us that it’s probably better to hold off until the line-up for the show is announced. There’s a chance we may miss out on going at all if the organisers leave it as late as possible once again and the tickets have all sold out by that point, but we’re prepared to take that risk and see what happens.

Hopefully the poor experience this year is just due to the difficulties brought about by COVID and we’ll see a return to normal service soon. But the organisers are going to have to put a lot of effort into getting everyone on their side if they want to see them walk through their doors.

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