Tina K. Russell

July 20, 2008

The place of E3

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Tina Russell @ 6:50 pm

Top EA and Ubisoft Execs Slam E3 | Edge Online

It’s become the sport of choice among those who follow the games industry to heap scorn upon E3, what was once the videogame trade show, full of glitz and glamor, and is now a “media and business” affair downsized to grand speeches and a few hotel-conference-room executive schmoozing sessions. The show ended because journalists hated covering it, game companies hated putting it on, and the arms race for companies to out-spend each other to have the biggest show presence added up to a mountain of bills for blaring speaker walls, costumed booth babe services, laser light shows, giant game character statues, piles of free giveaways, and other artifacts of excess, not to mention therapy bills for the poor souls having to organize such a nightmare. The legendary-Asgard-meets-rock-concert-meets-Disneyland spectacle show ended in 2006 when the major players in the industry realized that they were doing it only because everyone else was, and nobody liked doing it, but no one wanted to be beaten at it. The yearly ritual of game pundits deciding “who won E3” incurred massive publisher costs made manifest in many ways, not the least of which was the sheer logistics of getting legions of sweaty fanboys to go to your booth when everybody else’s is so much shinier.

There are more likely reasons. The rise of specialized game trade shows (Game Developers’ Conference, the MI6 marketing conference, the gamer-initiated Penny Arcade Expo) must have made everyone realize how inefficient it was to do all in three days in the same LA convention hall once a year. The  last big E3 had record four-hour lines to play the Wii while the rest of the show begged for spare attention. Game preview downloads for consoles have made it easier for companies to create “hands-on” buzz for upcoming games (and this time, without being filtered through the press).

But, the thing is that E3 still exists as a perfunctory tradition, and game companies feel obligated to attend and at least give a nice, big speech to lay out their annual vision. However, no company is likely to “win” an E3 without the spectacle, and so there’s no drooling enthusiast-press buzz the way tech magazines fall over themselves fawning over the latest shiny thing at each year’s Consumer Electronics Show. (“It’s amazing! This new Apple thing is the same as last year’s corresponding Apple thing, but it’s smaller, shinier, and does a few more things!”) Something needs to replace E3, but it needs to be something that doesn’t try to be everything at once.

Another important point about E3’s demise is that it was not open to the public, but required credentials were loose, so you could get in if you worked at Best Buy and had connections. The result was that the show was still a logistical nightmare, a packed convention hall and a deafening roar of competition for the attendees’ ever-depleting attention span, while journalists trying to do their jobs complained about the plebeian masses gumming the works of the show, the average gamer complained about not being able to get in and having to settle for blurry Internet footage from the show floor, and of course, the Best-Buy-credentialed plebeian masses were just average gamers who got lucky and now had to realize that the glory of being at E3 came with long lines and massive stress hangovers each morning after. Everyone was miserable.

…It’s also worth noting that, in the time of the old E3, the Entertainment Software Association (the industry lobby) had three purposes: run E3, complain about piracy, and fight censorship. (They were also supposed to protect the industry’s image, but have failed miserably. Had they been doing their jobs, a pre-emptive talk-show charm offensive before each Grand Theft Auto release–and then some–would have taken place to ensure that everyone knows what the game is and isn’t, tempering unfounded fears. As it happens, I still hear about how you get “points” in Grand Theft Auto for anything, or that it encourages you to kill prostitutes, neither of which are true.) The bulk of the costs went to E3. When the massive cost to little benefit was the major reason for the universal pullout from the E3, companies aren’t happy that the ESA still charges the same dues before and after the E3 downsize, leading several influential companies (like Activision and its corporate fiancée, Blizzard) to leave in a huff.

So, something needs to replace E3, because companies need buzz and the ESA needs a purpose. I’ve always felt the best solution here would be a travelling show… every few days for a month or so, they’d rent out a different convention hall in some major city and put on a big show, perhaps not with statues, laser lights, or booth babes, but stand-up units demonstrating the latest games and hardware. The first one could be press-only, so that they get their fill early and stop complaining about the masses. The rest would be open to the public. Preview game demos could go up online around then to bask in the popular attention, and make people who can’t attend feel as though there’s still a part of it. Game companies would share the cost and no longer have to bear the expense of doing individual promotional tours for major product launches.

Perhaps I’m just saying this because I’m something of a fan of modest efforts, and because nobody wants to experience the morning after the entire worldwide games industry converges on one Los Angeles convention hall. But, game companies will have to bring the show to the consumer if they want to avoid their marketing dollars reaching only game journalists, well-connected Best Buy employees, and gamers willing to refresh YouTube every five minutes for the latest blurry clips from the show floor. Ideally, a game show should be a fun place to be, a place for curious onlookers, a place to bring a date, a place that doesn’t resemble a kind of heavy-metal free-for-all. If the ESA can’t do this, they should shrink, reduce their dues, admit defeat, and help gamer-focused projects like Penny Arcade Expo take the place of their noisy, flamboyant money sinks.

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