E3 Staggers From Another Blow

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by Kyle Ackerman

The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) was once the biggest event in the world of interactive entertainment. Certainly, to find a show that rivaled E3 in size and importance, you had to go to Japan or Germany. So, for computer and video gaming in North America, E3 was it. Hundreds of journalists, industry analysts and retail buyers vied with thousands of junior retail staff and every fanboy who managed to cajole his way in, to identify the upcoming hits, sleepers, flops and stories of the day. Companies hated it, because to produce a spectacle on that scale, you have to spend staggering sums of money. Developers hated the annual crunch as they tried to get demos done in time for the event. Journalists and businessmen hated navigating the hordes of screaming, sweaty fans trying to make press meetings behind closed doors, even if those closed doors were simply flimsy screens in the middle of the show floor.

So the E3 of old was cancelled, and the E3 Media and Business Summit was born.

It happened mostly at the request of large game publishers. It hurt many smaller publishers who got a speck of attention at E3 for their game by putting it on a laptop, perched on a tiny table, in a basement hall beneath the floor where the big boys were showing games. Important announcements that had been made at E3 have now been moved to most publisher's private events. So it's worse for the public and better for the marketing machines that want to tightly control their message. Even the analysts and buyers learned from the swarms of rabid fans which games actually were anticipated by the pubic, rather than seeing technical demonstrations that spin every game to look great.

Last year's E3 Media and Business Summit was a dismal failure. Anything of consequence that happened took place largely outside the confines of the event itself at "pre-E3" meetings. Little of importance took place in Santa Monica last year with most meetings serving as pointless echoes of earlier announcements – when people could even make meetings scattered around Santa Monica.

For 2008, the E3 Media and Business Summit has taken a step back toward relevance, centralizing the event and providing a venue where some publishers have chosen to show off their wares and try to generate excitement around upcoming titles. (Even though the most crucial announcements still happen at "pre-E3" meetings.) That said, it may be too late. Publishers are under-represented, and it seems like everything of importance is already happening somewhere else.

The old E3 may have been an expensive spectacle, but that spectacle focused fan attention on games while providing an important venue for games of all stripes. Small publishers and indie developers have even less access to the public thanks to the confined E3 Media and Business Summit, while the public and press have access even more fettered than before. As a result, everyone is losing interest, and the event appears poised to die. It's not clear if even a return to the event's former glory is enough to restore the faith of everyone involved.

It's also easy to see that E3 was the glue that held the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) together. The ESA fights unconstitutional game laws, cooperates with law enforcement on piracy issues and lobbies the government on behalf of publishers, but that's not enough. Many of the big publishers (such as Activision Blizzard) believe they can spend those dollars more efficiently on their own. But E3 used to be a can't-miss event. After last year's showing, many of the big boys have decided to take a pass. And if they aren't going to be prominent exhibitors at E3, why pay the big dues bill?

So will E3 make a comeback? It's hard to see it becoming the extravaganza it once was, with critical revelations stacked upon vital business transactions. Buy-in has been lost from critical players like Activision Blizzard, NCsoft and dozens of others. There are hundreds of sites and cable programs desperate to manufacture events to grab a larger share of the audience. The console owners are manufacturing programming of their own to better control the information that goes to their consumers. Buyers and analysts find the new E3 increasingly useless. New public events are taking up the slack, stuffing spectacle into the public's hungry maw. So will E3 come back? Not likely. Perhaps the atrophy has been arrested, and maybe it will remain useful in its current state, if somewhat less useful than it has been.

E3 helped small publishers the most, allowing them to grab snippets of attention during a colossal show that everyone attended. It's hard to see the top publishers once again creating the kind of extravaganza that will allow small players to ride their coattails, but that would be good for the industry. Small players are often innovators that get purchased by those large publishers. Red Octane was once confined to the back of the Kentia Hall "Ghetto," showing off an in-development Guitar Hero. Now they are a mainstay for Activision Blizzard. Perhaps it's good for the big publishers to create a spectacle that has the potential to further the industry. I can only hope they will choose to do so again.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on July 18, 2008 1:26 PM.

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