After months of uncertainty, next week the gaming industry will finally experience the new E3 Media & Business Summit. The event is the dramatically overhauled successor to the Electronic Entertainment Expo, which had been the central event of the North American game industry for the previous 12 years.
Though it began as a modest trade show in 1995, E3 had become a deafening spectacle by 2006. Within weeks of the event's doors closing last May, many members of the Entertainment Software Association, E3's organizing body, decided the show had simply become too big, too loud, and too expensive for most exhibitors. "Some companies were frustrated because E3 was such a huge, sweeping event it became increasingly difficult to get their messages out," said former ESA president Doug Lowenstein.
Before he resigned last December, Lowenstein also promised the rechristened E3 Business & Media Summit would be drastically smaller than its predecessor. Whereas E3 2006 boasted more than 400 exhibitors and 60,000 attendees, E3 2007 is expected to draw just 36 participating companies and roughly 5,000 "invited guests."
The show floor has also been downsized, with the cavernous Los Angeles Convention Center abandoned in favor of the much smaller Barker Hangar in nearby Santa Monica. The landscape inside the venue will also be drastically different. Instead of the towering, neon-soaked edifices that dominated the interior of the LACC, Barker Hanger will feature subdued, standardized booths in two sizes--10-by-10 feet and 20-by-20 feet. "The customization options will be really limited both inside and outside [the booths]," a rep for a major exhibitor told GameSpot. "They will pretty much all look the same."
Also, the E3 conference program--which used to feature leading industry luminaries' keynotes--has been cut entirely. Indeed, much of the real business of the show won't take place at Barker Hangar at all. The vast majority of product previews will be held in private suites rented by publishers, several of which have outsourced staffing of their show-floor booths to external exhibition companies.
So what do these changes mean? Will they help streamline E3 by eliminating the chaos caused by tens of thousands of nonessential attendees stampeding between booths? Or, have they gutted the event, turning it into a hollow proceeding with a dubious raison d'etre?
In the days before E3 2007 unofficially kicks off with Microsoft's press conference next Tuesday night, GameSpot will be running interviews with the heads of several major publishers in attendance. Today, though, we check in with a series of companies who are skipping this year's expo--both voluntarily and involuntarily--to see how they feel about the new E3.
One of the biggest publishers absent from this year's event is Tecmo. Though its E3 booths evoke lighthearted memories of its cavalcade of scantily clad "booth babes," the Japanese publisher of the Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive series was deadly serious about why it opted out of E3 2007.
"New show management didn't seem to know what they were doing," Tecmo vice president John Inada told GameSpot. "I don't have money to waste on an experimental project. Previously, we were not treated very nicely by the old E3 management, so we didn't feel obligated to cooperate this year. I also heard that a lot of the [retail] buyers weren't coming."
Indeed, retail participation at the event will be a shadow of its former self. A GameStop representative said the company had "limited folks" attending the show, and other retailers have opted out entirely--causing some publishers to follow suit.
"GameStop's not really going to be there, Best Buy's not going to be there," complained a source close to a large publisher not attending E3. "Why should we bother dealing with the ESA's confusion when we can meet with our retail partners separately and then stage our own gamers' day event later on in the year where we set the rules? It just doesn't make any sense."
Those issues aside, the source told GameSpot the main issue was cost. "A standard-size space on the LACC floor costs around $50,000. For us to get a similar amount of space in a Santa Monica hotel would have cost us around $100,000." However, reps for another publisher attending the event claimed that they were saving "a huge amount of money" by renting a hotel suite and renting out one of the smaller Barker booths. "They're quite reasonable," one rep said of the booths.
Cost and retailer presence were also reasons for Gamecock Media Group to balk at the idea of attending, although its participation would have been unexpected at best. After all, the company was only recently founded by Mike Wilson and Harry Miller, former executives at the now-defunct publisher of Max Payne, Gathering of Developers. Gathering of Developers was never an official part of the Los Angeles-based E3 shows, but it always made a spectacle of itself with its carnival-like events featuring pole dancers and transvestites at an empty lot across the street from the LACC.
But to hear Wilson tell it, even that level of spectacle was affordable compared to being in the real E3. "Even at the very biggest, when we had a Jumbotron out there and a stage and bands and dancers and all this stuff, we could give away beer and barbecue to 10,000 people every year, and it still cost a fraction of what a modest booth inside the show would cost," Wilson said.
"At the convention center, the show had become, 'How much money can I spend this year?' which is why the big guys pulled out in the first place. And it was all union labor. You couldn't set up your own booth. You couldn't even plug in your own computers without paying somebody $150 and waiting for them to come plug your computer in for an hour."
(Also driving up the cost was the fact that, once the show started, exhibitors were forced to use the LACC's bland-but-expensive catering services: At E3 06, a cold-sandwich lunch for around 50 people cost upward of $2,000.)
In the tradition of the Gathering of Developers, Gamecock is instead setting up its own operation. The publisher's Expo for Interactive Entertainment, Independent and Original (EIEIO) will showcase Gamecock games like Wideload's Hail to the Chimp and Red Fly Studios' Mushroom Men concurrently with E3 at a hotel nearby the official show venues. Wilson said the publisher had originally intended to hold an event where an array of indie publishers could showcase their games to the press, but things just didn't come together quickly enough.
For some publishers, attending E3 wasn't even an option. Ken Berry, head of sales and marketing at XSEED Games (Brave Story: New Traveler, Wild ARMs 5), said his company was told it needed an invite to the event, just like attendees from the press and industry. And even with an invite, Berry echoed others' issues concerning the cost of the event and communication with show management.
"Assuming we had a chance to participate, the costs of securing a meeting area in one of the hotels, from what I've heard indirectly through third parties, would have been cost-prohibitive for us," Berry told GameSpot. "Setting up a small booth in the hangar may have been an option, but once again we never had all the required information so we couldn't make an informed decision." (NOTE: XSEED will be showing off games live as part of GameSpot's E3 Stage Show.)
Berry said E3 is still likely to be the most important industry event of the year. But nowhere will the old E3 be missed more than at the small game companies that veteran game publicist Tom Ohle has long represented. Despite being relegated to the infamous Kentia Hall last year, Ohle helped the European RPG The Witcher get picked up by Atari for North American publishing. Now director of Evolve PR, Ohle remains sold on the merits of the show's old format.
"E3 was always the one event you could attend to meet with pretty much every writer, PR and marketing rep, studio exec, et cetera in the industry," Ohle said. "As a developer or publisher, you could show your game to practically everyone who mattered. Plus, it was an awesome place to network and just to hang out with friends you didn't get to see much."
Even though "practically everyone who mattered" only made up a portion of the thousands upon thousands of attendees, Ohle said even the riffraff had its upside.
"I used to complain a lot about all of the EB Games assistant-to-the-assistant store managers running around the show, but fact is, they got a ton of buzz going about the biggest products," he told GameSpot. "I don't think you're going to have people roaming the streets of Santa Monica, yelling, 'You have to head to Nintendo's hotel right now! There's a two-hour lineup!'"
Not everyone has started getting wistful for the old format, however. Though his own Wahoo Studios was not invited to E3 07, Saga producer Jason Faller thinks the new format could fix some serious flaws with the old show.
"Truth be told, E3 has never been that great to us for networking," Faller said. "In fact, everyone's so busy and burnt out at E3 that it's hard to get anyone to be serious at all about any deals or proposals or ideas; it's really just a first contact and a face-to-face opportunity to meet all those people you had phone calls with in prior months. I imagine the new format would be better in this regard: less people, less noise, better business. Who knows? Maybe we've made a mistake in not attending."
So instead of going to E3, Faller said he went to the Game Developers Conference earlier this year and is planning to attend the consumer event GenCon in August.
"I don't think I'm boycotting the 'New E3' because I think it's unimportant," Faller said. "I just don't feel that I belong there. It was made without me in mind...at GDC and GenCon, I can appeal directly to shop owners, press attendees, and publisher reps in a casual environment where my spiked hair and two-day stubble come off as confident, even sometimes intimidating to the white-running-shoed, tucked-logo-embossed-golf-shirted guys that I've dealt with in the past at the shows."
GDC and GenCon aren't the only possible replacement events. A representative with SNK Playmore (of King of Fighters and Metal Slug fame) said that the publisher is steering clear of this year's E3 because of the cost and layout of the event. Instead, it will look elsewhere for opportunities to show its wares to retail buyers and the press. Specifically, the representative mentioned Sony's retail-only Destination PlayStation event as the most important in the industry when it comes to buyers. However, SNK Playmore believes a second event of some sort is needed.
It isn't just a preference for the old E3 format that has kept some companies from participating in this year's event. Hothead Games CEO Vlad Ceraldi suggested that both iterations of the show could be made irrelevant for those working in the rising field of downloadable games.
"E3 has never been about gamers," Ceraldi said. "The show has historically been about appealing to the needs of traditional retail channels. Hothead's focus is on the opportunities created by digital distribution and the closer relationship a publisher can have with the gamers themselves."
Still, even downloadable game developers need to get the word out somehow, so Hothead Games will be showcasing its episodic PC adventure game Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness at consumer-focused shows like the Penny Arcade Expo (naturally) and San Diego Comic-Con.
While a number of the publishers GameSpot contacted said they would consider participating in next year's E3 (some on the condition that the format is further tweaked), multiple representatives said they didn't believe there would be an E3 at all next year. Gamecock is even referencing that notion in its EIEIO event, which will cap off with a funeral service for the ESA's long-standing trade show.
"We're going to have some fun on the beach and say good-bye to the magical beast of yore that was E3," Wilson said. "I'd say there's a fair chance there won't be a show called E3 anything next year, which is why we're saying farewell to it on the beach. But I can't wait to see what emerges."