E3 '07 Q&A: Midway's David Zucker

The CEO talks about the event's new format, its future, and ponders whether the US even needs a game trade show anymore.

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SANTA MONICA, Calif.--With the beginning of the E3 Media & Business Summit less than 72 hours away, the eyes of the global game industry are focused on this sun-kissed Los Angeles suburb. On Wednesday, the doors will open at Barker Hangar, site of the successor to what was the biggest, loudest, most extravagant game expo on the planet--the Electronic Entertainment Expo.

Midway CEO David Zucker.
Midway CEO David Zucker.

When attendees visited the South Hall of the Los Angeles Convention Center during E3 2006, they had to pass by a series of massive video screens. On those screens were ads for the latest offering from Midway Games, including Stranglehold, the game sequel to the 1992 Hong Kong action classic Hard Boiled, and The Wheelman, the forthcoming game-movie crossover starring Vin Diesel.

With his company occupying prime real estate at the event for the past several years, Midway CEO David Zucker is all too familiar with the old E3. But what does he think about the new event's format? And, as a board member of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the organizing body behind E3, does he have any insight about what the event will hold? GameSpot caught up with the veteran executive to get his two cents on the multimillion dollar event--and its future.

GameSpot: So what are your general overall impressions of the new E3 so far?

David Zucker: The biggest change is that we're just not paying for a big floor space. We're bringing all of our stuff, and we'll still have all the same meetings we would have otherwise. It's simply not as big, and obviously it's going to be lower cost for the publishers.

GS: That's funny, because I was talking to a guy at another publisher which isn't going to be at this year's event. He was saying that one of the big reasons that they weren't going is because they found actually that it was going to be more expensive for them to deal with the whole hotel suite rental.

DZ: We will save a significant amount of money versus what we've done in prior years. We're going to have hotel and meetings rooms and all that stuff, but not anywhere near the magnitude of prior E3s.

GS: What do you think were the biggest reasons the ESA decided to downsize E3? Because of an overall consensus among the publishers that they just didn't want to spend as much money?

DZ: I talked to the guys at the ESA, and I think there was a feeling that the industry has outgrown what was traditionally the orientation of E3. However, it's certainly important to have this event and really make it a media and a press event. It's still big, and it's going to be about press and showcasing our products. I think there was a sense of there's this arms race between the publishers and the first parties. And I also think the old E3 was really benefiting maybe the people who were selling the space more than it was benefiting the people that were coming to the trade show.

GS: So what's your takeaway on Barker Hangar? Have you actually seen the space, and what it's going to look like?

DZ: I have not, but I've been to Barker Hangar in a separate life. I mean, we'll certainly take a look at the space, but the hotel suites are where we're going to be showing most of our really cool stuff--our whole lineup. We're certainly going to have some playables at Barker Hangar, but I think our focus will really be what we will be showing at our hotel suite.

GS: So what are you going be showing at the hangar itself?

DZ: We'll be having Stranglehold and BlackSite: Area 51 at the hangar.

GS: So basically it's what you had at the Midway Gamers' Day earlier this year?

DZ: Yep.

GS: Is it going to be the exact same demos?

DZ: Oh, no, no. These games are either in submission or about to be submitted, so they're close to being done.

GS: Right on. And can you talk about what you're going to be showing at your suite at all?

DZ: Without question the game we're most excited about is Stranglehold. It's really coming out very well. We think when it comes out in August, it will be one of the best action games ever made, so we're really excited about it. We'll be showing basically the whole game at our suite if people want to come by and look at it. It will certainly be on the Xbox 360 and the PS3, as well as the PC. So that's a game that's really come together well, and I think it's going to surprise a lot of people when it comes out in August.

GS: Online retailers have it as coming out on August 6. Is that correct?

DZ: We're not giving an exact ship date, but we're targeting August. We'll have an exact ship date shortly.

GS: I know Nintendo recently announced the WiiWare initiative, which will allow new games to be made directly for the Virtual Console. Do you plan on taking advantage of that at all? I know you've had much success with Midway games on other download services.

DZ: Absolutely. We were one of the first players on Microsoft Xbox Live, and our game [Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3] remains one of the top 10 selling titles. The same thing with [Mortal Kombat II on the] Sony [Store]. We were one of the first big players in there, and we expect to be the same with Nintendo.

GS: When will your first title appear on the Virtual Console?

DZ: We're definitely in the mix, and we're planning. We'll have more to talk about in the future.

GS: Speaking of the Wii, what happened to Blitz: The League? It's kind of fallen off the radar...

DZ: We have nothing to talk about at this point. It's a franchise and a game that's really close to our hearts here at Midway Chicago, so I wouldn't rule out anything in the future, but there's nothing to report at this point.

GS: Will we be hearing anything about the batch of Wii exclusives you just announced will be at your presentation on the afternoon of Wednesday, July 11?

DZ: We'll certainly be talking about them and we'll have some footage of Cruis'n for the Wii and a couple of other titles as well. We'll also have Mortal Kombat for Nintendo DS. But our primary thrust will be for Stranglehold, BlackSite: Area 51, which has really come along, as well as Unreal Tournament III.

GS: So BlackSite: Area 51 is still coming out this year right?

DZ: Oh, yes. It's going into submission shortly.

GS: I know Area 51 is tentatively set for a fall release--are you worried it's going to get buried in the fourth-quarter game-release avalanche, with Grand Theft Auto IV and Halo 3?

DZ: Well, we expect BlackSite to come out before Halo 3. We're very confident with both BlackSite and Stranglehold--they're fantastic. But listen, you can't run and hide from everybody. There's certainly going to be some big titles coming out later this year from a number of other publishers, but we're very confident about those two. And of course, Unreal Tournament III...

GS: Yeah, that's the other big question. That's still coming out this year, right?

DZ: We will certainly be talking about it in our press conference. We'll have Mark Rein there from Epic Games.

GS: Outstanding. Now one thing I know people are wondering about is what you are doing with your signature franchises, such as Mortal Kombat. Now that it's out on the Wii, everybody is wondering what's next with that franchise? Are you going to reveal that at your press conference?

DZ: We won't be talking about it. It's not the end of Mortal Kombat, but we won't be talking about the next iteration at this conference. But we are working on some pretty exciting stuff.

GS: Now, last year we got a little glimpse of The Wheelman. Are we going to be seeing anything new about that?

DZ: We'll be talking about it again at our press conference, but it certainly won't be at the Barker Hangar.

GS: How is the Lord of the Rings Online doing?

DZ: It's been doing very well. It was the number one PC title in April, and it's been a steady performer at retail. And look, I mean, World of Warcraft is, of course, the big 800-pound gorilla in the MMO space. But this came in, and it's been doing very well in that context, and it continues to sell. It's been very well reviewed and, more importantly, it is getting a great response from people that are playing it. It will be on our show floor as well.

GS: Now I'm curious, what's the logistics of your booth on the show floor. How many game stations are going to be at each booth? How big are the booths? The game stations?

DZ: They're pretty small. I mean, you call it "the show floor," but I don't even know if I'll be over there myself. The booths are pretty small. For all of the stuff in the hangar, it's all standardized. So each publisher has to display their game in a standard kiosk that the ESA approved. So you're not going to see any giant characters, light shows, or things like that. The show floor is going to be like the inside of like GameStop or Toys "R" Us with just basic kiosks. It's probably not going to be that exciting for you guys. I think most companies, and I know us especially, our main focus is our hotel suite, just booking appointments with the media and having them come in and experience the games first-hand.

GS: Well if your thrust is the hotel suites, so what purpose do you think that the hangar really serves?

DZ: I think it was a transition from the massive spectacle at the Convention Center to a much smaller version of it. I don't know what the square footage is compared to the Convention Center, but the Hangar basically allows the games to speak for themselves.

GS: Now you mentioned retailers. I talked to several people who aren't going to be at E3 this year, and they said the lack of retailer participation was a big factor in them skipping the event.

DZ: The retailers didn't need to be at this event. They know it's coming. They talk to publishers. We have regular meetings with them. There's really no need for this event for retailers. Frankly, they were coming in smaller numbers even last year. Now it really is a big gamers' day.

But if, for some reason, it doesn't come back, probably the biggest loss would be publicity in the mainstream press. Last year, you were reading stories in the Wall Street Journal about video games because they all start to come out around E3. So it does bring some attention, some positive attention, to the industry and to video games in general. And I think that's certainly a big benefit of the event. But in terms of being a trade show for meetings with retailers, it's really not necessary.

GS: Another reason I heard people wanted to move E3 was just because it would tend to screw up development schedules. Like it would force dev teams to be hauled off a project and have to work on a demo for E3, versus finishing the game. Do you think that was indeed a factor?

DZ: Well, I think that probably ties back into the arms race thing. I mean, all games are in different stages of development at different times, and certainly E3 was a focus for getting certain levels done and polished, so I think that was an issue. But I don't think that was the biggest one. I really do think that the big issues are just pure cost and cost return, and then the fact that the industry has really sort of outgrown some of the original needs for E3 like the traditional trade activities.

GS: So let's talk about the future of E3 and like game conventions in the US. Do you expect there to be another E3 after this year?

DZ: As a member of the ESA board, I think the idea is to look at this one, see how it goes, and then make some assessments after the fact. So I don't know. I just don't have any foreknowledge at this point. We'll see how it goes. I think what we're doing this year makes a lot of sense, scaling it back just from a sort of logistics standpoint. There are also other events. We've been over at Leipzig a couple of years now, and we have a big push at Leipzig. The other push of course is just our own events. We had a big Midway Gamers' Day in Las Vegas back in January and we'll be doing that again. So I think there are a number of opportunities to get your message across to the right people, and we'll have to see what happens with E3 going forward.

GS: So, let's say, hypothetically, that E3 isn't around next year. What becomes the big North American game event then?

DZ: Do you need one? I think it is good that we don't really need a trade show anymore. The industry doesn't really need this for publishers to talk to retailers. The need for that passed a long time ago. But we'll see how this thing goes.

GS: What about the Game Developers Conference?

DZ: GDC is a very different event. But we'll see. We'll have to see.

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