GameSpot Gut Reactions: E3 Changed Forever?
The GameSpot staff weighs in on their initial impressions of the news that E3, as we know it, is no more.
This past weekend, shocking news hit the Internet in the form of reports that E3, the single biggest event in the game industry each year, might be on its way out. Apparently, big game publishers had decided to pull their support of the event, possibly because E3 was just too expensive to justify the time, effort, and cost of sending out crews of staff to attend the event, prepare new demo versions of the games, and spend millions on swanky booths for the show floor. This morning, the Entertainment Software Association issued a statement suggesting that it will be changing to "a more intimate event" for press and industry professionals. It later clarified that the event will now be called the E3 Media Festival and will be moved to July. We sat down with ESA president Doug Lowenstein to find out exactly what this means for the event. But we've also got the GameSpot staffers on hand to weigh in with their gut reactions. Be sure to add your own thoughts using the comments form below.
What do the largest publishers get out of this restructuring? First and foremost, they save a ton of money, not having to deal with the costs of travel for employees to Los Angeles, not to mention renting of expensive floor space of the Los Angeles Convention Center, building a flashy, costly booth, and bringing specially designed E3-ready demos of their games. And the bigger companies won't have any trouble promoting their big games anyway, in a more controlled, cost-conscious manner.
For the smaller players in the industry, however, it's a different story. Despite the cost overruns and the logistical hurdles, E3 is a great place to put your game, your accessory, your product in front of a centralized and eager group of buyers, media, and potential customers that is unrivaled by any other event on the calendar year. The signal-to-noise ratio can be unnecessarily unbalanced but, as a small company, it's been a necessary risk.
Still, there could be costs to all parties, some of which may not be immediately felt. Assuming E3 moves to a boutique arrangement, with small settings for exhibitors to showcase their wares, the cachet of the event is likely to wither, as publishers focus on their own home-grown events to build buzz for their products. It's nothing new--publishers already have lavish pre-E3 events now. I can't help but wonder if those private functions will simply morph into the new standard, with all-in-one exhibitions becoming passé. As a side effect, mainstream press coverage--which loves to cover the glitzy shell of E3, if not its gooey insides--will likely be greatly reduced in this boutique arrangement. And speaking of media, the change brings up questions of how my role as a video games writer will change without an E3 to gush over every May.
Is it growing pains? Is it a warning sign of things to come? Or is it a healthy correction for an event that had become bloated and self-defeating? It's probably all of these things. It's hard to argue against publishers saving money, be they big or small, especially in such a volatile industry. But while companies' bottom lines are dictating this change for the short-term, only hindsight will determine whether or not the E3 restructuring will pay dividends in the long-term.
I've heard grumblings for years that companies have been unhappy about the state of E3, and how they have to spend more and more money and resources to compete. Every year the sound and light show that is E3 escalated, and it has gotten to the point that publishers have to send emissaries to neighboring booths to ask them to dial down the volume because it's so deafening. It's just not worth it, especially if you consider that a publisher can easily blow millions of dollars to create an extravagant booth, fly hundreds of employees to LA and put them in hotels for a week, and then watch as some other publisher steals all the thunder and the E3 crowds. Far easier and cheaper to simply have your own dedicated event, where you can control everything and not have to worry about what the competition is doing next door.
Still, as a student of history, I realize that this is a chapter closing. The megashow symbolized everything that was both great and not so great about the industry. Having every upcoming game in one place was simply an awe-inspiring experience, but not so much fun was the catering to the lowest common denominator with scantily-clad booth babes or the marketing of sequel after sequel rather than original ideas. Yet I'm also a bit apprehensive about this smaller E3 format. One of the nice things about the megashow is that it draws positive mainstream press coverage like no other event. E3 has become the "face" of the industry, and I just don't know if a "smaller" E3 will be able to say the same.
I suppose if I had to fix E3, I'd stick with the large format, but I'd enforce stringent admissions rules to get rid of the thousands of people that don't need to be there. So "yes" to the buyers from each retail chain, the ones responsible for the bulk orders of each game; but do we really need every manager, assistant manager, and part-time sales clerk from each store there? And while we're at it, let's crack down on the media badges so that only real news organizations get in. Also, if the NFL can have a salary cap, why can't E3 have a booth-spending cap? Keep the arms race in check, and get the escalating costs under control. I'd try that, and if that didn't work, then I would go with the smaller format.
Where are these "small meetings" going to take place?
The press release states it will all still take place in LA, but no mention of the LA Convention Center. And I think that was intentional. My guess is that they are going to take place in hotel rooms and meeting rooms throughout Los Angeles and Hollywood. And this puts me in a very, very bad mood.
As if it wasn't already hard enough to get out on the show floor to do proper coverage of games for the world to see, now it appears the media will have to travel all around a city to various hotels or other locations to provide top-notch coverage. And if you work in a video group (e.g. GameSpot Live), you have to worry about lugging around cameras, tripods, and lighting all over the city, too. It gets heavy and your back doesn't like it. Trust me, it sucks.
Then there's the big impact that E3 has on the public. Not only do the interactive entertainment media, GameSpot included, converge on the show, but so do the mass media. E3's glamour was definitely a big part of the reason why stations like CNN would cover the show, and, in my opinion, a new low-key setup where demos are spread across meeting rooms or hotel rooms will just force them to look away for the most part.
When cutting back E3's grand style, I wish the ESA would have worked with all parties it would have an impact on--especially the industry media, who by far puts in the most man-hours during the week of the show. Our bodies and minds are put to an extreme test every year, and that's with most of the stuff we need to cover confined to one huge building. Just imagine how much harder it might be on us with us having to spread ourselves out all over a huge city.
While retailers and other industry audiences are indeed important for E3, I strongly feel the interactive entertainment media is by far the most essential part of it. We give the world the inside scoop on everything that is E3. The public largely looks to us when trying to determine what games from E3 they should keep their eye on as development progresses. So, outside of the exhibitors themselves, I feel we, the media, should have had the opportunity to put on our word of what we feel could have been done to make E3 a better conference for everyone. For example, I have a feeling we would have all made a push to move the conference to San Francisco, home to most major video game media outlets as well as a number of game developers and publishers. That alone would have made it easier on all of us with the new setup. Oh well, we can't always have our way.
the beautiful women who would let you stand near them!
Not only did E3 seem to become less and less about the games, but it also seemed like the show couldn't figure out exactly what it was supposed to be. In 2005, there was actually a concerted marketing effort to get more people to pay the expensive ticket price to get in and experience what an exciting and fun show it was, an effort that I felt was grossly irresponsible. The single most important event in the game industry became a mixed-message consumer event ("This is an industry-only show and you must be 18 or older and have ID and credentials...to see the hottest new games and consoles in the world before anyone else! It's all here: games, beautiful women, and excitement!!"). The cat was basically out of the bag: How could you get these stowaways to stop sneaking in, not to mention telling their friends about how awesome E3 was and how they, too, should try to sneak in? With the halls of the LACC full to bursting with people who had absolutely no business being there, E3 seemed to lose most of its value as an actual trade event. By 2006, it seemed like having an honest-to-goodness public shindig would make much more sense.
In the short run, I guess it's a relief that we apparently won't have to worry about E3 being the monstrous event it traditionally is. In the long run, I'm a lot more concerned about what kind of message this sends to people outside the game industry. For better or for worse, E3 was something that caught the eye of both the mainstream press and Wall Street...and this change could mean challenging times ahead for a business that, for the last few years, has so proudly claimed to be bigger than Hollywood.
So with the news of the ESA favoring a "smaller, faster, cheaper" E3, I have to say I'd fall among those that are sad to see the end of an era. And while so many of us lament the change, we all have to admit it was inevitable. Smaller publishers had difficulty in getting their games noticed, and the crowd was becoming more and more diluted each year. Fines were being levied against publishers for both the rising noise levels and booth-babe midriff lines. E3 was just getting too big for its britches.
So, in as much awe of E3 I was when I first arrived, I was more amazed at the amount of effort put forth by the GameSpot crew, both on and off camera. We were there with the mission to tackle a monster, one that grew stronger and more adversarial with each passing year. While I had always imagined that I'd be wandering the show floor among that wide-eyed crowd with my schwag bag in hand, my first E3 experience instead changed that dream into a mountain to climb, a raging river to be crossed--a growing challenge that, until today, I had looked forward to confronting each year. Now the ESA has gone and slain the dragon for us, and we are left in uncertainty as to what sort of E3 will be rising out of the ashes. Whatever will take its place will no doubt be a more effective vessel for the industry as a whole, but it won't nearly be the same Everest it once was. I, for one, will miss that.
I don't think there are many journalists that will disagree with me on that count: The ability to work with fewer distractions and a bit less noise will be a boon to us--and to most of you out there in Internet-land, too, to be honest. With a more relaxed working environment, I think the product that goes up on GameSpot will only improve. That may sound selfish, coming from someone who's been to E3 before--judging from the reaction on our forums, I'm sure plenty of our readers are disappointed that they won't be able to attend an E3 in its old form, which has become something like the High Mass for game fans. Honestly, though, I doubt many of the organizers and exhibitors are worried about what gamers think. While some titles will be impacted by the loss of the word-of-mouth effect that can come when lots of people get their hands on a small-stature game that's a load of fun, the AAA, high-budget titles will still get their coverage in the press; the publishers just won't have to spend millions of dollars for floor space and elaborate booths to engage in ultimately meaningless battles with their competition over who has the weirdest loot giveaways.
Speaking for myself, anything that can reduce the sheer headache of going to E3 is a boon. It'll be interesting to see how this turns out, but so far, I'm liking the changes.
Aside from the money, there's the logistics to consider. It takes a tremendous effort from thousands of people to coordinate everything that goes on during E3. But what few people outside the industry realize is that most of the big news about E3 doesn't even come from the show. Every year companies hold pre-E3 events to show off their games in a more intimate setting, which works well for the company because it can count on your undivided attention, and it works well for journalists because it spreads the workload out over several weeks rather than a few days. Then there are the press conferences that take place in the two days leading up to the show. There are the big three, of course, but there are also conferences from companies like Square Enix, Konami, and Capcom. These conferences are where the massive, earth-shattering news breaks, so by the time the convention center opens its doors everyone is coming down from all the recent announcements, which makes the actual show feel anticlimactic and unnecessary.
That's just me being practical, though. Deep down, I will miss the excess of E3. There's something to be said for coming together en masse as an industry and celebrating what it is we're passionate about. It's crowded, loud, and exhausting, but it's also exciting, dramatic, and often shocking. For that I will miss E3, but I understand why the ESA and game publishers are looking for alternative ways to do business, and I'm all for it.
So, if you're a game publisher, why spend all that money to build a big, dumb booth just to impress the 60 or 70,000 people who attend the show? Most of those people simply don't matter in the grand scheme of things, and at the end of the day, that expenditure isn't getting their games much more visibility. The people who need to see those games for business purposes (big retail buyers, creepy investment types, sketchy media types) will see them "behind closed doors" in some stuffy meeting room, so the booth experience is mostly lost on them, as well. The best thing I can say about the experience of attending E3 is that it's really improved my ability to weave my way through a crowd while trying to get from one place to the other. How is that crowd (which is often composed of people who are inexplicably sitting down on the floor and gawking at some free flyer that was shoved into their hands) benefiting the game industry?
You could make the argument that E3 is the time when the mainstream press sits up and takes notice. It seems like I'm interviewed by at least three news crews from the Los Angeles area every year and asked, "So what does all this mean?" But those all invariably end up being fluff pieces that never really say anything meaningful about games; they're all just about how crazy it is that the convention is going on.
I'll miss the three-ring circus feel of the whole thing. It never failed to deliver a full week of absolute insanity and a healthy dose of sleep deprivation. A hall full of plain-looking meeting rooms, if that's this trade show's eventual fate, simply won't be the same. But a scaled-back, more focused show just makes sense. Unless you're the guy who vowed that 2007 would be the year that you finally scammed a badge and went to the show. If that's the case, you're probably sort of pissed.
That companies like Electronic Arts are finally waking up to the fact that the event is overly expensive for the returns that they get comes as no surprise to me. A similar thing happened to the European Computer Trade Show several years ago, when Activision started a trend by using the money it would normally spend on an ECTS booth to host its first "Activate" event. Journalists and retailers from all over Europe were invited to Activate and got to spend two or three entire days checking out Activision's games and meeting with the people working on them. At ECTS (or E3), meetings typically last no longer than an hour, and in that time we're often expected to spend time with a handful of different games. Other European companies followed Activision's lead and there hasn't been an ECTS since 2004, and anyone who was unfortunate enough to attend that one will almost certainly tell you that it doesn't really count.
I'd hate to see E3 go the way of ECTS, but I'd love to see it turn into something resembling the underrated Game Stars Live and European Games Network events that were held at London's ExCeL center in September 2004. The two events, separated by a large lobby area, took the forms of an open-to-the-public mini-E3 and a hall filled with sterile meeting rooms, respectively. Game Stars Live gave companies a chance to show off their latest games to good effect, and EGN afforded them a quiet haven away from the crowds, where meetings and interviews could be conducted without fear of distraction or interruption.
Why any company would fork out millions of dollars to have a booth at E3 is beyond me, frankly. Surely they'd be better off hosting or participating in a smaller event where they don't have to spend big to compete with other companies for attention, where they can spend more than 10 minutes presenting each game to journalists and retailers, and where giant bags full of free branded T-shirts, keychains, badges, rubber balls, caps, stickers, pens, and other crap are a distant memory. Sorry E3, but I'll take quality over quantity every time.
As for a suitable replacement, a small intimate show is one option. But I think the bigger issues are timing and exposure. Given how game development is going right now, May isn't the best time. It's invariably smack-dab in the middle of a dev cycle and puts a burden on dev teams to make sure they have something cool to show off. What's happened lately is that dev time gets eaten up by having the team focus on an E3 demo, in addition to the working on the rest of the game; this is bad. As far as exposure goes, getting seen has always been an issue for smaller companies. E3 as we knew it tended to lend itself to overshadowing anyone who didn't have an eight-story booth with flashing lights. A new E3 could be cool if it were more intimate and offered a more level playing field for all developers and publishers. Fan-fave developers like Red Octane and The Behemoth, both of which have made outstanding games, kicked it in Kentia. Hopefully a new E3 would give the little guys a better chance at being seen.
So last year's E3 saw me running around with 80 pounds of video equipment, a sweat-soaked mash of pulp that used to be a floor map, and a vague idea that I need to go "that way." In all seriousness, it was pretty tough, productionwise, to get good coverage of the event. While flashing lights and loud noises might attract people to your booth, it's not so great for a guy trying to get clean footage of your game. Though it might be enticing to sit and debate whether that 15-foot Optimus Prime sculpture would fit in my apartment (it wouldn't), I really spent a good amount of time in transit and hurdling other attendees so I could get that Super Monkey Ball footage everyone wanted.
In the end, the carnival atmosphere is a lot of pomp and circumstance that I personally think gets in the way of what we really want to see, the games. A smaller, more intimate E3 might allow developers to spend more time getting their games ready and less time determining the toxicity levels of 103 simultaneously running fog machines. On that note, my favorite booth at E3 was probably the tucked-away Warner Bros. setup. Not only was it subdued and off the beaten path, it had fresh coffee and, more importantly, giant plates of cheese. With fewer people sweating themselves silly to get a wink from a booth babe, we were able to spend the time to get the coverage we wanted. I guess we'll see if the new direction E3 is moving toward will actually eliminate some of the excessive spending and flair or just relocate it to individual locations and separate events. Really though, at the end of the day, those mini USB drives kind of suck.
I've been to seven E3s. During the first two, I worked for a developer and had to show off the games to journalists as they made their way around the show floor. Then, I went one year just to keep track (for said developer) of what all the competition was doing. The year after that, I went purely as a tourist, using my contacts at the developer to net tickets for me and my boyfriend at the time. After that, despite my connections and the fact that I was freelancing reviews for a small Web site, I managed to attend because I was working a retail outlet at the time. The last two years, I went with GameSpot, last year being the most arduous because I only got to play mobile games for the entire show. This year was trying, but it was my favorite of them all (besides my first, of course), since I was able to spend the entire time meeting with developers, talking about games, and interacting with GS readers/viewers on our daily live show.
I know that the spectacle of E3 has always blurred the show's focus. Instead of being about games and their quality, it has become about getting hysterical and excited and free schwag and sexy ladies, and all that nonsense. But that doesn't mean I can't love a spectacle just the same, especially since it's about the subject which I hold most dear, video games. E3 is responsible for some of my most precious memories in my adult life. You never forget the first time you see God of War running, or the time you first meet Greg Kasavin, who you've totally admired for like, five years, or the time you had to stand behind Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen while they sign autographs so that perverted old men won't take pictures of their butts. Seriously, that part was kind of gross, but the rest of E3 is awesome.
So whatever it becomes, I'll miss the old E3, the place where I can bump into friends in the game industry, the noise, the chaos, the mayhem, and the excitement of it all. Big kisses, E3. We'll miss you.
Listen, by no stretch of the imagination am I just going to pretend this is an out-and-out good thing. Considering how much capital went in and out of that show, and what a huge event it was for us media types, scaling back on such a huge thing can't look like anything but the industry, in some fashion, tucking its tail between its legs and slinking off into the night. But, even so, one has to admit that E3 was just getting too big for its britches. E3 had become less an industry trade event and more an excuse for every dork with a fan site or Wal-Mart employee tag to clog up the lines to play the games, eat overpriced corndogs, and get pictures standing next to women with improbable figures. Sure, I'll miss some of the craziness on some level--namely the level of a kid who used to find illicit ways to get into the show before he was even 18, and has a whole drawer full of Bruce Campbell autographs collected over the years before getting a real job in this industry--but on a purely professional level, it makes sense. And really, what does spending all that money on stage shows and big giveaways and gigantic booths really, actually get a publisher? Ninety-five percent of the people reading E3 coverage are getting it from the major sites that don't give a crap about any of that. And those major sites only take up about several hundred people's worth of the invitees to E3 every year, if that. Do we really need the three kids from www.geocities.com/townhall/GameBarn/index.htm and a thousand EB clerks from the vast, lonely stretches of the Midwest seeing this stuff every year? No, of course we don't.
I'm not altogether convinced that a scaled-down E3 will really work, simply because I'm not even sure what it would look like. But I'm willing to give the ESA the benefit of the doubt...for now. So, in the meantime, sing all the elegies you want for the E3 of old, but trust me when I say that if you'd spent as many days of your life as I have covering that monstrosity, you'd be welcoming change, too.
Basically, E3 was not effectively serving the interests of those for whom the show was initially created, so it needed to change. I'm both surprised and impressed that the bigwigs at the ESA were forward-thinking enough to actually effect this change so fast.
Who benefits from a smaller E3? Just about everybody. Publishers can put the millions they'd spend on their E3 booths, travel, and so on to more effective use at their own smaller events. Developers won't have their tight production schedules interrupted when they have to spend six weeks polishing a canned E3 demo. The press will have more-thorough access to the games they'd be seeing at E3 anyway, and, ultimately, the readers will reap the benefits when they absorb more and better text and video coverage of the games they want to know about.
Let's face it: E3 has become a very loud, expensive circus that was only fun for those who had no legitimate reason to be there. (Sorry, game-retail clerks.) The focus should be on the games, and that's what this restructuring is all about.
On the other hand, if you're a game player, you've got good reason to be disappointed right about now. E3 is sensational and amazing, and online and other media coverage of the event has improved in many ways during the past few years. Getting to absorb all the info online, without having to wade through huge crowds or wait in long lines, is possibly better than being there in person. But if the event ends up being a lot more "intimate," it may not be nearly as interesting to those of us who love E3 because of the sheer sensory overload on display.
I think the world still needs an event like E3, where the entire game industry can get together and showcase its upcoming lineup. As long as next year's iteration still serves as a place where new game announcements are made, where progress is shown on games known to be in development, and for those working in the game industry get together to meet and greet, I think everything will be just fine.
I've gone to every E3 for the past 12 years, and I got started writing about games right before the first show. So to me, having grown up next to E3, this really feels like the end of an era. The show had its problems, but it was always an amazing experience. I'll be anxious to see what it's like next year, and I'd better get together with the editors here to talk about how this may impact our coverage plans. And if the new E3 won't be as exciting as it used to be, at least it went out with a bang.