Q&A: ECA president Hal Halpin

Former head of gaming retailer trade group explains why gamers need their own organization, and what's in it for those who don't care about politics.

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Back when Hal Halpin was the president of the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association (IEMA), he used to fight for the interests of game sellers across the country. On many occasions, that meant teaming up with the Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA) and the publisher-representing Entertainment Software Association (ESA) to fight game restriction laws in court.

The interests of the IEMA and the VSDA intersected so frequently that the two merged in May, forming the Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA) and providing Halpin the opportunity to move on to new things. Earlier this month, Halpin announced the formation of the Entertainment Consumers Association (ECA), a trade group for gamers, and once again he'll be sporting the title of president.

Halpin stopped by the GameSpot offices this week to answer a few questions about his new organization, the state of the industry, and whether his old retailer connections were among those pushing for changes to the recently revamped Electronic Entertainment Expo.

GameSpot: We already have a publishers' advocacy group in the Entertainment Software Association and a retailers' advocacy group in the Entertainment Merchants Association. Why are the interests of gamers so different from the interests of the publishers and the retailers that they need their own separate group?

Hal Halpin: Probably for the same reason as you sort of infer in your question, which is that the publishers, the retailers and the developers all have their own representation. So the industry is very well represented by those three groups but the consumers have no representation and so that was sort of the hole that we recognized.

GS: Are there any issues in particular where you think the retailers and the publishers are pulling for the industry to go one way, and consumers would want it to go another?

HH: No, I'm not sure that I've seen any sort of disparate interests yet, but one of the things that did start last year where it would increase the need for consumer advocacy is that of the hundred-and-some-odd bills that we were fighting in my last career--one of them targeted consumers as opposed to retailers, and was holding them culpable. And so that's probably a pattern that we're going to see increase over the course of the next year or two. There's a lot of copycat legislation.

GS: The ESA has established the Video Game Voters Network and has been established as a political voice for gamers, and you link to it on the ECA Web site. Is there any official connection between the two groups?

HH: Well there's an unofficial connection so far as [ESA president] Doug [Lowenstein] and I have talked about it, and he said that he's supportive of our organization and wanted to see what we could do between VGVN and ECA. I think that there are some obvious places where we should and could be working together, but we haven't worked out the details yet. As you say, we just link to it off our homepage.

GS: Do you have any specific details on the ECA member benefits yet?

HH: I have a lot of general details that I could tell you, and as they come online I can give you the specifics.

GS: Do you have any partners?

HH: We have a lot of media partners who are all, I believe, on the Web site under the sponsor section, and as we continue to sign more and more deals, they go online. But most of them are still being worked out. I think we just signed another one this morning and a new one yesterday morning. So I'm not sure if they've been announced, and oftentimes our partners will want to announce it strategically as well.

GS: How many members in the ECA right now?

HH: In the first week we got a hundred, which was around one per hour and they all seemed to be a couple of game developers but mostly enthusiasts, hardcore gamers, early adopters, you know, people who are passionate about online gaming especially. This is our soft launch and so none of the marketing's hitting until [early 2007], and so all of the new members that we're getting are a result of press, and so when we do interviews or articles are done or feature stories are done, we see spikes in interest.

GS: From your experience as president of the IEMA, were retailers as unhappy with the setup of the old E3 as the publishers apparently were?

HH: You know, I think that there was sort of growing discontent over the years regarding the size. There's competing interests where the media really needed to be focused on in one way, analysts a different way, and retailers another way. And it was one of the reasons for the impetus of the IEMA Executive Summit--it was essentially an E3 follow-up show where everyone would go and see product at E3 and then they would then buy the product when they came to our event.

GS: Do you think going back to the smaller-scale show for the new E3 is in the best interests of the retailers?

HH: You know, I don't know. Doug and I have played phone tag and email tag for the last week or so, and so I'm no more or less knowledgeable than anyone else about the new workings of E3. I know that it has the same time frame as [the IEMA Executive Summit] and that it's also suite-style and in hotels and they are essentially doing a very similar thing to the Executive Summit, but on a more grand scale.

GS: It seemed like the spectacle of E3 was as much to create a stir about something in a way that the retailers could plainly see. They could see their customers on the show floor, really excited and camping out in line for four hours to get their hands on specific games. They could see the reactions of the media and all the other people that were let in and that would help them make their decisions about what they were going to be buying. Was that ever a serious component of the E3 equation for the retailers?

HH: I hadn't heard of it before, but it actually makes a lot of sense now that you say it. My experience with our old retailers in my old job was that they would go in teams from meeting to meeting, and the issue that they had most recently with the old E3 was that it was just so large that it was difficult to get from one to the next in a timely fashion. And then seeing and hearing everything the way that they wanted to was difficult as well.

GS: So they'd be just as happy to just be taken around and shown everything just to themselves?

HH: Well part of the issue is that a lot of the publishers go and do road shows as well so they were in their office and showing them the product individually and so they would come to E3 and they would say, "OK, so what's new now that you haven't shown me within the last month or so?"

GS: Jack Thompson: good or bad for the industry?

HH: Both probably, in short. He's a very bright guy; he's not given anywhere near enough credit. I think that the problem with Jack has been that we've allowed him to be the voice of the industry and we've probably given him too much room without sort of combating him with our facts. I've said many times, and to Jack as well, I think that he speaks from his heart. I don't think that he's artificial in any way. He often uses his own resources and his own money to do what he does and for all those reasons, I have a lot of respect for him personally and professionally. However, I'm not sure that as an industry, as a trade, and as consumers that we're telling our own story effectively enough. And so that's the good and the bad of Jack--is that it sort of raises the bar and it raises what we need to do in order to combat the other side.

If you had to classify him--which I would be reluctant to do--he's obviously a foe. I've seen similar questions about politicians, and I'm not sure that you can be as black and white about their interests because sometimes their interests are self-motivated depending upon who it is that we're talking about. Other times it comes from just not understanding the issue or not understanding who gamer demographics actually are.

For instance, the state of [Illinois] started up its whole machine, and we ended up with a lawsuit as a result of Rod Blagojevich, not really understanding that the JFK assassination game [JFK Reloaded] wasn't a retail packaged product, or that it wasn't being sold in the US at all, or even downloaded at that point. And so without that understanding, he sort of went ahead with this blind ignorance and even though we educated him as time went on about the facts and that he had been misguided, he got feedback from his own constituency from people who were not us, who were also feeding him statistics that may or may not be accurate, research data that may or may not be proven. And so it became this snowball effect.

One of the things we're hoping to do with the ECA is to reach out to parents and reach out to legislators and effectively educate everyone about the actual facts. So it's a really broad mission in terms of education, but we think that we'll be able to effectively communicate by partnering with media companies. ... With the enthusiast media, with only one exception, we're partnered already with literally everyone inside the industry.

GS: And how do you leverage those partnerships?

HH: Essentially we're hoping that we're going to be able to give them the resources in order to be able to understand more about what's going on legislatively on a regular basis, and then they'll be working with us in order to get the message out to our constituency and sort of get them to understand what's really going on. There were over a hundred bills that came out last year that are threatening their rights and that there will be another hundred this year and they should understand what's going on, how serious an impact for [them] it could actually be.

GS: In Congress, who gets it? Who's your friend or who can you go to?

HH: You'll probably get a different answer from me than you would from the ESA on that. They've worked very hard over the years in order to establish relationships, and there probably is a lot more gray area that they would see than I do. From my perspective, I think that they're beginning to understand it, but I'm not sure that they fully do.

GS: Congress?

HH: Congress in general, any politician, the staffers to varying degrees. I just read this statistic the other day in the Association for the Advancement of Retired People magazine, that the average age of a US senator is 60, the highest it's ever been. The average age of a gamer of course is 30, and so part of the disparity is obvious. It's there, and so educating another whole generation that didn't grow up with games as media but rather saw games as toys is the major hurdle to get over.

GS: A lot of our conversation has included references to the ESA, Doug Lowenstein, their mission, and their events. Is there by design a sort of a coalition building or a relationship with the ESA?

HH: I think similarly to the IEMA it's really important to have coalition building. It's really important to include the different parts of the industry, the IGDA, the ESA, the ESRB, the EMA, and, to some extent, other groups as well, because it's important that we have a unified front. And so that's why I reached out to all of those individuals who are the heads of those organizations to advise them of what we were up to, to ask them for their support and to start working together.

GS: What has their response been to your outreach?

HH: So far it's been great. It's been really positive.

GS: It seems like you've got a couple of pitches for members here: Do something altruistic for the industry that you love, or get discounts and perks out of purely selfish reasons. Which do you think is going to wind up resonating more with gamers?

HH: You know our early pitch and the reason why the first people are coming is clearly because they believe in the advocacy and they believe in consumer rights and they want to have a voice and they think the time has come. And I think that one resonates with those who feel the most passionate about their hobby.

The services, as they start coming online in [the first half of 2007], will make the value proposition such that if you are a gamer and you're passionate about gaming, you'd really be an idiot not to join if you're getting over $200 worth of value for $20. If you're interested in subscribing to magazines or getting discounts on game rentals or game purchases, any of those sort of things, as they come online, [they will] make it sort of overwhelmingly interesting. So probably different things for different people, and hopefully a mix of both for everyone.

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