Spot On: ECTS vs. EGN--Showdown in London

After months of hostile posturing, the UK's top two game-industry events finally square off--and the result is no contest.

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LONDON--For years, the UK's premier game trade show was ECTS. Put on by Game Developers Conference organizers CMP Media, it was held concurrently with GDC Europe. The result was a synergistic event that had the commercial cachet of E3 seasoned with GDC's top development talent. Held at Earls Court in West London, the 2003 ECTS attracted over 10,500 attendees and 130 marquee exhibitors, including Atari, Electronic Arts, Eidos, Konami, Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, Ubisoft, and VU Games.

All that changed last October, when the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA), the British equivalent of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), decided it was going to stage its own event during the same week as ECTS. Dubbed the European Games Network (EGN), the new trade show was billed as a more cutting-edge alternative to the established conference. Organizers played up EGN's online meeting planner, closed-off demonstration rooms, and the executive-oriented conference program. There would also be plenty of VIP areas on hand for those present to get their schmooze on.

To further entice attendees, ELSPA reached an agreement to hold EGN concurrently with Game Stars Live, a combination of an E3-like spectacle and a Gphoria-esque game awards show put on by the television network ITV. Unlike E3, however, Game Stars Live would be open to the public. Anyone who plunked down 10 pounds ($19.30) could show up and play a variety of still-unreleased games. Attendance was forecast at 100,000 for the five-day exhibition, even though it and EGN were being held at ExCeL, a convention center in London's far-east Docklands district.

Ironically, ExCeL was also the venue for the 2001 ECTS, which was widely considered a disaster. So it was with some justification then that ECTS director Andy Lane predicted disaster for his newfound rivals. "The whole idea would be laughable if it wasn’t so distasteful," he told Gamesindustry.biz.

Lane, however, wasn't laughing for long. In November 2003, London Mayor Ken Livingstone threw the support of the London tourism board behind EGN and Game Stars Live. In March 2004, TIGA, the UK's leading association of independent game studios, decided to hold a rival to GDCE, the European Developers Forum, at ExCeL alongside EGN and GSL.

However, in April, the winds of trade war began to shift in EGN's favor. Electronic Arts decided it would forgo ECTS for the new event, and was soon followed by Activision, Atari, Codemasters, Digital Jesters, Sega, Square Enix, and VU Games. ATI, Nokia, and Nintendo decided to play both sides of the field. Sony chose to sit out the fight and stage its annual PlayStation Experience, held last year in conjunction with ECTS, in late September at the Alton Towers amusement park. Of the major publishers, only Microsoft ignored the upstart EGN and exhibited solely at ECTS--although there was a massive Xbox presence at Game Stars Live.

The summer saw both camps exchanging broadsides in the British games press, with CMP accusing ELSPA of "piracy" while ELSPA said it had invited CMP to run ECTS and GDCE alongside EGN. Public sniping aside, British game-industry watchers wondered what the fallout from ECTS and EGN's rivalry would be. Could two competing events be successfully held at the same time on opposite sides of London? Would one expo trump the other? Or would they cancel each other out, forcing the industry to choose another event as Europe's primary game expo? To answer these questions, GameSpot visited both events to see for ourselves.

ECTS and GDCE
A London landmark, Earls Court has been the scene of countless conventions and concerts. However, it was also built in 1937, and its distinctly World War II-era feel contrasted with the high-tech goings-on within.

This week, however, the starkest contrast was between the vastness of the venue's interior and the small scale of the event itself. Although ECTS claims 10,000 attendees had registered on its official Web site, fewer than a few hundred wandered the hall at any given time. Most strolled about in pairs or quartets, unenthusiastically looking at the wares on display. Many were smoking. At least half were drinking, perhaps hoping that by seeing double they might increase attendance.

Beer bottles could be spotted in most of the booths as well--and with good reason, since most booths were empty save for a pair of attendants. This year, the majority of ECTS exhibitors would not look out of place in Kentia Hall, the infamous basement no-man's-land at E3. Some of the more popular booths featured peripherals, such as a floormat control for soccer games or a motion sensor that translated players' awkward-looking kicks into fighting moves. There were also a number of GCDE attendees checking out middleware, such as Lifemode's LifeStudio: Head SDK, and hardware from ATI and AMD.

Some of the bigger crowds--typically 15 to 20 people--could be found watching the Counter-Strike: Source matches going on at the World Cyber Games, one of the biggest displays. The most imposing booth award went to Microsoft's black-draped affair, which touted both the Xbox and its unified development platform, XNA. (Interestingly, ECTS counted Microsoft and Xbox as separate exhibitors, despite the shared space.) But the most popular presence was Nintendo, in no small part because it was sponsoring the ECTS bar. It was also the site of the only playable, non-peripheral-equipped consoles on the floor--a cluster of a dozen GameCubes--save for a lone Xbox at the rear of the event. (A fair number of PC game stations were on hand.)

The most deserted place at ECTS seemed to be the press lounge. Reporters could ignore the "20-minute limit" signs in front of Internet terminals (equipped with German-alphabet keyboards) without fear of being tapped on the shoulder by an impatient colleague.

Upstairs, at GDCE, it was a different story. Dozens of developers waited in a stuffy foyer to hear Peter Molyneux, Seamus Blackley, Ian Livingstone, and others speak. There were several interesting presentations, including one on big-budget and film tie-in productions, single platform versus multiplatform development, and whether games could become the cinema of the 21st century. While not at the standing-room-only levels of GDC in San Jose, attendance was good, with most conference rooms at least 60 percent full.

However, the moderate success of GDCE could not obscure the fact that ECTS has become a shadow of its former self. Unlike the bustling affair pictured on its Web site, the expo had a dreary and, at times, desperate air. Exhibitors exchanged nervous glances as attendees rolled their eyes, with the words "this is it?" being a common--politely whispered--refrain.

EGN, EDF, and Game Stars Live
On the other side of town, those traveling to EGN were rolling their eyes for a different reason. Most often it was because they had to spend a half hour trapped inside a Docklands light-rail car with hordes of chattering teenagers on their way to Game Stars Live. Heavily promoted across London, the event proved to be a major draw among the youth, with thousands filing into the ultramodern--and extra-large--ExCeL center.

Attendees to EGN or EDF had free access to Game Stars Live. And, to anyone who had been to E3 in Los Angeles, it was a familiar sight. Brimming with humanity and overflowing with noise, the landscape inside was dotted by garish landmarks. Stormtroopers and Spider-Men overlooked banks of consoles featuring a host of top-tier games. The Sims 2, Splinter Cell Chaos Theory, The Lord of the Rings, The Third Age, and Prince of Persia: Warrior Within were all playable. So was Halo 2--if you didn't mind an hour-and-a-half wait.

Besides Game Stars Live's own program of events, several publishers took more innovative steps to attract visitors. The Tony Hawk's Underground 2 display featured a hip-hop DJ and graffiti painting, while the EA Sports area had miniature soccer fields set up. There were also less subtle approaches, like the omnipresent booth babes and the twin Master Chiefs.

Likely drawn by the chance to showcase their games at Game Stars Live, most of the same publishers were also present across the hall at EGN. There, though, it was all business. Flanked by smaller firms' open booths, major players like VU Games and EA showed their wares behind closed doors either on the main show floor or in a series of closed rooms upstairs. A good chunk of EGN's floor was taken up by the so-called "Hub Club," a restricted-access cafeteria accessible only by VIPs and preselected delegates.

Overall, the spirit of EGN was of exclusivity and commerce--if you weren't there on business, you had no business being there. Many would argue that's what the spirit of any proper game-industry show should be. But anyone who was interested in mingling with colleagues was relegated to the overcrowded "Net Bar." And if you wanted to casually peruse all the latest games, you were forced into the Thunderdome-like atmosphere of Game Stars Live, versus a less hectic show like GDC's.

Speaking of developers, the events at ExCeL were not without their own creative luminaries this week. Besides EGN's business-centric seminar program, the European Developers Forum featured speakers such as BioWare's Ray Muzyka and Ion Storm's Warren Spector, as well as panels featuring Firaxis' Jeff Briggs, EA's Alan Yu, and Climax's Karl Jeffrey, who was also at GDCE. However, attendance at the event appeared to be a fraction of GDCE's, although the smaller numbers made it much more likely that you would rub elbows with a famous developer.

Although its development arm was arguably its weakest, the EDF/EGN/Game Stars Live triumvirate made an impressive debut. By completely separating the show floor's frenzy from the business and seminar sides, the three events felt like E3's schizophrenic younger brother. However, one thing is undeniable: This year, EGN and its partners came out on top of the UK game-trade-show war. And unless ECTS does something drastically different, there may not be a rematch in 2005.

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