E3's downsizing is a good thing

By now you’ve probably read that the Entertainment Software Association is “evolving” the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3Expo) into a more “intimate” event. That means that E3Expo’s days as a massive, sprawling trade show are done—beginning in 2007, the event will be invitation-only and will feature a greater focus on specific segments of the industry. I’m all in favor of this, because as much of a spectacle as E3Expo has become, it’s distracting and time-wasting.

I’ve gone to almost every E3 since 1998, the last it was held in Atlanta, Ga. (Organizers moved it from Los Angeles to Atlanta for a couple of years, then switched back.) So I’m an E3 veteran, and I know what to expect from the show.

For one thing, people who look at it from the outside see a lot of glamour and entertainment. They see the videos of tightly-clad “booth babes,” massive monitors showing the latest video games, and row after row of the latest computer and video game hardware showing off titles you can’t find anywhere else.

The sheer volume of marketing that goes on at an event like E3Expo is staggering to contemplate. Vendors spend weeks ahead of time setting up multi-level booths that can occupy thousands of square feet in the main halls. For several years Sony has used the area outside Dodger Stadium to host extravagant invitation-only parties—multi-million dollar affairs featuring top Sony entertainers, DJs, and endless buffets and open bars. The scale of the entire event is mind-boggling.

And I’ll readily admit: that part is fun. So is collecting booth swag, getting free munchies or beverages from vendors, and some of the other perks. But there is a lot that has made E3Expo a downright unpleasant experience in years past, too, especially for someone who’s trying to get work done.

See, in recent years, gaming has become so intermingled with our cultural zeitgeist that many people who aren’t even really in the business are willing to pony up the hefty price tag for admission to step out onto the show floor and witness the massive booths of Electronic Arts, Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, and others just to see new games. More than 60,000 people, in fact—enough to create big lines and big crowds in just about every corner of the massive Los Angeles Convention Center.

On top of that, E3Expo is a pretty short show—only three days long, shorter even than Macworld Expo, with many, many more vendors spread over a much larger space. That means that journalists like me have had to meticulously plan almost every minute of our days to make sure we’re in the right place at the right time to talk with people we wanted to. It didn’t allow for very much, if any, spontaneity, which meant that I often missed experiencing things at the show that I only read or saw much later.

The signal-to-noise ratio at an event like E3Expo can be almost unbearable. So many companies are clamoring for any attention they can muster, and digging through press releases and statements about forthcoming products—trying to get a bead on the “next big thing”—can be a bit like taking a drink from a firehose.

And even though there’s usually a very limited amount of Mac-specific news at E3Expo, I was almost always overwhelmed with meetings and get-togethers with Mac companies, or companies that were trying to gauge Mac gamers’ interests. That part, frankly, I’ll miss very much, and I don’t think that E3Expo’s 2007 focus is going to allow for as much of that as in years past.

I’ve said it a number of times: I could have easily cloned myself three or four times and still not managed to see everything or done everything I wanted to at E3Expo. So from my own, admittedly selfish perspective, I welcome the changes announced by the ESA.

While it’s not the optimal solution for all the vendors that have exhibited at E3’s in years past, this new turn of events will resolve a lot of problems a lot of us have voiced in years past, and should be a return to some level of sanity, even if the fun is diminished a bit. But the important thing to remember is that fun as it is, gaming is a business, and while E3Expo is “where business gets fun,” according to the ESA, it’s also where business gets done.

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