Stick a fork in Expo's Games Pavilion

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I’ve pretty much had it with the Games Pavilion at Macworld Expo. It’s a half-hearted, lame attempt at best to draw the interest of Mac gamers, and frankly, I wish IDG World Expo would just kill the damn thing if this is the best it can do.

That’s not to say I blame IDG World Expo entirely for the train wreck the Games Pavilion has become, as much as I suspect Apple would like me to. Because it’s Apple’s fault more than any other singular exhibitor that the area has gone downhill.

I’m also disappointed to note that this is the second year in a row I’ve written about this problem. I know the parties involved took notice when I wrote about this in 2007—I talked with them and vendors at the show last year in the wake of that. I’m just bitterly disappointed that neither IDG World Expo nor Apple did a better job acting on what everyone I’ve spoken to recognizes as some significant flaws.

Games at Expo

The Games Pavilion at Macworld Expo has long been an attraction of sorts on the show floor. It gathers Mac game publishers and developers into their own special area where visitors can find them. Last year the Games Pavilion was relegated to the North Hall at Moscone Center, but because of an overlap with another trade show this year, the Games Pavilion and many other vendors ended up on the first floor of Moscone West, the same building where Steve Jobs gave his keynote address on Tuesday morning.

IDG World Expo and Apple used to work pretty closely together to create a decent games area. There’d be a central area with a theater, where exhibitors could show off their latest releases, as well as a couple of dozen kiosks and LAN-play machines (managed by Apple) to let gamers get their hands on games directly and to compete with each other in multiplayer bouts.

Orbiting the peripheral of the games areas would be booths manned by agents of MacSoft, Aspyr, Feral, MacPlay and other assorted companies, using their presence at the show to show off their goods and to funnel people into the theater and online play area. It was a fun, high-traffic spot, and Apple and IDG had tweaked it a few times over the years to give people a reason to come over. Back in the days of the New York expos, it was enough of a draw to generate a full-blown tournament with prizes given away to top finishers.

Sometime in the last few years, however, that all changed.

Apple’s participation in the Games Pavilion greatly diminished over the past few years. It’s totally non-existent now. I asked one of Apple’s developer relations people about the Games Pavilion this year, and he told me unequivocally that Apple had had nothing to do it—that it had been coordinated solely by IDG World Expo.

And believe me, it shows.

Silk purse made of the grade A pigskin

In place of any sort of tournament area or theater was a simple kiosk showcasing most of the same games you could already find in vendor’s booths. There’s no show, no theater, no banks of Mac Pros for people to actually play against each other in, nothing.

To IDG World Expo’s credit, it attracted a couple of new vendors to this year’s Games Pavilion—Electronic Arts (EA) and CCP Games, makers of the EVE Online space-based multiplayer game; both set up decently-sized booths.

Ambrosia Software bowed out of 2007’s Macworld Expo as an exhibitor after Apple and IDG World Expo spent too long arm-wrestling about how the games area would be set up. Ambrosia returned this year, with its booth near the games area, at least; and it did use a corner of its booth to show off its new game title, Aquaria.

Aspyr traded its usual trade show presence for a modest 200-square-foot booth where it showed off nothing but Guitar Hero III, and stacked boxes that contained the game; it sold copies to show-goers for $5 less than its full retail price. Feral was similarly set up to sell product more than show it off. It had a varied selection of games to choose from.

MacSoft was, again, a no-show, opting instead for a civilian presence. It pulled up stakes from actually exhibiting at a Macworld Expo several years ago, and seem content not to come back. I suspect Aspyr is on the same track—if it returns as an exhibitor to Macworld Expo in 2009, I’ll be really surprised.

Also, I should note that traffic in the Games Pavilion was relatively steady, situated, as it was, near two entrances to the West Hall exhibit area. That said, traffic was never as heavy as it was over in the South Hall, where vendors were all packed, especially the closer they got in proximity to Apple’s huge booth.

Freeverse Software, which has expanded its repertoire from just games to lots of great utility software, moved over to the South Hall to be closer to Apple’s spill-over traffic. I think it made the right move. Similarly, South Hall attendees found Blizzard showing off World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade at a small kiosk located behind Apple’s booth, near a kiosk showing off some of Danlab Games’ excellent shareware titles.

Withering on the vine

So IDG World Expo is trying where it can, but ultimately, what hurts the Games Pavilion is Apple’s utter indifference to it. It’s a microcosm of the Mac game business in general, where publishers have seen ambivalence from Apple for years unless they’re really big players in the PC and console game market. And I’m sure that has a lot to do with why EA exhibited at Macworld Expo this year.

But in the process Apple seems content to let die on the vine the existing game market—comprising, as it does, smaller publishers who have focused on licensing and developing proven properties for release on the Mac.

Maybe that’s the best thing for the Mac game market. Maybe we’ll have to be content with the occasional offering from a company like EA, Blizzard or CCP Games—companies that can make a business case for being on the Mac. But the slipshod way Apple treats its past business partners should be a good cautionary tale for any company, even one with the deep pockets of EA.

Whether the diminishing Games Pavilion is caused by Apple’s indifference or is affected by Apple’s indifference, the result is pretty much the same from where I’m sitting: There’s less of it, less reason for exhibitors to be involved and less of a gaming presence on the Macworld Expo show floor than there ought to be.

And unless IDG World Expo is able to pull a rabbit out of its hat for next year, I believe Freeverse’s exodus from the Games Pavilion is a move that should be followed by other game vendors—if they find that exhibiting at Macworld Expo is necessary for them at all.

Less terrible is still terrible

At one point during the show I was approached by someone associated with IDG World Expo. He grabbed my shoulder as he walked by and asked, “So what do you think of the Games Pavilion this year?”

I glared at him balefully.

“Just tell them it sucks less this year,” he said, remembering my editorial from last January.

Maybe he’s right. But even if it may have been less terrible, it was still terrible—and it was terrible for the same reasons it was terrible in 2007.And that tells me that someone, somewhere, ain’t getting the message.

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