E3: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

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Last week the E3 Media and Business Summit took place, but you probably wouldn’t have known it unless you’re in the video game business, or make it a point to check video game news sites regularly. This is in stark contrast to past years—well, 2006 on back.

In fact, there was precious little news from this year’s event. Most of what was shown off had already been announced, and there weren’t any earth-shattering announcements. No major game announcements. No inkling of major new hardware. Nothing of real significance or import.

2006 was the final year of the “old” E3, or Electronic Entertainment Expo. It was a grand event put together by the Entertainment Software Association, or ESA, that assembled as many major video game publishers, developers and hardware makers as could fit under the massive eaves of the Los Angeles Convention Center. Every nook and cranny of that center was filled, and tens of thousands of people—many who had nothing to do with the industry, professionally—flooded hotels throughout L.A. to attend the event. Shuttle buses carted game executives, buyers, retailers, and game enthusiasts by the coachload from Century City, downtown hotels and elsewhere.

Without question, E3 had grown to gargantuan proportions over the past decade, and became one of the best known game industry trade shows. It also became a focal point for the industry—media coverage had become pervasive. And in order to win the hearts and minds of fickle buyers for retail chains, attention-deficit game journalists and others, the big names in the business poured ludicrous amounts of money into the event. They built multi-level booths that occupied huge chunks of the massive halls at the convention center, hosted veritable bacchanalian orgies of parties after hours, and threw their names, logos and identities on anything that would stick, from the sides of downtown buildings to the buses that carried people to their hotels to the very keycards that opened those hotel room doors.

It was that upward-spiraling budget that ultimately spelled E3’s doom. The big companies got sick of spending tens of million dollars on one event every year, only to try to outdo each other and themselves; the smaller companies complained that it wasn’t worth their time to participate because the big companies were spending so much more money to get their name out.

In 2007, the event bifurcated. The “business” end of the show became the E3 Media and Business Summit, an invitation-only event intended to give select top-tier press, analysts and retail buyers an opportunity to see the newest crop of game technology. That’s followed in October by E for All Expo , an event more squarely focused on the consumer. (And one that's sponsored by IDG World Expo, which also organizes the Macworld Conference & Expo every January.)

Last year The E3 Media and Business Summit was held in an aircraft hanger in Santa Monica. This year it returned to the L.A. Convention Center. In either venue, the event came up short, both in terms of news and announcements and attendance, and the shortcomings weren’t missed or overlooked by gaming executives, who have complained vociferously since last week. They miss the spectacle of the old show. They miss the spotlight the media world shined on E3. They miss the grandeur, the attention the world paid. In short, they miss some of the same things that, two years ago, they were complaining about.

E for All Expo was a more modest event, taking up one hall in the L.A. Convention Center and drawing about 14,000 people during its three-day run last October. Nintendo was the only big-name console vendor who came; both Sony and Microsoft sat it out. I went, and some of the people who I met during the show were E3 veterans who were very disappointed in both the exhibitor turnout and the attendee turnout.

The ESA has had a tough year. The organization, which represents the video game industry on Capitol Hill and has stepped in with legal representation when states attempt to pass laws that restrict the sale of video games, has lost several high-profile members. Those companies include Activision, which recently merged with Vivendi, another company that’s departed from the ESA’s rolls, along with Id Software, makers of Doom and Quake. LucasArts, maker of popular Star Wars-themed video games, has also left.

Some attribute the defections to a change in leadership at the ESA. Doug Lowenstein, the organization’s founder and former president, stepped down in 2007 to join an equity group. During his tenure Lowenstein saw E3 grow to enormous dimensions, and he was a vocal proponent of the industry and of video games’ artistic legitimacy as a storytelling medium. He also lobbied tirelessly against legislative efforts to restrict the business. Lowenstein was replaced by Michael Gallagher, a refugee from the telecom industry who maintains a much lower profile than Lowenstein ever did.

Some may question the wisdom of having a big trade show, having watched giant efforts like Comdex crumble over the years. But as the ESA, E3 Media and Business Summit, and E for All all struggle to find a place within the video game industry, other international events continue to thrive. The Tokyo Game Show in Japan draws tens of thousands of attendees each year; the Leipzig Game Convention, which happens in Germany, has drawn well in excess of 180,000 visitors for the past two years. Even PAX, an event put on each year in Seattle by the makers of a game-oriented web comic called Penny Arcade, has continued to grow.

So there’s certainly a place for a major gaming event in North America, if the multi-billion dollar video game industry can finally make up its mind about what it wants, and how it wants to show off to the public. One thing is for sure—the way it’s doing it just isn’t working for anyone, not the industry, not the public, not the press.

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