Last year's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) was the culmination of years of an arms race between the console makers and third-party software publishers. Every year bigger booths, louder music and babe-ier babes cluttered the show floor. Faced with a future of multimillion-dollar booths and an inability to actually conduct business at what was supposed to be a business show, Sony, EA and Microsoft just called it quits. Rather than continue a show without their big spenders, the ESA canceled E3 2007 late last year.
So why, you may be asking yourself, are there not one but two E3 events slated for 2007? July will see the E3 Media Expo heading to Santa Clara, CA, and the E For All Expo will be visiting the familiar LA Convention Center in October. The idea is, the ESA took the two facets that made E3 what it was, a media/business frenzy and a media/gamer-uber-alles frenzy, and split it into two events. The business and media elements will be taken care of in July, and the over-the-top booths and fanboys can have their moment in the sun in October. In practice, I question whether either of these events is going to really serve anyone.
E For All is at least attempting to fill a somewhat underserved niche. Large gaming events open to the public are in short supply here in the U.S. While the events in Leipzig and Tokyo keep E.U. and Japanese gamers in the know, sneaking onto the E3 show floor has always been a requirement for the dedicated American gamer. What's confusing for me, though, is why they needed to split the show up to fulfill this desire. Why didn't the ESA simply extend E3 into a longer event, with weekdays limited to press and business, and weekend days open to the public? The Tokyo Games Show has adopted just such a policy, and commentators have widely praised it as a wise idea. Cracking down on obvious gamers in business clothing would have ensured that work could still be done and fun could still be had, all without tearing apart the general public's one annual videogaming holiday.
Additionally, E For All's timing is not very auspicious. If gaming media will be getting a look at games in progress in July, by the time E For All rolls around most of the event's target audience will have a fairly good idea of what to expect from the Christmas crop of games. By October, some of those Christmas games will already be out, with the rest due out just a few weeks later in November. Playing the blockbuster of the year two weeks early may be a draw to some, but is it worth flying across the country to do it? The appeal of E3 was that you were playing games many months or even years in advance of their release; such a short lead-up time may not be enough to draw the kind of crowds they're looking for.
In the case of the E3 Media Expo, I think the ESA is missing the point. As an invite-only event, the formerly egalitarian nature of E3's media coverage is now a thing of the past. While, certainly, any individual gamer was unlikely to need the coverage from the hundreds of media outlets that covered the event, you were certain to get info from a news source you personally enjoyed. Since game journalists are going to be individually invited by the ESA, some sites may see their field staff reduced, while others may not get to go at all. The E3 Media Expo is also very firmly a North American-targeted event, whereas E3 drew reporters from around the world.
The very nature of the Media Expo seems superfluous, as well. Individual events held in hotel ballrooms and suites are conducted year-round anyway, as publishers reach out to media groups with specifically targeted messages. There's no reason to think what they'll show in July will be any different than what they show throughout the year. The advantage of individual events, too, is there's no competition for the notoriously fickle attention of the gaming press. While there may be some prestige in breaking a big announcement at E3, you're a lot more likely to get uninterrupted press coverage if you drop the news sometime else in the calendar year.
The most unsatisfying element for both of these events is that neither seems to solve the issue that caused E3's breakup in the first place. Last week, at a GDC blogger event, Sony's Phil Harrison stated he felt that this year's split was just "turning back the clock." However extravagant the E3 Media Expo and E For All are this year, it's almost a certainty next year will see things taken up another notch. As Harrison put it, "How long before we're holding a press conference on a yacht?" If that's the case, it would have been a better idea to sit down and examine how to solve the arms race before jumping back into the fray. Maybe a year-long E3 holiday should have been imposed.
But maybe it's just as well they didn't, because the other big U..S gaming events have been all too happy to pick up the slack and don't look like they're willing to give back any ground. Last week's GDC was the biggest yet, with plenty of opportunities for business, deal-making and media attention. It was also a good deal more consumer-facing than in previous years, with a number of announcements tied into the normally industry-focused sessions. Some ostensibly developer-oriented talks had the feel of miniature press conferences, if you want to get right down to it. On the pure consumer side of things, this year's Penny Arcade Expo looks to be the biggest yet. Even Gen Con, the annual tabletop convention, is expanding its floor space to accommodate ambassadors from the videogame industry.
I feel all of these elements add up to the true end of E3. The ESA should move back to its role as industry advocacy group and let everyone else do what they do best. Publishers will hold their own media events throughout the year, ensuring there's always something new to talk about. Consumer events like PAX and Gen Con will keep the average gamer content. GDC, in its new and more flexible role, will play host to press, publisher and businessman alike. We may see GDC week as the industry's "holiday" from now on, and so much the better.
Who knows, perhaps the end of E3 will signal new things for the integration of gaming culture? Perhaps we'll no longer have a Katie Couric reporting live from the show floor, but if Newsweek wants to run a story on the development practices behind a Halo game, how is that any less exciting?