The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) announced in July 2006 that the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) had grown too big. What began as a smallish trade show in 1995 soon morphed into a bona fide media circus, and the real purpose of the show was lost. The 70,000 gamers crowding the Los Angeles Convention Center drowned out any substantial deal making on the show floor. In order to stand out in the din, even major studios had to shell out exorbitant amounts of cash to erect garish displays to ensure the adulation of media and fans. After 11 years, under pressure from studio heads, the general displeasure forced the ESA to pull the plug.
E3’s collapse has left a hole in the gaming world. No longer is there an annual one-stop shop for every game developer’s promotion and networking needs. Even though the model was broken, the institution of E3 was still useful. Conventions are a way to physically connect the public to games that are currently in development. Such a connection can’t be provided through just reading a magazine or a blog. Under the hood, they also serve as a place for game designers to meet and socialize with each other. The event also enabled business partners from different parts of the world to meet face-to-face and discuss business plans, distribution deals and technology trends. Now, a host of other conventions must serve in its stead.
There are a plethora of options for the discerning gaming community. First off, the ESA fought through its doomsday announcement by breaking up E3 into two separate events. The E3 Media and Business Summit is a strict, invitation-only event for industry folk. E for All, the consumer-facing event, is Joe Gamer playing the games of tomorrow today.
The first E3 Media and Business Summit was held in Santa Monica, California on July 11-13, 2007. Many sources referred to the event as E3 2007, the successor to the cancelled event, but that led to inevitable comparisons. Instead of 60-70,000 GameStop employees and adolescent fanboys, the Summit drew 5,000 dedicated game developers, PR staffers and media members. Not many attendees complained that they only had a five-minute wait to play Rock Band rather than the five-hour one they could’ve expected at previous E3s. Also gone were excessive displays and ear-piercing demonstrations on the show floor. The ESA enforced rigid rules regarding signage, video screen size and booth layout at the show floor at Barker Hangar. Each game was judged on its own merit, not the thousands of dollars thrown at its presentation.
Not that the summit was incredibly efficient. The event was spread over a fairly wide area in Los Angeles, from the hotels near the Santa Monica Pier, which held developer specific events, to the official third-party press conferences at the Fairmont Miramar, to the relatively remote converted airplane hangar, which held the general show floor. The personnel-shuffling was especially annoying at the Miramar Starlight Room, where subsequent press events required a room reset. The press were ordered to pack up all their bags and video equipment, leave the room, then wait to reenter the same space and set up all over again.
If the ESA were to clean up the logistics, the E3 Media and Business Summit could become an important annual event. But as Brad Shoemaker from GameSpot says, “the biggest question isn’t how E3 should work, it’s whether we need E3 at all.” The trend now is for developers to host their own events. Focus is the key. Keeping the media’s attention is a lot easier when you’re the only show in town. Big hitters like Microsoft and Nintendo are already onboard, holding events like X06 and Nintendo’s Fall Conference. But the award for flagship third-party developer-specific conference has to go to Blizzcon.
Held twice by Blizzard Entertainment so far, once in October 2005 and again in August 2007, Blizzcon has been a huge cog in the World of Warcraft machine. The company no longer saves its big announcements for E3, having formally broken the news of both WoW‘s expansions on its own terms and on its own turf. Both Blizzcons have been set at the Anaheim Convention Center just a few minutes from Blizzard Headquarters in Irvine, California. Attendance was strong in 2005; over 7,000 fans crammed into the convention space, among the blood elves, forum trolls and ghosts (the StarCraft variety).
In May 2007, Blizzard announced the long-awaited StarCraft II at their own Worldwide Invitational in Seoul, South Korea. In August at Blizzcon, they followed up that announcement with more details on SC2 and simultaneously announced a new World of Warcraft expansion, Wrath of the Lich King.
For those of you keeping score at home, the last three major game announcements from Blizzard have come at events directly controlled by the company.
Blizzard has also broken the annual convention model. They hold a convention only when they need to, not when everyone expects them to.
Blizzcon is not just about announcing new games; the whole convention is a study in fandom. For instance, the incredibly accurate and elaborate entries in the costume competition show the kind of devotion once limited to Star Wars. The heavily attended game panels are a testament to how much each fan enjoys disseminating the intricate details of game design. Chris Metzen, lore-guru and lead writer for Blizzard games, enjoys a near rock star status as he discusses the characters and storylines which weave through both War– and Starcraft. Throughout the event, the fan is king. Because underlying the press and business machine, there is the undeniable sense that Blizz employees are genuine fans and players of their own games.
Blizzcon’s success will usher in similar events for other well-known franchises. Imagine a CivCon run by Firaxis or a SimCon where EA could more easily cash in on Will Wright’s genius. With E3 gone, expect to see more appearing in the future.
There is one event, however, that rebels against specificity in the next wave of gaming conferences. The Penny Arcade Expo is a celebration of general gaming culture. A convention run by two web comic artists seems novel, even laughable, but PAX has been steadily growing since its inception in 2004. Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik began PAX simply because nothing like it existed. Gamers of all ilk, be they hand-held connoisseurs or PC devotees or wargamers, are honored at the Penny Arcade Expo.
PAX 2007, held this August at the Washington Convention and Trade Center, was the largest concentration of gamers ever recorded in the Pacific Northwest. The event stroked every nerd fetish imaginable. Huge exhibits from top developers like Ubisoft, NCsoft and Wizards of the Coast had attendants comparing the show floor to the old E3’s. This prompted Krahulik to respond in a pre-event blog post: “PAX is not the new E3. E3 failed. If someone else wants to be the new E3 they are welcome to it. They can even set up shop in the carcass of the giant and claim his power, but E3 is dead and it died for a reason.” The implication was clear. Holkins and Krahulik didn’t want to build on the ashes of a defunct institution.
Gamer advocate and everyone’s favorite Ensign, Wil Wheaton, gave a stirring keynote speech which electrified the crowd with gamer pride. The naysayers of parents, principals and senators can’t purport that gaming culture is full of lazy, anti-social teenagers with a frenetic event like PAX going on. PA colleague, Kiko, took hundreds of photos over the course of PAX weekend. Examining them, one is struck by the magnitude of this hobby and the strength of the collective gamer. At PAX, games are good.
Mike Krahulik told a little story after PAX about underground E for All marketers trying to infiltrate the convention center with TVs in their shirts. If marketing your event at a “rival” convention doesn’t imply a sort of desperation, I’m not sure what does. The ESA must have been worried that their catch-all gaming public event, E for All, wouldn’t be as heavily attended as PAX. And they were right.
E for All was held on October 18-21 at the LA Convention Center, the previous home of E3, and drew about 18,000 attendees. Despite heavy-handed press from the organizers claiming overwhelming success, many sources called E for All what it was, a poor imitation of PAX. Says Wired‘s Chris Kohler, “Penny Arcade Expo was everything E For All dreams of being: a well-attended show packed wall-to-wall with crazy game fans.” Kohler goes on to say that potential is still there, that E for All is still brand new and may grow into a decent event. But if the ESA plans to more directly compete with PAX, as they have by booking the same weekend in 2008, E for All may end up being for nobody of consequence.
The full implication of E3’s collapse won’t be realized for several years. The mega show had only been around for 11 years, games existed before it did and continue to exist after its demise. What will take E3’s place? Specific events targeted at specific demographics seem the most likely as more developers mimic Blizzcon. A big general gaming convention can still be a reality, but it needs a certain amount of street cred to draw the kind of numbers E3 did in its heyday.
As for the business community, the E3 Media and Business Summit is a passable replacement and will only get better over time. Other events, like the Game Developers Conference as well as the Tokyo Game Show and the Leipzig Games Conference, fulfill the respective roles of educational seminars on game design and international market research. With so many disparate conventions accomplishing so many different goals, it’s a wonder that one huge event encompassing every subject regarding videogames was ever possible. E3 is dead, long live the rest.
Greg Tito is a playwright and standup comic residing in Brooklyn, NY. He is currently splitting time between World of Warcraft, a new D&D 3rd edition campaign and finishing one of his many uncompleted writing projects. He also blogs semi-regularly at http://onlyzuul.blogspot.com/.