Game Industry Katamari

I feel like crap. The small cough and sneeze I was nursing heading into E3 – thanks to my constantly goobered 3-year-old son – has matured into a full-on hacking cough and apparent sinus infection. On my flight out from Los Angeles, it became clear that I wasn’t the only one to have taken a beating.

In the line to use the bathroom, the gentleman ahead of me noticed my vintage GDC:04 T-shirt and asked if I had had a good E3. I responded with a “Yes, very busy” type answer. He asked if it was my first one and what I had been doing there. With a certain pride I told him how I’ve survived a grand total of 10 E3s. However, I couldn’t quite express what I was doing there – or why I had gone …

He, of course, went to scope out the competition. Ironically enough, in this case, the “competition” was the U.S. military. This particular fellow represented the Canadian Armed Forces and was curious to see what the U.S. military’s latest initiatives were in terms of using games and game tech for training and recruitment. I handed him my business card and told him I knew some folks involved in the “serious games” space.

Three quick lessons: 1. E3 starts the moment you leave your home and ends only when you walk back through the door; 2. Always ensure you have enough business cards for the trip home; and, 3. You can never guess who’s going to be attending E3.

See Any Good Games?
The previous night, despite my festering cold, I managed to enjoy a pleasant sushi dinner with an academic researcher from a prominent business school. It was partly a chance to catch up with a good friend, but we also discussed plans to initiate a new program to study the economics and demographics of the game development industry.

Between the sashimi and an extra order of unagi, I tried to talk about what cool games we saw during E3. I noted that EA’s Army of Two and Ubi’s Assassin’s Creed looked particularly promising. Sadly, she didn’t really get a chance to see any games, despite being at the show for the whole week.

This was the more common response during most of my meetings and social encounters during the week. As it turns out, a lot of folks at E3 don’t actually go there for the games.

Never mind the general chaos or the fact that the line at the Nintendo booth was over four hours long at times. To many attendees the games are an afterthought, and it’s too busy a show to waste time standing around. I walked up to the line, sighed, took a picture and just kept walking. No Wii for me.

Most game developers in attendance are there to work. That is, to run the demo of their game at their publisher’s booth, or do press interviews, or have meetings with potential publishers and business partners for their game-to-be, and so on. It’s rare for development staff to be at the show just to be at the show, despite the fact that “competitive analysis” is a totally defensible excuse to be there!

Parasite and Prey
Admittedly, I was not a fan of E3 in the early years (doubly so when it was in Atlanta). The hectic nature of things, the noise and fact that I was always too busy to wait in line to see the coolest stuff added to my frustrations.

Further, I always felt that the extravagance that went into most booths and related trappings from publishers was a waste. Current estimates place the total E3 tab in the $100 million range. All that money could have been going into funding new, innovative game projects.

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Over the years, however, the true value of E3 became clear: E3 serves as a big “katamari” for the game industry, attracting all kinds of people and stuff that would not otherwise have a chance to connect.

With each successive year, this katamari-like action becomes more evident, as I participate less and less in the primary role of the expo and see more of the activities happening on the periphery.

Two of 60
While the conference program is an official part of the E3 schedule, a scant 3% of attendees bother to register for it. The topics are generally business-oriented and don’t offer the same rigor as the Game Developers Conference’s more robust program. Still, the lineup of speakers is often top notch, and the freeform panel format allows for some heated debate and sparks of insight.

(Hint, hint, nudge, nudge to the 97% who missed out: Gamasutra has done a particularly good job this year of covering the conference content.)

Interestingly, the demographics of the conference attendees are quite diverse. There are very few – via my anecdotal estimates – actual mainstream industry folks in attendance (as noted above, they are all working their booth). Instead, you get a mishmash of folks trying to learn more about the game business – from academics to amateurs, from Wall Street bankers to Madison Avenue marketers, all the way to the mayor of Los Angeles.

It is no surprise that googling “videogame conference” or “videogame expo” brings up E3. (Sadly, doing the same in Google Images now brings up a picture of Paris Hilton promoting her Jewel Jam mobile phone game. Ugh.) So, can it be assumed that anyone sitting at their computer and thinking, “You know, I really need to go to some game event to learn more about this business” will first come across E3?

Others have leveraged the magnetism of E3 to host related events and conferences. For example, this year the Serious Game Initiative hosted a games-for-health conference up the street at the USC campus on Tuesday. Along the same lines, Henry Jenkins and his MIT crew hosted the Education Arcade parallel to the E3 conference program in past years.

The Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the mother organization of E3 itself, often embeds its own special activities. Doug Lowenstein’s annual “state of the industry” speech runs Wednesday morning, and does well to fill an auditorium that fits 500 people (Doug’s speech was full to the point of overcrowding this year. – Ed.). The ESA’s intellectual property rights division held a special panel to discuss issues surrounding the global economics of game sales and implications with the World Trade Organization. And the ESA’s government relations group holds an annual lunch for various organizations that support game anti-censorship efforts (e.g., IGDA, IEAM, AIAS, ESRB, VSDA, MPAA, RIAA). Alphabet soup is not on the menu.

There was a Global Game Summit preview panel on Thursday evening. Wired magazine hosted a special “screening” of Spore at LA Center Studios (special guest Robin Williams was quite a hoot). The Game Audio Network Guild hosted a session and mixer on the Friday evening for game music and audio folks.

No doubt, there was a ton of other conference and presentation oriented action going on. It is hard to keep track of it all …

Government Intervention
E3 is crawling with government officials from all over the world.

During the week, I met with government officials and representatives from various U.S. states, Canada, the U.K., France, Sweden, Denmark, Korea, China, Portugal, Australia, Singapore – among other quick in-the-hallway encounters that I’m probably forgetting.

The majority of these folks are from the IT or economic development arms of government. Others might be from the culture or publishing/arts side of things, but those individuals are more rare. Many countries have government game industry promotion agencies with a mandate to promote and grow their local game sector (the Korea Game Development and Promotion Institute wields an approx U.S.$16 million annual budget to do just that).

This year, many of the government-subsidized pavilions have graduated from out-of-the-way Kentia Hall into the South and West Halls. A quick scan of the exhibitor page lists pavilions for Canada, the U.K., Nordic countries, Korea, Australia, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Scotland, Singapore and Taiwan. And I suppose we can count the U.S. Army booth in the West Hall, as well.

These pavilions allow for many – often smaller – companies to distribute the expense of mounting a viable presence at the show. Many countries also provide some level of travel expense assistance in addition to the subsidized booth space. Nice.

In addition to their efforts to get local companies into E3, many governments also host receptions or events in parallel to the expo itself. On Tuesday, the U.K. Consulate General welcomed a few hundred guests to his posh estate on the outskirts of LA. Roughly at the same time, Quebec was welcoming guests to the hip Standard hotel for a cocktail. Wednesday evening, France held a nice open-air reception. The Canadian government hosted a breakfast networking and panel session early Thursday morning just up the street from the convention center. Korea held a lavish dinner party on Thursday night for 300 guests at the same time Singapore was doing the equivalent across the street.

And those were just the ones I had on my schedule. There were other similar receptions and events driven by the various governmental bodies throughout the week; certainly a nice change of pace over the traditional negative attention games get by government.

Social Circuits
I’m not sure if the E3 party scene should be considered as “other stuff” going on, as it is so integral to the E3 experience. A lot of value is derived from networking at these events.

Not counting the government receptions mentioned previously, I was aware of the following parties/hosts:

International Game Journalists Association (Monday)
Union Entertainment (Monday)
Nintendo (Tuesday)
Pandemic & BioWare (Tuesday)
International Game Developers Association (Tuesday)
Intel (Wednesday)
Wedbush Morgan (Wednesday)
Minna Mingle/Casual Games Association (Wednesday)
Access E3 Party at the House of Blues (Wednesday)
Vivendi (Wednesday)
IGN (Wednesday)
The Escapist (Thursday)
Sony (Thursday)
Ubisoft (Thursday)
House of Moves (Thursday)

No doubt, there were others. It is just impossible to keep up. The good news is, if you plan your schedule right, you can go the whole week without paying for dinner or a single drink. The bad news is you’ll take a physical pounding standing around and talking all night.

Art Appreciation
E3 attracts many noble efforts related to games, often angling on the artistic or social impact side of things.

The Into the Pixel exhibit – a personal favorite – shows off some sweet videogame art. Organized by the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, Into the Pixel is juried and curated by experts from world-renowned art museums, cutting edge galleries and game industry veterans. Admittedly, the “In the Garden of Eva” piece from [i<Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence</i] held my attention longer than most games on the show floor …

In addition to having a gallery of all the works lined up between the West and South Halls, there is a nice cocktail reception (of course!) to initially unveil the art and introduce the artists, jurors and organizers that were involved. Sadly, the game press barely picks up on it, and I have yet to see much in the way of coverage of the exhibit.

While the Into the Pixel exhibit is an official part of E3, there are many smaller off-the-record efforts going on. For example, there are usually a handful of documentary filmmakers at the show covering one aspect or another of the game business. This year, I did an on-camera interview for one doing a film on the controversy over booth babes and sex in games. Last year, another filmmaker was doing a piece on industry working conditions.

Other groups are out garnering support for their own local conference or games festival. Still others are making plans to build games for charity. The list goes on.

Other Politics
Taking an even broader view, we start seeing some of the weirder activities occurring on the periphery.

One example is the booth babe protesters. No, not people protesting the booth babes, but protesters who were booth babes. Right, you got that. There were booth babes outside of E3 protesting the new, stricter babe and clothing policies. In the end, it turned out to be a marketing stunt, but it did seem legit when I first heard about it. Really.

More seriously, there were scammers distributing the “Electronic Entertainment Show Daily,” a rip-off of the usual “Electronic Entertainment Expo Show Daily.” They were hitting up exhibitors with special discounted advertising rates due to a last minute cancellation. Not sure if they phished any one in, but that’s just not cool.

Perhaps most amusing are some of the folks who get refused entrance due to lack of industry credentials. At times, locals come and hover around the convention center. Justine, the PsychicGirl, should have known her registration was going to be rejected due to stricter admittance policies

1000m View
As our big E3 katamari continues rolling, more and more stuff keeps sticking to it. It didn’t take long for the core of the show to be overtaken – perhaps not in appearance, but more so in importance – by all the other stuff stuck to it.

One has to wonder if E3 went away (as some jaded industry vets usually do), what would happen to all that other stuff. It would be like an ecosystem’s food source disappearing.

Or, perhaps it’s just me and the odd route I push my way through in LA. Regardless, I don’t think I’ll ever have the luxury of waiting in line to get into the Nintendo booth. No worries. In my opinion, the best place to get the scoop on all the games is via the web anyway. It’s all the other stuff one has to be there for!

Jason Della Rocca is the executive director of the International Game Developers Association. (Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the IGDA.) Jason blogs at Reality Panic and wishes he could just camp out in front of the vintage arcade machines in Kentia Hall every E3.

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