Thursday, May 21, 2009
The Road to E3: Interludes and Examinations
Just as both Microsoft and Nintendo have promised to bring a game-changing show to this year’s expo, E3 itself promises to be a game-changer.
The Electronic Entertainment Exposition began life in the distant year of 1995, the year that Sony launched the first PlayStation and rode its success to world domination. Until then, the various companies that constituted the still-fledgling videogame industry attended the then-semi-annual Consumer Electronics Show, a tradeshow devoted to electronic gadgets of all sorts and stripes. Despite – or perhaps because of – the videogame sector’s huge presence within CES, it was still treated as a second-class citizen, culminating in it quite literally being forced to ride at the back of the bus: when the Hilton Convention Center in Las Vegas couldn’t contain all of the exhibitors’ booths one year, the tradeshow’s organizers moved all of the gaming companies to a large pavilion outside. This pavilion consisted of a large tent, located right in the middle of a heavy rainstorm. One Nintendo executive would later describe the incident as a “windstorm” in which “nothing was level.”
It proved to be, in many ways, the final straw. The industry had already been forced to band together and start to organize itself the year before, when Congress launched a series of hearings into the “soaring” levels of violence that videogames were starting to devolve to (a charge principally leveled at the cross-platform Mortal Kombat and the Sega CD-exclusive Night Trap). The result was the creation of the Interactive Digital Software Association, the industry’s first trade organization (which would evolve nine years later into the Entertainment Software Association), and the implementation of a series of ratings, which still stand to this day; the following year, in response to another crucible of external pressure, the IDSA spearheaded the charge to create a tradeshow devoted solely to interactive media.
Despite a number of companies’ unwillingness to disengage from the safe ground that was the Consumer Electronics Show and to charge headlong into the Electronic Entertainment Expo’s uncharted waters – Nintendo particularly (and predictably) was loathe to leave a barn in which it was the king of the roost – that first year’s E3 was an unqualified success, immediately starting a tradition of bombshell announcements from the console manufacturers (Sony delivered the PSX’s price point – a source of major concern at the time, given the exorbitant price Sega had affixed its latest console with – while Sega made the most bizarre announcement in videogame history to date: the Saturn had clandestinely shipped the night before and was already waiting for eager consumers on select stores’ shelves [oddly, those consumers never seemed to arrive]) and big game reveals from the third-party publishers (such as Namco’s Tekken and Ridge Racer). The other accruements that the show would ultimately be known for were also quickly introduced and, in the coming years, would continue to increase in sophistication and expense: large and ornate booths (some multiple stories), laser and light shows, booming sound systems and choreographed dance routines, and, of course, the ubiquitous booth babe.
By 2006, just past the expo’s ten-year anniversary, E3 had cemented its status as the most influential event in the global videogame industry – and had become a thriving business unto itself in the process. Attendance had swollen to over 400 exhibitors and 60,000 attendees. Floor space within the cavernous Los Angeles Convention Center – which covers some 540,000 square feet – cost exhibitors a hefty $12 million to rent. The biggest booths, most usually those of the three console manufacturers, carried price tags of tens of millions of dollars to construct, staff, and market. Direct spending in the city of Los Angeles – those moneys paid to hotels, bars, and, most especially, taxi cabs – tallied some $20 million each year, sometimes reaching twice that level.
If those figures seem even slightly bloated, they seemed even more so to the gaming companies themselves. Many publishers – most notably Sony and Microsoft, two-thirds of the console triumvirate – balked at the huge expense the show incurred each and every year, arguing that the dividends did not meet out the investment. The costs of throwing big, lavish parties for journalists and other attendees, combined with the more prosaic but still unwieldy travel expenses of airfare, food, and hotel stays, rivaled the budgets of most of their titles in development; developers, meanwhile, rallied against dividing up their resources and team members between a playable E3 demo and the game proper, both of which require a great deal of time and polish. And both argued that the expo had become more of a financial burden than a marketing boon – with so many distractions in the form of celebrity appearances and dance club-esque edifices and so much competition in the form of an ever-expanding roster of games, it became “increasingly difficult to get [the] message out,” as the ESA itself once officially commented – which was the point of the tradeshow in the first place. The general sentiment was that something had to be done.
The ESA responded by drastically downsizing and restructuring E3. The 2007 show ditched the Los Angeles Convention Center and instead set up shop in a series of conference rooms within a small handful of hotels spread throughout Santa Monica. The smaller venue dictated a smaller audience, of course, and the open policy of allowing all “qualified” videogame personnel (GameStop employees and fansite webmasters were just as prevalent as journalists and industry insiders, if not more so) was lifted, replaced by an invite-only crowd of some 5,000 attendees. The traditional show date of May was pushed back to July, a concession to publisher and developer woes over prepping fourth-quarter titles for a showing in the second quarter of the year. Even the name of the tradeshow was changed to reflect the seriousness of the transformation: gone was the Electronic Entertainment Expo; the E3 Media and Business Summit had arrived.
When this smaller, more “intimate” E3 failed to have the desired effect – both the exhibitors and the specialty press lambasted its decentralized nature and numerous logistical problems, while industry analysts and gaming enthusiasts bemoaned its inability to generate any kind of excitement – the ESA immediately backpedaled, attempting a type of amalgam between the old and new shows. 2008’s expo returned to the LACC but was still held in July and continued to adhere to stripped-down guidelines (booths were allotted a maximum space of only 20-feet-by-20-feet, and the number of attendees was still clamped at only several thousand). This small injection of old E3 was not enough, however, and most in the industry set their sights on other international shows – such as the Leipzig Games Convention in Germany and the Tokyo Game Show in Japan (formerly a regional-only event) – to occupy the strategic space that the Electronic Entertainment Expo once held. Rather than rebranding the expo and giving it a laser-like focus on disseminating industry news, the ESA inadvertently sapped it of all relevance along with all of the glitz – the result of wildly lurching from one extreme to another.
E3’s star was so far in declension that the gaming world was genuinely surprised when the Entertainment Software Association announced that it was still going to hold another show in 2009. Developments since then, however, have given many in the industry hope that both the organization and its expo are once again back on the right track: with the cap on attendance levels and booth sizes lifted; both Microsoft and Nintendo – after holding extremely weak press conferences last year – promising to have their best, most games-packed show in years; Leipzig being essentially cancelled, forcing companies to once again reserve all of their announcements for one show only; and the elongated title of E3 Business and Media Summit being chopped back to plain old E3 once more, the spotlight is yet again on the expo as the preeminent event in the videogame industry, the very epicenter of all things interactive media.
Whether this third iteration of E3 in as many years will be a progressive step forward or another horrible stagger backwards will be seen in only two weeks.