I just got back from the hollow shell of what used to be E3. On the one hand I think it is wonderful to see the day Into the Pixel's display of amazing concept art has grown larger than the E3 show floor. On the other hand, I think it kind of sucks that E3's show floor is actually smaller than the Into the Pixel concept art display. A number of people described the show as “post appocolyptic.” I like to think of it as a rendering of how the old E3 would look if it was staged by the propaganda department of smaller cold war era eastern block country.
I knew this show was different the moment I exited the freeway. I didn't have to see the convention center standing naked without the perennial Atari sign on the South Hall. I could tell by the traffic, rather, the lack of traffic. The traffic jam was replaced by tumbleweed blowing through the barren streets with the whisper of an Ennio Morricone score in the background. In the past, the on site parking lots were full hours before the show doors opened, today, I drove right in about 11 and there were enough empty spaces for me to practice tailspins and burn outs in the empty parking lot. I guess it's nicer. I was also able to stand all alone in front of the urinal trough, rather than the shoulder to shoulder group pees of earlier years. So I guess, if you are looking for a place with convenient parking and plenty of room to pee, E3 is it. If you are looking for the hub of the most vibrant sector of the entertainment business, you may want to look elsewhere. In typical video game industry fashion, the newly formed E3 actually amplifies the issues leading to the events' demise, rather than relieving them.
E3 used to be the biggest, baddest, loudest, flashiest trade show in the world. Ostensibly you had to be a game industry professional to get in, but if you ever stood within spitting distance of someone whose nephew once touched a game console, you were able to get a pass. The arms race which led to full skate ramps, nearly naked women and musical performances on the floor caused the publishers' show cost to increase annually until it got the breaking point. The publishers thought they were not getting the financial return they needed. So ESA reduced the size of the show from 80,000 attendees to 4,000. In the words of Mike Gallagher, 76,000 passionately interested people were told they could not attend. I am just a simple guy, but I still don't understand why we would turn those people away. Especially when they are willing to pay and others would pay to get in front of them. Sponsorship, public days like Tokyo Game Show and Leipzig both seem like viable options to support the old style show, but let's save the discussion for another day.
I walked in to get my badge and again, unlike the old days in the convention center, there was no line. I gave my name, showed my ID and then,
“Are you a journalist, analyst or retailer?”In reality, if I was one of those things, I would not have to make my way all the way to downtown LA to talk to publishers. They come to me, or I speak with them on the phone - quarterly. I turned my head to say hi to a friend walking in the door, and then the woman handed me my badge. I don’t know what I am, and apparently, neither does E3.
“I am not any of those.”
“No, you have to be one of those. Are you a journalist, analyst or retailer?”
“I am really not any of those. Is there an ‘other’?”
“No, just pick one and tell me which one you are. If you don’t I will pick one.”
Badge in hand, I looked for the show floor, but I couldn’t find it. The West Hall, former home of Sony, Sega and others had a big Microsoft ad on it, but nothing in side. The South Hall was also empty but without a banner covering the windows, it looked like the last tenant left quickly, in the middle of the night. The entire show flow was confined to the Concourse. A foreboding sign, considering the last time I entered this hall at E3 was for the premier of Bandai’s Pippin. (For those of you in the back row, Pippin was the bastard child of a partnership among Apple and Bandai. You can still find them on ebay.) Fortunately, the show floor was one of only three venues.
While three is a vast improvement over last year's 47 or so venues connected by shuttle buses, it still makes little sense. Each major publisher, had a meeting room, an exhibit on the floor and a press conference. The show floor presence was small and balanced. Each publisher had basically the same amount of space. Only G4 had more. The publishers still had to disrupt production with the extra E3 build, no savings there, but the quieter venue enabled them to actually talk about their games and staff the booth with people who actually knew about games, rather than women hired for other attributes. You decide which is better. Actual attendance was so sparse, publishers were able to take plenty of time to exhaustively highlight each and every feature of the E3 build to each and every member of the press.
Since the show floor was open to just anyone – anyone who was specifically invited by the ESA membership – the special games were saved for the second floor conference rooms. In other words, there was very little to see on the show floor. Even though it was sort of VIP’s only for the event, sometimes referred to as Star bellied Sneech event, it was VVIP’s, or double star bellied Sneeches only, for the real stuff in the conference rooms. Of course there were parties, but those were reserved for quaduple stars and beyond.
Barren conference rooms were provided to publishers the same way I imagine rooms are booked at the Islamabad Hilton. I happened to be meeting with a friend for his first meeting at the show. The room was locked.
“Can we open the door.”Twenty minutes later someone opened the door. With the exception of a half full outdoor garbage can, the room was completely empty.
“Did you buy a key?” The security guard asked.
“Well, no, we rented the room.”
“You have to buy a key, it’s $500.”
“But I paid $20,000 for the room.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t include a key. I can call someone to unlock it, but then you won’t be able to get back in after you leave.”
“There’s no furniture.”The other publishers were able to set up their materials in the austere, veal fattening pens which replaced the grand booths of yesteryear. Inside these invite/appointment only walls, publishers were able to show the hidden gems of the show. Tomb Raider Underworld and other “world premiers” happened here, safely tucked away from the glare of the otherwise empty show floor. A number of people commented on how quickly the meetings went and how little they actually had to do. Not a surprise since all of the business has been done elsewhere and a lot of people sat this show out. The lack of people made getting in between meetings very easy. In the old days, every meeting ran late because we ran into people in the hall and had impromptu meetings or reacquainted with people in between meetings. Now, there was no one in the halls and we were able to move with the efficiency of the German railway.
“Did you pay for furniture?”
“Actually we did.”
“Let me check” garbled voice into walkie talkie “a woman rejected your furniture yesterday.”
“But the only people from the company are me and my brother, and we just arrived.”
“Well you should talk to the woman who rejected the furniture.”
“We don’t know who. . . . “ he gave up and sat in his empty room, on the chair we borrowed from the hallway
The third venue, the press conference, was the time and money sucker. These were reserved for the triple star bellied Sneeches. These were not just regular press conferences, but great big, choreographed multi screened, do your best Steve Jobs impression, massively expensive press conferences. But despite these very large events - Nintendo's performance live from the home of the Oscars, EA live from the historic Orpheum Theater, Sony from the Shrine Auditorium - they really didn't get much coverage. In the old days, just setting up a booth on the show floor put you on the E channel, CNN, MTV and even the network morning shows. These sideshow events only harnessed a portion of the already reduced attendance of E3 itself. These events moved the arms race of booth size to an arms race of press conferences, and got the same coverage they would have received if they held a press day of their own, on their own time.
E3’s story mirrors Harry Nilsson’s story of Oblio, from The Point, and the genesis is probably about the same.
"I was on acid and I looked at the trees and I realized that they all came to points, and the little branches came to points, and the houses came to point. I thought, 'Oh! Everything has a point, and if it doesn't, then there's a point to it.'" Harry NilssonOblio was a boy with no point on his head in a land where everyone had a point on their head. He, like E3 went on a journey to find his point. Mid way through his journey, he found the Rock Man.
Like the Rock Man says, “it aint necessary to have a point, to possess a point.” As I have said before, the original E3, had no point. But by not having a point, it gained a point. Hundreds of thousands of people came together to celebrate an industry tagged as reserved for geeks. The world press shined its light on the best and brightest we had to show, and for three days the rest of the world thought the industry was as cool as we do.
I like to think E3, like Oblio's meeting with the Rock Man, is only mid way through its journey. One of the ESA guys said “nothing is set in stone” about the show’s format and they will be taking input to determine what changes can be made to make sure the show best served the community. I’d like to think, we can all come up with something better. Something where the organizing entity does not turn away 20 interested people for every one they let in.