They Don't Know the Game Business: Comic Con Edition
Do you want these folks playing your game? You should!
Attendance for this year's San Diego Comic Con was somewhere between 30 and 40 times larger than E3. The show floor was orders of magnitude larger, and the comic industry is about 400 times smaller than video games - by just about every measure. Adding insult to injury, even the game display area was bigger than the game show floor at E3. Unlike E3, there was more than just show floor and secret meeting rooms. The show was littered with the kind of panel discussions we used to have at E3, the only difference was, people showed up for them. Probably because they were not the game GDC overlapping game industry panels of E3 of old. Instead, they celebrated the real world tangents rising from popular culture. Stuff like the stars and creators of television shows and films who presented first looks at the Max Payne film, or Prince of Persia. More specifically, things the game industry should be doing at E3. But, it wasn't always like this.
Growing up in San Diego I started going to Comic Con about 25 years ago. I was in High School and the con was held at Golden Hall. There was no convention center on the water, that space was reserved for strip clubs, bars and tattoo parlors frequented by the sailors and Marines on leave. The Con was about 15 years old at the time and it was a room full of tables scoured by readers looking for hard to find back issues. The costumes and smells were there, but the agents, movie stars and studio execs weren't. It was before ebay, and this was the only place you could find the books you missed. It stayed this way all the way through the early nineties when I walked the floor of the new convention center looking for Batman 491 because I didn't realize it was the beginning of Knightfall when it came out. The Con grew through the early nineties and moved into the newly opened convention center on the water. It was only big enough to fill half of the ground floor, and a few rooms on the second floor. These were mostly midnight movie showings and costume contests. People came to the Con to trade comic books, buy some toys, and touch the artists and writers who made them. Then the speculators moved in.
At the peek of the speculator market, the four deep, line to get into the Image booth wound around the entire floor. I was sitting at the Top Cow table in the Image booth and fans were in such a frenzy to get autographs, they wanted mine, even after I told them I was just the lawyer. At the time, top selling books were moving millions of units a month, and books selling a few hundred thousand were cancelled for lack of interest. Today, any one of the publishers do back flips over a book in hundreds of thousands. Like all good things, the wild growth came to an abrupt end. I place the peak of the cycle in 1995. Specifically at Big Entertainment's Tekno booth.
Anyone who has walked the show floor at Comic Con knows the distinct smell of the Con. It is a confluence of costumes hardy enough to be worn many times, but perceived by the owners to be too fragile to dry clean, even after coming off someone who was somewhat ripe when they put it on; musty, semi mildewed comic books, removed from their "safe places" once each year for display and possible sale; old toy plastic; and the distinct smell of low grade comic book ink and newsprint. But 1995 was different. Right in the center of the first Con to use the entire floor was Big Entertainment with it's proud launch of "Tekno." The comic books bore names known outside the comic industry like Rodenberry and Asimov as well as fan favorites like Gaiman. These names and the marketing would have been financially well supported if the market continued. Unfortunately, it didn't. The booth was two stories high, a first for the Con, and next to their booth, someone was roasting chestnuts. The smell permeated the entire show. It was the Con that didn't smell - bad. It was also the last Con supported solely be Comic books. I should have known. The pleasant cinnamon chestnut smell opened a vortex which inhaled the industry. The next few years were very rough. In fact, the implosion of the market threw the Con's continued existence into question. The Con organizers realized the show was too expensive for its own audience to support. However, unlike ESA, they decided to expand rather than contract.
The Con organizers realized they had a rabid fan base, and with the advent of the Internet, and more specifically, blogs, the fans had a voice. Over the course of the next ten years, they transformed the event from the place to see the new comics, to the most significant pop culture event in the world. From a comic lover's point of view, the Con lost an awful lot. Some may even say it lost its soul. From an economic perspective it moved from the realm of curious oddity to can't be missed launch event. Seeing as E3 never had a soul, there is nothing to lose. The biggest reason for the disparate treatment of the same issue - the Con actually likes its consumers and decided to cater to them. Even if the exhibitors feel the need to main line Purell after a day of hand shaking and autographs, they still know where their bread is buttered.
The Con invited the heathens who were bastardizing their stories in the mainstream interpretations of their art we call films. Then they let them set up panel discussions and show clips from upcoming films. As if that was not bad enough, they went to creators and stars and let them have panels. The organizers knew this would attract consumers, but it wasn't easy. I remember consulting to Paramount and Universal for film marketing, in 1999 and we battled for weeks to get a promotion for Mystery Men, a movie based on comics, at the Con. But Hollywood noticed when stars who could not draw attention to themselves if they stood naked on Robertson Boulevard in L.A. were as mobbed as Tom Bosley after a dinner theater performance of Showboat in Branson Missouri. Then Hollywood saw how the fans who waited in line to hear the woman who was the voice of Pinky in Pinky and the Brain, Julie Strain and Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, spread the word on line. The single appearance had an exponential impact. Hollywood learned what comics knew for a long time, the consumers like to meet the people who make the entertainment. Then, the Con went after games.
A few years ago a few game companies showed up and were interspersed among the comic booths. Square had the biggest presence, but they were showing toys, not games. Each year the presence grew, until this year, when games were focused in a single area, larger than E3. Sure, E3 shrunk a lot, but still. The publishers saw the value in providing builds and staffing booths because the people who buy the games were actually going to be there, and spread the word. It was a great way around the media. More importantly, just about everything was playable. While our show was busy vetting attendees to make sure they were important enough to attend the show thereby shielding the delicate flowers we call demos from the dirty, barbaric hands of those E3 particpants disdainfully refer to as "consumers", Comic Con took the radical approach of not hating consumers and actually respecting them enough to let them be hands on. The funny thing is, embraced the opportunity to provide hands on demos to consumers. Namco, and others chose the Con as the first place to provide a hands on. I had my first hands on with Afro Samurai, as well as games from THQ, Microsoft, Sony, Actard, Capcom and a host of others.
Sure, they received international press in magazines, television coverage and Hollywood studio heads, movie stars, and game CEOs were mixing with money types and deal makers, but these guy's don't know the game business. Unlike the much more civilized E3, you could hardly find a place to park or pee.