Two years ago, the Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3) reached its pinnacle, not necessarily of effectiveness or networking quality, but of concert-like insanity. With an estimated 60,000 people in attendance, E3 2006 was a zoo of publishers, developers, retailers, media, fansites and people with no legitimate industry affiliation. It was certainly bigger, but was it better? Did the 30-foot-tall wrap-around video displays actually result in a more meaningful experience? A few influential publishers thought not.
In response, the E3 format changed completely in 2007, with the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) moving the trade show to a collection of Santa Monica hotels upon which an invitation-only list of media descended. This year, E3 returns to the Los Angeles Convention Center, the location of the 2006 festivities, but retains the invitation-only format of 2007. Approximately 5,000 people are expected to attend this year, a far cry from the 60,000 from two years ago, and most likely a welcome change for those of us here. But before this year’s show even starts, many members of the media are already counting down E3’s final days — and not just for this year’s event.
Driving into downtown Los Angeles, it’s obvious that the tone of E3 has changed. Years past saw the Convention Center draped in stories-tall posters, the Staples Center plastered with 60-foot displays and downtown vendors covered in poster-sized game art. The Convention Center this year is a veritable ghost town. No longer are there monstrous posters or displays. No longer does E3 fill three Convention Center halls to capacity. No longer do people line up waiting to pick up their badges. It’s almost as if E3, for all intents and purposes, isn’t even happening.
In a few years, it very well may not.
The ESA toned-down E3 in part as a response to key publishers’ complaints about the exorbitant price to “put on the show.” Not content with the format changes (among other things), Activision removed itself from the ESA this year — and therefore its participation in E3 — opting instead for an off-site press conference and reception. And, although no publishers will go on the record, the current scuttlebutt has at least one mammoth publisher still not convinced that the ESA and E3 are as effective as they could be, perhaps considering abandoning both in the near future. With Activision already gone, the secession of one more large publisher could very well doom E3 completely.
Before E3 changed its format, publishers repeatedly grumbled that for the amount of money they spent — a true irony, considering the ESA reportedly rents the Convention Center for $1 for E3. Instead, they insisted that they could host their own on-site events and be more productive from a marketing standpoint while also helping members of the media be more productive, as journalists could drill deeper with a few games rather than gloss over an entire industry’s worth of titles during a compressed three-day period.
As publisher grumblings persisting, editors are now getting-in on the action. No less than 80 percent of the editors with whom we’ve spoken have wondered aloud “so, what do you think will be the ‘next E3’ once this show dies?”
The question is legitimate; even with E3’s new format, it’s essentially journalistic suicide to try to cover every game during this three-day period (click here to see our editor’s schedule). In addition, several publishers plan to not only appear at Comic-Con the following week, but even make game and gameplay announcements. Add to the Comic-Con popularity the growing prevalence of the Leipzig Game Convention and Penny Arcade Expo, not to mention the increased relevance of the Game Developers’ Conference, and the cards aren’t exactly stacked in the ESA’s or E3’s favor.
As we walked into the still-being-arranged Convention Center today, the large video displays were nowhere to be found. The massive booths were replaced by 20×20 pavilions. The security was tight, but staff members were simply going through the installation motions. E3’s format has changed, but so has the show’s pre-kickoff vibe. In many respects, the ESA and E3 seem to be floundering to find an identity, and participants’ enthusiasm seems floundering as well.
Knowing that certain publishers are less than enthused about E3, and knowing that editors are questioning the show’s relevance, it’s hard not to wonder how long E3 has left. Will E3 2008 be the last? Will this be the year E3 gets its groove back? The next four days may not hold the answers, but E3’s future will certainly be revealed in the weeks and months to come. Until then, we must all experiment with the re-tooled E3, hope for the best, and debate what, if anything, will fill the void left by E3 if and when it ceases to exist.
— Jonas Allen