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E3 and the start of an unprecedented generation

With E3 2013 only weeks away, Gamasutra editor-at-large Leigh Alexander talks to ESA senior VP Rich Taylor about the changes we can expect this year.
E3 2013 is only weeks away. The event has for 18 years now served as the annual showcase of what's new in interactive entertainment, aiming to inspire excitement, present the face of video game trends to the world -- and to motivate retailers to buy in to industry companies' vision of the future. This one will be interesting. This is the year the shift to the next generation of consoles hopes to begin, and both Sony and Microsoft have done pre-reveal events, with more announcements saved for E3 itself. The numerous unanswered questions both new consoles have left hanging in the air, specifically as regards their software lineup, are expected to receive crucial attention at this year's event. Plus, social, mobile and free-to-play have become an arm of the industry as strong economically as the traditional business, and will negotiate their own presence at the show. With the rise of social media and livestreaming, the industry model whereby E3 is the one week a year the industry speaks up about its plans has significantly dissolved. Nintendo has opted to skip holding a pre-E3 media briefing this year, but holds regular announcement-oriented broadcasts via its own Nintendo Direct reveals covered by the games press and closely watched by fans. Major titles often hold their own reveal events where they might once have been saved for the console manufacturer's stage, and the console manufacturers themselves have cautiously pursued their own event strategies leading up to E3.

Running the show

E3 is run by the Entertainment Software Association, the trade body that represents video game publishers. The industry looks to the ESA for many of its communications duties, including legal battles about free speech and self-regulation, and to speak on its behalf particularly as regards the law. The E3 showcase is also a service, in a sense, that the ESA provides to its constituency -- and it allows the publishers to dictate how the event gets used, and what overall image the industry wants to present. For example, the increasingly publisher-led and less E3-dependent reveal cycle certainly changes the angle of the event's role in the industry's self-presentation, but ESA senior Vice President Rich Taylor tells us hardware makers and software publishers' decisions aren't theirs to legislate. "We tend to be aware of [their decisions], but those are decisions they make," he says. "I think it's more indicative of the power of the industry, where it can now absorb media and public attention not just during a dedicated period of the year, but there's a broad sector of the population that wants to hear about activities and innovations year-round." E3 1.jpg"In many ways, these rollouts have been really great showcases for those companies to show new hardware initially, but really whets the appetite for folks to show more at E3," he adds. "It is a rising tide situation, where all the folks who are exhibiting and unveiling things are going to benefit from the increased attention." Taylor says ongoing communication with both its publisher constituency and with the media and retailers for whom the show is intended is an essential component of the show's evolution. E3 has misstepped somewhat over the past console generation; in 2007 the ESA tested out holding it in Santa Monica instead of Los Angeles, an ultimately ill-advised move that resulted in a modular, fragmented event. In 2008, E3 returned to the Los Angeles convention center in a scaled-down version that aimed for a more business-like, meetings-oriented and professional event that many felt had lost its sense of fire and spectacle without so many fans around. In the years since then, E3 seems to have hit its stride, with regular surveys of exhibitors and attendees aiming to reduce friction and ease participation. It now plays host to around 45,000 attendees annually, which is its cap. Taylor says one of E3's most significant changes this year will see online and mobile games getting their own event pavilion, due to feedback that the traditional show floor, often dominated by noise, big screens and triple-A displays, was a less-than-ideal environment for developers wanting to show mobile titles on smaller devices. The ESA says it'll see over 200 exhibitors overall this year -- and that retailer participation is up 25 percent over last year. While uncertainty about the future of traditional consoles alongside massive platform diversification and a shift to digital persists among some analysts and pundits, optimism and enthusiasm remains high in the traditional retail sector, Taylor says. "There's no negative charting of retail attendance," he says. "They're coming because they think they're going to see things that they want on their shelves. I do think that's encouraging."

E3 and "Booth Babes"

With all the world watching, is the industry doing any better at navigating image minefields? Since the last E3, game publishers were called to Washington to discuss game violence in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, and nearly every visible game event and party in the year behind us has been categorized by conflicts about equal participation and a refusal to tolerate the old boys-club "booth babe" marketing culture. E3's tolerating promotional models at publisher booths is a longstanding point of contention. As the trade body representing publishers and as custodians of E3, the event where the industry presents itself to the rest of the world most prominently, does the ESA feel responsibility to help publishers navigate the AAA space's often problematic marketing tone? "A trade association doesn't do that," Taylor asserts. "We don't tell folks how to market, and barometers of taste, wherever you may be on the spectrum, is up to individual exhibitors." At the Game Developers Conference this past March, veteran game developer Brenda Romero spoke out on the #1ReasontoBe panel about the sexualized environment promoted by scantily-clad models at E3, and how she wished the event could be a place she could bring her daughter one day. Romero later resigned from her role with the IGDA when it permitted Yetizen to hire similar promotional models for an IGDA party. But Taylor says how to promote content, whether with models or without, is still up to E3 exhibitors and not largely for the ESA to regulate. "We do have policies in place to ensure there's some limitations on the costumes," he says. "We enforce that, and we've sent people off the floor when their costuming was beyond what we consider within the policy guidelines. There's latitude there, and we leave it up to the exhibitors to a large degree." e3 2.jpgSo if attendees, media or industry-watchers find parades of body displays incongruous or alienating, the blow-back should fall on the publishers and not on E3 itself? "I think that's a fair way to put it," Taylor responds carefully. "We know it's important to a lot of folks, and it's something we have an eye on. We want to be more right than wrong on as many things as we can." The game industry has faced increased scrutiny in light of recent events when it comes to the commercial space's emphasis on military shooters, but in addition to ensuring both promotional material and the games themselves are appropriately rated and that trailers are age-gated, Taylor says he hopes industry-watchers focus on the big picture. "Sometimes what's lost by folks is the variety and spectrum of games we do make," he says. "I know sometimes people may not get the full sense of that, and part of our job as a trade association is that people do understand... we're not going to be defined by three days in Los Angeles any more than we'd be defined by, say, the efforts of the state of California to limit how we express ourselves. This is an industry not unlike others who have been challenged in the past on their judgment and taste and influence." "The public is still evaluating this industry as a whole," he continues, "but we're seeing a pretty large sea change, as people who grew up playing games become the consuming public. We take seriously the fights we've unfortunately had to be engaged in. It's important we make people understand." "My dream goal would be for no one to have discomfort or to feel like they're not being spoken to at E3," he adds. After a year of image battles and negotiating the defense of the game industry, Taylor says he's excited to engage again with games themselves at E3. "For me, when I came to work here, it was because I love the games we make and play. I'm really looking forward to a few days where just that's the focus."

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