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Exclusive: Inside GameStop Expo, The Trade Show You Never Knew

Wonder where all the U.S. game trade shows went? Gamasutra reports from the private GameStop Expo, a key event on the gaming calendar, complete with stars and E3-style kiosks, but one that's well-shielded from much of the industry. Impressions and picture

September 13, 2007

4 Min Read

Author: by Christian Nutt, Staff

This week's GameStop Expo is one of the most relevant events on the gaming calendar -- but few know much about it. Held annually, this year at Mandalay Bay casino/hotel in Las Vegas, the show is an opportunity for store managers from its around 5,000 stores to be presented publishers' holiday line-ups in a trade show environment. In 2007, for one of the first times, GameStop invited select outlets, including Gamasutra, into the show to catch a glimpse of the event. According to all prior attendees polled, the show -- which has been going for several years now -- has swelled in size and, perhaps, in importance. Last-standing GameStop competitor Game Crazy is having its own event next week. But what purpose do these shows serve?

In a post-E3 world, it's clear that from the perspective of the attendees (principally GameStop store managers) and GameStop's senior management, it helps educate those in the retail space on which holiday games are worth recommending to consumers. Comparisons to E3 were common -- and as the GameStop Expo was larger and showier than E3 2007's own Barker Hangar showcase, most of them were not favorable. While not remotely as big as the pre-2007 E3s, the atmosphere of the Expo was similar: brightly-lit stages, celebrity signings from Clive Barker to Castlevania's IGA, tables creaking under the weight of giveaways for the attendees - and even a photo opportunity with a scantily-clad model impersonating Heavenly Sword's heroine, Nariko.

This illustrated several things. It showed that the game companies feel that courting the GameStop managers is crucial to promoting their games. It also showed that the separation of the 'dog and pony show' of previous E3 events (which was often criticized for being aimed at this very audience, at the expense of businesspeople and journalists) into its own shindig lets the separate audiences concentrate on what moves them. And, in throwing the event, it showed that GameStop perceives educating its staff is beneficial to the in-store experience for its customers (plus covering costs thanks to the publishers, who pay to attend the Expo, doesn't hurt either.)

In fact, most of those we spoke to, from a store manager from the Milwaukee area to senior GameStop staff, commented on this year's show's increase in size over previous Expos. With GameStop having all but completed its lockdown on game specialty retailing in North America, and publishers casting about for promotional opportunities in a world without the "real" E3, this does not come as a surprise. Taken together with the proliferation of editors' days aimed at the enthusiast press, the shape of E3 2007, and the consumer-focused E for All, it's clear that the industry is experimenting heavily with events.

But what did the show accomplish? In some sense, it seemed almost to be a reward for the store managers -- who work long hours on the front lines -- to listen to the show-floor scuttlebutt. While the official line was that the show was all business, bringing the managers to Las Vegas, loading their arms with swag, and letting them play pre-release games is obviously a big draw for these 'professional gamers'. They were so enthusiastic, in fact, that a huge number stayed beyond the 9 PM closing time; kiosks had to be deactivated before the die-hard crowd filtered away. Giveaways -- some managers were lugging around Xbox 360s, others won bicycles or arcade Dance Dance Revolution units -- were also popular with the crowds. And Rooster Teeth, the minds behind Halo machinima comedy Red vs. Blue, and clearly fan favorites rather than massive GameStop moneymakers, were on-hand to sign autographs for fans. Conversely -- being gamers and retailers -- most attendees seemed well aware of the market's current state before even walking onto the show floor. The predominant opinions seemed to be the obvious ones: the Wii is popular with families; Halo 3 will win the holiday, of course; Assassin's Creed stands a good shot of being the first runner-up. The PlayStation 3's lack of momentum was another common complaint, though one manager mentioned over publisher-sponsored hors d'oeuvres that refurbished 20GB units (which slot in at an attractive $369.99 pricetag) sell briskly. Another disagreed.

In essence, the 2007 GameStop Expo was a crowded microcosm of the game industry that would be intimately familiar to anyone who ever trudged the crowded floors of the old E3. Publishers great (EA, Activision) and small (Atlus, O3 Entertainment) made their mark on the attendees, with no games ignored by the crowds. This was on top of 30-60 minute "classroom" style presentations by the vendors prior to the show, and it shows that these store managers are dedicated to the games. Whether it does really pay the dividends GameStop expects is, ultimately, up in the air -- but for now, attendees and management seem to see it in nothing but a favorable light. [Gamasutra will be publishing further write-ups from the GameStop Expo, including interviews with senior executives from the firm, in the near future.]

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