[Gamasutra's Christian Nutt dissects what went wrong with E3 and posits that the return to form sought by the ESA for next year's show might not have the intended effect -- or, at least, laments crawling crowded hallways once again.]
So, E3 is changing again. Today, the ESA confirmed
that E3 is largely returning to the format it had from 1995 through 2006: a big, brash show, with lots of people crawling the halls.
Now, it's hard to predict whether this will invite a full-on return to three-floor steel booths dripping with schwag and staffed by out-of-work "models", but that's the way it feels from a glass-half-empty perspective.
Over the years up until 2006, E3 got gradually more ostentatious -- and, from a business perspective, untenable. The press and others doing business at the show viewed it as something to suffer through: the crowds were ridiculously large and largely unconcerned with doing anything besides ambling through the spectacle and scoring some free T-shirts. So getting from appointment to appointment was a journey through a human obstacle course.
The show put on by publishers -- like NCsoft, which was fined in 2006 for exceeding decibel levels and making it difficult for Sega to conduct closed-doors meetings in its own, adjacent booth -- ultimately became essentially ridiculous.
And at some point, a cadre of powerful publishers got together and decided that it wasn't worth spending millions of dollars every year to hand GameStop managers inflatable rubber rafts
from atop metal edifices in which nobody could hear themselves think.
The Gizmondo E3 booth, circa 2005
, is reliably rumored to have cost $5 million. In the style of a Hollywood B-movie backlot, it was done up like a town, a Mayan temple, and who-knows-what else, and crawling with scantily-clad women, it was a symbol of what E3 had become by that point: a big spend with no substance.
Rumors pointed to EA and Nintendo -- at first -- backing out of the spectacle and the competition. E3 2006: too expensive, too loud, not doing its job. Finito. But now it's back. Why?
When the news hit, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander remarked, "I don't get it; when it was noisy people complained, and when it was quiet people complained."
It's true. Though it was exceptionally easy to get business done at this year's E3, nobody seemed to like it. The repudiations
of the new format came harsh this year, from powerful figures in the industry like EA CEO John Riccitiello saying "I hate E3 like this," and Ubisoft president Laurent Detoc calling the show "terrible."
Perhaps even more importantly, there was a suggestion that, behind the scenes, retail buyers didn't bother to attend the new show, making it all press, no business.
Without a robust business aspect, E3 loses even more of its draw for publishers. And without the glitz and the glam, the mainstream press (particularly TV) didn't bother turning up -- another big problem for publishers seeking to expand their audiences.
But what's annoying, if not outright worrying to me, is that the format sounds more or less like it's returning to the E3 of old. If we needed the E3 of old, it wouldn't have died.
I'd like to think that, this time, with a little perspective, the publishers can work together to stop the arms race of more and more ostentatious booths... but it's hard to believe that would happen. That's not how these things work.
And with an "expanded" audience of tens of thousands of T-shirt-grabbing hands, it's very possibly going to be as loud and as difficult to deal with as it was two years ago. The thing is, there's the GameStop Expo
now. This does a great job of showcasing games to retail staffers of the largest specialty retail store. Who else makes up the "expanded" audience the ESA is talking about? Anybody care to enlighten us?
Anyway, the point is -- we're just going to enter into another cycle of E3 waxing and waning if it returns to the way it was. Especially if the business people have been permanently scared away. Especially if the show doesn't re-attract the media attention it squandered. Especially if the publishers spend money and don't see a return on it. Especially if nobody can get anything meaningful accomplished. Especially if publishers continue to resist making important product announcements at the show, afraid that their games will be lost in the din -- a din which will no doubt increase next year, no matter what.
My wish is that the organizers had taken the same tack that's been working so well for CESA and Nikkei BP's Tokyo Game Show: two business-oriented days limited to press and businesspeople, and two public days, which charge admission, and are open to all.
At this year's TGS, not even two weeks ago, I was able to get all of my appointments accomplished without a hitch, and was able to skip the crowd-surfing misery of the public days completely. Everybody, it seems, was happy. Why wouldn't it work in the U.S.?
Let in the press and businesspeople the first two days; let in the "expanded" hall-filling audiences, if not the "true" public, come Saturday and Sunday -- and let the TV crews know the Navy SEALs will be rappelling from the roof on those days.
E3 2009 doesn't feel like a solution -- it feels like a regression. It may be a mark of desperation, because it's obvious that things didn't work this year.
Or maybe I should quit complaining -- because maybe everybody actually knows that, and instead of repeating their mistakes, they'll evolve the way the show is handled, and business (and pleasure, for the crowds) will be able to get done. But all I can think about now is spectacle, distraction, and the inability to get between South Hall and West Hall in anything under 20 minutes.
The best thing about the return to the old format (or a close one) is that game developers -- largely shut out of the new-form E3 in 2007 and 2008 -- will once again be able to evaluate the work of their colleagues and competition before it's released. Otherwise, I don't see much of a silver lining.
My fear is that this move is what it appears to be -- the organizers of E3 having no idea what to do with the thing, but acting because they have to act. As with the Santa Monica E3 of 2007. As with the quiet LACC E3 of this year. Each year we're told that after careful consultation, the current iteration of the show is the result. And each year, since 2006, nobody likes it.
Will anybody like next year's show?
(Title photo from Mulling it Over on Flickr, used under Creative Commons license)