Three Thoughts on Losing E3

The Electronic Entertainment Expo, the simulation-infused game industry showcase that’s turned downtown Los Angeles into a digital supernova almost every May since 1995 is done. Following Friday rumblings about shows pending demise, E3 owner, the Entertainment Software Association, announced through spokesman Doug Lowenstein that the event was being drastically scaled back to become a more “targeted” event for industry members.

CNET’s Dan Terdiman has a good summary of the factors at play in this move, while industry site Next Gen offers 10 whole reasons for the fall. As someone who’s been to five of the last six E3s, my quick off-the-cuff take on the move is decidedly mixed:

1 – Less Booth Babes, Better Industry Profile: Desperate to win the attention of E3 attendees, publishers have staffed their booths with bevies of hot, increasingly naked babes– until E3 2006, that is, when the ESA finally put a curb on excessive curvaceousness. By then, of course, it was too late, for the whole thing had become a public relations disaster that conveyed to the outside world the not-inaccurate impression that the industry was dominated by cheesy sexists oblivious to the vast market for games outside the 18-34 dude demographic. Presumably, a smaller, more controlled E3 of the future will begin to repair this damage– a very big plus.

2 – More Game Press, Lower Industry Profile: As described, the new “targeted” version of E3 will cater even more aggressively to the gaming press. This is a problem, because gamer magazines and websites are notoriously uncritical of the industry’s offerings, dependent as they are on advertising from the major publishers, and a readership comprised almost exclusively of young male fanboys. This suggests future E3s will be overloaded with even more coverage skewed toward the top publishers and their big-budget action/sports titles– and even scanter attention paid to games that might appeal to women, kids, and older gamers. If this happens, the new E3 will continue to under-recognize and underserve whole markets.

3 – Less Gamers, More Spin-off Games: In his announcement, ESA’s Lowenstein says future E3s will create a “more personal dialogue with the worldwide media, developers, retailers”… oddly forgetting to name, you know, gamers. Many of the big budget offerings are spin-offs based on movies and other pre-existing intellectual property — games that are almost uniformly bad, and subsequently, mostly ignored by gamers. (E3 rule of thumb: if a booth is empty, good chance it’s showing a movie spin-off.)

Removing gamers from E3 insures an Expo targeted at retail buyers who don’t personally care about games, but do know that one based on the latest Disney movie will move off their shelves. And while game adaptations do sell well, they don’t do gargantuan business– none of the top-selling PC or console games are based on non-game IP. Without gamers at E3 to tell the retailers that, we’re bound to see much more of the same, with modest profits at the expense of new IP that grows the industry.

So my early take is this is a net loss– but paradoxically, a step in the right direction.