No one is more surprised than I am that the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo is looking like it will be a highly popular media event in its 2010 incarnation.
After all, it was only a couple of years ago that everyone--including myself--had essentially written off the long-running show. At the same time, my video game industry contacts are telling me there's still a sense of nervousness among those who actually have to sign the checks to pay for the event.
What are the reasons for the negative vibes over the past few years? Costs are increasing and the bombast in the first half of the last decade led game publishers--which would spend millions building essentially small walled cities inside the Los Angeles Convention Center--to conclude they simply weren't getting their money's worth from the show. Especially, because unlike traditional trade shows, the focus of E3 over the years shifted away from deal making between publishers and buyers, and it became strictly a media event that was designed to generate headlines and feed a voracious public appetite for video game news.
The result of this was a pullback, first to a smaller invite-only show in Santa Monica, Calif., (which, looking back, was actually a fairly pleasant overall experience), then to a ghost town of a deserted convention center with tiny attendance and underwhelming reviews. After that, 2009 marked something of an about-face, about half the size of the classic E3 show, and this year promises to be even bigger.
But, something happened in those intervening years that make me wonder if the idea of a giant singular media event masquerading as a trade show is something we still need. For a decade, having all the games and game publishers under one roof let us get face time with products and people, and generate stories for the rest of the year--in addition to a few well-timed write-ups during the show.
But while E3 shrunk, almost out of existence, then clawed its way back to relevance, the way we cover technology news had profoundly changed. We are now in the live blogging era, where news happens in real time, with an endless stream of tweets, blogs, video streams, and photo feeds. These all make for great reading, and an excellent real-time reading of the group zeitgeist of thousands of bloggers and reporters, but it leaves little time for extended behind-closed-doors discussions with game makers about projects that one may not be able to write about or acknowledge for months (or years in some cases).
All this means the focus of E3 for game publishers has become generating a quick burst of instant news, and dominating the conversation for the week. Hence the increasing importance of the big three news conferences, Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft--and Microsoft's daily evening media events, all designed to generate a Twitter-clogging stream of coverage.
The companies displaying their wares at E3 are smart enough to realize a week of frenzied quick-hit blog posts won't have a particularly long tail in the public memory. That's why nearly every publisher brings its entire game lineup to New York either right before or right after E3 for an in-depth media tour. It's at these kinds of low-key, off-the-grid meetings that the narrative for the all-important holiday season is discovered, not during a three-day event that feels more like a fanfest then a trade show.
This leads to my modest proposal. The E3 show has survived pit stops in Santa Monica and Atlanta, a near-desertion by its participating companies, and a couple of years of minimal attendance--but just barely. Since E3 already looks and feels a lot like a fan event such as Comic-Con, why not throw open the doors to the public and make it the World's Fair of video games? It's an open secret that the halls have always been crowded with snuck-in friends and fans, so why not make it official? Do that, make it a destination event, and charge for tickets at the door, and we'll never have to ask if E3 can survive again.