The Political Game: E3 is dead

Each week Dennis McCauley contributes The Political Game, a column on the collision of politics and video games:

For more than a decade the Electronic Entertainment Expo was a must-see event for game retailers and media types. While it's true that in recent years E3 had become an exercise in wretched excess, that was, in fact, a large part of its charm. By day E3 featured massive, massively noisy game displays laid out end to end to end in the cavernous main halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center . By night dozens of game industry parties kept L.A.'s bartenders and sushi makers off the unemployment lines and gave a generation of scruffy game journalists an all-too-brief taste of the good life. In 2006, its final year as an extravaganza, a reported 80,000 people streamed past E3's exhibits.

But beyond that, E3 put the modern video game business on the map. You could be certain of national T.V. coverage from all of the major networks. The top newspapers were there as well. The media coverage of the show's bright lights, booth babes and nonstop bells and whistles made mainstream America sit up and take notice of a form of entertainment it had previously held to be child's play, and for geeky children at that. Of course, the gaming press went absolutely nuts during E3 week, pushing screen shots and trailers and interviews and whatever else it could get hold of to millions of eager readers.

To paraphrase Mick Jagger, I used to love you, E3, but it's all over now.

After the 2006 show game publishers decided they were spending too much money. Doug Lowenstein, the respected ESA president who started E3 in the mid-90's, read the writing on the wall, polished up his resume, and moved on to greener pastures. In between Doug's departure and the arrival of his replacement, Michael Gallagher, the ESA threw together a low budget, patchwork show in Santa Monica for 2007. For a variety of reasons, it bombed.

"Compared to E3's better times, it was the equivalent of holding the show in a closet."

With the show back in L.A. this year, attendees were hoping to recapture some of that old E3 glory, but it was not to be. If anything, this year's show was worse than Santa Monica. Not only was it poorly planned and poorly executed, but holding it in the LACC was a cruel, if unintentional joke. E3 veterans who recalled the glory days when the massive confines of South Hall and West Hall were filled to the brim with towering game exhibits stared blankly at the locked doors of those once-bustling rooms. This year's show floor, such as it was, amounted to four rows of small booths in a drab room off the Convention Center's main hallway. Compared to E3's better times, it was the equivalent of holding the show in a closet. One major industry figure I spoke to quipped that the Into the Pixel game art exhibit had more square footage devoted to it than the show floor. At one point in mid-show I stood next to a former high level game company exec who waved his hand at the nearly vacant lobby outside West Hall and summed up his feelings in a single word: "Appalling." Ubisoft North America president Laurent Detoc, told the San Francisco Chronicle, "E3 this year is terrible. The world used to come to E3. Now it's like a pipe-fitters show in the basement."

I can't disagree.

But it wasn't just a couple of money guys complaining. Game industry worker bees complained that scheduling press conferences on the same days that the expo was open led to no-show appointments as some overbooked media types opted for the press conferences instead of their scheduled meetings. And then there was the embarrassment of having only 50 people show up for Gov. Rick Perry's keynote. Or less than a hundred for the ESA CEO's state-of-the-industry speech. And, without the big E3 buzz, the national media stayed away in droves. It didn't help that there were no major announcements or surprises to speak of at the show. GTA on the DS? Cool. Got any game play footage? No?

Never mind.

"It didn't help that there were no major announcements or surprises to speak of at the show."

You can lay some of this, of course, at the feet of the ESA, which operates the show. On the other hand, it was the game publishers who wanted to spend less money on E3. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. Without the substantial E3 revenues of the big years, the ESA was forced to raise its membership dues, reportedly by as much as 400%. And some publishers(Activision, Vivendi, LucasArts, id, Crave to date) have bailed because of that. Don't be surprised if a few more jump ship now that the show is over, leaving the ESA in even worse financial straits. Eventually the lack of revenue, be it from E3 or membership dues, translates to cutting back on the services that the ESA provides to the industry: lobbying, IP protection and free speech issues.

So, were game publishers better off with an expensive E3 and a healthy ESA to represent their interests or with a terminally ill E3 and a fragmented, underfunded ESA?

The answer seems obvious. What's also obvious is that you can go ahead and schedule that trip to the beach you were planning for next July. You won't be coming to Los Angeles.

E3 is dead.


Dennis McCauley is Editor of GamePolitics.com and writes about games for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Opinions expressed in The Political Game are his own. Reach him at

This article was originally published on Joystiq.