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Counting Rupees: E3 lives!

Jeff Engel

Each week Jeff Engel and Geoff Brooks contribute Counting Rupees, a column on the business behind gaming:

Last week GamePolitics editor Dennis McCauley declared in his weekly Joystiq column that E3 was dead. He is certainly not alone in his opinion. IGN's Craig Harris also pronounced the show dead on his blog, and EA CEO John Riccitiello said that he "hates E3 like this," vaguely threatening to simply have the publisher put on its own show in the future. And of course, the always reliable 3D Realms said that it wasn't attending E3 this year because it was "irrelevant".

A lot of people were disappointed with this year's E3, perhaps even more so than what most considered a horribly executed 2007 E3. As someone who has never been to E3, I suppose I don't have any personal experience to draw from to tell you how much worse this year's E3 was than the ones from 2006 and before. However, as someone who has anxiously awaited and followed E3 for many years, I wonder whether a lot of this reaction is overblown.

There's certainly no question that E3 has changed. After the 2006 E3, which is perhaps most well remembered as marking the Wii's explosion onto the scene, it was announced that E3 was canceled. As Dennis pointed out, publishers did not think it was a cost-effective use of their money to put on such a big and expensive show. Even the extra media attention that the show garnered was apparently not enough for the publishers. Additionally, the show was putting a lot of strain on developers to deliver something that maybe wasn't ready yet, to the ultimate detriment of the developer and publisher of the game (just ask Dennis Dyack). As such, E3 was reformulated into what we see today so that, theoretically, the focus would be more specifically on games and less on the spectacle. Actually, even in some parts of the media, this was supported. IGN's VP of Content Publishing Peer Schneider posted on his blog that he was "relieved" and that it was a "huge money, time, and resource drain every year -- a huge industry pissing match on multile [sic] levels." Joystiq offered its own Good, Bad, and Ugly. Here was the good as posted in July 2006:

  • Our jobs get easier. During E3, the Joystiq team churned out 100 posts a day over the duration of the event, but there were probably still things that we missed. If there are multiple shows throughout the year, we'll be able to cover events in more detail and breadth.
  • You, the reader, get a much more even flow of information. As one of the team members that didn't attend the show, I had a hard job keeping up with the flow of content. Now that E3 is gone, I can look forward to consuming my gaming news in smaller, easier to digest chunks.
  • More access to the public? E3 was not accessible to the public, and was a strictly over-18 trade and press show. Hopefully future shows will split the show between press/trade exclusive days and open-access days so regular consumers can try out the latest games and hardware.
  • A cooler atmosphere. E3 is was a very stressful place to be, with every booth being designed to be as loud and as bright as possible in order to attract as much attention as possible. Now that E3 is gone, publishers and developers won't have to spend so much money hiring dancers and huge booths. In other words, the games will have a chance to shine through.
  • Worldwide game shows, not just L.A? Due to the expected fragmentation that the E3 cancellation is expected to bring, we can probably expect more regional shows designed to target individual demographics in different countries.
  • More focus on indies? Independent developers either couldn't attend E3 due to the high cost, or if they did, they were drowned out by the big publishers and their massive booths.

Well, we know that "more access to the public" didn't happen, and that the show actually became an invite-only affair. And there wasn't, to my knowledge, a big increase in regional shows, nor does it appear that indie developers have increased their stature at the show. But, the other bullet points were certainly possibilities that at least sounded like "good" things to Joystiq , and the "cooler" atmosphere certainly speaks to the desire to reduce the amount of spectacle and increase the focus on games. As someone who has only consumed the news coming out of E3 rather than report it, this certainly seems to have been the case.

In 2007, most of the complaints seemed to center around the fact that the show was held in Santa Monica and in several different locations, which made travel between various demonstrations and conferences difficult and annoying. So, that was remedied this year by putting it all back into one building. Seemingly, this obvious move to make the show far more convenient to people may have caused the biggest problems. The fact that the show was so much smaller and less lively than previous shows in the same place created, I think, a comparative perception of a worthless show. The reality, however, based on the amount of actual news that has come out of the show is not as conclusive.

Looking back at the coverage of the last "great" E3 of 2006 and comparing it to the amount of coverage generated from E3 2008 doesn't reveal a huge gap. In 2006, Joystiq published 367 stories between May 7-17 (E3 was May 10-12), which represents the Sunday before E3 through the Wednesday of the week after. During this year's E3, Joystiq has so far published 357 articles since Sunday, July 13 (as of early morning July 22). Granted, the E3s occurred during slightly different days of the week, plus this includes all articles written, not just the ones about E3. Still, the numbers are virtually even, and I'd bet that the amount of coverage in a similar time period will actually end up exceeding the E3 2006 number. To use another site's number, IGN published 927 game updates during E3 2006 and 745 game updates during E3 2008 (so far). Sure, that's almost 25% more stories in 2006, but that was also the year the Wii was first unveiled. I don't have any specific numbers, but I'd guess that the show probably cost a lot more than just 25% extra as well. In any case, if the one of the intentions of the show is to drive coverage of games, the numbers don't suggest to me that a huge amount of actual gaming news was lost after the E3 transformation.

This doesn't mean that E3 is perfect the way it is. Clearly, there's room for improvement. Certainly, since the change the show is less exciting than it used to be, and if it continues in this form it will probably continue to be so. At the same time, if it's not interesting to the media in attendance (who, in this format, is likely to be mostly "gaming" media), then even the game industry's core audience will begin to tune it out as the media gets bored with covering it. To that effect, perhaps companies should realize who their audience is and not spend their entire press conference talking about a video game movie adaptation that will, in all likelihood, be terrible. Or, perhaps, companies shouldn't promise that they'll deliver games that the audience will be interested in, only to completely fail them (and then reverse their earlier claims after the fact). And maybe, just maybe, the keynote speaker shouldn't be someone who just wants to promote his state. All of these are certainly problems with E3, but all of these can be rectified. And if I'm right, E3 will have a chance to do just that next year.

As co-editors of A Link To The Future, Geoff and Jeff like to discuss, among many other topics, the business aspects of gaming. Game companies often make decisions that on their face appear baffling, or even infuriating, to many gamers. Yet when you think hard about them from the company's perspective, many other decisions are eminently sensible, or at least appeared to be so based on the conditions at the time those choices were made. Our goal with this column is to start a conversation about just those topics. While neither Geoff nor Jeff are employed in the game industry, they do have professional backgrounds that are relevant to the discussion. More to the point, they don't claim to have all the answers -- but this is a conversation worth having. You can reach them at

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