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Gaming

Revving up for a pared-down E3

The Entertainment Software Association has drastically cut back its video game convention. Will smaller companies get shut out?

The once-massive Electronic Entertainment Expo has received a makeover, and few people are sure what to expect.

Last July, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) announced that its Los Angeles flagship event, arguably the most famous game conference in the world, would be slimmed. High-profile exhibitors had raised concerns that E3 had grown too big, with its original purpose as an industry gathering eclipsed by its reputation as a hot destination for hard-core gamers eager to test-drive the latest titles.

As a result, E3 has been transformed into the 2007 E3 Media and Business Summit, an invitation-only affair for industry professionals and select press members and analysts. Instead of using the massive Los Angeles Convention Center as a hub, the event will be scattered around several hotels in the quieter seaside city of Santa Monica from Tuesday evening through Friday, as well as the local airport's Barker Hangar. The hordes of 60,000 visitors to the "old E3" have been pared down to a more manageable 3,000 to 4,000.

As for consumer attendees, they'll have to settle for one of the video game industry's other trade shows--like the Tokyo Game Show, the Game Developers Conference or the new "Entertainment for All Expo" (or E for All) that the International Data Group publishing company has organized for the L.A. Convention Center in October in response to E3's recent turn toward exclusivity.

"When we asked key audiences what they wanted in a new event, they said they wanted opportunities for high-level interactions in a business atmosphere."
--Dan Hewitt, director of media relations, ESA

"Our entire goal for E3 is first and foremost about getting business done," said Dan Hewitt, the ESA's director of media relations. "When we asked key audiences what they wanted in a new event, they said they wanted opportunities for high-level interactions in a business atmosphere."

The metamorphosed E3 is less glitzy, for sure. And there are no massive hardware launches on the horizon, as there were last year when Sony's PlayStation 3 and Nintendo's Wii were a few months away from stores. But game enthusiasts are still anticipating a few surprises, especially from the industry's biggest players.

The event kicks off Tuesday night with Microsoft's press conference, followed by fellow console manufacturers Nintendo and Sony on Wednesday morning. It's not yet clear what the console manufacturers will be announcing, but rumors have spread (many of them highly unsubstantiated) of upgrades ranging from hard drives in Nintendo's Wii to an HD DVD player in Microsoft's Xbox 360 to a "revamped" PlayStation Portable handheld console from Sony. The company has already announced, as widely rumored due to a leaked Circuit City flier, that it's cutting the price of the PlayStation 3 by $100.

There also will be scores of new games from some 30-odd companies: first-person shooters like the highly anticipated Halo 3, massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like NCSoft's Tabula Rasa, family-friendly titles such as Disney Interactive's Ratatouille movie tie-in, and revamped classic games like Midway's Cruis'n and Ultimate Mortal Kombat for the Nintendo DS--to name a few.

There may not be a whole lot of big surprises, because most new games have already been announced well in advance, some already showcased at smaller press demonstrations. The ESA, however, hopes the overall fabric of the event will give industry professionals, journalists and analysts a way of gauging current and future trends in the world of gaming.

"I would encourage (enthusiasts) to keep watching the news and keep reading to see where the industry's going to be heading," the ESA's Hewitt said, "because we're going to be making some pretty big news over the next week."

But despite the ESA's promises of big news, some are skeptical that E3's lowered profile will give companies the same kind of opportunity for publicity. Game publisher Gamecock Media, which traditionally had held its own press event for independent game developers across the street from the L.A. Convention Center, treated the change in structure as a call to arms.

"We were going to do our own thing anyway before they really announced what the new format was," said Mike Wilson, Gamecock's CEO (though he prefers the title "Grand Champeen"). "Then, when (the ESA) announced that, a lot of people were really kind of shocked by how limited it was in terms of how many companies were invited, and stuff like that."

"I think everybody kind of agrees that E3 needed to die in its previous format," he said. "It's very standardized, so they don't have to spend as much money or have to outdo each other, but it's only standard for 30 companies, and almost all of those are Wall Street companies, which I think is a shame."

Funerary procession bids E3 goodbye
As a result, Gamecock has expanded its "shadow" convention and dubbed it the Expo for Interactive Entertainment, Independent and Original, or "E.I.E.I.O." for short (get it?) and will take up residency at Santa Monica's Hotel California, featuring a handful of independent games as well as a mock funerary procession as "a final goodbye to the magical beast that was E3." (It's called "E3 Up in Smoke," and takes place at 4:20 p.m. Friday, so you can imagine the kind of crowd it might draw.)

Gamecock's anti-E3 events are colorful for sure, but Wilson stressed that there's a serious message behind them. "(It's for) industry friends of ours who have been doing a show for as long as there's been a show, and now they weren't invited."

But smaller companies that did manage to score invites to the slimmed-down E3 no longer feel like they have to break the bank competing with gaming's Goliaths in a trade show environment. According to Dave Madden, executive vice president of ad-supported online gaming company WildTangent, they're now able to spend a lot less while accomplishing a lot more.

"It's a tremendous cash saver for us," Madden said. "We're not spending the $125,000 per year that we've been spending for the past five years at E3." At the old conference, companies had to make significant investments into building eye-catching booths to attract the crowds' attention.

Also, Madden explained, a company like WildTangent just doesn't benefit as much from the "try before you buy" format that made tens of thousands of consumers flock to E3 to test out the latest games.

"In an online game environment, where consumers can come try the games for free and talk about them amongst their friends," he said. "There's no need for a show."

Some people and companies are happy with E3's shakeup; others aren't. Since it's such a new format--experimental, even--there's also not a whole lot of certainty as to whether or not it will actually work. "I'm not sure if this variation of E3 will even go on next year," said Gamecock's Wilson.

"Maybe it'll be calmer this year," said WildTangent CEO Alex St. John, referring to the mayhem that had characterized the convention in years past, "but we just don't know."

One thing's for sure: we'll have a better idea by Friday.