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Video game developers get a breather

E3's move from May to July would alter production cycle, giving developers time to create bigger, better prototypes.

Springtime may have just gotten a little easier for a lot of video game developers.

The Entertainment Software Association's and likely move it from May to July may spare game makers from preparing demos long before the titles are ready for store shelves.

"When (our) studios heard the news, we were happy about it, because (E3 happening) later in the year gives us time to be further along in our development cycle," said Trudy Muller, director of corporate communications for Electronic Arts, "and it creates a 'truer' demo and a more robust game for the media and anyone who is looking at the game at that time."

One of the problems developers faced was trying to get in showable shape for E3, and feeling you had to have something really strong to show.
--David Cole, president, DFC Intelligence

Since E3's humble beginnings in 1995, the show has grown to be one of the largest in the world. The 2006 edition drew 60,000 attendees. For developers and publishers like EA, Activision, Ubisoft and many others, that's meant preparing, by mid-May, playable demos of games that would go on sale for the holiday shopping season. In many cases, that's not easy, and it can mean hours of extra coding to get the game in the showroom.

Now, with E3 seemingly poised for a relaunch next July, it appears developers will have more time to get that work done, and production schedules should smooth. Jamil Moledina, director of the Game Developers Conference, or GDC, which takes place each March and has typically been the second-largest game-related show, said the impact of E3's moving out a couple months could be considerable.

The traditional video game development cycle has revolved around having working prototypes of full games or game levels available to show to publishers in time for GDC, followed by full demos that are ready for E3 two months later, Moledina said. A July E3 would mean publishers would have an extra two months.

Publishers like EA would likely be able to show off a more complete roster of games, Muller said. "Because you're closer to the launch window, you don't have to take the time out to create a specific May demo," she said.

Some industry experts agree that the timing change could be a boon.

"One of the problems developers faced was trying to get in showable shape for E3, and feeling you had to have something really strong to show," said David Cole, president of video game analysis firm DFC Intelligence. "It was almost a mini product launch. The question will be, 'Is this going to be much less pressure because you are dealing with mainly the retail buyers (at the proposed scaled-down E3) and you can give them an in-depth showing, and not feel you have to have all this flash and buzz and noise surrounding the product?'"

Uncertain trade-off for some
But some publishers aren't quite ready to say what the impact of the E3 changes will be.

"Honestly, until we have more details from the ESA on what the new E3 will be, it's hard for us to say how our development cycle will be impacted," said Jaime Borasi, senior manager of corporate communications for video game publisher Ubisoft. "It's really too early to tell. We're looking forward to hearing more about what they have planned."

Moledina said he's not sure the changes are good for developers. While a July date means two more months to produce playable demos, it also means less time between the show and when games ship in November.

"I'm not sure this is a net benefit for developers," Moledina said. "If they get squeezed out on the other side, then whatever time savings they might have had on the front end, they may lose on the back end."

That might be particularly true in 2007, he added, since so many game publishers will be working on titles for the forthcoming PlayStation 3, a next-generation console that requires far more quality assurance work on games than in the past.

Risks aside, analysts like Cole still think the ESA's move will help smooth development cycles.

"You almost (had) to do a separate marketing campaign to stand out at E3, and the hope is that some of that challenge will go away," said Cole. "Development cycles have proven real challenging. Hopefully (the change) can make a real difference."