Let me start with the following statement: E3 has been one of the best events for ICO this year. I had excellent meetings there and I was very happy with the outcome for us. But, Iultimately believe it was an anomaly.
This was my first E3 since 2006, the last “big year” for the show. It went into limbo for 2 years (well, no, it went to Santa Monica but as far as bells and whistles are concerned, that was about the same) to come back to the LA Convention Center in 2009. And while it is not as big as in 2006, bells and whistles are there and very loud. It is shiny again, it has sexy almost naked booth babes again, it is the biggest video game show around again. Right?
My issue with E3 is that 5 years have passed since it went into a deep crisis and nothing has changed. Or more exactly, what has changed feels wrong: Kentia Hall has disappeared.
For those who never knew E3 before, Kentia Hall was the space for small companies involved in games. Kentia, right below South Hall, hosted those without the budget to have a big noisy booth, and it ended up being a mix between horribly bad business ideas, beautiful undiscovered gems and everything in between. It was also where you would find the companies that didn’t directly publish or make games but that would have a role in the production or the distribution process. I loved Kentia Hall. It used to be my favourite part of E3 (after the babes, some would say).
For me, the disappearance of Kentia is the surest sign that E3 is headed in the wrong direction. It used to host a large number of diverse companies, but now features a much smaller number of exhibitors, most of them very large. The show is effectively dependent on those few publishers, most of whom are seeing the biggest part of their business – retail – shrinking fast. This also means that E3 is totally missing many innovative initiatives in the gaming space. I am not even talking iOS games or SN games, but simply the work of independent developers, where more innovation is happening than with traditional publishers. Just look at the Activision’s E3 release praising the innovations being pushed by the company – journalists are making fun of their wording, with all the games in the line-up being existing IPs and sequels.
So… E3 is a show about media (and retailers). But it’s designed to serve traditional ‘megaphone’ media, as it was done in 2000. Media has evolved and became social, and so far E3 doesn’t seem to be recognising this in any way. Some publishers Get It, but their word-of-mouth success isn’t helped by E3’s format and structure; rather, it happens in spite of these. As a sign of times to come, the biggest (and almost only) video game print media publisher in France just announced that it’s entering bankruptcy.
I am pretty sure the 10 biggest publishers around are very happy that their bells and whistles are no longer bringing eyeballs to the small fishes that used to proliferate in Kentia Hall. Unfortunately, in getting rid of Kentia, E3 may have killed off the one element in its ecosystem that could ensure the show’s long term survival.
There are also a number of seemingly obvious things that E3 should be providing in support of the international video games industry, but for some reason they aren’t.
No public Wifi. Well, to be honest, that’s not true. There was an official E3 wifi, that costed $25 a day and was pretty unreliable. By the second day, it was totally unusable. Absolutely unacceptable at this price. There was also free Wifi at the Target sponsored space, which made it a very popular spot. There are a lot of international attendees at this event who expect to be able to rely on a free, relatively stable Wifi connection provided by the organisation. It seems such a greedy move to ask so much money for what has become a complimentary service at so many events (hey, Gamescom, if you are reading this, make wifi free this year!). And as media-focused event, it is missing out on the opportunities for their attendees to tweet about the event and push for pictures on Facebook – a lot of what the new media is about in the end. So, it’s a detail? Definitely, but such an annoying one that it contributed to my negative impression about the event’s organisation and showing the wrong state of mind.
No dedicated business area. Again, not totally true. Most big publishers had meeting rooms in their booth. Alternatively, it was possible to meet in one of the hire rooms on the upper floor — but not if you had a normal visitor’s badge. It was freely accessible if you had a media or exhibitor badge, but an exhibitor had to escort you into the area. Because, you know, if you are going to E3 and you are not media, you are not really THAT welcome. The show is not intended for you. So please phone the person you are supposed to meet, or walk away and try to find somewhere with wifi so you can send an email, pray for an answer and then go to the entrance of the meeting area hoping your contact will come and pick you up. People without a booth were meeting at the South Hall cafe as a last resort, and again that’s happening despite what seem to be E3’s best efforts.
Apart from all of this, E3 still has a number of things going for it:
– A strong reputation. I got the feeling a number of people go to E3 out of habit. It’s so big that it’s got to still be important, right?
– No like-for-like competitors. There is no other show trying to eat E3’s lunch. GDC has taken the portion of it that was important to them: the conferences. PAX and Comic Con have both taken a bunch of the E3 clients, but that’s without even trying. Where was NCsoft this year at E3? Not on the show floor, but they will be at Comic Con. Where was The Behemoth at E3? Not attending, but they will definitely be at PAX. With everyone getting closer to their end users, a show purely focused on the spectacular and for a limited attendee list doesn’t make much sense anymore.
– Timing. The E3 ‘season’ is really well timed to kick off hype before the full-steam marketing machine starts spending in September. But that’s a very retail focused consideration, and the industry is moving away from that model in many ways.
The E3 also has the “Big Three” conferences. Or maybe it should be the Big Four? After all Apple very nicely timed their own conference in LA to be E3 friendly. They clearly are stepping on a number of game consoles toes in the handheld space and might stepping on the living room machines soon. But if Apple is any sign of what is coming, the fact that they had n0 presence within the E3 halls should be a sign that big press conference don’t require to pay the premium to be there. And an even bigger sign is how followed those conferences are online. The physical location doesn’t matter as much as it used to do and the show should worry about what is the added value it is bringing to its attendees and its exhibitor.
So is E3 doomed? If it doesn’t change, I think it definitely is. It would take a few more years to die, but I can’t see it surviving in its current form. Happily, it is not too late for the organizers to embrace some important changes, so the event can become relevant again to the industry as a whole. Here’s what it needs to do:
– Embrace the business side. The integration of the Connection Events matchmaking system is a nice step in that direction. It was announced too late this year, and the system needs some improvements, but knowing the people at Connection Events I don’t doubt they are already working on it. This is the kind of tool that can make doing business a lot easier, helping you to meet people you had no connection with before, who you may not have known even existed. E3 also needs to find a formula for small businesses to come together in a dedicated space (they could learn a lot from Gamescom in that respect) and stop treating them like second-class citizens. After you’ve paid a significant amount of money to gain access to people who want to meet you, it is very upsetting to be bounced back because you don’t have the required accreditation level.
– Embrace the consumer side. I am amazed at how much money the big companies are spending just to impress such a small portion of the population. Treating the media well is not a bad idea, but in today’s world you should do this by treating them as adults and business-minded people, and showing them that you know your trade — not by showing off how good your booth babe recruitment agency is. Engaging with the users is so important nowadays, showing at E3 seems very counter-intuitive to me.
– Embrace the new platforms. That’s a lot trickier to achieve. Social games companies would need to be convinced that E3 is relevant and interesting to them, and while iOS companies might be easier to convince, they would need some form of real incentive, since they have become successful without having to use bells and whistles. And obviously, the same goes for all the online games business. I think a lot of this could happen more easily if the show would (re-)open to the public, and embrace a form of community gathering outlets – but again, E3 would have to find an elegant way to make it more attractive than an event they would organize themselves.