Let’s Reboot E3!

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I had a good laugh today when I read on gamasutra that top publisher executives are calling for a change to E3.
Wasn’t it just a few years ago that top publisher executives caused E3 to be torn apart?
Admittedly, none of the gentlemen (all of whom I have great respect for) quoted in the gamasutra piece were the ones calling for a change to the original format. The E3 form that we had all grown to love and hate had gotten completely out of control, more about the parties and one-upsmanship than the games themselves. For the companies that needed to pay for huge booths and parties in order to get attention in the arms race of the show it was a case of slowly diminishing returns year on year. I was involved in the Sony E3 booth prep in varying ways over my five years at SCEA, and had an increasing role during the PS3 launch era, and I can definitely attest to the incredible costs and pressures of putting together a good show. Many good people got many gray hairs. (See a video of the E3 2006 floor on YouTube.)
But in the past few years, E3 has just been an embarrassing mess. Each year so many people ask me “are you going to the show?” And my answer is “why bother?” Most of the major publishers have launched their own dedicated events, where they can highlight their products to the media without needing to fight with the distraction of a million other booths and games screaming at 100 decibels. In the E3 that we now remember somewhat fondly, only the huge booths of the major publishers and console manufacturers got much attention. With the current format, at least now smaller publishers are able to get more attention by holding their own events. And the cost is doubtless much less for everyone. It seems on first glance that the only people who lose in the current format are the gaming media, who are traveling all over the country to attend many more dedicated events – perhaps something that they enjoy, actually. (See a video of the E3 2008 floor by Wired’s Chris Kohler.)
As an industry however, we have lost the annual attention of the non-gaming media that used to come from having such a blow-out event each year. What other conference is there in the U.S. that can inspire CNN, Fox News, and the New York Times to come spend days immersed in the world of videogames? Perhaps PAX is rising to that level now. But it isn’t quite the same as having such a huge dedicated business event right in the middle of downtown Los Angeles.
For me, E3 was something that inspired me to work hard, pull lots of long hours, and not sleep enough for weeks or months beforehand. Many developers that I worked with hated having to bang out gorgeous milestones exclusively for the show. But the experience of the event was a glorious release, where the entire industry came together to try and impress one another (and of course the media), to celebrate the industry and having survived another year. During the week of E3 I would spend days literally running back and forth to non-stop meetings in the various halls, with my head down so that I wouldn’t run into people I knew and become late for my next appointment. At night we would all hop from one event to another, catching up with friends and asking each other “what’s good at the show?” so that we could make a beeline to see the next hot thing in the 30 minutes of free time we had the following day. It was a glorious kind of chaos. Thankfully for only three days.
So here we are. We’ve had a few years of the “why bother” E3. By ditching our old format, we put a halt to the arms race. We stopped the increasing number of “can I get a party ticket” meetings. But we’ve also lost some of that sense of the industry as a family, and the huge amount of media attention that we used to get at the conference. We’ve lost the ability to take a pause each year and measure the growth of the artform of videogames versus the year before.
Now that we’ve had the chance to take some deep breaths, to learn what we like and hate about the current format versus what we liked and hated about the original format, can we please start trying to swing the pendulum back the other direction again? It’s time. Or, why don’t we flush it altogether and start anew, or agree that we’re going to have PAX or GDC (please god no, it is already too crazy) be our “new E3”.
The half-E3 we have now is a sad reflection of its former glory, of the celebration of videogames that we once had. It’s time. Let’s reboot E3!