The two main spaces of Electronic Entertainment Expo had grown into more of a circus than a trade show. To give you an idea of the kind of money that was being thrown at it, one year, a major publisher internally decided they would try to spend $1 million less on their support for the show. The booths were huge and extravagant: Sony’s reached three stories tall at one point, ziggurat-like in its construction, the entire top floor reserved for a kind of lounge where employees and their guests could look down at the rest of the show. Hired performers littered the aisles, vying for people’s attention; there were DJs, full bands, skaters doing tricks on a half-pipe, actors playing zombies or World War II soldiers, and of course, the “booth babes.” Some publishers put together theme-park-like events on their own stages, trying to attract a crowd. One year, so many guys packed around the Tecmo booth to see a show with models playing the Dead or Alive girls that a fire marshal was forced to shut it down.
There were piles of swag– the requisite middleware-themed pens and the t-shirts for game-related websites that nobody would ever visit, but plenty of other things besides, like the epidemic of red plastic W’s with flashing LEDs inside that spread across the floor in 2006, meant to promote– what? WebZen, of course, the company that was also giving out inflatable raft-like objects with no discernable purpose. Several years earlier, Nintendo had given away cute squishable foam GameCubes and Game Boy Advances that quickly became collector’s items, and many attendees seemed to feel they couldn’t afford to miss the next great tchotchke, whatever that might turn out to be. People walked around lugging huge, Xbox-branded bags into which they’d stuff anything they could get.
It was a scene, it was spectacle. The lighting resembled that of a discotheque and there were constantly looping trailers everywhere you looked. Exhibitors turned up their speakers so you could hear their games over their neighbors’. This led to escalation, and the result was a wall of noise over which you had to shout to be understood, even to people right next to you. There were industry-related parties in the evenings, and people would cut loose to relieve the tremendous stress the show had put on them; you’d see these poor souls trying to work the show again the next day, squinting at the flashing lights and wincing at the pounding, unceasing noise. Can you imagine a worse place to be with a hangover?
The funny thing about the fat years of E3 was that if you actually went just to wander the show floor, with all its tawdry attention-getting gambits, you were in some sense not getting the true picture of the event. The real action of the show had long since moved off the floor into private meeting rooms that every publisher also reserved for their use. It was here the activity that was the first and primary purpose of E3 often ended up taking place: the demonstration of upcoming products from publishers to retail buyers. And if anyone else important showed up, you would of course take them behind closed doors, so that your game wasn’t competing with a rock concert for volume. The industry’s elite tended to hang out in these private rooms and took only brief forays into the pandemonium of the floor.
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In retrospect it should have been obvious that such a show was not sustainable. The publishers were paying exorbitant sums trying to outdo each other, all so that attendees could go home with some t-shirts, an inflatable raft-like object and photos of themselves standing next to girls dressed as vampires or valkyries; perhaps they also came away with a vague impression that video games were a big and glamorous endeavor. And although the event was ostensibly industry-only, thousands of people found their way in who simply wanted to be there because everyone else was there. What was the point of it all?
After 2006, plans were made to reduce the scope of E3 drastically, and the event’s new name, dubbing it a “Media and Business Summit,” encapsulated the idea that it was meant to be a conference, not a show. The 2007 and 2008 E3s followed this new format, which features only one small show floor in one of the tertiary halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center. A subdued atmosphere permeates the exhibition space now; for showing press and buyers upcoming games, it’s businesslike and efficient. Some people don’t mind it and others clearly hate it.
Funnily enough, the big publishers, who once complained at how expensive preparing for E3 was, are now asking themselves, “what’s the point of putting something together if it’s not going to be a big deal?” A lot of international press no longer bothers to come. The event’s smaller scale has robbed it of its mythical, monolithic status— and its momentum as a place one had to go if one was doing business in games. Several other shows, most of them more consumer-focused, seem to feel that crown is now up for grabs. As an exhibitor, supporting each of these conventions (which are all over the world) to equal degrees is probably just as expensive as a big splash once a year.
It may be too late now, but I like to think there was probably a way E3 could have stayed big and relevant, yet still present a worthy value proposition for its exhibitors. Perhaps if there hadn’t been so much wastefulness, so many ostentatious displays of dubious value to begin with, it would not have come to this.