Image: E3 2006
AFP-Getty Images file
A model dressed as a character from a video game poses with an attendee at the 2006 Electronic Entertainment Expo. The video game trade show has been renamed the "E3 Media and Business Summit," stripped of the glitz and taken on a more business-like tone.
By Games editor
msnbc.com
updated 7/15/2008 8:34:42 AM ET 2008-07-15T12:34:42

LOS ANGELES — E3 has seen better days. Or, at least, bigger ones.

The annual trade show for the video game industry used to be a massive, circus-like event with tens of thousands of people packing the L.A. Convention Center to see video games demos, booth babes and cameo appearances from kooky celebs such as Gary Coleman and Ice-T.

But then E3 got serious. It renamed itself the “E3 Media and Business Summit,” slashed the guest list, ditched the booth babes, expensive parties, D-list celebs and glitzy demonstrations. Attendance dwindled from the more than 80,000 people packing the convention center to a fraction of that — about 5,000 people this year.

With so few attendees, no big announcements and not much buzz, it begs the question: Is E3 going the way of the dinosaur? Or perhaps, going the way of the more recently extinct Comdex?

Comdex, if you remember, was amust-attend computer and technology show for almost 25 years. At its peak, it hosted 200,000 people. But in the late 1990s, it began to lose focus, and in turn, lose prominent exhibitors. The last Comdex, in 2003, drew maybe 50,000 people. The 2004 show was canceled, and it has remained in the morgue ever since.

Attendance to E3 hasn’t dwindled because of lack of interest in the game industry. The Entertainment Software Association, which throws E3 each year, deliberately made the show smaller. Things had gotten out of hand, they said. It was time to take it down a notch.

Why? Because publishers and developers had complained about the cost, says ESA spokesperson Dan Hewitt. It was expensive to concoct a booth that would wow competitors and journalists. It was expensive to send entire development teams to a show in the middle of May — not to mention interruptive to game-development cycles. And the whole thing was just too loud and too chaotic to get any real work done.

“One of the things we’d heard was that it was too overcrowded,” says Hewitt. “Folks never got a chance to get a feel for the games that were being showcased that on the show floor. “

So last year, E3 downsized. Instead of taking over the convention center in May, it moved to a series of hotel rooms in Santa Monica — in July. The idea was, ostensibly, to allow game developers a chance to make a more fully fleshed-out game that would demo better to the press and retailers.

Journalists trudged from hotel to hotel, receiving carefully controlled presentations of games that had already been announced. There was no real news. And the expo, held out at an old airplane hangar, was sparsely attended.

The show moved back to the L.A. Convention Center this year, in the smaller West Hall. And the first thing I noticed was the swarm of press types that seemed to outnumber retailers and developers. I waited in line for the Microsoft press briefing Monday; several of us joked that if no news happened, we could always just report on each other.

Still, despite the glut of scribes like myself, there are plenty of journalists who took a pass on the show this year. That’s partially because of the lack of buzz — but it’s also due to budget squeezes.

“A lot of the major publications aren’t sending people this year — particularly with tighter budgets,” says Cliff Edwards, a reporter with Business Week. “They’re picking and choosing battles — and the E3 is losing that battle. “

Little news is expected from the E3 these days. Once the platform for major announcements, competing conferences such as the Tokyo Game Show, the Leipzig Game Convention, the Game Developer Conference and the Penny Arcade Expo means publishers and platform manufacturers have other forums to break news.

Despite E3 being moved to July, game companies haven’t changed their habits of showing off their wares in May, says Dean Takahashi, a blogger with VentureBeat. He says game companies such as Electronic Arts put on demonstrations for the press ahead of E3.

“A lot of the games that everybody’s going to be seeing at E3 have already been seen before,” he says. “So, what’s left is any surprise announcements that (companies) might have, late-breaking unveiling of games and news from console makers.”

The lack of news and the much-smaller size — whether it’s by design or not — adds to the perception that it’s just not worth going to E3. And it’s not just journalists. Several companies took a pass on exhibiting at E3, too. Most notable of the game developers was Activision, the massive publisher and developer that recently completed its acquisition of Vivendi.

To top it off, several developers have defected from the Entertainment Software Association, including Activision, id software and LucasArts. And this contributes to the concern that people have that E3 is falling apart, says Takahashi.

“Some people really thought that old E3 was a great thing for the industry’s visibility,” he says. “The extravaganza was the valuable part that drew media from around the world — broadcast media in particular.”

The extravaganza definitely contributed to the gotta-be-there feeling about the now-deceased Comdex. And the lack of buzz around it helped hasten its demise. So will all of the grousing about E3 bring it to a similar end?

Not likely, says Michael Pachter of Wedbush Morgan. The industry would sooner go back to its old E3 ways — million-dollar booths and all — than let the show die completely.

“If they keep doing this for one or two more years, nobody will go,” he says. “The impetus for moving it back is all the defections.”

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