Were there clues to the demise of E3?

Posted by Scott M. Fulton, III

Los Angeles (CA) - When we learned one month ago that the Electronic Entertainment Expo was to be downsized to a much smaller, single-day gathering of media and marketing officials, some of the analysts with whom we spoke afterwards expressed a certain lack of shock. The prevailing opinion seems to be that E3's demise may speak more about the state of the trade show industry than of the gaming industry, which few believe to be in any serious trouble.

But the demise of COMDEX years earlier was largely blamed on the computer industry, which was seen as suffering from a slump, whose impact was compounded by the after-effects of 9/11. This at a time when attendees and exhibitors alike were complaining about the lack of any real business going on there. Yet if the lack of business at COMDEX was a symptom of bad business, how can we conclude with the same breath that the lack of real business at E3 - a symptom about which there were many complaints, despite high attendance - was a symptom of poor show management? Is there a deeper problem worth addressing, or at least looking for?

Lionhead Studios managing director Peter Molyneux

Lionhead Studios managing director Peter Molyneux

Molyneux responded to that by noting there seems to be a problem among the marketing divisions of game developers, where if a prospective game's designated genre doesn't appear on TV at the moment, it's a "real slag" for its developer to get it past marketing and into production. "There must be another way," he said. "We in the industry say we need more original ideas, but then, it's almost a Catch-22 situation, because whenever anybody presents an original idea, quite often the research and marketing people will say, 'Well, look, our research shows that people aren't interested in Westerns at the moment.'"

Ubisoft senior producer Julien Gerighty added, "We do a lot of sequels, on a yearly basis, but we try to always inject something completely new. Maybe at another company, there would be less sequels, but at the end of the day, it helps us to renew interest, not only for us but also for journalists or fans out there, and keep people buying games."

When a company like Microsoft has to spend two years or more developing Halo 2, with an enormous amount of investment, Gerighty added, it helps for that game to have a bankable name. "Today, when games are costing more and more," he remarked, "and you can't afford to really waste time, energy, and money on ideas that may be not 100% tested or proven successful, a license for a franchise will help you have that sort of escape chute that may save a lot of [investment]."

It's nice to have that escape chute, but an artist might not always feel more artistic working with a safety net. As Molyneux told TG Daily after the panel concluded, "I've always found it incredibly challenging, doing a sequel. Looking out at what you want to experience again, and rather than doing the same content, and experiencing that sense of wonder, getting that back again, and not saying, 'You've got to have this.'

"There's one thing missing for me, and that is passion and fear, because when you're going to do anything [innovative], you've got to have passion. And also the fear of doing something new, of actually showing it for the first time, whether it be internally to publishers or externally, is a real motivator for me."

I recalled for Molyneux how, when dramas were produced daily for radio, how they had the most beautiful pictures...because they came from the listener's own head. "It's very interesting that you say that, because personally, I think probably the most horrific piece of entertainment I've ever had was the radio," he responded, using "horrific" in this sense not to refer to its quality, but to its essence. "[In] one of the most horrific plays I've ever seen, 'The Woman in Black,' there was nothing on the set, on stage. It was all in the story. A lot of the time, when [I'm] designing [a game], I design to this feeling that you want to get to, this place that you want someone playing your game to get to, because it's already in your head. It's not easy to express what that is, it's not easy to express it visually, or with painting, or through the design process. It's more this unattainable thing that you're trying to reach."


Have game artists and game marketers reached an impasse?

Two days later, on 12 May, NCSoft designer Richard Garriott participated in a panel discussion about the merits of cross-platform gaming. While Garriott (whom some of us long-time gamers still address as "M'Lord") found himself to be the lone opponent of a massively cross-platform approach to design on the panel, he found his point of view carried a lot of weight among attendees and questioners.

NCSoft senior designer Richard Garriott

NCSoft senior designer Richard Garriott

One questioner asked, what role does the controller hardware play in considering how to craft a game that plays on both PCs and consoles? "I do believe the hardware differences, be they graphical or storage hardware, or user interface hardware, make a big difference," Garriott responded. When people describe to him the requirements of adapting games to multiple platforms, also including mobile phones, he said, "they use the word compromise. That actually sca - concerns me, because I always believed that, with the technology racing ahead so fast on each of these platforms, you might like to believe that games could be judged on their literary content. And being a person that likes to believe I'm adding some literary content to my games, I would love for that to be true. I believe I've had some success based on a small amount of that truth. But I think a much bigger factor is the "Wow" factor, where there's audio and visuals that really sell these games well above the literary content. And therefore, if you start compromising on that front-line feature in order to do cross-platform, I then have to question the value of, 'What am I gaining out of cross-platform?'"

Proponents of cross-platform then argue, continued Garriott, that a mobile-based participant could perform some accessory role in the game, such as playing a monster rather than a main character. "Personally, I'm unconvinced," he declared. It's hard enough to engineer fun into a game, he said, without having to add to that principal requirement the need to artificially restrict or slow down the playing ability of one component so as to accommodate the lower bandwidth or capabilities of the other. "I just see the lumpiness of getting everybody together at the same time, to have little advantage to a person playing on a particular platform. It makes too many compromises from the global perspective of trying to compete for shelf space, and create games that people buy."

Sony Online Entertainment president John Smedley, who also sat on that panel, immediately responded: "I look at it exactly the other way around. So, what is the game...itself? It's people enjoying a common activity together...It's different for different people. If a person is logged in on PlayStation 3, and they have the incredible graphics, and [I] can log in through his PC or his little laptop in Tokyo...I can take on a role that my machine can handle at that point in time, and I'm still able to interact and have fun. We have not compromised the main game. We've made the main game more accessible on more platforms [that] may not be able to support every single feature. I don't think that compromises the game in any way."

A representative from mobile technology manufacturer Qualcomm, who also sat on the panel, described a situation where his company's phones could be used to play a kind of "side game" that involves the use of resources from a massively multiplayer online game, without being directly involved in it, or slowing down the entire game for everyone as a result. Garriott recalled a similar concept he helped develop for a game called Lineage, and added, "The high concept of saying, let people connect to the game or contribute to the game casually through the rest of their lives while not in front of their PC, I endorse that as a broad perspective...The time that it begins to scare me is when people say, 'I'm want to play on the same server set, running avatars in the same world, driving on the same vehicles or some relationship.'"

"I just see the lumpiness of getting everybody together at the same time, to have little advantage to a person playing on a particular platform."

Richard Garriott, NCSoft

Garriott continued the argument by throwing the marketing terminology right back at their proponents. "What I still wait to hear, when I hear people talk about this cross-platform activity, is, what is compelling about the fact that it's cross-platform? I don't think the answer is, to play with more people who are on a different kind of machine - in the case of PCs and consoles - because [we just managed] to get tens of thousands, or millions, of people who have the same machine as we do, so why is it relevant that some players are not on a PC? In fact, here you break up the world into shards, so to speak. There's technical reasons [why] we could make [games] universal. But it turns out, it's not compelling to make them universal. I'm waiting for a description of the killer application, as to why is it compelling to make it cross-platform."

Later in the discussion, I redirected essentially the same question to the panel. Sony's John Smedley responded that the drive to make a massively multi-platform gaming environment continues because, "We're spending money on it now. We're happy to do it. There are certainly business things that prevent us from being on the Xbox 360, and I think that's just the way the world works. In my opinion, embrace that and take advantage of that."

Then Smedley's answer took a direction nobody expected, ending up advocating perhaps the opposite of what he intended: "What I am actually seeing now, more and more, are the products that are selling really well, aren't necessarily the ones that do go across every platform. Why does every game have to be on every platform? It doesn't. In our space, I think it's necessary to get it as broad as possible, because we need more people doing what we're trying to sell."

In other words, games should become cross-platform not because it's compelling for them to go that way, but because they need to sell more.

These two E3 panels represent the type of business that the conference was founded to foster and facilitate. And there, at the last E3 that anyone of consequence may ever attend, the most serious questions affecting the digital gaming industry were laid on the table for all to debate and consider. The possibility was there for a kind of consensus to be reached, because after all, these panelists worked on behalf of one another anyway. But instead, in the interest of expedience and convenience, these panels were pushed aside to make more room for the massive displays. There, artists and marketers could meet one another, but they couldn't say anything to one another, because they could barely hear themselves speak.

So indeed, much of the demise of E3 can be blamed upon the fact that the show didn't fulfill the needs of its industry. But that industry faces an evolutionary crossroads, which - though it hasn't yet - could conceivably lead to a downturn if its leaders in both the artistic and production space have no space or time whatsoever, in either the real or virtual worlds, to sit down with one another and reach a productive conclusion.

The loss of E3 is the story of lost opportunity. The clues that could have pointed the show's producers to that fact remain in front of us today: all the unresolved issues that remain on the table.