GDC, the Game Developers Convention, is coming up next week. It's the first time I've gotten a full access pass for GDC, and it's going to be kind of crazy – five straight days of game development discussion, from 9 AM to 5 PM every single day. Yeesh. In some ways I'm glad GDC only happens once a year – I'm not sure I could stand more than five days a year of this.
It's also gotten me thinking about the other major gaming conventions and why they exist. A few years ago there were three major conventions, and today there are arguably four.
The Game Developers Convention has been around for all of modern gaming – the first meeting was held in 1987 in a living room. Now it rents out all of Moscone Center in San Francisco. GDC is focused on, as you'd expect, game development, including lectures on everything from design and story to the business, finance, and legal side of things.
The Penny Arcade Expo takes the other side of things, as it's focused entirely towards the players. While it's only a few years old, it's been growing spectacularly, literally doubling in size yearly. This year it has most, if not all, of the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle. It's three days long and approximately thirty times cheaper to attend than GDC. While there are many conventions where gaming occurs (practically every major anime convention, just to start with), PAX is the only one I know of where computer and video gaming is the focus.
And then, of course, there's E3.
The Electronic Entertainment Expo started as a business convention. E3 was where you went to find venture capitalists, to sell your game, or to see what Microsoft, Nintendo, or Sony had in mind for their next console. It certainly didn't stay that way – it quickly turned into a marketing and PR extravaganza. Business deals still went on behind the scenes, but the "focus" of the convention was glitz and glamour. Companies spent resources putting together "E3 demos", flashy and impressive demos that would be shown during E3 and never again, even when the overall quality of the game suffered thanks to the wasted effort. "E3 booth babes" were hired by the dozens, girls in skimpy outfits (that rarely had anything to do with the game or company) simply for the purposes of attracting a small amount of extra attention.
It was not a good situation, and virtually the entire industry eventually realized this.
About two years ago all of the major exhibitors at E3 withdrew. E3 was canceled and the owners revamped it thoroughly. What emerged is now known as the E3 Media and Business Summit, preserving the original business focus but eliminating all the glamor and glitz that plagued E3. The new E3 is invitation-only, instantly cutting attendance by over a factor of ten, and it has gone back to its original roots.
That's not completely the end for old-style E3, however. There's a new offshoot of E3 known as Entertainment For All, an attempt to make a fourth major convention based around what E3 used to be. There's little I can say about this because it's only a year old by now, but the focus appears to be, again, marketing – providing a place where the common gamer can show up and be advertised at. On their website there's very little on what to do besides the expo floor – it's entirely concerned with, hey, come to E for All! We have new games! And people who want to sell you new games!
This is something that we don't need.
First off, the publishers don't need any help advertising. There are already plenty of ways that you can buy people's attention with money, and we certainly don't need more of them. You could argue that we need more ways for smaller games to carve themselves a market share, but a huge convention like E for All simply isn't going to provide this unless they subsidize smaller developers heavily. Floor space costs money, and smaller developers can't afford that money – even the big publishers generally try to cram as many separate games as possible into their space, frequently managing to squeeze several games into the size of the smallest purchasable floorspace.
But second, and most importantly: a separate "marketing convention" is counterproductive. The largest group of gamers are going to be at the conventions which are fun in their own right. That's PAX. Nobody says "hey let's go down to the advertising center and see what they want to sell us", but people will gladly go to PAX and, once there, they will visit the expo hall. That is where they should be attempting to get people's attention.
Unfortunately, just moving the advertising to PAX doesn't fix the problem. The huge downside to E3-as-it-used-to-be was the sheer cost. If you had a major game coming out in the next year, you had to be at E3, you had to have an impressive booth with booth babes and free stuff and a flashy demo available. All of these costs, plus all of the effort needed to get a demo ready for that day no matter what, was a significant money drain. While PAX thankfully hasn't been allowing booth babes much of the rest could still apply.
Worse, I'm honestly not sure how useful, from a pure marketing standpoint, talking to gamers is. The gamers will no doubt generate some of their own publicity when they see new and exciting games (this is, after all, the point of marketing, right? Showing things to people who might buy them? Not just showing things to everyone, loudly and repeatedly with flashing colors?) but the unfortunate fact is that it's hard to beat the sheer advertising factor of having your game shown on every gaming news site. There's some risk of the PAX expo hall turning into a self-contained incestuous glob of marketing – despite how bad that situation is for everyone involved.
Fundamentally, the idea of an "advertising convention" is broken. Conventions are for large masses of people, when what marketing wants is for their products to show up in magazines. That doesn't require a large number of convention attendees at all, that just requires a few phone calls. Combining the two just leads to nastiness, where the publishers and game studios go to more and more expensive extremes in order to attract the few "important" people.
PAX serves an important purpose as it is now, and GDC certainly does as well. But we don't need another old-style E3.