The People's Expo

A video-game fair wants to fill the void left by the end of E3

November 16, 2006|By Seth Schiesel | Seth Schiesel,New York Times News Service

KING OF PRUSSIA, Pa. -- Surveying the sparse scene by the old-school Gorf machine, bathing in the greasy odors of cheese steaks and chicken fingers wafting from the cookery in the linoleum-tiled basement of the Valley Forge Convention Center here recently, it certainly felt a long, long way from Los Angeles.

For the past decade, the video game industry's annual calendar has been dominated by the elephantine Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles each spring. E3, as the show has come to be known, was not supposed to be open to the public; instead it was theoretically meant for journalists and industry professionals.

In reality, E3 ballooned to almost unmanageable proportions in recent years because it seemed as if any young person who worked in any local video game store around the world could get into the show with five friends. As one top game executive put it this summer: "Look, to run this business effectively, there are really only 150 people that I need to deal with worldwide. The other 80,000 people coming to E3 made it almost impossible to actually get any business done."

So a few months ago the Entertainment Software Association, which ran E3, killed it. Starting next year, E3 will no longer be the sprawling convention the industry had come to know and loathe, but rather a far smaller, invitation-only conference at the posh hotels by the Santa Monica, Calif., harbor.

And that's why many people in the video game business were curious about what would go down in the distinctly unposh basement here, where a local entrepreneur named Ed Fleming was staging a fan fair called America's VideoGame Expo. While the annual Tokyo Game Show and Leipzig Games Convention in Germany are open to the public, there is no major national event for video game fans in the United States. So a recent expo was a sort of bellwether for the future of smaller regional events driven by local fans rather than big corporations.

With the industry headed into its all-important holiday push, and with Sony and Nintendo set to release new game consoles in just a few weeks (the PlayStation 3 and Wii, respectively), the hope was that the game expo here would be a rollicking, packed-to-the-gills scene with throngs of fans playing the Wii, the PS3 and this holiday season's top new games, debating their merits until all hours of the morning.

Put gently, those hopes were not fulfilled, not least because the event drew only about 5,500 attendees over three days. That was roughly a third of the 17,000 who showed up last year, when the show was part of a broader consumer show sponsored by a major Philadelphia television station.

There were no Wiis. There were no PS3s. There were no demonstration booths from any of the major video game publishers. Instead the show was dominated by an array of classic arcade games from the 1970s and '80s, like Gorf, Frogger and Zaxxon.

"Frankly, I was disappointed there wasn't any next-generation presence here," Jamil Moledina, executive director of the Game Developers Conference, the top event series for nuts-and-bolts game professionals, said on his way out the door, referring to the PS3 and Wii. "That's really what you need to make a consumer event succeed. I think a lot of people had fun playing the classic machines, but that's not really enough for a national-level show."

Sleep-deprived but optimistic on the show floor late in the event, Fleming acknowledged the hurdles but held out hope for the future.

"Certainly, I think some people were hoping for more from VGExpo," he said. "This is our transition year from a regional event to something with a national and maybe even international scope. I think the industry still doesn't really grasp the potential of consumer events, and it's been really difficult to educate them about the merits of these kind of events. What we need now is for the likes of Electronic Arts, Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo to become a part of this."

Fleming said that in four or five years, he hopes to draw 100,000 people to the show.

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