The Show Must Go On
The ESA's Dan Hewitt explains the reasoning behind the changes to E3, and why the June event will recapture form
For many years, the E3 Expo has been the most important date in the videogames event calendar, gathering the key global figures together and unprecedented levels of attention from gamers the world over. But all that changed in 2007 and 2008 as exhibitors became fed up with the spiralling cost of ever-growing booths, while a change of location and date failed to resonate with publishers, media and analysts alike.
This year the US publisher trade body which organises the event, the ESA, has brought in more changes aimed at combining some of the spectacle of the old days with some of the practicality of the past two years in what it hopes will be a return to form. Here, senior director of communications, Dan Hewitt explains the details.
Q: Last year's event felt... a bit sparse... in the LA Convention Center - it was an event that had changed through feedback from the previous year, which had itself changed again through feedback from the year prior to that... I guess you'd make the point that what you're trying to do is listen to what the publishers have to say and provide an appropriate event accordingly?
Dan Hewitt: Right, and I think it's not just listening to what the publishers have to say, it's also listening to what the exhibitors have to say, and what the attendees' experience was for the event.
One of the things that we'd heard back in 2006 was that the show was getting too large, that it was too hard to get the business of the industry done, so what we saw in 2007 and 2008 was an effort to make a more streamlined, have an intimate experience, enable more one-on-one conversations with the executives.
In 2007 the feedback we heard was that the folks wanted to have a more centralised experience, so we moved it back to the Los Angeles Convention Center so that everything was under one roof. Then the feedback that we heard from 2008 was that it didn't actually match the excitement, thrill and energy that the industry has and is known for, so what we're looking for in the 2009 event is to really take the best practices that we've learned from holding the big events from 2004-6, as well as the smaller, intimate events of 2007-8. We really want to take the best of both of those and apply it to 2009.
The feedback that we've received so far has been overwhelmingly positive in terms of press and industry, as well as retailers and general exhibitors. One of the things that we've seen is the exhibitor list - which is preliminary and still being added to - is three times the size it was last year.
So we think we're on the right track, we're heartened by the positive feedback we've been getting, and we think we're on the right road for having a great event in June.
Q: Did the public nature of the criticism last year - and who it came from - disappoint you?
Dan Hewitt: No, I think that one of things we always want is to hear feedback no matter where it comes from. The feedback we received both publicly and privately helped to create what's going to be a great event this year.
I think that without positive and negative feedback we really aren't going to continue to have a show that's relevant and meets the needs of the attendees. Events will change, as people change, and that's a good thing as well because it helps the show to be relevant, that there's news being made, and that attendees will come to hear that news being made by the exhibitors.
In retrospect it's a positive thing that happened.
Q: There's a lot of passion around E3 - everybody has an E3 story...
Dan Hewitt: Sure, I think that's right - the E3 Expo is iconic, and everybody who's anybody in this industry attends the event. It's the one time when everyone's eyes in North America - and really, those who shape computer games around the world - are on the newest and hottest titles that are going to be on the store shelves come the Holiday season.
At the end of the day it's the one place that showcases the innovation and excitement of the industry, and the passion that people show about E3 is a reflection of the passion that they feel about the videogames.
We know we have a high bar to clear, and we're going to do that.
Q: Will this year be a bit more of a visual treat than the last couple of years have been? Will it attract more mainstream press, in the way that 2006 seemed to?
Dan Hewitt: I think that's a key focus that we have - making sure that there's definitely games press represented there, but that there's also mainstream press, and not only US press but also international media as well.
In response to the glamour and sizzle of 2005 and 2006, there are certainly going to be components of that show. But is it going to be the over-the-top excess that you've seen in years past? No - but that goes back to learning what is manageable and what is sustainable, and hearing from attendees what it is they want, and creating something that meets their needs.
It goes back to taking what was the best of the 2006 event, and what was good about 2007 and 2008, and creating something that has constituent elements.
Q: Does it get hard to stop the bigger publishers from edging up costs in a bid to have the most spectacular stand in the place...
Dan Hewitt: How do you stop the arms race from happening?
Q: Exactly - how do you manage that? Surely it's a tough one?
Dan Hewitt: It is, and it's one of the things we've developed from direct feedback, from ESA members that help determine the show size, as well as the look-and-feel. What we'll have is larger presences than what people have seen for the last two years, but we're also keeping a cap on it, so it won't be the 75,000 square feet booths we've had in years past.
The benefit of doing that is that it prohibits the arms race from really starting, and it also makes sure that the show is manageable and sustainable. I think one of the things that event organisers are careful of is avoiding their events from growing too fast and too large, and making sure of that with reasonable caps to help the event succeed.
What we've done is put controls in place to help make sure the event is sustainable and manageable, that news still gets out, that there's still a reflection of the energy and excitement of the industry - but one that can continue for this year, next year, and the years after.
Q: Are those caps on space, or cost?
Dan Hewitt: It's space - in the past two years on the show floor the exhibitors' space has looked a lot like each other's. What we've done for this year is allow exhibitors to develop their own spaces, which are reflective of the originality of the companies participating.
That will bring back some of the glamour, sizzle and excitement that the press would like to see, that the companies would like to see and the attendees want to see - they want to see what each company is about, and the best way to do that is to allow each company to decide for themselves what their space looks like, and what's in it.
Q: I feel sadly compelled to ask what the stance this year will be on the presence - or not - of booth babes?
Dan Hewitt: [laughs] Well, that goes back to the exact point of letting companies determine for themselves what is the best representation for their companies. Models are certainly welcome if companies would like to have them, but that's an individual company decision.
Q: One of the key changes this year is the date, coming back to the beginning of June - that allows companies to unveil titles which will be ready for the Holiday season, the 'Big Reveals'. How crucial is that date change?
Dan Hewitt: Well, there have been conversations about E3's dates from the beginning - there were concerns in the old days about whether May was too early, was July too late? We think that picking the date we have - June 2-4 - is going to allow us to kick off the entire news cycle of products, so it's really the launch pad of announcements for the entire coming year.
I think that where we have it now allows us to be able to talk to investor analysts, talk to retailers, but also it doesn't disrupt the development cycle. I think that it also kicks off all the other industry shows that are going to be happening later in the year, other videogames events like TGS, gamescomm, and things along those lines.
I think that underscores the importance of E3 - that it's going to be the first opportunity for these companies to make such a splash with their games.
Q: You mentioned the point about avoiding disruption to development periods - that's been a complaint from some of some events in the past, and Blizzard have already cited that as a reason for not attending E3 this year, so how much of an issue is that?
Dan Hewitt: That's a really good question, but I'd have to refer you to individual companies on that one, because pipelines or development cycles for games are different for each company.
What I can tell you is that this decision was made with the input and guidance of ESA members, and the chosen date is very organic, something that wasn't imposed. Just by the sheer fact that these publishers decided which date works best to showcase products, in consultation with developers, all that leads us to believe that June 2-4 is the right time to have the event.
Q: What exactly did the feedback process from last year's event actually entail?
Dan Hewitt: What actually happened was that we provided surveys to all of the exhibitors, and then we sent out surveys to all the attendees. So we had the quantitative part of the process, but we also did qualitative interviews with press, with retailers, with industry analysts to find out what people liked, didn't like, and what could be done better.
It goes back to what we've always done, in that E3's going to change a little bit every year to better meet the needs of its participants. So that's where the feedback comes from.
One of the things people liked during the event was the one-on-one experience. Journalists liked having quiet places to interview senior executives from companies, they liked being able to come up, see a title and casually test drive it without having 20 people behind them yelling and screaming - and those are things we're certainly looking to incorporate into the new E3 Expo.
Dan Hewitt is senior director of communications at the ESA. Interview by Phil Elliott.