As regular USgamer readers know, I've been kicking around the games industry since the mid-80s. During that time I've attended more video game conventions than I care to mention, and have had fun working both trade-only events, as well as consumer-oriented shows. However, it wasn't until the very early 90s that I started to regularly attend the Consumer Electronics Show.
At that point, E3 didn't exist, and instead, the video game industry would gather twice yearly under the auspices of CES in Chicago during the summer, and in Las Vegas in winter. Both seasonal conventions were sprawling, multi-hall affairs that were attended by all manner of consumer tech manufacturers. There were endless booths showcasing everything from TVs through phones to all sorts of gadgets and gizmos.
The video game industry usually had its own quite sizeable area in one of the main halls, and walking around checking out the wares on display was a quite civilized experience. Despite looking, I can't find any CES attendance figures for this period, but anecdotally, there just seemed to be a lot of space and plenty of room to breathe. I remember being able to freely walk around and pretty much pick up and play whatever I wanted at the many demo stations. Sure, there were crowds, but the sheer scale of the show, width of the pathways that separated the booths, and volume of different products on display helped disperse the show attendees, and there was nothing like the mad crush that is commonplace at E3 these days.
Well, I say "these days," but actually E3 has always seemed like a far more intense and densely populated experience than CES. Even in its first year, I remember the show feeling like it was absolutely packed with people. That was in 1995, when 50,000 attendees descended upon the LA Convention Center to check out hot new hardware like Sega Saturn, Sony PlayStation, 3DO's M2 console, and the Virtual Boy.
Since then, E3's crowds have ebbed and flowed between a low of around 40,000 to a high of 70,000. That excludes 2007 and 2008, when the show was controversially downsized to the relatively modest E3 Media and Business Summit and held in Santa Monica, where it attracted just 10,000 visitors in its first year, and an even smaller crowd of 5,000 in its second. The show bounced back in 2009 when it returned to its usual size and space at the LA Convention Center, and since then, attendance has been fairly consistent at around 50,000 people per year.
However, despite its numbers remaining fairly steady, E3 seems to have become increasingly crowded over the past few years. I'm not sure whether that's down to booths cramming in more demo stations, the general layout of the show being tighter, or simply the fact that there are more show attendees wanting to play games than ever before, but last year especially, there were some huge lines of people waiting to check out games. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that 5,000 tickets were given away to "prosumers" – non-industry folks that usually aren't invited to attend E3 – but last year's show just felt like a bit of a mess.
I don't necessarily have a problem with that. It took a little longer to get from appointment to appointment, but I was able to get my job done effectively enough. What I am concerned about, however, is what happens when 15,000 members of the general public are let into the show, as is going to be the case this year.
E3 has traditionally been an industry and media-only event, and has a certain format that's centered on professional engagement. Pathways around the show are quite narrow compared to other consumer conventions I've visited, and booths are relatively closely packed together. There hasn't really been the need for much in the way of line management, there are no consumer-oriented panels, no special events or attractions, few vendors selling mechandize, and food is notoriously limited. Since its inception, E3 just hasn't needed to cater to the needs of the general public.
With that in mind, I'm wondering how E3 is going to change this year to ensure that it delivers a really good experience to the new incoming public attendees. People will be paying what I think is a pretty hefty sum of $149 for a day pass, or $249 for a three-day pass, and at that price, I think expectations will be high. Ticketholders will naturally assume that they'll get the chance to play the hottest new games and hardware, so how will that be managed to maximize hands-on time with games, and to avoid potential hours-long queues? Will E3's organizers be hiring more show staff to help deal with the influx of consumers, or will publishers be expected to manage their own crowds? Will booths be redesigned so that they can handle demo throughput more efficiently?
Public events like PAX, EGX, and GamesCom are geared specifically towards the consumer, and their organizers have years of experience making sure that their shows run smoothly for their attendees. With E3 going public, it's trying to be two things at once: A trade show, as well as a consumer event.
Can it work? I think that for most industry folks, this year's E3 will be business as usual. They'll be able to get their work done regardless of the crowds: Demos and interviews are almost all conducted behind closed doors in meeting rooms and media lounges, so I don't see much of an impact there. I'm just worried about how the show will cater to the consumer for the reasons I've outlined above.
E3 organizer ESA says that it has, "a model that allows the business of the industry to continue for our business and media attendees and provides an opportunity for video games' biggest fans to experience the latest in innovative, immersive entertainment," and that sounds promising. However, as of now, no details are forthcoming. With tickets going on sale in just a few days, consumers are essentially going to be buying them on good faith – without knowing which publishers will be attending the show, and what events might be happening.
Bottom line, I want E3 to be great for everyone who attends, be they industry professional, or member of the public. It's gaming's biggest yearly showcase, and the last thing we need is for it to be a disappointment, especially for consumers. Maybe my concerns are moot, and E3 will run smoothly to deliver a really memorable experience to the general public. If that's the case, I'd be absolutely delighted. However, I think over the next four months, the show organizers have a lot of work to do - and need to start communicating more effectively about what everyone can expect from the event.