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APAR's WORKING WEEKEND: At E3, a Lot More Show Than Trade

18 May, 2001 By: Bruce Apar

In nearly 30 years in home entertainment, I’ve attended more than 100 trade shows. Big deal. None of that prepares me for E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo to those with a hitch in their hip), a trade show unlike any other I’ve experienced. On the surface, there’s little trade and a whole lot of show.

The seventh annual edition, held this past week in the decidedly inhospitable Los Angeles Convention Center (where the food service takes the military term “mess hall” literally), was far from my first E3, but the event grows more mysterious for me each year.

For starters, it’s an impressively unbusiness-like atmosphere for an industry that talks of surpassing $10 billion total revenue in the next few years. Ties and leather briefcases do not a trade show make, of course. But I wasn’t the only one in the over-40 crowd who couldn’t discern just what all the twentysomethings who typify the attendees were there to do. Cut licensing deals? Write orders for their stores? Offer first-round funding to high-tech startups owned by brilliant game developers in search of the next killer app?

Clearly, most everybody clogging every square foot of the exhibits on opening day was there to gawk and twitch, test driving the new platforms and new games. Upon entering the two main exhibit halls, the visual effects were undeniably spectacular, a phantasmagoria of strobing lights and sounds and lavishly designed, over-the-top eye candy, punctuated by sky-high, outsized screens displaying state-of-the-art game imagery, simulating a Blade Runner theme park.

Unlike traditional trade shows at which the exhibits often showcase new products that serve as conversation pieces for meet-and-greets between vendors and customers behind closed doors, at E3 all that matters is out front and in your face.

What is not too prominent at E3, whether at the conferences, in the aisles or in the product-promoting show daily, are the dynamics of product distribution, otherwise known as retailing. Among the thousands on hand, we don’t remember spotting a single “Retailer” badge, for example. It’s almost as if this is a trade show at which “trade” is a dirty word. It’s really all about the games themselves, not about how they get from point A to point B.

To this set of jaundiced eyes and hands with a glitch in their twitch, while each new generation of consoles brings sharper, more colorful and realistic graphics, the basic genres of games seem to change not -– the action/adventures, the role-playing games, shooters, strategy/sims and so on. It’s not unlike Hollywood movies, where production values are ever more eye-popping even as the basic narrative structure has stayed the same for 100 years.

Calling home during a respite in the show grind, I was slightly surprised to hear my wife ask, “What are the hot new games?” I was stumped. The hot new games were hot new game machines. If there were hot new games, I told her, they flew way above my radar.

Here’s what caught my eye at E3:

Over the years, right up until the next-gen GameCube, the look and play of Nintendo’s games are remarkably consistent and vibrant. In addition to the best designed games, it also sported the best designed booth. Besides, Sinbad was there, yukking it up.

Sony Playstation 2 and Microsoft Xbox games looked very comparable to this non-player, who was surprised by the clunky look of the Xbox console. Then again, Microsoft, for all its might, is new to the business of hard goods industrial design. I was less surprised by the indifference shown video types (namely, me) at the Microsoft press counter. My business card meant nothing in trying to locate a certain executive or trying to score a pass to the Xbox party.

Wireless giant Nokia was touting mobile games played on cell phones and pocket communicators at its booth, which was packed. It also showed a Media Terminal, which is the most complete Eplex appliance I’ve yet glimpsed. It combines digital TV, Internet, video-on-demand, digital video recording, MP3 player and other goodies.

Interactive entertainment may be the expansive rubric used by E3 owner Interactive Digital Software Association, but this cultish, coltish crowd is not interested in seeing much other than the same games they’ve come to worship and play fanatically.

At a news conference demonstrating Enroute’s FirstPerson Immersive 360-degree DVD technology, the clutch of game media didn’t quite know what to make of watching Britney Spears performing while Enroute chief Paul Cha used a PS2 joystick to zoom in and out and pan the stage and audience.

Enroute arguably was the most innovative interactive technology demonstrated at the show, but since it didn’t fit comfortably into the E3 culture’s narrowly defined borders, the parajournalists who populate the videogame media (ie, game fans indulging their passion) could barely come up with a probing question to ask after the demo.

Instead, they wore blank stares and quickly exited, salivating to get to the shoot-em-ups on the show floor. As someone who has championed this exciting breakthrough in live-action video, I wasn’t surprised by the catatonic response. I turned to one of Enroute’s entourage and concluded, “This was not the right audience for this demonstration.” After all, if they couldn’t take aim at Britney or put her through an adventure fraught with danger, what’s the point?

Comments? Contact Bruce directly at:bapar@advanstar.com

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