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E3: Moments in History

Stevie bids farewell to the industry's biggest three days...

Many years ago, a relatively modest expo acorn dropped from the supporting branches of the high-profile Consumer Electronics Show and took root in the fertile soil of the videogames industry. In 1995 a frail sapling in the form of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) pushed free of the covering dirt, and a phenomenon stronger than oak began reaching for the sky. Who would have predicted its rise would scrape the expo stratosphere?

Beyond its humble beginnings, E3 grew exponentially throughout the years and, in terms of worldwide industry exposure, it became the premier event on the videogame conference/expo calendar. Indeed, during its twelve consecutive years (up to and including 2006), E3 loomed large over the likes of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the Game Developers Conference (GDC), and even the mighty Tokyo Game Show (TGS) and culminated in the 3-day attraction of over 400 games-related companies amid more than 70,000 feverishly enthusiastic attendees.

In terms of E3 history, the gathering momentum of the videogame industry during the mid-1990s saw exhibiting companies surpass the capacity of the annual CES show, and it quickly became apparent to the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA) that a focused videogame convention was required to accommodate increasing industry demand. "The industry was a stepchild at the CES show and really wasn't treated as a first class exhibitor," said Douglas Lowenstein, president of the then IDSA "It was clear to everyone that the industry had come of age, could easily support a show of its own, and, in fact, needed a show of its own." Formed in 1994, the IDSA - now known as the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) - is a trade association that represents videogame publishers while also handling related policy issues, content regulation (ESRB), intellectual property rights, and a global anti-piracy program. The representatives of the IDSA/ESA group are made up of massively influential games companies including Sony Computer Entertainment America (SCEA), Nintendo of America, and Microsoft Corporation, and it is responsible for creating the very first E3 expo back in May of 1995.

Following Sony's 1995 E3 unveiling of the original PlayStation and a host of launch software, including seminal titles WipeOut, Tekken, and Ridge Racer, E3 soon found itself as the expo of choice for videogame companies wishing to parade new hardware and software before expectant members of the gaming and entertainment industry. Of course, the fact that Sony apparently spent an astounding $4.0 million on its 1995 booth and God only knows how much on a guest appearance by Michael Jackson to help hawk the PlayStation, probably played a major part in turning the media spotlight on the Los Angeles Convention Center and its newly established trade show.

Over the years, E3 served as the central media springboard for a multitude of gaming products, which, apart from the Sony PlayStation, included many notable highlights:

In 1996, Nintendo finally unveiled its Nintendo 64 (which had missed the inaugural spotlight of 1995), along with its confirmed release date and price point, and a selection of playable demos for various launch titles including Super Mario 64, Pilotwings 64, Wave Race, and GoldenEye. In an attempt to take the sheen off the Nintendo 64, Sony dropped the price of its PlayStation from $299 to $199 (as did SEGA for its Saturn) and also displayed Tekken 2 and a new scrolling 3D platform game called Crash Bandicoot.

In 1998 E3 was held in Atlanta, Georgia (actually for a second year following a spatial restraint move in 1997), and bore witness to the steadily declining SEGA brand transcend its ailing Saturn console by revealing the Dreamcast (a.k.a. Codename: Katana), which is now largely viewed as the very first 'next-gen' videogames console. In contrast, Sony only displayed software for its successfully established PlayStation, but attendees still flocked in droves to Square's Final Fantasy VIII and Konami's new survival horror title Silent Hill. Nintendo, also concentrating on its software, ran an equally popular final preview of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time before its anticipated winter release.

1999 saw E3 move back to an expanded LA Convention Center and an exclusive contract to run through to 2012. However, regardless of the expo returning to its birth home, E3 1999 will only be remembered for one thing: Sony's PlayStation 2 - a sole display unit of Sony's next-gen console hogging attendee interest for the full three days like tireless Japanese tourists packed tightly around the Mona Lisa. Nintendo pushed forward the likes of Resident Evil 2, Donkey Kong 64, Eternal Darkness, and Perfect Dark for the overshadowed Nintendo 64. However, the Japanese giant did also make brief mention of its own next-gen console, which, at that time, was called Codename: Dolphin. This later became the GameCube.

SEGA's Dreamcast proved to be the star of the show in 2000, but its amassed critical praise ultimately failed to sway the predominantly Sony-loyal consumer fan base, and, indeed, the Dreamcast would prove to be SEGA's final entrant to the ruthless games hardware battle. Sony's PlayStation 2 made its official North American preview during E3 2000 (it would launch in US in October of that year), and show attendees gathering in massive throngs to absorb a gameplay video of Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.

More than 62,000 attendees flocked to E3 2001, and, outside of the expo itself, this year also marked the videogame industry's astounding sales figure of over $6 billion (yes, billion) dollars in software sales - and perhaps also the arrival of the idea that videogames were no longer a geek's pastime but rather an integral part of mainstream media. The highlight of E3 2001 culminated in the official arrival of both Nintendo's GameCube and Microsoft's Xbox consoles to the 'next-gen' scene. Nintendo's booth was awash with activity throughout the show as attendees piled in to sample playable GameCube launch titles such as Pikmin, Super Smash Bros. Melee, and Luigi's Mansion. Of course, Microsoft was also lauding a few high-profile titles, including a certain unknown first-person shooter called Halo.

With attendance once more topping 60,000, E3 2003 was packed into more than 500,000 square feet of the LA Convention Center's floor space, and all that space was well used as some serious gaming revelations soon spread. The show's most intriguing announcement came from Sony. Not content with leading the home console market, the electronics giant revealed it would be expanding its focus to the handheld arena with the PlayStation Portable - which would later debut the following year. Meanwhile, Nintendo continued building on its software strength with Metal Gear Solid: Twin Snakes, Star Fox, and Mario Kart: Double Dash, while Microsoft, following the unprecedented popularity of Halo, wowed the crowds with amazing footage from Bungie's Halo 2 - which, while stunning, was oddly vacant from the final retail game, sparking rumours that the E3 2003 footage was, in fact, advanced Xbox 360 code.

Hot on the heels of Sony's 2003 PSP announcement, Nintendo - long-term market leaders in the handheld market - took E3 2004 as its opportunity to debut the new Nintendo DS (Dual Screen), a clam shell, twin screen, touch and voice recognition portable console with innovation at its heart. While it perhaps provoked a gimmick label, the DS was bolstered by impressive demos of Super Mario 64 DS and Metroid Prime: Hunters. Of course, the DS would go on to prove its detractors wrong beyond all reasonable doubt, and, to date, the Nintendo DS and DS Lite have sold more than 21 million units worldwide. Nintendo's industry position as handheld market leader has only been strengthened by the introduction of the DS. E3 2004 also saw Sony make good on its own handheld promise, and the PSP certainly caused an equally as tantalising stir. Back on the software front, Nintendo also revealed video footage of a new Legend of Zelda game for the GameCube (eventually to become Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess), which sported a more realistic and mature Link. And, Valve's PC first-person shooter sequel Half-Life 2 also caused a considerable furore amongst those attendees clamouring to sample Gordon Freeman's latest adventure.

The 'next-generation' label stepped back into the spotlight during E3 2005, and Microsoft, eager to steal a jump on the competition after seeing the Xbox trail to Sony during the life cycle of the PlayStation 2, officially revealed its Xbox 360 games console/media hub. Not to be outdone, Sony also displayed a build of the PlayStation 3 during its pre-show press conference along with some video footage from next-gen games in development. Conversely, Nintendo revealed virtually nothing regarding its Codename: Revolution console (eventually to become the 'Wii'), instead preferring to quietly insinuate that there was something more to videogames, something as yet untapped that didn't simply rely on bigger and better performance and more glitzy graphics. To enforce this ethos, Nintendo also revealed interactive 'non-games' such as Nintendogs and Electroplankton for its DS platform, both of which relied on absolute player contribution via usage of the stylus and on-board microphone.

Nintendo's reticence to reveal concrete information regarding the Revolution took somewhat of a u-turn at E3 2006, as the (recently renamed) Nintendo Wii positively stormed the show; its core innovation and unique control system grabbing plaudits at every turn along with a line-up of game demonstrations that did nothing but feed attendee curiosity. Of course, E3 2006 finally saw Sony burst forward with its Cell powered PlayStation 3, only to promptly receive an unexpected media backlash in the form of 'copycat' accusations surrounding a revamped PS2 controller that seemingly 'borrowed' aspects of innovation from the Nintendo Wii's motion sensitive 'Wiimote' controllers and also an online download service that markedly 'resembled' Microsoft's Xbox Live.

Which brings us up to date. And E3, as we know it, a thriving, pulsating haven of shocks and revelations that provided the spearhead of expo knowledge for the entire gaming community for twelve memorable years, is no more.

31 July 2006 saw E3's final major announcement in that it will no longer occupy pride of place as the industry's expo forerunner. From 2007 onward, the old E3 trade show format will be known as the Electronic Entertainment Expo Media Festival, and it will exist as a considerably scaled down and low-key version of its old self. Rather than attracting attendees ranking in the amount of 50-60,000, the 'new' E3 will be a strictly invitation-only event that will cater for around 5,000 professional members of the videogames industry and related media. This more intimate move may well be a direct consequence of the huge influx of faux media professionals who've deceived their way into E3 over recent years beneath the wafer thin guise of 'online gaming journalist'. Of course, this particular writer is merely consumed with bitter disappointment at the scaling back of E3 because he never got the opportunity to sample the expo's delights or goggle at the booth babes - who are perhaps another shallow and titillating reason why E3 has receded in scope.

The actual reason for E3's scale back lies with industry giants Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, Electronic Arts, THQ, and others (all members of the ESA), who've voiced their collective complaints concerning the spiralling costs involved with running a booth and showcase at E3 (in some cases upwards of $8-9 million), which, coupled with its ever-expanding competitive edge, is not what E3 was created to envisage. The ESA has since stated that the sudden change in direction is because, "the world of interactive entertainment has changed since E3 was created 12 years ago. At that time we were focused on establishing the industry and securing orders for the holiday season," and that the new E3 Media Festival format will "focus on press events and small meetings with media, retail, development, and other key sectors. While there will be opportunities for game demonstrations, E3 Media Festival 2007 will not feature the large trade show environment of previous years."

Although Doug Lowenstein and the ESA have duly pledged to keep the E3 Media Festival as "an important event for the industry" while still hoping to emerge with a new event format that "keeps that sense of excitement and interest", it may prove a difficult transition in light of other calendar events consequently enjoying expanded profiles, along with a lack of confirmed industry support for E3 at this time. Of the major players - all of which support E3's initial downsizing - only Nintendo has presently confirmed its place at July 2007's E3 Media Festival, though it should be noted that it has not yet revealed the capacity of its attendence. Following the ESA's official E3 announcement, publisher Capcom reiterated its ongoing E3 stance by issuing a statement that confirmed "we are fully committed to all ESA activities, including E3." While SEGA issued a similar statement that noted "We are excited to be a participant in the next iteration of the show in 2007."

Considering that the ESA is composed of representative industry members - largely responsible for the shakeup in the first place - it is likely that more and more will confirm their attendence at E3 2007 and the exhibitor list will gradually grow. Moreover, the new, more direct, trimmed, financially viable, and concise Media Festival will still provide moments of notable occasion over the coming years. However, as an outrageoulsy extravagent spectacle and a means to channel industry announcements, previews, demos, and deals via its global coverage, E3 has ceased to exist. Following the downsizing of E3, it remains to be seen whether previously dwarfed industry events such as the GDC in San Francisco or the GCDC in Leipzig will now subsequently swell in terms of media focus, but, whatever the ensuing fallout attributed to the end of everyone's best-loved gaming expo - both positive (for the exhibitors) and negative (for the attendees) - one thing is for certain: the gaming world will never be the same again.

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