Going low the way for PS3, E3

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The more things change for E3, the more they stay the same -- if preshow news from Sony Corp. is any indication.

While attendees will discover Wednesday that the video game industry's premier trade show has been scaled down considerably, another aspect of E3 remains: The show remains a backdrop for big announcements about hardware developments from major console manufacturers.

Amid much speculation, Sony announced Monday that, effective immediately, the 60GB PlayStation 3 model that now sells for $599 will now go for $499. In addition, a new model with a larger 80GB hard drive would be available beginning in August. That model will also include the popular racing game MotorStorm, which retails separately for $59.

"It's important that we continue to evaluate our product line, offering consumers the technology and features that meet their growing needs," said Jack Tretton, president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment of America.

The downsizing of E3 has occurred after years of an escalating arms race of ever-larger booths, expensive parties and legions of game fans hoping to skirt the Electronic Entertainment Expo's notoriously lenient "trade only" attendance policy.

Following E3 2006, the Entertainment Software Assn., the trade organization that represents U.S. video game publishers and runs the event, decided changing times necessitated a new approach, described by the organization's then-president Doug Lowenstein as "more personal, efficient and focused."

The new event, renamed the E3 Media and Business Summit, runs Wednesday-Friday. After spending 10 of its previous 12 years at the Los Angeles Convention Center (the 1997-98 shows were in Atlanta), the event is not only moving from its usual spot in May but going west to a series of smaller venues in Santa Monica.

The need for more intimacy has turned E3 into an invite-only affair, with far fewer game companies and media attendees. The 2006 show claimed about 60,000 participants, while organizers expect 3,000-4,000 this year. More than 400 companies exhibited last year at the convention center, but the current count of participating companies stands at 36.

Darren Gladstone, senior editor at Games for Windows magazine, said the reduced number of attendees and exhibitors is cause for concern. "It appears that all E3 has done is keep the big companies, weed out the up-and-comers and make the show less convenient for those attending," Gladstone said.

Sean Kauppinen, vp at Kohnke Communications, a major video game PR agency, sees the advantages of a streamlined show. "The new format definitely has its critics, but I think we'll be surprised that it's actually set up to accommodate a smaller group of more relevant game industry professionals," he said.

Participating companies, many of which are also members of the ESA, are reluctant to speculate on the record about the format's chance of success. "E3 had lost its effectiveness over the past few years; it will be interesting to see if the new format will be the show's revival or its death gasp," said a marketing executive at SCEA, who asked that his name not be used. "E3 has gone from one extreme to the other, from too large to get anything accomplished to too small to care."

The new format is radically different from previous incarnations. Instead of centrally locating each company's exhibits in a large convention center, game companies will host individual events spread out among seven hotels in Santa Monica. Additionally, a multicompany software showcase will be housed at the Barker Hangar at Santa Monica Airport.

Said Kauppinen: "I think we'll find the format has the ability to create a less stressful environment, although I know the media have a lot of skepticism about the traveling from hotel to hotel for meetings."

While many of the hotels are within walking distance of one another and shuttle busses will be provided, the multiple locations have some attendees worried.

Noted Gladstone: "On paper, it looks like a logistical mess, but who knows -- maybe it'll work. I guess we'll find out soon enough."
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