GDC will be a really big shew


"I can put my hand on my heart and say I will resign from the board if we try to turn GDC into an E3 in any shape, form, or size."

So says David Perry, founder and former president of video game developer Shiny Entertainment, and an advisory board member of the Game Developers Conference (GDC).

For some, that will put to rest the notion that, in 2007, when the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) -- the once-huge annual trade show for the games industry -- downsizes, GDC will step in to pick up the slack. Others say that with E3 discarding its exhibition halls, there is money being left on the table, an irresistible temptation for other shows, including GDC, to expand their exhibit areas.

Indeed, not only is GDC expanding its exhibit area, but the 20-year-old conference -- which began as a get-together in the living room of renowned developer Chris Crawford -- has ambitious plans. Now billing itself as "the world's largest games-industry-only event," the organizers are moving the show to the big city -- from the San Jose (Calif.) Convention Center to San Francisco's Moscone West, North, and South convention halls. Organizers are expecting upwards of 13,000 attendees, including more than 1,000 journalists, and are more than doubling the size of its show floor "to accommodate the games industry market's need for a single, one-stop shop event."

But, as Perry says, GDC will not be the next E3, insists Jamil Moledina, executive director of GDC. Even before E3's management had announced it would shrink the show, says Moledina, GDC had been locked into occupying Moscone West and North for 2007, effectively doubling the size of the 2006 show.

The growth spurt was not a direct result of E3's decision, Moledina maintains.

"We were virtually sold out of our show floor, which was going to be the first floor and part of the second floor of Moscone West," explains Moledina. "Then the E3 announcement hit and a lot of companies started contacting us for show space in order to exhibit. I think many people suddenly realized that, without E3 in the picture, the largest games-industry-only event in the world would be GDC."

The irony, of course, is that, GDC's growth comes in the wake of E3's decision to do just the opposite -- "to evolve into a more intimate event to better address the needs of the industry," according to a press release from the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the industry group that represents the games industry and which owns E3.

The statement quotes ESA president Doug Lowenstein as saying that "the world of interactive entertainment has changed since E3Expo was created 12 years ago. At that time, we were focused on establishing the industry and securing orders for the holiday season. Over the years, it has become clear that we need a more intimate program, including higher quality, more personal dialogue with the worldwide media, developers, retailers and other industry audiences ... While there will be opportunities for game demonstrations, E3Expo 2007 will not feature the large trade show environment of previous years."

In previous years, E3 [pictured at right] had transformed into a behemoth, attracting over 60,000 attendees, and frequently drawing criticism for its noisy, crowded and circus-like atmosphere. E3 in 2007 is expected to be a more sedate, invitation-only event with around 5,000 attendees.

But, says Michael Goodman, senior analyst at Boston-based Yankee Group, E3's inflated size wasn't the primary reason for its decision to make changes.

"Mostly it had to do with some of the major publishers wanting to cut costs," he explains. "When you think about the size of the booths and how elaborate they'd become, we're talking about investments in the multi-million-dollar range easily. It was increasingly obvious that E3 had turned into this unfocused extravaganza, and that publishers weren't getting enough bang for their buck. And so they put the pressure on the ESA to pull back."

"E3 had become a jack of all trades and a master of none," observes GDC's Perry. "The show had been very, very good as a promotional thing because it was the one show where you'd have every magazine in the world attend. But then the exhibitors started filtering out the blog writers and the smaller Web sites and fan sites. Only pre-approved people with appointments got to see, say, 'King Kong,' in a little theater in the back. And you only got to see the Wii controller if you stood on line for three hours. So the promotional aspect of the show sort of died. And since most of the business deals had already been done prior to the show, the net effect was that nothing was really happening. Especially since all the major publishers now have their own press events outside of E3. So there's no need to show off your games there. So what was this huge convention for?"

Clearly E3's management at the ESA felt that changes were needed. Contacted last week, the ESA's Lowenstein said: "The ESA has made a determination of the kind of event we believe best serves our members and the industry, and our focus now is on ensuring that the new E3 is a success for all participants and attendees, and we believe that will be the case."

Meanwhile, says Moledina, GDC is positioning itself as a professional get-together of programmers, visual artists, designers, producers, audio and other games people, with "learning, networking, and inspiration" at its core. While it's not yet clear how the schedule will shake out for the show which has been moved up a bit, from the end of March to March 5-9, at its hub will be over 300 sessions.

"Everyone who is looking to learn how to make better games comes to GDC," says Moledina. "Which is why our exhibit hall will be mainly about the technology companies, the tools companies, the middleware providers, and the outsourcers. For instance, you can go to the Dolby or nVidia booths and learn about how to incorporate their technologies into your games."

The kinds of exhibitors you won't see, adds Moledina, "are the large publishers hoping to show their playable games for the holiday-buying season. We're just not a good fit for them; it's the wrong time of year to publicize upcoming games, and we will have size and sound restrictions on our booths. Plus, no booth babes. It's just not part of the culture. The GDC show floor is a place of business."

A mainstay of previous GDC shows is the Independent Games Festival (IGF). The ninth annual competition -- the Sundance Film Festival of video games -- is scheduled for March 6-9.

According to Simon Carless, chairman of the IGF, developers come to the festival seeking recognition from their peers, perhaps some visibility that will make funding the next project easier than the previous one. This year, GDC is also planning to create a "demo theater" as a venue for developers and publishers to showcase their games in progress, especially some of the technical elements that make them standouts.

"It's an opportunity for the creator of a game with, say, outstanding artificial intelligence or impressive physics to earn the respect of the rest of the gaming community," notes Moledina.

Despite the best of intentions, GDC planners and industry observers agree that next year's show has some high hurdles, especially since much of the industry doesn't seem to have a clear vision of how E3, GDC and other games industry trade shows plan to differentiate themselves.

"We need to get the word out that ours will be a very different kind of expo," says Perry. "We in the game-making business use very complicated tools and technologies, and we need to ask a lot of questions and see what solutions are out there. If you want to enter the MMOG [massive-multiplayer online game] business, for example, we're the one place you can come to compare, side by side, multiple MMOG engines that are all on display. If you're a serious developer and you're not walking around the expo hall, you're crazy, because you're not seeing all the tools and technologies that people are using that might be a good fit for your studio."

Still, observes Dan Hsu, editor-in-chief of "Electronic Gaming Monthly," whether GDC will be able to resist becoming another E3 remains to be seen.

"The trick will be for the organizers to keep it as low-key and quiet a conference as it's been in the past," says Hsu. "They need to let the other big shows -- the Tokyo Game Show, the Leipzig Games Convention, and the Consumer Electronics Show -- expand and make up for the void that E3 is leaving. Those three shows are in a better position to do that because they are traditionally bigger [and] more fanfare-filled and designed to show off product. GDC is really about meetings and technology demos and keynotes mainly for the development community. Once you start seeing lights, glitz and glamour -- and booth babes -- at GDC, well, that won't be a good sign."

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman was the editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He's covered the games industry for over a dozen years. His columns for The Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.