In October, the Entertainment Software Association shocked gaming fans when it announced that E3, the preeminent conference of the gaming industry, was closing to general audiences.
Wednesday, the ESA opened the doors on the new conference at a much more relaxed, casual pace than previous meetings to mixed reviews from participants.
"I don't like it, "said Tyrone Miller, senior P.R. manager at Electronic Arts. "It takes away from the reason why we had E3 in the first place, which was to show our games early back in May before shipping. Now it's spread out and I can't see our competitors' games. We're not invited to other people's booths."
Other participants, while still getting used to the absence of swarming gamers, liked the calmer pace.
"I was nervous at first that it would be a little different," said ID Software game designer Greg Stone. "I kind of like how everyone got to see what we were making, and I was afraid that maybe it wasn't the same emphasis. We work really hard and we'd like to show it to everybody, so I think that's going to happen anyway."
By making the event invitation-only, the ESA slashed conference attendance from 65,000 at last year's event to about 3,000 this year. It also moved the main venue from the cavernous Los Angeles Convention Center to an airport hangar at the Santa Monica airport and scattered presenters to area hotels where they could show off their best, new offerings in private meetings.
"The summit's intimate setting has allowed for stronger networking, easier accessibility to game play and more opportunities for private meetings with leading game company executives," said Dan Hewitt, director of media relations for ESA.
Based on this approach, it would seem that the gaming industry conference, and by extension gaming, have become even wonkier and further isolated from casual gamers and those who have never touched a game.
The main floor of E3 2007 is covered with booths showcasing new hard-core shooter, world-building and sports games. Images playing on dozens of LCD screens are so realistic and sharp that the content appears to be a live broadcast straight from the front lines of a war zone or the sidelines of a football game.
But upon closer inspection it's clear that among these games are also plenty of stations with colorful animation, popular music and simple controls. This is what attracts the lapsed or new gamer, and contrary to what a novice might think about the video game industry, game developers and designers are getting serious about pursuing this huge segment of potential players. Nintendo estimates this demographic is more than twice the size of its existing customer base.
"If you're a typical gamer, the enthusiast gamer who's really looking for the next best thing, they're looking for HD quality, they're looking for gory, they're looking for blood and guts -- kind of the shoot 'em up sequence of games," said Angela Newman, an account executive for Red Octane, which publishes the popular Guitar Hero franchise. "With the casual gamer they want something they can pick up quickly, play and then put down and do something else."
While heavy gamers make up only 2 percent of the U.S. gamer population, which according to NPD Group is 191 million strong, they buy eight times more than the average player. So the casual gamers and new gamers are attractive targets for the industry because they represent a huge opportunity for growth.