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.
"Gaming, while popular and growing, is far from saturated. It's an industry that is ripe for growth but to do that the game publishers are realizing that they need to produce different kinds of content," said Anita Frazier, an industry analyst with the NPD Group.
Moves by filmmakers to tap into the game industry demonstrate a confidence in this growth potential. At E3, Electronic Arts, Inc. and Steven Spielberg previewed their partnership to create three video games.
And Disney, the parent company of ABC News, will invest $130 million this year in product development at its four game studios.
"People who like games are also big consumers of entertainment in general. Gamers are everywhere. Everyone likes to play games, but not everyone knows it yet," said Graham Hopper, executive vice president and general manager of Disney Interactive Studios.
With major franchises like "Halo" and "Grand Theft Auto" enriching the $39.8 billion-dollar industry, developers are now willing to take a chance on reaching untapped audiences. Plus, simpler games are cheaper to produce.
All these factors mean that while this year's E3 may not have reproduced bombshell announcements from years past, it is special because there has never been a better season for a new gamer to jump in and try gaming.
"There's a tacit acknowledgement that people are playing all sorts of games, and I think for too long this industry has been focused on one type of person, one specific gaming preference. So I think this is a leap into maturity for the gaming industry," said George Jones of GamePro Magazine.
Going after the casual gamer: A snapshot of some of the major exhibitors:
The huge success of Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS is credited with proving to the industry that nongamers will play if offered a simple device and a relatable topic.
So, true to this successful formula, this week Nintendo announced Wii Fit, an exercise game that contains aerobics, yoga poses and games like a hula-hoop and downhill-ski competition. Gamers play by standing on the new Balance Board, a super-smart accessory that allows the user to control movements on the screen by interpreting their movements on the board through sensors on all four corners.
"Fit was really recognition of a trend that as the populations age — both here in the West and in Japan — that fitness was something that people were concerned about, and the question was how can we bring a fun element to it," said George Harrison, Nintendo senior vice president of marketing.
One-third of Nintendo's $7 billion in annual revenue is from sales to customers who are older than 35. Casual and new users can expect to see more offerings in the self-improvement and self-development game category, which includes the popular Brain Age game for Nintendo DS.
While Microsoft introduced the heavily anticipated titles "Halo 3," "Grand Theft Auto IV" and "Madden NFL '08" for Xbox 360 at E3 this week, new games for the casual user also shared the spotlight.
"Xbox's strategy for the first two holidays was capture the hearts and the minds of the hard core. And now it's the third holiday and how do you grow that base? You get there by getting to more people in the family, girlfriends, younger folks and older folks," said Molly O'Donnell, senior group manager at Xbox.
To expand the appeal of Xbox beyond the boys in the bedroom, Microsoft is bringing popular DVD movie trivia game, "Scene It," exclusively to Xbox. To play, participants use the new Big Button controller, which looks like its creators plucked it straight from the box of a classic board game. The controller comes in four colors, which allow four people to play at the same time and correspond with participants' running scores on screen.
"Scene It" will offer 20 different puzzle or movie trivia-type games. In one, a snapshot of a classic movie scene appears on screen and players have to guess from a list of objects the item that is missing from the scene.
In a nod to the lapsed or new gamer, Microsoft will add a super-simple version of "PacMan," to be distributed exclusively on Xbox Live Arcade. It's the first time in 26 years a new level has been added to the classic.
Also maximizing the allure of "PacMan" to young and lapsed gamers alike, Namco Bandai has dressed up its "Namco Museum" franchise to launch the "Namco Museum Remix," which will ship this fall for Nintendo's Wii console.
The animated game is a remix because Namco added "PacMan" and bright 3-D graphics into classic games like "Galaga," "Mapi" and "Galaxian." In the remixed version of "Galaga," for example, the gamer must protect PacMan from invaders, by shooting them with the ease of the Wii's one-button controller. In total, "Namco Museum Remix" offers 14 classic games, nine of them classics and five of them new versions of classic games.
Music has proven to be a successful entry point for the casual gamer because of franchises like "Guitar Hero," from Activision. The third iteration of the franchise debuted at E3 and will be available to Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360 in time for the holiday season.
"Guitar Hero 3" has several features that make it even more accessible to the uninitiated gamer. The new guitar controller, which is patterned after the real Gibson guitar, will be even easier to use because it is wireless. Users can now customize the look of the guitar to have a more individualized experience.
In keeping with the trend of social gaming, the new version has a cooperative and battle mode so gamers can play with a friend or against a friend, even if one is an expert and the other is not.
"I would compare it to 'Tetris' back in the day," said Angela Newman of Red Octane, publisher of "Guitar Hero." "In 'Tetris' you matched up the colors and its blocks that fell from the sky. This is the same thing. It's notes that fall from the sky. So you get to listen to your favorite song and play along and it becomes highly addictive."
New gamers can actually benefit from the trends making their way into hard-core games, such as the movement to individualize the gaming experience. For instance there's the new Weapons feature in "Madden NFL '08" that enables a player to exploit the individual talents of the players he or she chooses, and Front Office, a deeper experience than the previous Owner Mode, which allows a gamer to customize his or her own team from scratch.
In a similar vein, EA is offering Gamer Net and Photo Game Face with "Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2008." The "Tiger Woods" franchise is already considered to be a bridge game, one that a new user could jump into without much difficulty. EA hopes GamerNet will make it even more accessible to new audiences by replicating online experiences that they may already enjoy on MySpace and YouTube.
Similar to Nintendo's Me Contest Channel for Wii, which also debuted at E3, GamerNet enables "Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2008" players to make shots and post them online so that other players can challenge them. If playing through the Tiger Woods character is not relatable enough for someone who is new to golf and or video games, gamers can now take pictures of themselves and map them onto the character, thereby getting their own images on the screen and in the game.