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Event Wrap-Up: London Games Week 2004


September 8, 2004
 

Attending the mess of trade shows, conferences and forums that took place last week in London, England resulted in many attendees becoming almost as a bad-tempered and angry as the organizers that had allowed such an unedifying muddle to occur in the first place.

For over a decade now, ECTS (European Computer Trade Show) has been held in early September, at Earl's Court, South West London. Organized by the European arm of CMP (the same company responsible for this website), the show could once legitimately be described as a European version of E3, with publishers and developers from all over the world providing extravagant show-floor stands and considerable razzmatazz.

However, as the industry became more consolidated, particularly in Europe, the larger publishers began to question the usefulness of such a noisy, vacuous event, which had the look and feel of a consumer event and yet was strictly trade only. As a result, the big name publishers slowly began to drift away, first creating their own mini-events at a similar time and location, before eventually moving away entirely. ECTS attempted to compensate for this by attracting more and more developer orientated exhibitors, while, perhaps inadvisably, still attempting to portray itself as an all-in-one event, complete with award shows whose pool of possible winners was embarrassingly restricted by the few publishers still in attendance.


The ECTS 2004 entrance as the day's visitors arrive.

Sony's decision to run the PlayStation Experience consumer show at the same time and location helped ECTS to survive the last couple of years. But with the removal of that event to the Alton Towers theme park, 160 miles to the north, the 2004 event saw itself robbed of any representation by a major third-party publisher. Instead a rival event named EGN (European Games Network) was set up, with backing by trade group ELSPA (Entertainment & Leisure Software Publishers Association). EGN was to run concurrently with a new consumer show named Game Stars Live (derived from a televised awards show run in the UK), and would be held in London's Docklands in the South East, at the supposedly high-tech ExCeL venue. Through a combination of the two events, EGN's wish seemed to be to re-create the halcyon days of ECTS, with the presence of the visiting public being used to attract big name exhibitors.

With ECTS focusing entirely on developers and trade exhibitors and EGN being much more consumer and press orientated, it seemed like there should be little cause for rivalry between the events. However, EGN's perplexing decision to schedule itself at exactly the same time as ECTS lead to a very public war of words between the organizers of both events, with ELSPA director general Roger Bennett complaining that "other organizations are being extremely liberal with the facts", with regards to the line-up of its exhibitors. ECTS spokesman Andy Lane went as far as to say of EGN/Game Stars: "The whole idea would be laughable if it wasn't so distasteful." The name-calling continued at length in the British trade press, with the end result being that anyone wishing to attend both events had to endure a highly disagreeable and time-consuming journey across London.

Predictably, this inconvenience simply ended up restricting the audiences of both events, with most developers and retailers remaining at ECTS, and most publishers and press only attending EGN. In some ways, this worked - each event offered an acceptable range of activities for its now narrower audience. However, the main exhibition hall of ECTS, stripped of all publishers, save a lonely XNA stand from Microsoft and a few GameCube pods provided by Nintendo, seemed at first sight depressingly emaciated, at least for anyone that remembered the show's glory years. In among the traditional gaggle of unlikely looking peripherals (motion sensor devices for gimmicky sports and fighting games seemed to be the pervading theme this year), middleware developers such as Lifemode provided one of the most popular demonstrations with their LifeStudio: Head SDK. Stands from ATI, AMD, Tapwave, Lipsync and S3 Graphics where also useful, but it was difficult not to compare the small huddle of plain looking stands with the Kentia Hall at E3 - except this was even smaller.


Participants vying for supremacy in the World Cyber Games UK finals held at ECTS.

The most incongruous stand belonged to the World Cyber Games, upon which the UK professional gaming finals were being held. Although it proved popular with attendees, this may have been simply because it offered a uniquely rambunctious spectacle within the hall, not to mention one of the few examples of playable games.

The one area where perhaps ECTS excelled was in providing a quiet, sane location for developers, publishers and retailers to meet and talk. There were various specially designated lounges and the like to facilitate this, although predictably for a British event the bar proved the most popular location for wheeler dealing. The only obvious problem was that most of the publisher representatives were at EGN, forcing developers to chase after an even smaller number of publisher contacts than usual.

ECTS organizers claim that over 10,000 visitors had registered for the event, but on the show floor it was difficult to count more than a hundred wandering around at any one time. If this had been all there was to the event, it would have been impossible to describe it as anything but an unmitigated disaster. However, the fact that GDC Europe was also running at the same time, at the same site, was ECTS's saving grace. Seamus Blackley, Karl Jeffery, David Braben, Jez San, Ian Livingstone and the ubiquitous Peter Molyneux represented a largely parochial line-up of speakers, but the topics under discussion were generally interesting.

A keynote panel entitled 'Big Budget & Film Tie-in Production', featuring representatives from SCEE, Guerrilla Games, EA, Bizarre Creations and THQ, proved particularly popular and insightful, as did the more technical panel 'Single Platform vs. Multi-Platform Development' with speakers from UbiSoft, Argonaut, SCEE and Frontier Developments. The keynote session on the conference's first day was a somewhat unenlightening talk from EA general manager Rory Armes on the company's view of the industry's future over the next five years. In fact, most of the sessions from larger company representatives tended to be the most disappointing, with Wednesday afternoon's 'Developing for PSP' session proving a particular disappointment for most delegates - with an almost patronizing lack of new information.

No doubt Sony felt that ECTS and GDC Europe was not a grand enough theatre to make any important announcements and it seems as if this same attitude from other companies has created something of a chicken and egg style problem for the event: with big name speakers and announcements likely to continue to stay away until the event itself increases in stature and prominence. Nevertheless, no session was ever more than half empty, which might bear poor comparison with the packed out equivalents in San Jose but was considerably livelier than the ECTS convention floor suggested.

Over at EGN the opposite problem was occurring: thanks to high profile promotion across London, Game Stars Live, and the single train link to it, was filled with the great unwashed of the gaming public, whose presence sent press and publishers running in fear to the cordoned off EGN area across the way - inadvertently helping that to look just as busy and vital. However, unlike ECTS, the conference program proved surprisingly unpopular despite, or perhaps because of, two separate events.

The business led conference and seminar program at EGN itself was an extremely dry affair with keynotes from ESA president Doug Lowenstein and EA senior VP Gerhard Florin. It suffered from the obvious problem that its audience was halfway across London at ECTS, and was subsequently very poorly attended.

The EDF (European Developers Forum), being held elsewhere in the cavernous ExCeL venue, proved to be more widely popular with a line-up of speakers including Warren Spector, BioWare's Ray Muzyka, Firaxis' Jeff Briggs and a highly trumpeted talk from Martin Hollis on his experiences with the classic N64 game GoldenEye 007. The forum was organized by independent developer/trade body TIGA, and pleased many with an entirely developer focused remit. However, the problem again was that most developers were away at ECTS and the audience attendance was disappointingly low. The fact that many of the same speakers, such as Climax's Karl Jeffery and Sony's George Bain, were at both events hardly made it likelier for developers to tear themselves away from Earl's Court.

If the conference program was EGN's Achilles' Heel, then the rest of the trade show was largely viewed as a success. It was clear most larger publishers had turned up primarily for Game Stars Live, but since the two were separated only by a few meters of concourse, EGN and Game Stars co-existed quite happily. EGN itself was a small huddle of booths - supplemented by a number of conference rooms on the next floor - housing publishers and developers and allowing for both press interviews and business discussions. Once again though, just as many of these discussions took place in the large bar area or the more exclusive 'Hub Club' - which was open only to VIPs and other pre-registered delegates. This arrangement worked well and generally mirrored most of the amenities and opportunities available at ECTS.

Over at Game Stars Live the general air of un-professionalism that marked the entire week was underlined when it transpired that the electricity supply at ExCeL was something less than reliable. Nintendo's impressively large stand had to be closed down entirely until 1:30pm on the first day, with EA and other stands suffering similar problems. Once these issues were resolved the event did begin to resemble a miniature version of E3, with large, very loud stands and perhaps three quarters of all publishers represented in some manner. The most obvious absentee was, of course, Sony, and whether they can be persuaded to relocate their PlayStation Experience again next year will depend on the popularity of both their Alton Towers event and the numbers at Game Stars Live.

The latter was difficult to discern during the week, since the organizers had decided to run the event only a week after London schools had re-opened for the new term. Whether this was intentional to give the press greater access to the show during the week, or yet another sadly ignored reason for not running the event at the same time as ECTS, is unclear. As it is, apparently 10,000 visitors are expected and the large amount of advertising should ensure this figure is achievable.


Joe Public enjoying the Donkey Konga line at EGN.

The games on show at the event were largely the same as seen at E3, with titles such as The Sims 2, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Donkey Konga, Metroid Prime 2, The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age and Prince of Persia: Warrior Within proving the most popular. Most of these were slightly moved on from the demos shown in LA in May, but many others were identical. Halo 2 was one such (at least after halfway through the first day, when Microsoft UK suddenly realized they were playing the wrong demo and were showing far more of the game than intended), but proved to be by far the most popular game at the show, with crowds queuing for an hour and half to play the multiplayer demo. Oddly, Microsoft were ill-prepared to make the most of this popularity, with their other titles squeezed into a tiny corner of their stand to little effect.

Taken on its own, EGN/Game Stars Live/EDF was a confusing enough package, but when placed alongside ECTS and GDC Europe it's difficult not to see the whole bloated mess as a PR and organizational disaster for the British and European games industry. No one seems more aware of this than ELSPA itself, with general manager Roger Bennett admitting as much on Friday, and promising to work more closely with ECTS to ensure that the two events do not clash again. His fear is that the anarchy of this year's London Games Week will see the German-based Games Convention emerge as the premier conference in Europe - a state of affairs that is all too likely if improvements are not made next year.

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