After a relatively quiet year which saw nine of the industry's top ten publishers staying away from Europe's biggest computer games trade show, speculation is rife that next year may see a radical change of direction for ECTS. Commenting in trade magazine CTW, event director Andy Lane said that "there's been a lot of talk about a consumer event, or maybe a mixture of the trade and consumer".
The ECTS PR team at Bastion confirmed that this was "just speculation" when we asked them about the story yesterday, adding that there are currently no plans to turn ECTS into a consumer event. But worryingly Andy Lane had told CTW that "nothing is out of the question".
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Which is perhaps not surprising given the apparent vehemence of the backlash against this year's event, with CTW quoting several publishers and developers as saying that ECTS is in need of a drastic rethink.
JVC called it "the worst and most disappointing show I've ever attended", while Digimask demanded "very dramatic changes if CMP are looking to get the support of the industry". THQ even had the cheek to whinge that there was "nothing new to see" when they were amongst the publishers helping to make that true by not bothering to turn up this year. Indeed, the sole voice of reason came from Matt Huband of Midas, who told CTW that "when everyone complains about how much trouble the industry's in, it seems crazy to stay away from a positive event like this".
Personally I enjoyed this year's ECTS. It's the fourth time I've been to the show and I got almost as much business done this year as any other, while the quality of games was if anything higher without the mass market pap that most of the big publishers release each year. It was certainly a quieter, more serious show than in the past, but that isn't a bad thing. In fact, rather than turning the event into an open consumer show next year (which would see hordes of adolescent fanboys swamping the stands, making any actual business almost impossible to do) I would like to see the opposite - a true trade only event.
This year CMP had promised to more strictly enforce the registration process, but despite this I saw dozens of people wandering around the show who obviously had no business being there. The most dramatic example was a pair of kids who couldn't have been more than twelve years old wandering into the middle of a demonstration of Team Factor and interrupting to ask the developer who was showing me the game if the press pack was free, and could they take a copy. I actually saw the same pair somehow blagging their way past security at the entrance, right beneath a big sign saying "over 18s only". If you are going to have rules, you have to enforce them.
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A more consumer-oriented show might encourage some of the big publishers to return to ECTS, but that doesn't matter if the media and retail buyers then abandon the show en masse. It would also make for a far more expensive show for the publishers, as everyone would have to spend a fortune on big brash stands and legions of booth babes, and then have to buy seperate back room hospitality suites where industry types could actually get to see the games without being jostled by teenagers ogling the latest Lara Croft.
Indeed, the only people who missed out as a result of the big publishers not turning up this year were the big publishers, who lost a golden opportunity to show their games to the European media in the run up to the all-important Christmas period. And the biggest losers of all were Microsoft, who wasted their last chance to demonstrate the Xbox at a major international trade show before the console's launch. With most journalists now obsessing over Nintendo's GameCube following its strong showing at the weekend, this would have been the perfect time for Microsoft to show the world that they really are serious about the Xbox. So much for the much vaunted $500m advertising budget.
At the end of the day ECTS is a somewhat schizophrenic show at the moment. It claims to be trade only, but a significant number of non-trade people still manage to get in each year because visitors' credentials aren't checked carefully enough. This year was better than previous ones, but apparently some of the big publishers want a return to the bad old days of bright disco lighting, scantily clad babes and crowds of spotty teenagers trying to grab freebies. All of which makes it harder to show the games to the people who actually matter - the journalists who will be reporting on the games, and the retailers who will be stocking them when they are released. There's no point showing your game to 50,000 consumers, most of them from London and the south-east of England, if it interferes with talking to European journalists who can spread the word to millions of readers around the world.
Personally speaking, I think it would be tragic if CMP caved in to the demands of a few half-witted publishers and turned the show into a free-for-all. We already have dozens of consumer electronics events in Europe, and if the publishers are so keen to have a big shiny stand surrounded by hundreds of baying gamers, they can go to one of those instead, as Sony have chosen to do this year.
Turning ECTS into just another consumer show would destroy the biggest trade event in Europe. Not all of us want to travel to Los Angeles every year for E3, often to talk to people who work just a few hundred miles away from our homes here in Europe. ECTS is the best chance publishers have to show their wares to the European media en masse. If they want to throw that away, it's their loss.