Videogame confab scales back

The videogame industry is once again descending on Los Angeles this week for the annual E3 confab. But don’t worry about the traffic.

E3 was once a spectacle of long lines, big screens and bikini-clad booth babes, but this year’s edition, which opens Wednesday, will be a subdued affair. Instead of the 60,000 people from every nook and cranny of the videogame biz who attended last year, only 3,000 people have been invited this year to E3, which is taking place at a series of hotels and the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica.

“We have focused on culling the list to ensure that the people who attend this year’s summit are the key decisionmakers from a cross section of communities, including retailers, developers, publishers and the media,” said Dan Hewitt, spokesman for the Entertainment Software Assn, which puts on the confab. “Our exhibitors told us that they want a controlled, business-like envi-ronment.”

Industry sources said exhibitors also wanted a lower-key and lower-cost E3. As the show has grown bigger and bigger in recent years, the major publishers and console makers have had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on elaborate booths at the Los Angeles Convention Center to get attention.

While Santa Monica hotels are no doubt charging a healthy rate for the rooms where companies are holding meetings and press conference at this year’s E3, exhibitors are still saving money. But it remains to be seen whether a downsized and delayed summit will allow more business to get done.

Because E3 is being held in July, instead of May as in the past, the major holiday season games will be closer to completion as they are showed off. But that also means that the press and retail communities have already seen most of the top titles. So there isn’t as much excitement around some of this year’s biggest games — a list expected to include “Halo 3,” “Grand Theft Auto IV,” “Rock Band” and Super Mario Galaxy” — as there was in previous years.

In addition, the “culling” of the attendee list means many smaller developers and publishers who used to use E3 to get in front of the industry for the first time won’t have access. Some, such as indie publisher Gamecock, are renting space right near the official E3 hotels. But many others simply won’t be present.

Nonetheless, E3 is still the industry’s biggest event, where the biggest announcements of the year are made.

“The companies with the most to prove this year are the platform makers, especially Sony and Microsoft,” said Sam Kennedy, editor-in-chief of gamer website 1UP.com. “Third-party pub-lishers don’t have to impress us with huge displays, and many have already shown us the games that they will have on display.”

But many will be looking for big announcements from the console makers. Perhaps the No. 1 question on everyone’s list: Will Sony try to boost sales of its struggling PlayStation 3 by cut-ting the price? Rumors are popping up online that the PS3 may get a $100 price cut to $499.

That would put its price much closer to that of Microsoft’s competing Xbox 360 and arguably make it a better value, given its standard Blu-ray drive. But with Sony already losing hundreds of dollars on each PS3 it sells, a price cut just nine months after it launched will cause it to bleed even more red ink in the short run.

In addition, Microsoft may counter with a price cut of its own to keep the Xbox 360, which costs between $299 and $479 depending on the features, cheaper than its competitor.

“Both Microsoft and Sony will announce either a price cut or a revision of what’s in the box to make it a better value,” predicted Kennedy.

Beyond such strategic moves, Microsoft and Sony will each focus mainly on its slate of upcoming exclusive games in order to prove that its console is a “must have” and try to gain ground on Nintendo’s Wii, far and away the bestselling game console this year.

Microsoft has several high-profile exclusives it will feature, including “Halo 3,” “Mass Effect” and downloadable content for “Grand Theft Auto IV.” It will also have to endure complaints, however, about the high failure rate for the 360. Last week it admitted that a high percentage of them are defective as it extended the device’s warranty to three years and took a $1 billion-plus writeoff to account for the repair costs (Daily Variety, July 6).

Sony doesn’t have as many big exclusives on its schedule yet, but it has been investing heavily in internal development, and gamers will be looking to see some of the results. In addition to Konami’s “Metal Gear Solid IV,” it will be talking up build-your-own-game service LittleBigPlanet and interactive world “Home.” In addition, insiders say Sony may be trying to positioning action game “Killzone 2,” which few in the press have seen yet, as E3’s surprise hit by scheduling a first look on Tuesday night immediately after Microsoft’s show-opening press conference.

Nintendo, meanwhile, enters its first E3 in a long while as the industry leader. Its Wii and DS consoles are handily outselling the competition. Like the No. 1 player in any market, that means its major challenge is not to screw up.

Gamers will be looking for Nintendo to set definite release dates for the long-in-development sequels to some of its biggest franchises, like “Super Mario” and “Super Smash Bros.” Nin-tendo could also impress attendees at its press conference by bringing up partners to demonstrate that, for the first time since the ‘90s, outside publishers are as busy developing for Nintendo’s consoles as they are for others.

But because Nintendo, much more so than Sony or Microsoft, sells to a broader audience beyond the gamers who pay attention to E3, it may not play into perceptions about what it “has to do.”

“Nintendo goes as its own pace,” noted Harrison. “It always does things its own way.”

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