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Trade Shows and Conferences -- Are They Worthwhile?

NOTE: these lessons are primarily aimed at aspiring game designers, but many of the concepts described herein also apply to those who aspire to other types of jobs in the game industry. This article was written in 2001. Many of the links on this page are now dead. For up to date links, see the Game Biz Links page. E3, for example, changed drastically after the 2006 show. Nevertheless, the principles discussed herein still apply to today's shows and conferences.

This year (2001) I've traveled to trade shows and conferences quite a bit. In February I went to New York City for Toy Fair. In March I attended three events: Internet World Spring, here in Los Angeles, the Game Developers' Conference (GDC) in San Jose (California's Silicon Valley), and finally the Tokyo Game Show (TGS). And in May there was E3 (the Electronic Entertainment Expo) right here in Los Angeles.

All those events are a big part of the reason why there was such a long gap between Lesson 5 and Lesson 6.

At GDC, TGS, and E3, I saw a lot of old friends. I made a lot of new contacts too, collecting a hefty fistful of business cards at each show, and handing out just as many.

Trade shows and conferences are important for me, as an industry veteran and freelancer/consultant, but what about for the aspiring game designer?

I'll start by reporting on GDC, TGS, and E3 -- and then we'll examine the pros and cons of these events for readers who are aspiring to work in the industry. (The affectionate shorthand term for such readers is "wannabes.")


I attended the first such conference -- way back in the mid-to-late 1980s when I worked at Atari Corporation. And I went to the next couple of yearly conferences too (and hosted a roundtable at one of them). Then... let's see, I went to one in '92, and another in '95 or '96.

Flash forward to the twenty-first century. IT HAS CHANGED!! Originally it was a handful of (mostly local) developers banding together in their love for computer games (especially the kind of games they themselves loved to play), bashing on "twitch games" (console videogames) and trying to start up a union so they could get higher development fees, and royalties, from Them Darn Stingy Publishers. Silly me -- thinking I ought to look the part of Atari Corporation's "Director of Product Development," I wore a tie. Boy, did I learn fast to take that thing off!

Back in the day, there were also a lot of tracks for wannabes. The whole thing took place on the 2nd floor (the meeting rooms floor) of a San Jose hotel. They served cookies and Jolt cola.


The twenty-first century has seen the industry grow into a giant that rivals the movie business, so, accordingly, this conference has changed and grown. It's much too big to take place in a hotel. Hell, it's too big to take place in one building.

The show filled the San Jose Convention Center (pictured) and spilled over into several other nearby buildings.

There were conferences -- speakers expounding on their topic of expertise, roundtable discussions, and panels of experts on a particular facet of the business. This sort of activity has always been at the heart of the GDC.

And several years back, at the previous conference that I'd attended, there was also an exhibit floor -- a room where companies that make new hardware peripherals (audio cards, developer kits, and 3D glasses, for instance) showed off their wares -- but NOW!! There was a regular expo-style exhibit hall, chock full of booths and demonstrators.

Keith Robinson, keeper of the flame for the Intellivision, was there at the Classic Gaming Expo booth. Check out Keith's Blue Sky Rangers website. And check out the Classic Gaming Expo site too.

After I took Keith's picture, he returned the favor and took mine. Here I am posing with a Vectrex. Note the strap of the three-ton briefcase on my shoulder. When you collect literature at these shows, the weight increases exponentially. More about literature later.

All those exhibitors, all the noise, all the live technology product demos... It was just like a regular expo! I don't remember seeing any booth babes (the bane of the big expos), though. Anyway, I realized that things had REALLY changed. I realized that for the second half of the 1990s at Activision when I didn't attend, I had missed watching my industry grow.

And I swore: "Never again will I miss the GDC."



I've made a lot of business trips to Japan, and even lived there for several months, working for Activision's international operation, some years back. I've been to trade shows there before, and I needed to go to Japan this year, so I timed the trip to coincide with the TGS.

As with the GDC, my attendance at TGS has been somewhat spotty, so I noticed that it too had grown a lot since the last time I attended one. Others I talked to about the size of the show said it was small compared to the last few years. Sony's problems shipping enough PS2s had caused ripples throughout the industry.

But I found a lot worth noting there. Especially Square's FINAL FANTASY X.

I took a picture of the FFX preview, but then somebody from Square asked me not to take pictures of it. So that's the only pic I got of that.

Microsoft had a huge booth (replete with a veritable bevy of booth babes) and was making a huge splash. Bill Gates was even there.

You expected a picture of Bill Gates?

I found Sega's tiny inexpensive "booth" noteworthy; all they had was a long table with computers on it, demonstrating PC games Sega is working on now. I used to work at Sega, and I find it fascinating to keep watching the company as things change.

NTT DoCoMo's booth was devoted to games on cell phones. Japan is way ahead of the U.S. in that world. Several hugely popular panels and roundtables about cell phone games at the GDC, and at E3 I met with several wireless game developers. This market is well worth watching; the games possible on a cell phone display are fairly primitive right now (mindful of the old Intellivision and Atari 2600 games), and it'll be interesting to see the changes that'll be taking place in that arena as it matures. That ought to happen rapidly.

And there was a sizeable contingent of Korean companies showing off their stuff. Korea is a country to watch. There was a lecture about the Korean game development community at the GDC, and there was a large Korean contingent at E3 too.

Mr. and Mrs. Pac-Man made a personal appearance at the Namco booth, and hung around for a while.

There were dancing booth babes putting on an hourly dance show atop Namco's booth.

... and they even had thinking outside the booth babes (young women posing for pictures in various fantasy costumes -- a practice called "cosplay" for "costume play"). This young lady's costume is supposed to appeal to some Japanese men's "nurse" fetish. If you ask me, she looks like Alice in Hospital-Land.

There is one thing available at these shows, worth the expense in and of itself:

The directory. This gem gives complete addresses and phone and fax numbers of the game companies exhibiting at the show. The TGS directory is worth its weight in gold, if you do business in Japan. Or Korea.

Ollie Barder lives in Japan and has been to TGS several times. His photos of the 2002 TGS are at


E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo)

E3 is the big yearly show for the videogame business. The game publishers show off their upcoming games for the game buyers. Shelf space is the god, and E3 is the altar of worship.

Several years back the game industry grew too big for the Consumer Electronics Show, split off and now has its own show. It's usually held in Los Angeles in May.

At E3 you can go into most game companies' booths and play the games that are going to come out the following Christmas. You can visit Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft, and see what the hot games will be. You can compare Electronic Arts' offerings to those of Activision, Infogrames, Interplay, and Koei. You can get demos from the producers and testers who work on those games. You can trade business cards, get hot tips on jobs, and find out what's the buzz on which company is getting bought by what company. You can drop off résumés and demo discs.

Stardate: May, 2001. E3 was totally jammed the first day, but after that, the crowds dropped off noticeably. Attendance on Saturday was downright slow. Most folks don't want to spend a weekend day at a trade show. But silly me, I'm there all 3 days, workin' the floor and schmoozin' for all I'm worth.

One huge question hanging over the industry is, "which console will win?" So I collected literature from Nintendo about the games that will come out on the Gamecube and the Game Boy Advance, and checked out the floor demos. I collected literature from Sony about the games that will come out on the Playstation 2 and the PS One, and played Final Fantasy X for myself. I collected literature from Microsoft about the games that will come out on the Xbox.

Most of the buzz at the show seemed to be about Nintendo's hardware -- the Gamecube and the GBA. Sony's entrants (the new Playstation 2 and even the old PSOne) seemed to take second place. Most people seemed to be down on the Xbox.

Looking at the literature, it's easy to see why. The list of software coming available on the Nintendo systems is huge. The Game Boy Advance and Game Boy Color are poised to continue just as strong as ever, judging by the list alone.

Sony has a fairly nice list of software coming up on the new system, and the old system ain't dead yet by a long shot.

The Xbox list was really short.

When you look at the quality of the hardware, they all look strong. But as everyone knows, it's the games that sell the systems. Software drives hardware.

There wasn't a lot of focus on PC games at this show, but that's pretty normal for E3. I think there's still a huge shift going on in regards to computer games. The publishers haven't yet figured out how they need to change their practices, to accommodate the changes that are taking place. Shelf space has gotten even harder to come by, and a lot of customers don't come buy anymore (they want to get their PC games for free on the internet).

A whole lotta shakin' out yet to go on...

And, as with TGS, there's this:

The holy directory. Weigh the costs. Airfare: $500. Hotel: $180 a night. Complete addresses and phone and fax numbers for all the game companies: priceless.


Another benefit of shows, when you've been in the business a while, is seeing old familiar faces again. There's a lot of turnover in the industry, and people eventually move on to other companies in the industry, or out of the industry altogether. Mostly I ran into former Activision coworkers (at all 3 shows), but there were also former Atari coworkers (at GDC) ...


... and former Sega coworkers (at TGS).


It's always great to see folks again.

Like it says on the Toy Fair directory, show directories are a year-round resource. When you attend a trade show, make sure you hang onto this treasure! And use it!


There are shows for RPGs, CCGs, and wargames too. And don't overlook comic conventions, sci fi cons, film festivals, Bridge tournaments, puzzle tournaments, paint war campaigns, Go competitions ... there are a lot of events of tremendous value for the game designer.


The Website of the 2004 KGC Conference (I'm speaking there again).

And I'm also speaking at THE 2004 MONTREAL GAME SUMMIT -

There's a very interesting article about trade shows at Channel 3. An "opposing view."

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© 2001 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without permission of the author.