EGN: The Noise is Back in Town
As the dust settles on Game Stars Live, nobody seems in any doubt that the show, along with trade-only EGN at the same venue, has put the buzz back into London Games Week.
It's been too many years since anyone remembers ECTS actually being good. Back in the day, when the CMP-organised event was held at Olympia near Earls Court, ECTS offered countless large stands with E3-style stage events and promotions, and a software line-up to rival (but never, ever beat) the L.A. mega-show. The babes were in full force, the hardcore gamers always attended despite it being a trade event, and there was a choice of about twenty drinking establishments in the immediately surrounding area.
It was good, but for at least the last five years, ECTS has become duller and duller, with major gaming exhibitors dropping out of the event (although Sony's consumer PlayStation Experience event injected some lifeline into the show in 2002 and 2003) as the show became an occasion more for non-videogame related shenanigans, than we as gamers don't really care about.
But this year saw the launch of another event for the annual London gaming scene, this time the brainchild of gaming's European trade body, ELSPA. The proposition was that its trade show offering, EGN (standing for European Games Network, which we maintain is a bewildering and thus slightly crap name for a show) would run alongside a dedicated consumer event with the big stands and high-profile titles we all demand from the occasion.
Great, we though, but its decision to run the event on exactly the dates ECTS would be taking place proved controversial, yet ultimately, justified. ECTS this year hit an all-time low, with simply no proper gaming exhibitors at all, but predictably a range of smaller software, distribution or services firms. Apparently the one thing ECTS offered that was not at the ELSPA event was a couple of Resident Evil 4 pods - and also, its developer forum, GDCE, was reportedly slightly more interesting than EGN's equivalent, EDF (more on that later). Industry watchers are saying that, after all these years, ECTS's time is finally up. At least for the UK games industry that started it, that's now a certainty.
I was pleasantly surprised at the overall style and effectiveness of EGN and Game Stars Live. The industry had previously bemoaned the decision to locate the shows in East London's comparatively new ExCeL venue, but then, the last time we were there was for a one-off ECTS stop in 2001, which was dire and left us with a sour taste.
Now in a considerably more developed state (there's a nice bar attached to the venue) the ExCeL venue seems the ideal place for the EGN format, with the snappy Game Stars Live event on the left, and the quieter, trade-only EGN on the right, leading to a series of meeting rooms that back onto the River Thames (via the longest corridor in Europe, we're told by the show's PR) - which is nice if you like that sort of thing.
The format meant that trade side could concentrate on things like meetings and interviews in EGN, while everyone, including the impressive turnout of consumers, got access to the Game Stars Live event, which allowed publishers to exhibit their game line-ups in booths that ranged from OK to impressive.
Having been heavily promoted in outdoor, specialist and national advertising, the event promised a good software line-up, and it while it could have been a bit better, ultimately it didn't disappoint.
In terms of first parties, Sony was conspicuous by its absence, opting to bring back its PlayStation Experience consumer event - not at ECTS, but instead later this month at the country's most popular theme park, Alton Towers, a decision that will probably pay off - not that we'll be able to tell, since it clashes with TGS. Though there seems no reason why next year, they couldn't do "both".
Microsoft was pulling in the crowds with a sizable demonstration booth for Halo 2, complete with guys dressed up as Master Chiefs, and an hour-plus waiting area decorated with sand and palm trees to look like the game's Zanzibar demo shown at E3. For UK gamers it was the first time to play the game, although for us it was merely the same closed-doors multiplayer demonstration we were treated to back at E3. The rest of its line-up included the likes of Fable, while a sprinkling of thirdpary games on its booth included Sega's "above and beyond" conversion of OutRun2, which has been getting fanboys in rather a state recently.
Nintendo had perhaps the most stylish booth, with a massive den-like area that was again closed off and often demanded waiting time from the patient gamers. Inside, the most notable title on show was Metroid Prime 2, while Donkey Konga entertained but the undeniably more impressive Donkey Kong Jungle Beat failed to make an appearance. Also of note was a small demo room entitled "the Future of Nintendo", with what appeared to be a looping promotional video for Nintendo DS, which Nintendo no doubt hoped would generate some fresh word of mouth.
Not unwise, when you consider that the new Gizmondo "everything in one device" handheld sort-of launched at the show, with its own, admittedly quite imaginative "under construction" stand - boosted by perhaps the best booth babes of the show (see our shameless video) and Nokia's N-Gage continued to fight aggressively for attention at the other end of the hall.
The best thirdparty booth was arguably UbiSoft's, keeping both trade and consumers happy with an up-to-date build of Splinter Cell Chaos Theory (see our impressions and new videos here) and another showcase for Prince of Persia 2, while the Playboy booth kept drooling youngsters reaching for their fake IDs.
Konami's booth was certainly worth a visit thanks almost entirely to the debut of Pro Evolution Soccer 4, arguably the soccer fan's favourite right now, while Dancing Stage Fusion and Karaoke Stage completed the stand.
Electronic Arts was the exhibitor who undoubtedly used the Game Stars Live opportunity to its full potential, with a full range of EA Sports-inspired activities possible (goal scoring and the like) that kept younger attendees firmly on the EA stand to take in every last marketing message the company had to offer, along with similar EA Games-themed showcases like a cool "be in the photo" service for games including Need For Speed Underground 2.
Software-wise, the publisher showed not only its strength but its increasing efforts to make better quality games, with NFSU2, Burnout 3, GoldenEye Rogue Agent and The Sims 2 all standing out. An 18s-only booth also offered TimeSplitters Future Perfect and Def Jam Fight for New York which were also looking in good shape. Additionally, the Oddworld-developed Stranger was shown to trade behind closed doors, with supposedly astounding results (see our forthcoming impressions).
Eidos attracted visitors with a loud booth that included Crash 'n' Burn, ShellShock and Get On Da Mic; Activison showcased the UK public debut of Star Wars: Battlefront, along with new titles like Tony Hawk's Underground 2 and X-Men Legends (plus a closed booth for Doom 3 - ha! We've all played it now, keep your closed booth! Ahem).
There was Vivendi Games, with a tight line-up that included Crash Twinsanity, Leisure Suit Larry, Men of Valor: The Vietnam War, Red Ninja: End of Honor and of course World of Warcraft. And to round of the "bits we care about" list, Midway showcased Mortal Kombat: Deception and NBA Ballers.
So there was plenty to see, and you'd have to go five or six years back to find a previous London game event that comes close. The size was almost ideal - you could actually walk the circuit of the exhibits in a few minutes, as opposed to the always intimidating "hours" it takes to do the same at E3 - but best of all, when we had an appointment here, we could actually get to it (a point that Doug Lowenstein of E3 organiser ESA - who attended this event - might like to consider, though don't ask us for any solutions).
ELSPA and its top brass Roger Bennett may have put the final nail in ECTS's long-sealed coffin (some exhibitors told us they wouldn't even return to ECTS if the floor space was free) but there are a couple of areas they could improve on in time for next year. For example, when you compare the event to the last two years' PlayStation Experience consumer events, or even the more impressive trade events like X02 and X03, the actual Game Stars Live hall could look much nicer with some work on lighting and design, areas in which the Sony event really excelled.
In addition, the EDF (European Developers' Forum) section of the event was reportedly a little disappointing, something that again should be worked on for next year, when there'll be no confusion about which event to attend. Oh, and the "main stage events" seemed a little dead as well, whenever we looked there - maybe because it was in the furthest possible corner of the event?
Oh, and if ExCeL was a little too slick, they could always take the whole thing back to Olympia next year. On second thoughts…
Editorial Director, Kikizo.com
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The Babes of Game Stars Live
Short clip of some girls going crazy at Game Stars Live. Not up to our usual standards it has to be said. (640x480, 2Mbps)