SANTA MONICA, Calif.--The luxury suites housing the E3 Media and Business Summit provide a professional atmosphere, polished demos and catered hors d'oeuvres. Down the road at Gamecock Media's "anticonference," things couldn't be more different.
Here at the Hotel California, a combination indoor-outdoor beachfront lodge popular with the surfer set (and fans of the Eagles), the uniform of choice is flip-flops and a T-shirt. The stereo is playing a steady stream of Led Zeppelin, the grills are serving up hot dogs, and the coolers are packed with cans of Bud Light and trendy energy drinks. But it's more than an afternoon party by the Southern California coast. For independent game publisher Gamecock, which has rented out the entire hotel, this is business.
When the Entertainment Software Association, organizer of the sprawling E3 confabulation at the Los Angeles Convention Center, announced that the 2007 edition would be restructured into a quieter, invitation-only affair, many game industry insiders expressed relief that they'd no longer have to deal with the 60,000-plus attendees and over-the-top marketing displays.
But there were plenty of skeptics, too, and the Austin, Texas-based Gamecock was one of the most vocal. The young company, formally established last September, was so critical of E3's more stoic reincarnation that its team decided to create a "shadow" conference in protest.
The reason, according to Gamecock chief operating officer Rick Stults (he's also the chief financial officer), is that the new E3 focuses entirely too much on the biggest names in gaming--and their allegedly unfortunate tendency to forsake original and innovative games for repetitive sequels and movie tie-ins that were created to be sure sells.
"We feel that E3, what it was, is no longer," Stults said, "which from our perspective is the games and the developers. You don't need to have this stuffy, corporate kind of invite-only event."
Gamecock has titled the gathering Expo for Interactive Entertainment, Independent and Original, or E.I.E.I.O. for short. Showcased in the Hotel California's suites are nine upcoming console and PC titles and the developers behind them, and they're a colorful bunch. Gamecock considers itself the industry's equivalent of an indie record label or film distributor, so the games understandably tend to be a little bit edgy, a little bit artsy, and potentially controversial. And Gamecock distinctly avoids publishing anything with a II or a III in the name.
"We take a little bit of a risk by going for original titles," Stults said, referring to sequels' reputations as lower-quality stabs at making a few extra bucks. "(In big-publisher gaming) and even in the movie industry, it's a little too sequelized."
"We feel that E3, what it was, is no longer, which from our perspective is the games and the developers. You don't need to have this stuffy, corporate kind of invite-only event."
--Rick Stults, Gamecock chief operating officer
"Thank God Gamecock came around," said Chad Barron, a producer for Red Fly Studio, whose game Mushroom Men, an artistically inclined title depicting a war between edible and poisonous mushrooms, will be released by Gamecock. "The first thing they said is, 'We don't want something that's a sequel. We want originality.'"
According to Barron, the company's hallmark is its willingness to let developers guide themselves by creativity rather than rolling out prefabricated successes based on industry trends. "Gamecock's just like, 'Hey, we love this idea, you guys run with it.' We're not handheld by big publishers."
The end results, as showcased at E.I.E.I.O., are hardly your typical first-person shooters and car chases. There's Insecticide, a detective action-adventure game in which all the characters are bugs; Hail to the Chimp, which is sort of like Mario Party with a distinctly political slant (one level of the game is all about which player can stuff a ballot box the fastest); and fantasy role-playing game Dungeon Hero, which takes place literally underground.
Indeed, considering the criticism of the "new E3" as lacking in new announcements and exciting developments, the gaggle of offbeat titles at E.I.E.I.O. has been a breath of fresh air for some E3 cynics. Mushroom Men even elicited a nod in Thursday's edition of USA Today. "I think people are excited about our lineup just like we are," Stults said.
The free-hot-dogs-and-beer setup has also turned some heads. "We always try to do something where we find a venue that our company and our development teams can have fun, but also the kind of environment that they can properly talk about their games. (The developers) got their own suites, their own rooms," he said. "People can kind of go in at their own pace, grab a burger, have a drink."
That's not all. As another means of promoting their game developers Thursday night, the company has rented out a local dive bar for a late-night rager that will likely be quite different from the evening receptions at sushi restaurants and wine bars that some of the bigger publishers have planned. Then, on Friday afternoon, at the counterculturally significant hour of 4:20 p.m., Gamecock will hold "E3 Up in Smoke," a mock funeral procession for the original, more inclusive conference of yore. Following that is, naturally, another party.
Big game publishers and E3 insiders might find the Gamecock guys and their "Up in Smoke" antics irrelevant, irreverent, or just plain irritating. The indie developers at E.I.E.I.O., however, point to the diversity and depth that independent film and music have provided to their respective industries over the past few decades.
Anyone, they said, can consider the tongue-in-cheek "anticonference" to be a sign of the video game business' maturation. "Gamecock's not just taking a few risks, they're taking all the risks," said Red Fly Studio designer Ryan Mattson. But ultimately, he said, it helps the little guys. "Where we are right now is a sign of that (success)."