Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Thoughts on making the Classic Gaming Expo the show it deserves to be.

I wrote this about after coming home from CGE 2010.  It was a pretty disheartening experience for me.  I had really been looking forward to this for YEARS.  I thought i was going to find a bunch of like minded buddies into retro games.  But instead it was a bunch of fairly grumpy insular jerks who went out of their way to make the whole experience feel unwelcoming.  Like imagine the worst comic book convention snobs you can think of and fill a room with them.

Luckily I met up with a couple great guys from the Retro Gaming Round Up community and they really saved the trip for me.  

Anyway, I wrote this and passed it around to various other people who were there including Wired's Chris Kohler.  I was planning to publish it here, but I guess I never got around to it.  I will do so now.  I hope this doesn't come off as trolling but rather as thoughts I had on ways to improve an event that I really want to be thriving and successful.

So I'm back from CGE. And the feelings I had while I was sitting in the Las Vegas airport waiting for my delayed / not delayed flight home were somewhat mixed. I had been looking forward to the show for months. I had saved and scrimped so I could go. None of my close friends were that interested so I ended up going alone. Perhaps being in Vegas alone contributed to some of the meloncholy I felt after the end of the show, and more likely I think it was that I had really built up CGE in my head before I ever even got anywhere near the Tropicana. So I was really brooding afterwards over why I was left feeling a little disapointed by the show. It's easy to be critical, but I've always been one for constructive criticism and my dark mood led me to really ask myself questions about what I would do if given an opportunity to put on a show like this.

Coincidentally, when I picked up my badge for CGE they also handed me a bag full of flyers, posters and handouts from the various vendors in attendance. I didn't really give these items a good look until I was sitting in the airport on my way home. One of the items in the bag was a beautiful full color poster commemorating CGE. On the back was a bitter sweet note from the shows founders detailing the difficulty they had bringing the show back. it's obvious that this is a labor of love, and I found that this document really helped solidify some of my thoughts about the areas in which CGE exceeded my expectations as well as where I thought they could stand to implement some improvements.

I will site sections of the founders statement as needed, but the basic gist was that while they were happy to be back after a two year hiatus they were worried that this might be their last show. The statement intimated that the expo's attendance was down both among show goers and vendors. It's obvious that there was a lot of frustration on the part of the show organizers that the current leaders of the video game industry seemed uninterested or unwilling to attend the show or provide corporate sponsorship.

It is obvious that something needs to change if we have any hope of seeing a CGE 2011. I have never been to the show before, so I'm not sure what the change is year on year, but it seemed that attendance was low. I have to say that I was a little disheartened to see so much empty space that could have been filled with vendors and expo attendees. As the founders state this is a niche hobby, but if there are people willing to shell out 41k for a classic game cartridge, there should be enough interest in the general community to support an expo of this type.

But before I begin to outline suggestions I have for where CGE could strive for improvement I'd like to detail the things that they are already doing right (in no particular order):

  1. Location:  Vegas is a great place for an expo like this. It's in an area where conference space is widely available and travel / lodging expnses are much more affordable than they would be if the expo was to be held in Seattle, New York, or Los Angeles.
  2. Classic Gaming Luminaries:  These guys have done a great job at bringing together an exciting and entertaining group of game designers, programmers, and artists who shared stories about the old days, chatted with attendees and signed autographs. It was a real treat to see these legendary individuals walking around the show floor laughing and chatting with their collegues an fans. This is CGE's biggest strength.
  3. Chip TunesI think that the inclusion of the chip tunes music acts does great job of celebrating a relatively new phenomenon that embraces the old games in a creative and (for me at least) highly enjoyable way.
  4. CGE MuseumI took about 450 pictures in here. Plain and Simple, there is stuff in here that I never thought I'd see in person. Things like Ralph Baer's Brown Box, the Color Vectrex prototype and an Atari Cosmos. I mean all three of those things were just incredible. This thing is a real showcase piece and like the "alumni" could and should be a bigger draw.
  5. Retro Game Machines: When I wasn't in panels or in the museum I was having a blast on one of about 50 retro arcade machines. It was just such a blast. I think that this sort of "hands on" stuff is a real draw for people with kids and also for those of us who are more interested in experiencing and discussing retro game hardware, I think having these machines is just such a great move.

The show elements I have described above are really the soul of CGE. I wouldn't change them I would just find ways to enhance them and spread the word about them.

And that brings us to my suggestions for improving CGE.

First and foremost I think that there are two questions that need to be answered by the show organizers and they are as follows:

1) Is CGE a for profit "EXPO" like PAX / Comic Con or is the show more akin to the work the Tim Arnold does at the pinball hall of fame, by which I mean, a non for profit group of dedicated enthusiasts working to preserve the legacy of a very narrowly defined set of hardware platforms and their corresponding software libraries?

2)  What is classic gaming specifically?  

If the promoters are going to effectively sell this event they really need to clarify what exactly the expo is and who it is for.  

It seems to me like the problems that the organizers have had might be stem from ambiguity about what it is they are trying to achieve and which masters they see CGE as trying to serve.

Anyone who has gone to Comic Con recently will tell you that it is different than it was a few years ago.  The real old timers are constantly bemoaning the influx of pop culture in what was once a gathering of comic book enthusiasts.  Either by design or by chance, comic con has morphed into a huge pop cultural phenomenon.  There's novels, television, video games, films, booths filled with alt art and counter cultural fashion, action figures, and of course comic books.  And while I can totally empathize with the enthusiasts when they complain about the crowding and vampire crazed teenagers, I'm sure that the promoters are ecstatic that the influx of these additional attendees are guaranteeing that comic con is only going to grow and give comic book fans a huge spectacle orbiting their hobby.

CGE needs to decide if it is going to cling tenaciously to the niche that they embraced in the past or if they will attempt to expand the show and it's attendance by widening the scope to include video game hardware, software, and personalities that are somewhat more tangentially related to the "core" subjects that CGE has embrassed in the past.

In their statement, the organizers discussed a number of issues that have made putting on a show like CGE such a difficult endeavor.  It may be an over simplification, but I would say that these issues can be summarized as the following:

  • a lack of financial support from modern game companies
  • scarcity of vendors (in some cases this is due to apathy while in others it is that these vendors might be out of business all together)
  • lower attendance (and an unwillingness on the part of these attendees to stay at the hotel at which the expo is being hosted)
  • lack of interest on the part of major developers to attend the show and show product.  Specifically, they stated that game companies spend thousands of dollars on tiny booths at E3 and can't even be bothered to contribute anything to this show.

It's pretty easy to write a big long screed on the internet.  And I'm sure I'm well over the TLDR length, but this is an event I looked forward to for a couple years and was so excited for and the fact that I felt sort of "meh" about it isn't OK with me.  I love retro games.  And it just kind of sticks in my craw a little bit that these guys would have such a hard time making this show happen.  It just doesn't seem right to me.  So I really spent a long time thinking about what I would do if I were in their shoes.  

I hope that this comes off as the constructive criticism that it is.  It is in no way meant to diminish the hard work that these guys did putting on this show.  I just think it could go from good to great and I'd like to share some of my ideas here in the hope that it seen by like minded individuals in and outside of the games industry who might also be moved to do something to help make next years show something truly incredible.

OK.  OK. we get it, the Atari was awesome.

Now, don't get me wrong, I understand that CGE started off as an Atari show.  And, let it be known that I love the atari.  My first system was a 5200.  I learned to swear watching my dad play space invaders.  When I think of pac man I think of the 5200 version.  Same thing for Pitfall.  I was an Atari kid for a long time.  And beyond that, having read Racing the Beam I would never suggest that someone like David Crane isn't a complete genius and we are all lucky to spend even ten minutes listening to him explain the dark art of programming for the 2600.

Having said that, I couldn't help but sit in on the numerous Atari and Intellivision panels and sort of wish that there was someone speaking about working on the coleco, vectrex, arcade, and early micro computers.   I heard reports from several attendees that the speakers that were there are the same guys who have been to every CGE basically telling the same stories.  Which I think may hurt attendance.  You look at the speaker list and is it worth it go fly out there when I could save that money and buy that Tempest cab I want.

The over abundance of Intellivision and Atari speakers might have stemmed from the fact that no one from those other companies was available or willing to come to CGE. If that is the case it's really too bad, but I have to imagine that most of those individuals are probably just as available as the people who did show up, it's just a matter of organizing the fan base of CGE to see if anyone can pull some strings and get some more of these other gaming gurus out there next year.

Where's all the Japanese stuff?

It's kind of funny, I listen to a lot of retro podcasts and I think man...these guys are all just a bunch of Nintendo fan boys.  But the fact of the matter is that a "pre-crash" group of speakers isn't really telling the whole story of classic gaming.  Now I'm not going to sit here and say that Nintendo is "as classic" as Atari or something, but I certainly think there is room for luminaries and hardware discussion of the Sega Master System, Turbo Grafx, NES along side the discussion of the early American consoles.  I know of at least three of my colleges who worked at the American arm of these Japanese companies and I don't see any reason why they wouldn't be interested in talking about the old days.   I think the second largest complaint among show goers (right after "where is everyone?") was "Where is all the Japanese stuff?"  I don't think this applied as much to the vendors who all seemed to have a nice mix of Japanese and american stuff.  But in the panels and a little in the Museum it seemed like a lot of the Japanese hardware was more of a footnote.

Additionally, it has to be said that today's retro scene is populated by a lot more folks who think of games by Capcom, Konami, and Nintendo when they think of "Classic" games than there are who think of Pitfall or even Pac Man.  I'm not saying that I think that either groups of games are more deserving of a place at the show, what I am saying is that the organizers (and attendees) could do to be a lot more "console agnostic".  If you really want to pack the show, you need to get more alumni and vendors to attend who are associated more with Japanese game companies and systems.  That isn't to say they have to be Japanese even, I know that I'd love to sit through a panel with the guys from Color Dreams or Tengen both of whom are known mostly for producing games on the NES. 

"Classic Gaming" should be more clearly defined.

Personally, I've always looked as my interest in classic / retro gaming as being holistic.  Meaning that the only limitation I place on considering a game classic or retro is that it is now longer commercially available.  That means that I personally consider original XBox games to be retro gaming.  This view isn't always the one generally accepted definition of classic or retro gaming and has led to some heated forum posts.  I can understand the argument that a system like the XBox is advanced enough that the games on it are close enough to current generation games that they shouldn't be considered "classic".

I think that the danger is placing a "value judgement" on games that a user might be interested in.  Retro gaming shouldn't be analogous to "classic cars" meaning that if someone considers Castlevania 64 one of the greatest retrogames of all time, I shouldn't be dismissing their view because I don't feel like that game isn't "meaningful" or "significant" enough to be considered "Classic".   

Personally, I felt an air of superiority among certain panelists and attendees.  An attitude that certain systems and games weren't worth of discussion because they were on a system that was not considered to be "classic".  I really think that the definition of "classic games" should be defined as broadly as possible, that way if a CDi user group wants to come and set up their booth they won't have to worry about a lot of derision slung their way by the hardcore Atari collectors in attendance.  

Where is Bionic Command Rearmed 2?

In their letter to attendees, the organizers of CGE, bemoaned the fact that they hadn't gotten any corporate sponsorship for CGE.   I just find this extremely hard to believe.  I wonder if the problem is that the organizers were simply searching for funding rather than partnerships.  Contemporary game companies are running a for profit business.  It isn't really in their interest to make contributions to an expo that will not help them sell their current batch of releases. 

However, many companies are working on current games that have direct links to classic games.  I know that many of these companies have display booths ready to go because I saw them at E3?  Why not have them come and show of their games on the show floor.  Charge them a fee in place of a contribution.   Here is a list of the top of my head of companies who are currently promoting games that are directly related to classic gaming properties:

  • Konami - Hard Corps, Russian Attack, Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker, Castlevania HD, 
  • Namco - Pac Man party, Splatter House
  • WB - Mortal Kombat 
  • Disney Interactive - Tron
  • Sony - Twisted Metal
  • Nintendo - (I shouldn't even need to list these, does Nintendo even have a series NOT based on a classic franchise?)  
  • Microsoft - Game Room! (I saw a game room banner, but I think that was for the Intelevision guys)
  • Capcom - Bionic Commando Re-armed 2, Street Fighter 4
  • Sega - Sonic 4, Dreamcast remakes for XBLA

If you are reading this and thinking "yeah, but those games don't have a place at CGE".  You are wrong.  All those games are linked to classic games.  These games will appeal to attendees precisely because they are keeping interest in the classic franchises alive.

 These companies want to show them off.      It shouldn't be a problem for them to send out a few demonstration booths for the show floor and hopefully allow a producer to talk on a panel about these storied franchises.   Attendance will grow once word gets out that so many companies are supporting the show, you'll get folks coming out just to see these classic games and hopefully these folks will end up buying stuff from the vendor booths.

Is this an Expo or a Museum?

The alternative to the "connected marketing" described above is to reclassify the expo as a purely educational endeavor.  A non-profit, academic examination of classic gaming.

I believe that doing so would give a lot more credence to the organizers complaints that they have been ignored by modern gaming companies.  As it is now, I don't really see that modern game publishers and developers have much interest in making financial contributions to a for profit venture, but it might be easier to get proto-types and corporate sponsorship if these companies could write off contributions as tax exempt gifts to a group who is actively preserving the legacy of the video game industry.

I'm not sure if this is the right way to go, but it would expand the organizers options in terms of obtaining funding for the show.

Too Long, Didn't Read.

In summary, I think that CGE does many things right, but has a few areas it could improve on.  In brief I think that the organizers need to better define what "classic" games mean to them.  I think that balance of games, vendors, and platforms should be expanded to inlcude japanese games, developers and consoles as well as american consoles other than Atari and Intellivision.  I can't imagine that I'm the only one who attended the show that would love to sit in on a panel of Odyssey 2 game designers or Turbo Grafx hardware engineers.  

 I think that in order to expand the scope of attendance, the show scope of the show itself must be expanded to include a greater range of classic hardware and software.  I also think that it is vital to get the contemporary publishers involved and showing modern games that are either remakes or continuations of classic game series.  

Either way, I look forward to seeing how next years CGE shapes up, see you there!

1 comment:

t said...

Your opening comment is kind of how I felt at CGE 2007 (I think that was the year). The vendors seemed largely indifferent zombie types except the atari2600 table. By strange coincidence, that was the only table I bought anything from. Might've been one other that acknowledged me, can't recall for sure.

Even at a dorky comic show, people know to say hello or ask if you're looking for anything.

The 'badges for the 'special' people' stuff was off-putting as well. Is the event for everybody or just members of such-and-such website?

Huge disappointment and I won't be bothering again.