Defining CES: gaming's role at the show

Many of the game publishers exhibiting are relegated to smaller roles by virtue of having to share the stage with other divisions of their companies

The International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) began in 1967 as an off-shoot of the Chicago Music Show. In the forty-plus years since, the show has developed a distinct identity as the premiere destination for companies to announce, display, and demo new hardware and software products to thousands of attendees and millions of folks following the show at home. Video game companies, however, have had a bit of a quandary when it comes to CES. A show that housed the debuts of the Nintendo Entertainment System and Microsoft Xbox has seen its popularity amongst game publishers wax and wane over the last few years, as a continually changing video game convention landscape has forced companies to change their hand in Vegas every year.

Many of the game publishers exhibiting are relegated to smaller roles by virtue of having to share the stage with other divisions of their companies. "As the "Xbox guys," if you will, we're really a passenger here, not the driver, so that's the biggest difference." Xbox spokesman Aaron Greenberg said. "This is more of a corporate show for us-it's not a gaming show."

Sony's press conference featured little in the way of PlayStation 3 announcements, though the company's booth did include a few of its early 2010 games. Microsoft, however, included quite a bit of Xbox 360 content at its keynote, debuting the Game Room service and hyping Project Natal as the company's next bit input system. "I've been on Xbox for 10 years, and I've been coming to CES since we unveiled the original Xbox with Bill Gates and The Rock many, many years ago, and this was, I think the biggest role we've played at CES as a part of Microsoft." said Greeberg.

Most game publishers are unable to exhibit at CES due to the fact that they lack a membership to the Consumer Electronics Association. Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo are all members, but very few other publishers or developers are among the 2,200 CEA companies. Much like how Activision has managed to make its presence felt at E3s where it didn't officially exhibit, some companies make their mark on CES outside of the show. Capcom has been one of the most visible game publishers at CES in recent years despite lacking a membership. The company usually invites press to game demos and events held in Las Vegas during CES week. This year, they showed 10 games and hosted separate events for Super Street Fighter IV and Dark Void-an impressive number of titles, but not up to the company's typical trade show slate. "Typically, we show fewer games on fewer systems than we would at a show like E3 or Comic-con." said Capcom's Chris Kramer "We go much more "casual" during CES"

One avenue of the gaming industry that has seemed to carve out its identity at CES are accessory manufacturers. Razer used this year's event to show debut a PC motion control system, while Nyko unveiled a Wii Remote that includes Motion Plus technology built in. Game publishers are able to have some presence by working with these companies. "There were Capcom games in many different booths, including Mad Catz, Nvidia, Microsoft, Tritton and the PC Gaming Alliance." said Kramer.

2010 brings a second Penny Arcade Expo on the East Coast, and an E3 that has been invorated after a successful 2009 show. Yet companies are still cognizant that CES can have a role in debuting video game products. "There are lots of media -- from bloggers to newspaper reporters, TV crews to syndicated columnists -- who attend the show that we don't have many opportunities to catch up with on a regular basis." said Kramer

One of the best examples of a company finding the perfect audience at CES was Lego Universe. At hardcore-dominated video game tradeshows, a Lego-based MMO could be overlooked, but the game managed to attract crowds at CES due to a variety of factors. Mark Hansen attributed the game's CES appearance to the fact that the game's "new tech takes it outside of gaming," as it includes a system in which players can program actions in the game by building routines much in the way they piece blocks together. The company's booth included stations for Lego masters to create in-game items while attendees were invited to collect actual Lego bricks and sign up for the game's upcoming beta.

The MMO may not be the most casual-friendly game genre, but mixing it with a universal IP like Lego may be the key to that game's success and gaming at CES in general-finding the casual hook in hardcore product. Scott Brown president of Lego Universe publisher NetDevil said "E3 is for press and buyers, PAX is for gamers. CES is for a much larger market."

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