Thought Bubble: The Fan Expo Mega Booth?

 

Image: Jon Ore
Image: Jon Ore

 

As a member of the gaming press, Fan Expo has always been a little hit or miss for me. While it’s great to see major studios like Ubisoft, Bethesda and Warner Bros. increasing their presence at the show, Fan Expo has never offered much in the way of news. 2014 was no exception. The playable demos are primarily recycled from E3 or other closed-door press events, which are far more useful if you’re planning to write about a game.

Of course, Fan Expo (which ended Sunday) is not E3 and is appropriately staged with an eye towards fans rather than the media. For members of the general public, Fan Expo represents a lone chance to get some hands on time with major titles like Assassin’s Creed: Unity or The Evil Within. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But it still feels like a wasted opportunity. While Toronto has one of the richest independent game development communities in the world, many of the top local studios are in Seattle for PAX instead of home for Fan Expo, and I can’t say I blame them. Seattle’s dedicated gaming con has a much higher density of industry and media professionals than a generalist con like Fan Expo. The buzz generated from a good showing at PAX far outweighs the publicity generated domestically.

But wouldn’t it be nice if it were otherwise?

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Fan Expo attracts enough people to compete with more well-known destination conventions like PAX. Unfortunately, the focus is almost exclusively on merchandise, so it seldom offers anything worth covering for anyone outside the city. I think Toronto deserves better.

Increasing the presence of local developers would be a huge first step in that direction. It’s unrealistic to expect independent developers to front booths like those staged by corporations like Microsoft and Sony, but the Indie Mega Booth at events like PAX has provided a spotlight for countless smaller titles and Toronto absolutely has the talent and pull to establish something similar at Fan Expo.

So why can’t we have an Indie Mega Booth at Fan Expo 2015? Concentrating multiple game projects in one section of the show floor – preferably in a central area conducive to foot traffic and flow – would be a major boon for both guests and developers. Gaming at a convention is inevitably social, and a booth that lends itself to digital and personal interaction has the potential to be one of the unexpected highlights for many attendees.

As it stands, the independent gaming presence is fragmented almost to the point of invisibility. This year, the Brampton Indie Booth was an excellent grassroots attempt to build something like a Mega Booth that provided a showcase for a handful of individual developers including Rokashi (I’m Fine) and David S. Gallant (I Get This Call Every Day). It’s a great way to put unconventional games in front of new audiences, but the scope needs to be bigger. You wouldn’t know the booth was there unless you were looking for it, and even then the setup is such that people are often (though not always) talking over tables rather than face to face.

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That shouldn’t be the case. Publishers like Microsoft and Sony are focused on a global market so I don’t expect them to make big announcements at a regional convention like Fan Expo. That’s also why I think the organizers of Fan Expo should do a better job of highlighting independent developers. There’s less triple-A marketing noise, which means that a smaller project has a better chance of getting noticed and making an impact with a major push while 60,000 people are in the building. That media attention would help build the event itself, and that, in turn, attracts even more developers and fans.

As much as I like Fan Expo, the naked consumerism can be overwhelming, especially when so much of it is focused on the intellectual property of yesterday. Activities that are fun in their own right – and that don’t require any additional expenditure beyond the entrance fee – make it much easier to justify the cost of admission. Gaming can provide that value add, either through demos on the show floor or spectator-friendly events like those staged this weekend for League of Legends and Starcraft II (it was great to see Riot with such a strong turnout in 2014). Emphasizing the next generation of content creators would be a practical way to deliver something newsworthy while serving as a timely reminder of the passion that makes us fans in the first place.

 



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