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Fewer Players in the Gaming Group

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As industry analyst Michael Pachter puts it, "these [publishers] got rid of E3 so they wouldn't be spending money, and they suddenly find they are spending the same amount of money, but without the spectacle of E3." For top-tier companies, he said, the annual fees amount to $4.5 million or more.

"I can't comment on whether the ESA is effective or not," Pachter said, "but clearly several members decided that this is not the kind of reward they expect for that amount spent."

Todd Hollenshead, chief executive of Id Software, said his company's exit from the organization was a business decision and that the ESA "is a credit to the industry."

"Our departure from ESA is probably temporary and was not political," he said. "It was just a question of other priorities this year that we wanted to focus on."

The company, famous for shooter games like Doom and Quake, had debated letting its membership drop last year as well, when fees quadrupled, Hollenshead said. This year, his company's annual QuakeCon fan event, where thousands of fans travel to the company's headquarters in Texas to play the company's games, takes place within a few weeks of this year's E3.

The ESA Web site still lists 24 members; some think that number is going to shrink more.

Hal Halpin, head of a consumer group that focuses on gamer-interest issues called the Entertainment Consumers Association, said he knows of two other game companies that are planning to leave, in addition to "several others that are unhappy but remain with the organization."

"It's really concerning for all of us. Anyone who cares about the games business should be concerned about what's going on with the ESA," he said.

When Gallagher took the job last year, I paid a visit to ESA headquarters, located downtown near the Verizon Center. I challenged him to some video games and was impressed to find that he could talk knowledgeably about games -- and hold his own on a game controller. He joked to me that during his years as a telecom executive in both the private and public sector, none of his speeches had ever gotten as much online attention as the few speeches he'd made since taking the reigns at the ESA.

He's been kind of quiet since that time, from my perspective, at least. After a Fox News show featured an uninformed pundit going off about the allegedly sexually explicit nature of a popular video game called Mass Effect, some gamers complained that the ESA did not step in to defend the game industry.

Gallagher said he works "to diffuse conflicts before they happen" and, as part of that strategy, has had "scores of meetings" with legislators across the country behind the scenes.

"When it's necessary for the industry to have that loud, clear and public voice to defend itself from a baseless attack, I will be there," he said.

While top-ranking game industry executives were quick to get on the phone or respond to my e-mail queries about Gallagher last year, they weren't as chatty this year. Sony's PR people, for example, promised that the company's PlayStation division head would respond to some questions a couple of weeks ago, but that never happened.

Last year, Robbie Bach, head of Microsoft's game division, got on the phone to sing Gallagher's praises. This year, Microsoft sent me a statement: "We're as committed as ever to the ESA, and we look forward to participating in E3 this summer." Nintendo released a shorter, nine-word statement along the same lines.

I'm not going to E3 this year, after attending the show for nearly a decade. But, to be fair, that's as much a story about declining newspaper budgets as it is one about a trade show's future.


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