By Harro Ten Wolde and Christiaan Hetzner
COLOGNE, Germany (Reuters) - Videogames maker Electronic Arts knows that in the Vatican there are more than just a few soccer fans thanks to customer feedback for its flagship sports title FIFA Soccer mined from connected gamers all over the world.
Game developers such as EA, Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft and Sony are sitting on a treasure trove of client data that enables them to reach the right target group at the right time, yet every year in August they still flock to the Gamescom in Cologne to meet gamers in person.
Spanning an area the size of some 20 soccer pitches, Europe's largest videogames trade fair opened its doors on Thursday. It has been growing steadily every year and the 2013 convention with 340,000 visitors not just surpassed its predecessors but far exceeded the expected 275,000.
"The brilliant part about this show is, it is the equivalent of real live Twitter," said David Rutter, executive producer of EA's FIFA soccer videogame.
"We have a coding room here in the venue. Fans who like our games come in and play. We ask what they like, what they don't and we instantly can make the changes."
Adding to Gamescom's appeal this year was that visitors, willing to queue for half an hour or more, could try out two brand new consoles that will only be available from November - Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's PlayStation 4.
The Cologne show is the first opportunity for gamers to actually play the games after they were unveiled two months ago at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles.
"We are experiencing a banner year for console gaming, the kind that we've not had for a while," said Steve Bailey, games analyst at research firm IHS.
"This is when the value of E3 and Gamescom is at its peak, as a loudhailer platform not just for the dissemination of information, but of projecting a sense of eventfulness."
The convention doesn't just serve as a promotional stage to showcase new games to consumers but also attracts managers from major manufacturers looking to do business. Product placement in videogames is a billion dollar market - one that carmakers for example can't afford to miss out on.
"We have a full schedule of appointments in Cologne, meeting both partners with whom we already are in close collaboration as well as new game developers interested in a creative exchange of ideas," said Claudia Mueller, head of Entertainment Marketing at BMW, whose Z4 coupe features prominently in the online racing game "Auto Club Revolution".
Located at the center of Europe along the continent's main trade routes, Germany has a long history of trade shows including the Book Fair and IAA autoshow in Frankfurt as well as the IFA in Berlin, Europe's biggest consumer electronics show.
Germany hosted 649 conventions in 2012, ranking it second to the United States, according to data from ICCA, a global association for the trade fair industry.
Business tourism in Germany generated 57.2 billion euros ($76.7 billion) in 2012, figures from the national tourist board DTZ show. In that year 2.6 million trips from European countries were made to shows and exhibitions in Germany, a 9.2 percent increase from the previous year.
MEET AND TWEAK
Gartner technology analyst Brian Blau said Gamescom had been able to ward off a growing threat from tech companies like Apple, Google and SAP, who stage their own trade shows to ensure their message is not diluted by media coverage of their biggest competitors.
"These brands get 100 percent of your attention during these days. At a convention you have to share the stage with lots and lots of other brands," Blau said.
"But what impressed me about Gamescom was the sheer size of the whole thing - it's just a gigantic place - and the magnitude by which the games companies put on their shows," he explained.
Publishers also use the spectacle surrounding Gamescom to beef up their social media presence with fresh content for their fan base. EA Sports has over 20 million followers of its FIFA Facebook page.
"With these events we generate a lot of traffic on our social networks," EA's Rutter said.
"We have a tremendous fan base. The people are hungry for content," Activision Blizzard Publishing Chief Executive Eric Hirshberg said.
But nothing beats the personal contact with the customer.
"In the midst of the development process, when we have our noses pressed against the screens looking at the pixels, it is good to take a step back," Hirshberg added.
"It is great walk around in the booth, watch real-live gamers play your stuff what is still in development and you can still make tweaks."
To keep gamers interested the Cologne fair is looking at opportunities to include other media such as the movie industry and television, said the Gerald Boese, chief executive of Koelnmesse, the Cologne trade fair operator.
"There are so many cross-overs between the gaming sector, movies and television, that it would justify those sectors being present here."
(Editing by David Evans)