The proverbial "they" claim that life goes in cycles. Everything has happened before. Everything will happen again. It was hard not to think about that as I made my way down to Los Angeles, California, to attend this year's E3.
This monster of a video game expo has been pronounced dead or dying so often over the past few years that it's hard not to laugh. It's funny for a medium responsible for the term "respawn" to pronounce something D.O.A just because its health bar gets low. So I wanted to offer a different perspective on the past and present of this fabled, infamous event, as someone who's been going for a while.
Anyone who's attended E3 for any length of time wonders how it keeps functioning in the first place, but accepts that it keeps stumbling along in a state of eternal chaos. Because it exists so organically, it's been a great way to check the pulse of the video game industry.
I started going to E3 three years ago, the last time it was a massive, all-under-one roof spectacle. The Xbox 360 was the only next-gen console on the market. PlayStation was still floating its fake PS3 controller redesign. The Nintendo Wii was something most attendees snickered at.
It was admittedly overwhelming, and I had no idea what I was doing. I'd never heard "do you have an appointment?" so often in one day. And, of course, I had no appointments. That was my first understanding that E3 was so big that it draws more media than it can handle, and its supply of time can't keep up with the demand.
That was also my first experience with the "booth babe", a being whose effectiveness I acknowledge but really don't understand. It's funny, because, every year someone thinks I'm a booth babe, then gets confused when I start asking them about their product's specs.
Before you think these poor guys are sexist boobs, factor this in: there are, among the tens of thousands at any E3, about thirty women in attendance who are not booth babes or company reps. About ten of us know a damned thing about games, and I think eight of us have at one point or another appeared on G4TV. This is still the reality of the gaming media.
My second year at E3 was the year everything changed. The show moved out to Santa Monica, which meant better restaurants, a view of the beach, and a whole new kind of chaos. The big three console companies had installed themselves at various hotels, production studios, high school amphitheatres, and even an airplane hangar, and the media spent most of our time on buses, stuck in infamous Southern Californian traffic, calling our next appointments to tell them we were going to be late. Oddly enough, I met a lot of people that way. I also remember that there were a lot of free drinks that year, and very little substance to the presentations.
That format was roundly pronounced a failure. Grouchy, carsick attendees snickered at Wii Fit.
My third year attending, 2008, was another kick at the new-and-improved" can, this one an invitation-only media event, back under one roof, but with a much smaller show floor. Instead, the focus was on the various lounges, scattered throughout the convention center. For television interviews, it was great because it was much quieter, but it didn't have the buzz about it of the Tokyo Games Show or Leipzig, which were still massive feasts for the eyes. Securing an invite, however, was tricky: you needed to know someone who knew someone on the American side of a given company. Then you had to make sure everything got communicated to the proper channels. Furthermore, all of the big press conferences were carried live via cable television networks, unfiltered and uncritiqued, so all that was left for web media to do was what most web media does best: complain.
And the complaining began in earnest. Despite more information and easy access to top developers, many found the format lacking. The spectacle and excitement just weren't there.
So the industry picked itself off, dusted itself off, and went back to the big spectacle, just in time for North America to be put off by big spectacles, thanks to the limping economy. With that came newly "rigorous" (ie: invasive) information policies regarding press registration, without a corresponding accountability that allowed us to make sure sensitive information went where it was supposed to go. After providing information normally appropriate for a passport application over the internet -- and then re-providing it at E3's suggestion because no one would bother to check whether my documentation had, in fact, arrived -- I discovered that the accreditation process took so long that there were no appointments left for many companies.
Does this make sense? Absolutely not, but if things made sense, it wouldn't be E3. The absurdity, to the initiated, is part of the process, fodder for pleasant conversation between gamers, much like colleagues in other fields discuss the weather or professional sports.
Because like it or not, and as much as we complain, E3 is an important flashpoint for the gaming industry at large, more than Tokyo or Leipzig, simply because of its placement in America. For all that PAX does right, that show doesn't make people's eyes become dreamy and their jaws become slack at the thought of attending. No matter how badly E3 screws up, no matter how badly it treats its attendees, it still has a mystical quality about it.
So, I went in expecting a conservative year: everyone's broke, and innovation didn't sell last Christmas. There were, indeed, a glut of sure-thing sequels and lots of Wii games of varying quality; there were still a lot of trailers and presentations instead of playable demos, but there were still some pleasant surprises.
I was glad that gaming is giving the collective finger to the failing economy, and continuing to innovate despite losses at the major companies. There was Project Natal (Pronounced Na-TALL after the Brazil hometown of the lead developer). There was the PSP Go. These didn't feel like cynical ways to squeeze more money out of people's pockets. Yes, they're admissions that people no longer snickering at Nintendo's casual-gaming focus, but they're not crappy Wii/DS copycats either.
The booth staffs were, on the whole, also much more accommodating than previous years. The Canadian Sony reps especially busted their butts to get us access to stuff, although people queued up to play God of War III for over 90 minutes, in a line that wrapped around the indoor equivalent of a city block. Xbox let one of their fansites shoot photos of me in their booth, without a barrage of dirty looks. Overall, people were extremely cool to a girl in giant buckle boots accompanied by a sock puppet.
Those cool people included some really phenomenal minds in development and marketing who really do still give a damn about making a quality, fun product. Todd Papy, design director of God of War III played along brilliantly with my joke about me resembling one of the prostitutes in GoW II. I also offered to do outreach to get more women into ultraviolent games that contain historically accurate nudity.
Cliff Bleszinski was really chill about me tackle-hugging him while he was on his way to a game demo... and there's something warm and humble about Epic Games making a 2D adventure for Xbox Live Arcade. Shadow Complex feels like a thank-you note to hardcores who fondly remember the games of the 80s. Only it's a thank-you note that blows up a lot!
Of course, Travis Williams, the PAIN Producer, got me back on the tackle hugs. So karmic balance was restored. I think I hugged almost as many developers as I hugged mascots, and I hugged A LOT of mascots.
Then there are the upstarts at E3, the Funcoms of the past, who show up on a wing and a prayer, trying to get noticed, and put on a good show doing it. This year I'm giving that nod to Riot Games, a new company made up of Warcraft 3 Defense of the Ancients mod writers, ex-Blizzard staffers, and Sly Cooper's art guy. The Riot staff showed the company's first game: League of Legends. They were set up at the bowling alley walking distance from the convention centre, had free food and drinks, and a game that... most of you won't believe me... is a condensed, free-to-play RTS/MMO hybrid that allows you to build characters, level up, gather loot, and feel like you've accomplished something in 30 - 40 minutes. It has a cute little sad mummy who damages people by hugging them, a yeti rider, a creepy little girl with a giant rampaging teddy bear, a swordsman with full-sized scabbards in his boots, AND they have promised me a female monster character.
Furthermore, my E3 discoveries always include some demo I try just to be polite to the extremely eager developer, but I end up loving it. This year's was an anachronistic new racing IP from Disney named Split Second. It's not a movie or TV show tie-in, there are no cute characters in it, it's not aimed completely at casual gamers. Stuff blows up, bridges collapse, cars wreck and planes crash. It's not good for a kids' game. It's just good. It blew me away, and I wasn't the only one.
That eagerness is the last thing that always warms me about E3: the scores of wide-eyed kids with dreams, shopping around projects or still in school. Some of them have never been to LA before. Most of them don't have a hope in hell. But it's inspiring to realize that among them is the next Richard Garriott or Shigeru Miyamoto, and it's impossible to know which one it will be.
So, yes, things at E3 2009 were chaotic. Things ran long, stuff got missed, shuttles on the first day were weird, and the hike between the West and South Halls got extremely annoying. Some people acted like jerks. The convention center food was horrible, overpriced, unhealthy and didn't cater to vegetarians. I never want to see another oatmeal cookie for a very long time, because I lived off them. The halls were hot and smelled bad. The gross sensory overload was back. My feet are sore and blistered, my back aches, and my eyes are strained from demoing 40 games in 3 days.
But at the end of it all, I can't claim I didn't have fun.
Gaming is a business not just of technology. It's made up of people and stories and crazy ideas. I find it has the rebel's spirit and the artist's heart that are nearly gone from the realms of big budget film and television, and that's why I turn on my consoles and PC instead of my TV or DVD player.
So I deal with the nonsense, the noise, and the frustrations of E3 to renew my belief that gaming has the potential to be the greatest storytelling medium in the modern world. Its creative contribution to pop culture is undeniable, and it captures my interest in imagination like no other medium outside of the printed word.
I can't wait to go back next year.
Watch for our footage from the show, coming soon to Heavy.com.