This first appeared live on TheMittani.com on 21 June 2013. With E3 2016 around the corner, I figured it would be as good a time as any to repost it. Enjoy!
E3 is a lot like LA as a whole: glitz and glamour from afar, but once you are in its grasp you discover its myriad imperfections. Rolling off the I-110 freeway, you can see that the video game industry has taken over downtown. Massive banners hang from the convention center roof. Their costs range from 50,000 USD to more than a quarter of a million dollars – enough to fund a small game studio.
Here, though, it is not about the small game studios. The growing independent game development movement is relegated to a back corner of the South Hall, where the ‘booths’ resemble more closely a swap meet than the gargantuan layouts down the walkway.
Across the street, an amusing drama unfolds. The Ouya console, the hottest Kickstarter last year, can’t even get into the convention. They’ve rented out a section of parking lot across the street from the South Hall entrance. The ESA, organizers of E3, are not happy with their obvious attempt to lure crowds from the main event. E3 staff chase away girls clad in short shorts and Ouya tanktops on the Convention Center premises. Large semi trailers are rented and then parked in such a way as to block the Ouya Park from sight at the Convention Center. The war for attention escalates when Ouya rent semis of their own, plaster them with Ouya banners, and park in front of the ESA trucks. Police show up at the Ouya Park shortly afterwards, dispatched by the ESA to check permits.
A TALE OF DIFFERENT BOOTHS
Inside the Convention Center, similar wars for attention are being waged all around. The Square Enix booth is more like an amphitheatre, with game trailers and CGI movie shorts blasting at unconscionable levels. Activision Blizzard has essentially an IMAX movie theater set up to play demos and movies, including one for Bungie’s Destiny. Sony’s sprawling layout showcases dozens of game stations for products like Blacklight, while Microsoft’s section is essentially a large (yet somehow still cramped) building all its own on the Convention Center floor. The Microsoft booth even hands out maps to its section, in case one was interested in wading through the rolling sea of nerd sweat to catch a glimpse of Xbone titles in action. We check out Ryse briefly, which is to say that we watch a half dozen quicktime events in quick succession, before elbowing our way out – nothing is worth that level of human contact.
Of all the companies represented, EA and Ubisoft seem to lead the way in interest. At the EA section, a receptionist desk directs us towards a closed door demo of Titanfall (described briefly in my previous article here). Across the way hundreds wait in line for a chance at playing the new Battlefield 4 game. Bethesda’s booth is entirely behind closed doors. A massive Panzerhund from Wolfenstein guards the entrance, along with a cadre of polite, but firm employees who turn away everyone except Press, Buyers, and those with inside connections.
There is a curious ‘high school’ atmosphere among the attendees, perpetuated by the color coded badges that are carried around. At the very top of the heap are the VIP Buyers (color code: Orange), who wield the most influence at E3. Representing organizations like Best Buy and Gamestop, these are the people who will be tasked with actually peddling the games on display upon launch. They are glad handed at every booth and know not the meaning of ‘line’ or ‘queue’. Next comes the Media (color code: Yellow), who in their own way do much the same as the Buyers. While not exactly treated like royalty, yellow on your badge ensures that you can get the attention of the PR army that runs E3. At the bottom of the heap are Exhibitors and Affiliates (color codes: Purple and Blue respectively), the people actually running the booths as well as the games industry plebs who pay between 500 and 1000 USD for the privilege of sore feet and malodorous accompaniment throughout the convention. At the beginning of the expo, I feel like I can understand the impulse for those with the means to plop down cold hard cash to check out the festivities; by the end, I wonder if they are crazy.
TRAVESTY IN COSPLAY
E3 was at one point open to the general public. In those days, I am told, it was commonplace for booths to pull out all the stops to attract visitors. After all, high brand visibility and buzz about a game will usually translate into success at the cash register. It’s no surprise that game companies used “booth babes” in that situation, as scantily clad women in (nominally) video game costumes are as sure to bring male nerds to a booth as sweet nectar is to bring bees to a flower. However, those days are in the past. E3 is now strictly a games industry event. While it still attracts its share of tourists in the form of the Blue Badges (we shan’t say their name, for that would be to sully ourselves), the Electronic Entertainment Expo is open only to those with a connection to the games industry, to share information with and excite a game developer’s peers about the latest offerings. Surely, then, the booth babes should be gone?
They are not. Wargaming features a plethora of women, wearing what can only be described as sexy Halloween service woman costumes. A Japanese company has a booth designed like a 1950s diner, with women appropriately costumed as waitresses in very short skirts and too-small shirts. At the Snail Games booth, a quartet of women are literally placed upon a stage wearing the skimpiest of fantasy cosplay getups at a major intersection, which sadly becomes clogged with the slack jawed and wide eyed nerds who cannot believe their luck in finding love at E3. But it is not love that they have found. Instead, it is the shameless objectification of women in the hopes that their presence will help sell a developer’s game.
It doesn’t work. I’m not even sure what the Snail Games product was called, as I extracted myself from the intersection with no small amount of wonder and disgust at my nerd brethren. The 50’s diner – I have no idea what the name of the company even was, much less what kind of game they were peddling. Wargaming being Wargaming, the booth babes there only serve as more bodies in an already crowded room, as most seem more content to watch big explosions on the massive display, or have a go at World of Tanks 360 Edition. The presence of the booth babes serves only to detract from the games on display, which when you think about it should be able to stand on their own among their peers. The line to take pictures with them – despite, you know, not knowing (or so much as asking) what the women’s names are – is a sad ratification of the gamer stereotype. At the end of the day, I’m not sure who I feel more sorry for – the women, on display; or the nerds, too shy to talk but more than willing to look.
THE FOURTH ESTATE
With nearly 50,000 in attendance, it is no wonder that at times the convention center can feel something like a can of sardines, with sweat substituted for brine. By the second day, however, attendance is down. The crowds are diminished and the air conditioning more readily apparent. The only place that seems to become more crowded as the expo wears on is the Media Hospitality Room. The name vastly oversells the actual nature of the room. Strewn with beanbags and circular desks, it is packed from day one. The water cooler, something you might see in a small business of 5 or 10, predictably fails to withstand the mighty thirst of the journalist horde. Coffee is a myth here as well, Red Bull an oft rumored but never sighted entity, much like the Loch Ness monster. The WiFi is of the unreliable sort, to the chagrin of almost everyone attempting to file stories.
Here, too, is a clear demarcation between classes. Of the media, it appears there are three sorts: the haves, the AV club, and the have nots. Of the three, the Haves are of course the most impressive. Polygon and IGN both sport their own booths on the actual floor of the convention center. Polygon has a meeting room set up as their command post, while IGN has actually erected a heavily branded and boisterous castle in the west hall from which to direct the invasion of Europe. These are the lords of the Fourth Estate.
Below them is the AV club. Professional grade cameras, with professional grade correspondents in front of them, roam the floor looking for unsuspecting developers to rope into live interviews. Their successful captures turn into unconscionable traffic jams, as the flow of nerds is quick to avoid the limelight. Next year, I think to myself, perhaps we will ascend the ranks.
For now, however, TMC is a small fish in a big pond. We swim about nibbling at what we can, asking and pressing the poor PR departments of a dozen companies for more access. Sometimes it works. We are able to get into Square Enix’s back lot to play some Thief. Sega pencils us in for a 320pm demo of Rome 2 on Thursday. On Day 2 we feel like we are getting the hang of this press thing – ask and ye may receive.
THE PARTY CIRCUIT
The nights are as long as the days. In this industry, more than most, it is not what you know so much as it is who you know. At E3 this means making the party circuit. It starts Sunday at the Polygon and the Verge party. The line is horrendous, as it is open to the public. The Mittani has secured VIP access, but I was unable to do the same, so we wait in line for close to an hour. Once inside, it is questionable if the wait was worth it. In the front of the venue there is a stage, upon which four or five games have been set up on giant screens. Chris Grant and Justin McElroy stay sequestered by the entrance, holding court with visitors but seemingly unwilling to press the flesh. I don’t blame them.
We meet Charlie Hall, a features writer at Polygon, and link up with The Mittani’s attorney. We meet a dozen other faces, faces that we will soon come to recognize, for we will all find ourselves at the same places. Before long, the party winds down. It has been a somewhat muted affair, as E3 has yet to begin and no one seems willing to risk their health. Street tacos await on the walk back to the car.
Monday night is the IGDA party. On E3 eve, it is even more conservative – the drinks aren’t even free. Clearly no one is really looking to get hammered, but the food is decent and the drinks half price, so it makes for a decent place to people watch. The Mittani’s attorney and I step out for some air and literally run into a small British man. He is an independent game developer from the UK, one of a two man crew designing games for the PlayStation Network. We exchange some small talk – the attorney convinces the Brit that his ignorance of TheMittani.com is an egregious error – and then make ready to retreat.
However, the Brit is not ready to let us go just yet. Instead, he informs us of a party game that he has designed. A bit like arm wrestling and a bit like thumb war, what eventually becomes dubbed ‘The Pointy Game’ is simple. Grab each others right hand as if about to arm wrestle, stick out your index finger so that it points at your opponent, and then attempt to poke your opponent.
Unfortunately for the Brit, I don’t think he has ever played this game with a goon before. The attorney soon becomes the apparent victor, but he isn’t done playing. The Brit’s outstretched finger is drawn inexorably to the attorney’s crotch. The Brits face becomes contorted with discomfort, but he doubles down, still trying to win the game he created. It is not to be. Annoyed at the Brit’s stubborn refusal to back down, the game takes a turn for the worst as Mittens’ attorney uses the Brit’s own move against him and ends up with the Brit in a wrist lock. Thus ends ‘Pointy Finger Game’, as well as our time with Mr. UK, who quickly makes his exit – not just from the conversation, but from the bar entirely. Despite searching for him at the expo, we never find him again.
The party circuit continues unabated over the following three days: Harmonix, Twitch, Wargaming, SOE, CCP. We meet more people at the parties than we do at the expo itself, but it is not the best sorts of connections. I am a fan of formal relations between press and publisher. There is an undeniable advantage in informal contacts, especially in the journalism space, but it is all tenuous and fleeting. Uncertainty is something I prefer not to experience, so for me the parties are a distraction. At least most boast free booze, though, and good company.
In between E3 itself and the parties it spawns in its wake, there is very little downtime. Many of those previous minutes are spent at The Yard House, a restaurant in LA Live that sports 200 beers on tap and some very good burgers. The booths are spacious and, perhaps most importantly, the TVs are well placed and tuned to the Stanley Cup Finals on Wednesday. Next year, I suspect that the Yard House will once more figure heavily in the daily TMC schedule.
CLOSING OUT THE EXPO
E3 draws to a close with perhaps our strongest showing as a media outlet. We preview Titanfall, World of Warships, The Elder Scrolls Online, Rome 2, and DayZ, as well as have a very good interview with Wargaming’s General Manager and Senior PR Rep. Day 3, even with our late start (we don’t make it to the floor of the convention until after noon), easily sets the standard by which I will measure future E3 performances.
In the end, we came, we saw, and we learned. For TMCs first E3, it could undeniably have gone much worse. We escaped LA with our livers slightly the worse for wear, no arrests, and a much better appreciation for the gaming media that are forced to cover anything and everything at E3. We walked the streets of downtown LA at very bad hours without being shot or stabbed. Only one of our cabbies was certifiably insane. Basically, the stars shone with favor on our enterprise.
Next year, I plan on being more ambitious. More appointments, more demos, and more writing. In the meantime, TMC will have a few more opportunities to hone our media presence at such events, with PAX Prime right around the corner and other things farther out on the horizon. As always, if you have suggestions or tips for us on what to cover, please let us know. And thanks – without the support of our readers, E3 would never have been on our radar.