In honor of E3 this week, I thought I’d write up a little behind the scenes look at the best trade show on earth.
It’s a multiday festival of wretched excess, and everyone pretended to hate it. “We spend millions of dollars mainly so we don’t look cheap next to other people spending millions of dollars, and really we’re just showing off to each other. And building the damned demos takes two months but none of it is usable in our actual product. Let’s make like hippies and hold up signs that say “What if they held a war and nobody came?” We’ll save a bundle, and that’s before we count the fifty thousand dollar bar tab.”
As a result of this breastbeating (and the open secret that in 2006 Sony spent a billion dollars on swag and booze and gorgeous booth spaces just to get freaking OWNED by Nintendo in the media coverage, and decided to take their ball and go home), 2007 was a whole new E3. It was small. It was exclusive. It was in multiple venues to keep the intimate feeling. Smaller titles had a chance to get noticed. 2008 was more of the same.
And it was NO FUN! None! Worse, it was bad for the economy. No union electricians made money to pass enormous amounts of gas while the union crane guys finished hoisting light bars into place. No artists made any money replicating 16 bit art assets in concrete and fiberglass. No fifty cent pretzels were being sold for five dollars. An entire generation of aspiring porn actresses was losing out on lucrative short term assignments to dress up like anime figures.
So 2009 takes us back to the economy stimulating, half naked ladies doing another kind of stimulating, demo giving trash talking booze hounding extravaganza we all love. But what goes on behind the scenes?
The floors are hard. Rich companies pay to put padding under their cheap rented carpet, and everyone else makes do with squishy shoe inserts. But rich or poor, the PR flacks won’t be able to feel anything knees or below by day two. That’s a blessing, since the only thing they’d feel is pain. The only women wearing really high heels at E3 are the booth babes who are being paid, essentially, for wearing high heels at E3. If you are ever silly enough to wear heels to a trade show, you will quickly decide that however much the babes are being paid, it ain’t enough.
Speaking of babes, E3 is the one place on earth where the line for the men’s bathroom wraps around the building, but the women’s bathroom echoes with the sound of a lone female with blue hair and go go boots squealing on her cell phone. It’s wonderful. It’s magical. Listen, if you ever had to put your bare butt on a public toilet seat at a rock concert or an NFL game, you would stare at rows and rows of sparkling clean porcelain thrones and think you’d found a little corner of heaven. And when you realized you could choose any single stall and enter it to find not only a full roll of paper, but no sprinkle tinkle left over from the previous user’s hover maneuver? You would sing the Hallelujah Chorus.
It’s nice to have a quiet place to hide, because the rest of the main floor has an astounding decibel level. My first E3 happened before texting really took off, and let me tell you – even with your caller absolutely screaming, even with your earpiece set at max volume, you might as well be deaf for all you can hear them. You will be deaf, and hoarse besides, after three days of this. Every game soundtrack is set to stadium rock levels to attempt to drown out their neighbors, and at least one company will bring a live rock band in for regular performances, much to the horror of the company across the aisle. It’s great for the people passing through. They can go outside and sit in the warm California sun, sucking down free margaritas. The people running the booths are there to work, and will get nothing but short breaks throughout the experience.
If you’ve already hit the head, and your ears are ringing from the main floor, there’s always Indie Alley. It’s the part of the show that barely has tables, let alone live rock bands. There are phenomenal games here, if not phenomenal budgets. All the little guys are here hoping to form partnerships, make a friend, or get five freaking minutes of time from someone in the press.
Ah, the press. If you write for any kind of dead tree publication, you’re in. If you’re on assignment for a dead tree publication, you’re in. Hell, if you’re an analyst, you’re in. All you have to show is picture ID, a business card, and either a copy of a recent article, or a letter from a dead tree editor swearing you’re going to write an article. But if you write for a website, even one with eight figure traffic scores, you are guilty until proven innocent. You not only have to produce a business card and a copy of an article, but a copy of the website’s federal tax ID number. No, seriously. This is so mindblowingly insulting that many people take unholy glee in cheating the system. The easiest way is to sneak in as the guest of an exhibitor. The show’s hosts know who pays the bills, and exhibitors can simply snatch their fansite guests out of line and into the show.
And the show is a festival of swag. T-shirts, glowy buttons, inflatable chairs, tote bags, samples, pens, bottled water, all with logos and happy colors. It’s like Christmas. Of course, the best swag is only for the media people with audiences of millions. Well, them and the print guys. But it’s glorious stuff, and the really experienced reporters will often offload it onto newbies rather than schlep it home. Embroidered jackets, backpacks full of loot – once I even saw an iPod with the company’s name engraved on the back. But the “gotta have” item of the show is usually something silly. A beach ball, or a giant lollipop. It was a set of foam Shrek ears, once.
Getting into the show is great, but getting into the closed door demos is better. No, not the stupid “velvet rope” booths where everyone eventually gets in after waiting in ungodly lines for hours on end. The true closed demos are by invitation only, or if someone in the booth is feeling friendly. Very friendly, as even fifteen minutes in one of these inner sanctums represents a serious outlay of cash on the part of the studio. Money has been spent on soundproofing, water, and soft rented couches. Your little bottle of water cost the studio two bucks. A boxed lunch with a sandwich and a bag of chips cost the studio 25. Don’t even ask how much that couch cost for three days.
Most of these demos are built explicitly for E3, as opposed to for the actual game, and they are running on next generation supercomputers leased directly from the manufacturers. (This is why the demo givers smile sweetly and say “we’re not prepared to discuss the launch specs at this time” when you ask what the specs are on the machine running the demo.)
But it doesn’t matter. What you see behind closed doors is the company’s best hope for the product. It’s a demo reel, a greatest hits collection. And the people running the demo already believed in the product, or they wouldn’t be there. The people there observing the demos are by definition some of the most devoted fans of video games in the world. The whole thing feeds on itself until the entire hall is overflowing with hope, expectation, and excitement. You emerge from the darkened halls, blinking in the sun amid shoulder to shoulder crowds waiting for the shuttles, believing that anything is possible with virtual environments.
Even the homeless guy in the parking lot clutches his free box of software as though it were something precious. And it is. E3 is about dreams, about what might yet be, and that box contains the best efforts of the dreamers.