The Electronic Entertainment Exposition (E3) is the largest, most popular, and most expensive display of hardware, software, and games in the world. For those unaware, video games have their own members-only Comic-Con. It is insider-and-industry- only, meaning if you want a ticket, you must belong to a video game company or media outlet. Everyone else is encouraged to pay the $1,000 non- industry fee. The price is exorbitant, for sure, and so is the obscene amount of money that companies spend to orgiastically woo the attending media.
The convention center in downtown Los Angeles was surrounded by huge banners—the kind you could feasibly see from a low-flying plane— advertising everything from Assassin’s Creed 4 to Mortal Combat X. Industry people were lined up by 9 a.m., but the show floor didn’t open until noon and the attendees consisted of 20 and
30-somethings, mostly wearing black t-shirts and chatting about the ways the new Diablo was so disappointing while tapping away on their phones.
There are two rooms in the convention hall that house most of E3: the South Hall and West Hall. South Hall is 346,000 square feet, which makes this half of E3 as large as six football fields. It’s very big. Almost every square inch of floor space is taken up by something designed to numb your critical thinking skills into pleasurable submission. There are TVs the size of Hummers and screens the size of semi-trucks. There are private theaters with more disorienting lights and sounds than a Willy Wonka boat ride.
Attendees are awash in the most expensive kinds of attention. You feel important, special, like an elite member of society. “This is for you,
[your name here]!” It is the best aspects of a Disney World arcade without the screaming children and their loathsome squeals of joy. The games are free, many of them with little or no wait. If you have to wait in line to see an exclusive trailer, which you will (perhaps for hours), there are at least two projectors within spitting distance playing trailers for other games at all times. Even waiting is entertaining. You are advertised at for the duration of your stay, and this could be offensive, if the attention didn’t give you the kind of arousal that comes with the awareness of your own buying power and influence.
There are so many media people here. It’s mind boggling. There are more online blogs, magazines, and fan pages than I have ever heard of. Most of them have at least one camera, perhaps two. Most of the blog people are young and terribly trendy with their sunglasses, shorts, and an excitement reminiscent of a college freshman going to Amsterdam for the first time. I realized the major reason E3 even exists is for the media. For instance, after a two- and-a-half hour wait at the Warner- Brothers theater to see gameplay from the new Batman game, Arkham Knight, a dozen media people cut the line. There were 60 seats in the theater, 30 reserved at all times for the media, who could cut any line at any time. 12 seats were for VIPs of various types. The remaining 18 were for the plebes (us). So when a dozen extra media people cut the line, our wait was extended to over three hours. We bailed and felt righteously indignant.
And this did seem egregiously unfair. The nerve! But—the reason for this whole deal is so these people can go back to IGN or EGM or BonerGames. Com and get you fucking stoked about the new Halo. I get it. E3 is “for the media” and then, possibly, if there happens to be time left over, it’s for everyone else, too. Gaggles of young men and a few women roam the convention in matching developer t-shirts, signifying they worked on the latest blockbuster from Microsoft or Bungie, etc. They’re happy, proud, and numerous. The main focus of these posses is not to rep (which they seem to do, in their own polite way), but to travel from booth to booth checking out other games, applauding strengths and critiquing weaknesses, perhaps discussing what they would have done differently. This time is pretty crucial for development teams because they get to interact with other studios face to face, sharing info and maybe talking a little shit about the bad games they’ve seen this year.
There are spots that are populated entirely by honest-to-god college kids that won local video game competitions at their school, and they are here to debut their adorable side-scroller, or puzzle adventure, or interactive story book. The people at the indie booths are all charming and sincere and obviously thrilled to just be soaking all this up. Jessie, a game producer (and stellar dude), mentioned that this kind of space wouldn’t have existed at E3 a few years ago. “It’s a great addition. [It] make a lot more space for less-epic (i.e., lower budget) games than it used to. And the university games are a great addition. It’s nice to see schools here like the University of Texas, SCAD, Utah, and Denver.”
For the up-and-comers, E3 is where they find avenues towards accolades and press, or at least the sleep that follows weeks and months of coding.
For the established, it’s also the baggage that comes with multi-million dollar budgets. Oh. Yes. The current game budgets are a huge reason why E3 is
the beast it currently is. According to one source who worked for Sony, the average cost of renting empty floor space the size of two living rooms is around $40,000. Nintendo’s booth was the size of half a football field (I’m being conservative). And then there’s the cost of all the extras that companies bring in to help advertise: 15-foot tall replicas of space alien monster-gods, Batmobiles, Lamborghinis—for God’s sake, to get in the front door you have to pass a tank!
We sit down with Jason, who works for one of the major game companies, as he both complains about and complements different aspects of the industry. With many developers, it’s a love-hate relationship with their line of work, but the chance to be creative usually outweighs the cons for many of the people that have been beaten down by an increasingly formula- driven industry. Most of E3, he says, is “White Guy with Gun” games. It’s beyond cliché at this point and seems like a genuine rut: Dying Light, Rainbow Six, Division, Far Cry, Call of Duty Advanced Warfare, Batman, Battlefront, Battlefield, Battledudes, Battle-Battle, Dudes Battling: Advanced BloodFare, White Guy Gets Even, and White Guy Gets Even 2: The Revengening…
“But I also got to pitch a new game to corporate this year for the first time. I wanted a game where you play an anarchist fighting a brutal government and evil corporations. They didn’t pick it up, for good reasons.” Jason laughs and is genuinely pretty happy to be in a position where he can even do something like that. He at least had a chance to make his dream game and he gets pretty animated when he talks about starting his own studio. “Not many people even make it this far. You know what the average lifespan of a game developer is in this industry? Five years. That’s it, and they’re gone.
Too much work, too much crunching…” He doesn’t need to mention that if you want to start out in games as Quality Assurance, you’re looking at barely $25k a year. It’s tough.
Jason also complains about the prolific use of booth babes at these things. He says they’re not as numerous as they used to be, but they’re incredibly embarrassing for him as his industry simultaneously struggles to bring in more female gamers while also exploiting their sexuality to sell more units to males, creating a cycle of objectification and commodity that’s been difficult to break. Mike, another developer, puts it this way:
“You’re alienating half your audience with these girls. They’re a holdout of an era where only frat kids came to these conferences,” and the current thinking is that there’s more money to be made from the women that could be playing your games than the dudes that are titillated by the sight of mini- skirts. Mike says, “There was a time that Nintendo was considered classy because their booth girls wore clothes, like jeans and t-shirts.” Now Nintendo is most likely the single largest employer of booth girls at E3, as in a 1:1 ratio of girls-to-televisions. This may be Nintendo compensating for its cookie cutter image, or just old fashioned libido advertising.
What you can take away from a behemoth spectacle concert like E3 is this: after all the huge budgets and bullshit and media circle jerks, at the end of it all it’s a collection of some of the most talented artists you’ll ever meet. They can be awkward, and I had plenty of stilted conversations over the course of the week, but they’re all making art. Sure, some of it is shit, but you can really be inspired watching these developers as they talk about the games they’ll make in the future, even as they rub their tired eyes.