E3 2012: Revengeance

| patrick

For me, E3 started the Sunday night before, when I, along with most of the Insert Credit staff, almost died in an elevator. The floor indicator froze on 3, then jerked like a roller-coaster whiplash aimed directly at our bowels, then teleported us to 6 and did it again and again. Calmer minds suggested that due to the design of a modern elevator, they cannot fall; said calmer minds were still very much freaked out. We tried the call box. It didn’t work. We did make it out alive, and celebrated by watching that one episode of the Power Rangers where all ten Red Rangers show up in a single episode. I looked at Spencer Yip (Siliconera), who I had not said a single word to that entire evening, and said: “Nice to meet you. I’m Patrick Miller, and I will forever remember you as One Of The Guys I Almost Died In An Elevator With.”

We are in a business of creating and consuming recreational realities, and E3 is the supreme recreational reality, with tanks and free booze and hot girls paying attention to us just about everywhere. Our business thrives by trivializing death; we started the show by ever-so-slightly making eye contact with death, and then flinching. It kinda put things in context. It was a moment of clarity.

What follows are a few more moments of clarity from E3 2012. Read them, and you might never have to go to E3 again.

#1: who is E3 for?

No one ever really agrees on who E3 is meant for, which matters because that is what allows us to put E3 in some kind of context. E3 is stupid, and boring, and pandering, and disgusting; if it’s for gamers, then that speaks volumes about the people who play games; if it’s for the industry, then it says things about the people who sell games.

It’s an “industry show”, but it’s not nearly as professional as, say, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). It’s “meant for buyers, and investors, and (other big-shots)”, but for every suit you come across at E3 you’ll easily find a few dozen kids who are in on the strength of a WordPress.com account with “video” or “game” somewhere in the title. (To be fair, that’s how most of us got into E3 the first time, too.) So the rabid gamers on the Internet alternate between bitching about how underwhelming it is, and then the slightly-less-rabid gamers say, hey, that’s because E3 isn’t for you, it’s for (buyers/investors/other big shots), and they really care about how easily you can sync your Xbox’s media library to your PC, and your tablet, and your smartphone, and your dishwasher. Then the original rabid gamers say, “Well, if it’s not for me, then why the fuck do they bother doing things like getting Usher to demo Dance Central? That’s not going to impress a Costco suit.”

Fact is, they’re both right, but they’re kind of also wrong. E3 is for both the consumer and the suit, but in a very insidious way. Really, E3 is about showing off the awful, terrible, profound power of video games; how they can make us idiots and take our money.

If you didn’t have the consumers there in some fashion, E3 would basically be CES. At CES, you walk around the Las Vegas Convention Center with tens of thousands of other people looking at gadgets of various sorts and thinking “Hmm, that’s nice.” If you’re a buyer for Best Buy or Costco, you’re looking around at stuff that you might suggest your store stock nationwide–phones, cameras, laptops, headsets, stupid robot toys, etc. Almost nothing at CES is groundbreaking, these days–it’s usually just a better yearly iteration of the same stuff they showed last year. (The notable exception are the prototypes and proof-of-concept gizmos, like OLED TVs, which are usually there to just draw people to the booth so that they will then look at the stuff which is actually going to be released.) It’s not rocket science; you see a phone with more Gs than last year’s, and think, “Hey, we should sell that. It has more Gs.” 90% of consumer electronics consist of this kind of boring iterative stuff; the last 10% is basically Apple, who doesn’t need to go to CES and actually frequently counter-programs CES with their own announcements just for the hell of it.

Problem is, this doesn’t work for video games. You can’t send a buyer from Wal-Mart or Best Buy to a hypothetical professional version of E3; they wouldn’t know where to begin, much less how to figure out what they should stock. I can imagine a Costco buyer picking up a few million copies of Gitaroo Man instead of Guitar Hero because it covers the same Guitar Enthusiast market segment but takes up less shelf space. (If only.) Basically, the problem is that almost no one under 40 understands video games well enough to make important purchasing decisions, but almost no one under 40 is in a place where they can make purchasing decisions. Put yourself in the shoes of the folks who run the show, now: You want to make money off of people who attend the show, and the companies who want to attract their attention by parking a gigantic fucking tank in the Los Angeles Convention Center, but how the hell are you going to do that when the people who make that show worthwhile (the buyers) couldn’t pick out Street Fighter from Mortal Kombat?

The answer they found, of course, was to call it an “industry” show in name only, and let pretty much anyone of legal age in as long as they have some kind of documented reason for being interested in video games (remember this!). E3 relies on die-hard game fans to show up and go crazy over the games because that’s how a balding, portly, 55-year-old white guy whose sum total of video game experience consisted of a drunken round of Golden Tee Golf eight years ago can judge whether a game is worth spending a few million Walmart dollars on it. Those poor Sony superfans who waited in a parking lot for a day so they could go to that awful press conference made Someone Important sit down and think, “Hmm, I guess Sony is going to be a Big Deal in the next year.” Everyone who cheered like a madman at the shotgun execution portion of The Last of Us demo just guaranteed that it’s going to be stocked on store shelves around the country because the sight of a guy getting his head blown off received more excitement than every screening of The Avengers combined.

In other words: If E3 was a sentence, the subject of the sentence wouldn’t be “video games”, it’d be “video gamers”.

So no, it’s not a fluke or a clever trick or some Act of God that you got in with a single bylined article on some guy’s blog from a year ago. That’s the whole damn point of the show in the first place, which is why it’s so important that you go through the formality of “sneaking in” to the show by getting an ill-deserved press pass. If they just let anyone off the street into the show, they’d risk getting Actual Human Beings in the show, and they might comment on the booth babes, or the ultraviolence, or how they couldn’t tell the difference between ManShoot III and Shootman III: Reckoning, and that would make it harder for people to figure out what to spend lots of money on. If you’re at E3, you’re there to be used by someone.

#2: the worst place to play video games, ever

For an Expo about Electronic Entertainment, it’s a damn hard place to actually be electronically entertained. Polygon hosted a party at some reasonably trendy two-floor bar; I was excited for Super T.I.M.E. Force. Less excited because it is not a game meant to be played surrounded by hundreds of drunk people crowded elbow-to-elbow. (It’s not the worst game for that, either; I think Qualcomm reps were there demonstrating how Generic 3D Hack and Slash worked great on a mobile device thanks to the Snapdragon chip, but no one bit. I was mildly surprised that no one spilled a drink on their tablet.) I joke, occasionally, that E3 would be better for everyone involved who gave a shit about games if they just sent us a few DVDs with demos and called it a day. (It’d be better for everyone besides the people who make and spend money from the show, anyway.)

This is a comprehensive list of the games I played at E3 or an associated function:

  • EverQuest 2 (just the newly-added facial mapping feature)
  • Planetside 2
  • Bullet Run
  • Warface
  • Joe Danger (the iOS version, on Hello Games managing director Sean Murray’s iPhone)
  • Tekken Tag Tournament Two
  • ZiGGURAT
  • Ms. Pac-Man (Atari 2600)

From a four-day-long show, I “played” eight games, one of which was on my iPad and one of which was at a history exhibit. Each of the other games required some kind of special access to a closed room or a booth attendant to pry some other guy off the console (who undoubtedly wanted to play the game more than I did), and more often than not a designer or creative director was sitting next to me telling me how to play the damn game (which mostly played the same as each other game I played). With that in mind, my E3 Best in Show award goes to Warface, for having a comically bad name and a creative director who was merciless in pointing out how much I sucked at the game.

#3: michael pachter is kind of an ass

A bunch of us were vaguely wandering in the general direction of a Halo 4 party one night, when we heard a party of folks walking about 50 feet behind us in the same direction. As they got closer, I could hear snippets of their conversation: “blah blah blah blah–Michael Pachter–blah blah blah blah.” (Michael Pachter is an analyst for some investment brokerage firm that occasionally says stuff about video games.) Thanks to L.A. traffic lights, they caught up to us, and he looks at us and says:

“Hey. Are you guys here for…games?”

Oh boy. Tim responds: “I’m the game guy.”

“Are you going to the Halo 4 party?”

“We were thinking about it. There might be a line.”

“Well, (pause) I’m not going to wait in line. I’m just going to walk in, and they’re going to let me in. (pause, then looks at Tim) Hey, you look kinda like Harry Potter. ”

As it turned out, he didn’t just walk in. He walked in and started waving everyone else in. The PR folks at the door just kind of shrugged. That, right there: that is E3.

#4: tim schafer is kind of hilarious

I got an invite to go to a Video Games Live thing across the street from E3, which I had always wanted to do, because, well, I like video game music. All in all, it wasn’t awful, though it seemed kind of criminal to have an entire orchestra and choir sitting in the background for most of the performance while we watched a procession of waifish white girls with YouTube accounts dress up as Link and play the flute/violin/whatever. (If I wanted to watch that, I would have watched their goddamn YouTube videos. ProTip: I haven’t watched their goddamn YouTube videos.) Also, I don’t know why any grown-ass adult would ever bother with a costume contest considering your hours of hard work is pretty much guaranteed to lose to a pair of six-year-olds with a sign on both their backs that says “ZELDA”. But hey, video games.

The highlight of the evening was hearing some guy on stage make a wisecrack about how fat and ugly the audience was (because, let’s face it, video games, amirite?) and getting…absolute silence. Followed by a single person’s enthusiastic applause–none other than Double Fine founder Tim Schafer, who happened to be sitting about five seats away from me. I applauded for Tim louder than anything else the entire evening.

#5: things I ate at E3 (put your god damn phone away during dinner)

Twitter is a really neat thing to have access to during a major event like this because it lets you stay in conversation with people who aren’t in your physical space. Basically, it makes it really easy and rewarding to be a snarky asshole during press conferences and such. Try it some time!

The downside is that the people you could potentially be having 140-character-conversations with, and the conversation topics you could be discussing, are often more interesting than the people sitting in front of you. So you sit at a table with lots of less-interesting-than-Twitter people and take turns showing people the key retweet you just got, or a photo you posted, or whatever. It’s a Samsung exec’s wet dream.

In recognition of this fact, here is a list of notable things I ate at E3, and occasionally, the people I ate them with.

Average Japanese Food at my favorite Average Japanese Food Place: There is a place called Octopus in downtown LA on like, 7th and Spring or thereabouts. Don’t go there if you actually give fucks about authentic Japanese food–it’s kind of a standard-issue Average Japanese Food Place which is mostly notable for having a late-night Happy Hour from like, 9:30 to 11 or 12 or something. The highlight was probably watching a passive-aggressive fight happen between four different people on four different phones.

Brownies at the Polygon party: Tasted like brownies from a box. Not bad. Mostly notable because no one said anything like “Oh, are these *wink* *nod* *nudge* SPECIAL BROWNIES?” which is a thing I always want to punch people for saying because those people probably said that when they were in 6th grade and didn’t know that half of the hip-hop songs they listened to were actually about weed.

Everything at Nickel Diner: The up-side to staying in a place which is basically a clean crack motel is that it’s a block away from the Nickel Diner, which had a bunch of delicious stuff for breakfast. Never had a waiter sell me on a donut as an after-breakfast-dessert before, but it was an excellent idea. Steak and eggs, some kinda pulled-pork hash, amazing cinnamon toast, not-bad coffee; all good Stamina Food for E3.

S’mores bites and pizza shots from the Halo 4 party: This Halo 4 party had some kind of space-cuisine theme going on that played with your expectations by giving you basically a marshmallow which tasted like a S’more, and a “pizza shot” which tasted like spicy tomato sauce with a Dorito. Vito Gesualdi did some kind of video thing about it which is embedded in Tim’s Kotaku E3 writeup, I think. I am pretty sure Mathew Kumar and I were in and out of that particular event during the total time Vito was shooting that video.

Crab burger at The Standard: Was catching up with Alex Wawro, my PCWorld buddy (and replacement) at The Standard. Burger was okay. His steak was better. Probably the only time I’ve had to walk through a ping-pong game to get to a restaurant, though.

No Klondike bar: Tim asked (repeatedly) what I would do-hoo-hoo for a Klondike bar. Apparently the answer is “walk around the same three-block stretch of downtown LA for two hours, then eat half of Gamasutra EIC Kris Graft’s Subway footlong instead.” Who knew?

#6: what do you mean, it’s over?

I made it back to the press room on the last day of E3 at 4:45, checked my email, saw that people were more or less done with work for the day, and thought, “Excellent–maybe I can get a chance to just wander the show floor for an hour or so.” So I walked over to the nearest show floor entrance, flashed my badge like I had a hundred times before, and started to walk through the doors–only to get rebuffed by an apologetic security guard. “Sorry–we close the show floor at 5 today.”

“…Oh. Oh..kay.”

Walked back to the hallway by the press room and just…stood there for a minute. It was over–another year’s E3, in the books. I loved it when I got there, then I hated it, and then I wrote about it a bit, and by the time it comes around next year I’ll probably be stoked to go up until when I start hating it again. All the gotta-go-find-stuff-and-play-stuff-and-talk-to-people had just kind of evaporated, leaving behind trace amounts of relief and disappointment in roughly equal measures.

I spent the following day with some college buddies of mine. Both of them are big gamers, but not in the industry in any way. “How was E3?”

“It was…crazy. A little bit bad. Some parts were fun, I guess.” I was still wearing my thousand-yard stare at this point.

“Did you play any cool games?”

“…No. Not really.”

We spent the next six or seven hours playing Diablo III, starting new characters from scratch and running up through most of Act III. It was therapeutic.

The day afterwards, I turned twenty-seven. A good buddy of mine from back in the day took me out for breakfast at the classiest 24-hour restaurant I’ve ever seen; it was made out of a train car some time in the 1920s, I think. Then he drove me to the airport, and on the way there we passed the Los Angeles Convention Center. All of the skyscraper-high ads for Tekken Tag Tournament and Elder Scrolls Online had vanished like a mirage in the L.A. desert, and it was time to go home.

-patrick miller wants a rematch

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