E3 2007: A New Hope

June 26, 2007

At about this time last year I was recuperating from a wild week in LA, sorting through the photos and putting together the last bits of a few articles about the whirlwind that was E3. I also managed to pick up a nasty case of strep throat, so there are a few things I don’t miss entirely. Nonetheless, it was the first time in three years that I hadn’t seen the Pacific in May, and I can’t deny feeling at least a little wistful.

This year’s been a little different. I’ve spent the last week going to work at my day job (the one that actually pays for food and rent) and generally going about business in the usual way. I’ve even been (mostly) sober!

So you’ll appreciate my excitement at having received my personal invite to the newly re-engineered E3, and event that promises to offer a much more intimate, scaled down version of its former self. Only a mere three thousand or so game journalists are said to have been intived to the July event, with Snackbar accounting for a pair, myself included. The real excitement doesn’t come from having a golden ticket though; rather, it comes from having a golden ticket to an entirely different, brand new chocolate factory that no one’s ever been to before.

Now I’m not just talking about the superficial changes here. Okay, yes I’m obviously very interested to see what a company like EA is going to do about only being granted 20′ x 20′ to set up an exhibit in. I half expect it to be about 150′ tall with multiple floors.

No, there’s a bigger and better reason to look forward to this year’s model, but let’s go back a couple of years before we get there.

Once upon a time (early May, 2005) E3 was a den of boobies, kids who worked at Blockbuster, noise and lights. Somewhere in there they apparently had some video games on display. I’m not sure I actually saw that many of them to tell the truth.

As time progressed (one year later, early May of 2006) E3 grew more mature (made the girls put on some clothes, stopped giving free admission to kids who worked at Blockbuster). It was still noisy, and crowded, and loud, and bright and oh yeah also there were video games.

The video games were actually a good deal easier to gain access to last year, mainly because half of the attending journalists (as well as many booth attendees) could be found in line to play the Wii at any given time, but at the same time, that damned line would have been half as long if all of the kids who worked at Blockbuster didn’t set up “review” websites a few months prior and scammed press badges instead of their exhibits only badges from the year prior.

The thing is though, while it was easier to get around and you didn’t have lines of sweaty nerds waiting to cop a feel/get a photo with a booth babe clogging up the aisles, there was still no serious journalism being done. It wasn’t realistic to expect any of that; the place was set up as it always was, a maze of lights and sounds and looping demo videos and a dozen kiosks for every PR robot. You could forget about talking to someone who actually knew anything that wasn’t memorized the night before about the products on display.

Of course, you can’t ignore the fact that no one really wanted to do any serious journalism anyhow. Let’s face it, EA isn’t going to talk to you if you only want to ask questions about why they bought out the rights to the NFL instead of putting that money into just releasing a superior product. Between the maze of distractions, the unwillingness to expose knowledgeable personnel to the general press, and the sometimes less than subtle hints that review copies of games go to those who play ball, the odds were stacked pretty heavily in the industry’s favor. But this should come as a surprise to no one.

What was a little shocking, though, was Doug Lowenstein’s outgoing rant to the industry last year. You know the one I’m talking about, it’s the reason why two-thirds of the internet came to the conclusion that E3 was over forever. If you actually read it though, it does more than that. It points out a number of failings both from the current industry players, but even more so, the press.

Would the industry be better off with a strong gaming press keeping them accountable for their actions? Well, yes, obviously. So why isn’t there that kind of accountability? Obviously we can’t count on the mainstream media or the corporate gaming websites, but why isn’t there a bigger grassroots push?

Maybe it’s a statement about the failure of small sites like this one to draw readers in, or maybe, it’s a statement about the way small sites are brought into line by the public relations firms before they get a chance to grow.

So what does the new and improved E3 do for us? The playing field is a lot more level now. For instance, exhibitors have now been into such small spaces that they can’t set up the sort of maze of distractions they had in years prior, and even more significantly, now Ubisoft can’t rent out a plot five times the size of Atlus’s booth. Think about it: If Ubisoft, EA, Square-Enix, Blizzard, and NCsoft rent out half of the available floor space, and the rest is divvied up amongst 50 exhibitors, whose products are going to stick out in your mind six hours later when you’re writing an article about what you saw today?

It goes beyond that though. The industry transcends the current players. Where there was once Coleco and Atari there was later Sega, Nintendo and Neo Geo. Later still there were Nintendo, Sega and Sony, and then there was Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. The same changing of the guard happens with publishers and developers. The 20-something kids buying HDTVs and PS3s today will one day have mortgages and children to fund, and then those children will one day buy consoles themselves. Where GamePro and Nintendo Power once ruled the gaming press, we have GameSpot and IGN.

We are too easily caught up in the antics of the current industry players. They put on the big show and we buy our tickets and before we know it, we’ve mistaken them for the deities they would proclaim themselves to be. When you take that situation and turn it on its head, force the big boys into the same boxes as the smaller companies, you open up the field for a more honest analysis.

You can count on the usual suspects for glowing previews of all the major publishers. That’s not going to change in a year. But with the industry put into a more appropriate perspective, where no one gets to make their pretense of defining the industry, we can at least do our jobs without subconscious manipulation. If the press chooses to focus on the incremental improvements of the major players at the expense of looking for the cracks and calling the industry’s faults out, then that’s a shame, but at least it’s no longer programmed into the design of the expo.

I don’t know what to tell you to expect from this year’s model. With only a handful of press expected as compared to previous years, and no idea as to what the division will be between the corporate online and print media companies versus the smaller, independent sites, it’s hard to say who will even be there. The gaming media has a real chance to take a step towards legitimacy though, and that’s what’s really got me excited.