A few miles from my house is a busy Y intersection with a gas station nestled between two of its pothole-spotted radii. There is an open field across the road from the gas pumps, so that everyone who passes through the intersection or exits the gas pumps is afforded a nice view of the field. Most of the time this is just a bit of pleasant scenery, but when the election cycle comes around and candidates want to remind us who they are, the field is an irresistible place to put their signs. White signs blossom and nod in the breeze, proclaiming the names of various politicos in all caps. (There’s also a sign that says, “FREE SIRIUS BLACK”, but only because I’m trying to infuse this population of rubes with a bit of culture.)
It makes sense on cardboard, but in practice the whole thing turns into a freakish experiment in Darwinian advertising. The early small signs end up with other signs in front of them, and larger signs towering over them, and even larger signs in front of all of those. Only the overly large and obtrusive shall survive. It’s a sea of red and blue placards all trying to cock-block each other and capture the attention of passing drivers, who honestly couldn’t give a damn what idiot gets elected for deputy assistant director of the city dogcatcher’s net-inspector union. The result is that the view becomes a wall of noise and people stop looking that way. I mean, who has time for all that reading while you’re texting your friends and driving with one knee?
This is not unlike E3, when everyone gathers together under one roof and everybody tries to talk at the same time. If we were to abandon this tradition right now and never look back, the entire industry would be better off.
Wanting to make sure they have something interesting to say at E3, some companies delay making big announcements until the event. Other outfits rush to get things ready for E3. In effect, E3 sucks all of the news out of the adjacent months and compresses them into a single week of chaos and booth babes. It’s the advertising equivalent of jamming everyone into an elevator and giving them all megaphones. This is no way to keep consumers informed.
Sure, by the end of the week the hardcore, news-hungry gamers will have digested the big announcements from Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. The big dogs always have the biggest signs and always get the headlines. But there are about two hundred publishers and developers trying to elbow their way to the space in front of the cameras. For every game or company we hear about, we’re missing ten others.
So, you spend money to secure space at E3. You hire some contractors to build you a big fancy booth with the name of your company and / or game in big flashy lights. You buy a booming sound system to deafen everyone that gets within a nautical mile of your booth, and a garage-door sized plasma screen to blind them if they come any closer. You pack that crap into some shipping containers and send it off to E3. You have your team stop development on the core game and work overtime for a few weeks to make a build of the game fit for public viewing. Then you fly your personnel to Los Angeles, rent them hotel space, and feed them for a few days while they hobnob with the public instead of sitting in the office getting work accomplished. Don’t forget to buy a few bins of giveaway swag and hire some booth babes to hand it out. Afterward, don’t forget to fly your hardware and hungover staff back home so they can return to productive work next week.
What have you spent so far? A half million? What exactly are you getting for all of that money? Because if all you want is the attention then there are better ways to do it than to spend the yearly salaries of eight people in an attempt to snag a tiny slice of an over-saturated news week that’s really only followed by hardcore gamers, who probably already knew about your game and who were likely already going to [not] buy it.
E3 dates back to the savage, untamed days of 1995, when gamers needed to subscribe to five different magazines just to keep track of what was going on in the world of gaming. E3 was a conduit from publishers to the press, and it was an important way for everyone to connect. But we have this newfangled internet stuff now. One gaming site (like – let me pick one completely at random – say, this one) can keep up with the surge of news on the PC, Mac, three console, indies, and portables. It can handle slow news days, heavy news days, and ultra-heavy E3 news days. It can do all of this because we don’t need to cut down four acres of Oregon and pulp it before we can tell you that Half-Life 2: Episode 3 still isn’t out, but we’ll have eighteen new Tomb Raider titles before week’s end.
The cost of attending E3 is chump change to the titans like Microsoft or Activision. But it’s likely a non-trivial percentage of the total game budget for the small companies, start-ups, and indies. Last I checked, gaming sites could still be persuaded – with the use of money – to put ads to your product on their sites. Unlike E3, this deal is a sure thing. You give them money, and people find out about your game. If you go the E3 route it’s entirely possible your game will be lost in the noise. You can have ads run without releasing your dev team from their slave pits. They can continue to toil away, uninterrupted by your marketing efforts.
E3 is madness. It’s a black hole into which developers pitch their time and treasure, in exchange for a few fleeting moments of attention from a distracted and likely over-the-legal-limit gaming press. It’s an absurd waste of resources that should probably be spent elsewhere by the increasingly overdue and over-budget videogame industry. It’s flashy demos and scantily clad women handing out free stuff amidst the eardrum-blasting demos of next year’s games.
Lucky bastards. I really hope I can make it next year.