Imagine a rock concert. The loudest rock concert you’ve ever been to. Make it a little louder, just for good measure.
Throw it into a Las Vegas casino, except instead of the glitz of Vegas you’re in the middle of the decay that is Los Angeles; and instead of jangling coins and neon there are surround sound explosions and endless rows of flashing video monitors.
Stir in a good-sized dollop of siege-mentality warfare, complete with realistic sound effects and panicked jostling for limited resources.
Add in a little dash of sci-fi convention decoration and just a pinch of overpriced food.
Dump in tens of thousands of bewildered, sweaty males (sprinkled with a few scantily-clad booth babes and fully-clothed female PR reps for flavor).
Welcome to E3.
Now, try writing a story in this mess.
To an outsider, going to E3 as a journalist seems like a dream come true: You get to see all the latest games, meet all the coolest people in the game industry, and generally putz around in a giant arcade for three straight days in the center of Hollywood. But ask those that have been writing about the show for years, and you’ll find covering E3 has its share of problems – especially when it comes to getting actual work done.
Chief among these problems is the crowds. Though it’s not open to the public, E3 still manages to attract nearly 60,000 people that are somehow “affiliated” with the game industry. That number inevitably includes more than a few people who wrote one article for some three-month-old fansite along with your local Gamestop manager’s cousin. It’s inevitable. Don’t even bother complaining.
Despite the throng of humanity, the 870,000 square feet of exhibit space seems downright spacious. That is until you clog up the floor with awkwardly placed demo stations, oversized statuary and narrow choke points. “It’s hard enough to keep moving,” GamePolitics Editor and nine-year E3 veteran Dennis McCauley writes in a post on his site. Then, “the attendees who are walking ahead in the traffic lane … suddenly stop to stare up at some whirling bright lights or booth babe. Or maybe to have a conversation with a friend they bumped into. That’s when our latent South Philadelphia cab driver persona emerges. ‘Hey, buddy, move it to the side of the road!'”
Once you finally work your way to a game demo kiosk, the experience is less than ideal. Good luck focusing on the game while ignoring the swirling mass of people, noise and lights around you. Sure, your press pass can bump you to the front of most lines, but if the game is popular at all, a PR attendant or an impatient expo attendee will hurry you along before you can play for more than five minutes. Suddenly, formulating those “Best of E3 Award” impressions doesn’t seem so easy.
You can avoid the tumult of the kiosks by arranging a private “booth tour” or a behind-the-scenes appointment with a PR contact at most major companies. With literally thousands of outlets vying for precious time, though, only the big dogs of the game journalism machine can guarantee VIP press access at the bigger booths.
“If you’re working for a web site that has a small ‘unique visitor’ count and no real focus, it’s more valuable for publisher X to turn your request down and spend that time with a larger site that reaches a wider audience,” says CNN/Money’s Chris Morris. In short: more readers equals more access, which in turn leads to more readers. “It’s a Catch-22 – and having experienced it myself, I know how frustrating it is – but I don’t think there’s really a lot that can be done.”
But this limited access can actually be a blessing in disguise for a small outlet, says Computer Games Magazine Editor-in-Chief Steve Bauman. Getting rejected by the big boys “gives smaller outlets an opportunity to find the stories other guys are missing or skipping because they’re fixated on whatever Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo and Electronic Arts are selling.” Bauman recommends that struggling journalists “go to Kentia Hall and discover something weird. Those people are desperate for coverage, but everyone is trying to cover the ones who don’t really need it.”
If you do end up getting led around, though, note that all booth tours are not created equal. “Some publishers – notably Eidos, Vivendi, Microsoft, Midway – have the developers and play-testers on hand to demo the games and answer questions, which is ideal,” says Erin Bell, editorial assistant for Canada’s HUB magazine. “Other publishers, such as Namco, seem to just hire some booth babes, give them a point-form info sheet about each game, and set them loose, which is a waste of my time.”
For all its problems, E3 does still have value to the intrepid journalist. The sheer number of actual developers wandering around E3 and its environs makes it easy to just grab someone working on a game and make contact outside PR’s stifling gaze. “For the sort of stuff I do, it’s not a place where the actual work gets done – more of a place where ideas for things start,” says British game journalist Kieron Gillen.
The key to a good E3, according to many journalists, is to stay away from the standard post-everything-and-sort-it-out-later coverage that has dominated E3 in the internet era. E3 is a chance to “meet developers you won’t usually see [and] find obscure companies, products and hardware that hasn’t been seen before,” says insert credit Senior Editor Brandon Sheffield. “It can really be an eye opener, if your eyes are just a bit open to begin with.”
The best way to cover E3, though, might be to simply not go at all. Slashdot Games‘ Michael Zenke doesn’t have the time or budget to attend this year’s show, but he will be covering it from home, where he can “watch the keynotes on Gamespot and gain a gestalt view of the E3 experience through the lens of everyone on the ground. I can then successfully reprocess that experience for the readers in the form of copious linkage. I hope to … provide the users some understanding of what’s going on out there.”
And that’s the real key to successfully consuming the rock concert/war zone/casino/arcade stew that is E3. At some point, you have to take a step back, put down your spoon, and excrete a couple hundred words about the sleep-deprived week you spent eating it all.
Kyle Orland is a video game freelancer. He writes about the world of video game journalism on his weblog, Video Game Media Watch.