I write this note having just returned from E3, the massive Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles. This was my fourth E3 for The Escapist, my first being the last “great” E3, in 2006, just before the expo imploded under the weight of its own success.
In May of 2006, I had just arrived at The Escapist. My second week on the job was spent in Los Angles, attending E3. It was about as explosive an introduction to a new job as I could have asked for. E3 2006 was gargantuan. The show had been ballooning in size and scope for years, but by all accounts, the 2006 show was the most excessively enormous ever.
The show used every inch of space in the convention center; four halls and dozens of meeting rooms. Every major publisher had a booth, and most were as obnoxious as a rock concert. Trailers blared on gigantic jumbotrons, musical acts shredded eardrums over PA systems larger than a house and games were being played on more computers and consoles than had ever been assembled in one place.
E3 2006 was the first North American public appearance of the Wii. Xbox 360 and PS3 were each barely a year old, and were present in force, conducting their own little thermodynamic experiments in locked cabinets and glass enclosures; the heat was ungodly. We had a booth, where our business types conducted private meetings and our team of reporters (including yours truly) tried in vain to escape the noise and confusion of the show floor to bash out our reports. Next door, in the barely-used Kentia Hall – previously reserved for smaller booths like ours, and lesser known developers like CD Projekt who were demoing The Witcher for the first time – was a little-known music/rhythm game featuring an expensive plastic peripheral. They called it Guitar Hero and it was the coolest thing I had ever seen.
E3 2006 was – by far – the most exhilarating experience of my life to date. It was a week I barely remember, yet will never forget. For me it was the mark of an epochal shift in my life, career and world view. For the game industry, it was a pronouncement that nothing would ever be the same.
The following year, E3’s governing body, the ESA, bowed to publisher pressure and convened a much smaller, much less extravagant E3 in Santa Monica. Instead of massive halls filled with blaring lights and sounds, meetings were held instead in hotel ballrooms, scattered up and down a long, long avenue. It was a nightmare. Meetings were often scheduled with little regard for where one’s prior meeting took place, leading to lots of shifted schedules as attendees rushed to cover a mile or more in the hot, Santa Monica sun in just a few minutes. To make matters worse, the power went out. Several times, If E3 2006 was a sign that the industry would never be the same, E3 2007 was a sign that perhaps this was not a good thing.
The show returned to the convention center in 2008, but it was a much reduced experience. The entire expo occupied barely one of LACC’s halls and only a handful of meeting rooms. I won’t use the word “pitiful,” but it’s what comes to mind. By 2009, the show had regained much of its prior excessiveness and now, in 2010, I can honestly say E3 is back. Perhaps not bigger than ever, but close.
What I can tell you about E3 2010 is that it was a very loud, bold statement on the current state of the videogame industry. All of the major publishers were in attendance, with large, loud booths displaying their Holiday 2010 and beyond catalogues. Disney made a splash with Epic Mickey and Tron: Evolution, and a ridiculous booth featuring improvisational painters and sketch artists. Microsoft unveiled a revision to their Xbox 360 console and their innovative Kinect technology, allowing users to play games and navigate the 360’s impressive feature list without a controller or remote. Sony showed off their Move device, which, in typical Sony fashion, is more-or-less what everybody else has, but more technologically advanced. Unfortunately their 3D efforts were vastly overshadowed by Nintendo’s 3DS, a 3D version of their popular DS handheld, which offers 3D experience without the use of glasses. I tried it; it works.
There were plenty of other innovations on display and as one would expect, lots and lots of games, but we’re at a strange state in the games industry. Each of the big three have all but announced the current console life cycle will last another 5 years, which means that we, the consumers, can’t look forward to any astounding hardware announcements for some time and that developers will have to “make do” with old technology for a while. Any advances in game design will have to be incremental, like the adaptation of Prince of Persia-esque gameplay mechanics for Tron, or Kirby Epic Yarn‘s astonishing (and fun) aesthetic.
You can read up on The Escapist‘s E3 coverage, and we’ll be presenting our thoughts on the best and worst of E3 in the coming days, but for me, the perfect metaphor for E3 2010 was the concert held by Activision Monday night, next door to the LACC in the Staples Center. Performances were given by Usher, Rhianna, Chris Cornell, Queen, Maynard James Keenan, Jane’s Addiction, Rhea, Deadmau5, will.i.am and Eminem. It was a mind-blowing evening. At different points, a pole dancer performed acrobatic maneuvers on a nearly 200 foot solid brass pole and the soundtrack to Call of Duty was performed by a full orchestra, punctuated by live gunfire, explosions and pyrotechnics.
The Activision spectacle reminded me of the old saying that the louder someone is speaking, the less they have to say. The Activision concert was very loud, but when you look at what it was showing (DJ Hero 2, True Crime: Hong Kong, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock and another Call of Duty spinoff by that studio that isn’t Infinity Ward), the spectacle was less impressive. One wonders why Activision felt the need to spend $6 million promoting a lineup of sequels and schlock until one realizes that when you’re the largest publisher in the world, and all you have to show is a lineup of sequels and schlock, then spending $6 million on a free concert is the only plan that makes sense.
A few years ago, there was talk that the videogame industry was “recession proof.” This year, when the rest of the world is two years into the worst recession of modern times, we now know that isn’t true. The game industry has fared better than some, but not even Activision can pretend that times aren’t tough. The big question is: will they get better? As of the end of 2009, the game industry had lost over 8,000 jobs to this recession. Will 2010 mark a comeback? I honestly don’t know, and anyone who says they do is lying. One thing I do know is that E3 2010 was a very loud show. It was very loud, but said very little.