It’s hard not to love this job. In spite of the long hours, the irascible demands of our audience and the occasional aneurysm, working at The Escapist has to be the best job in the world.
A few weeks ago we were in Los Angeles for E3. That alone is worth writing home to mother about. In the past two years I’ve traveled to about a dozen separate gaming conventions, an average of one every other month. Granted, working a 16-hour day, hustling my way through a convention, snatching down quick notes at a press conference or interview session, and then scrambling to find a working internet connection to post a story and maybe remembering to eat isn’t exactly a paid vacation. But most jobs don’t allow you to travel as much as mine does, and when I think about the places I’ve been since I started here, it’s easy to forget how hard I have to work to earn the plane ride.
At this year’s DICE conference in Las Vegas, after sitting in on semi-exclusive panels starring the industry’s most popular speakers, I went into town to see a vampire stripper show. Who does that? At last year’s E3 in Santa Monica, I watched a full New Orleans-style funeral march along the beach, then walked the Santa Monica Pier and ate dinner sitting over the water, listening to the waves. At CES I saw a human-sized robot kick a soccer ball, and at GDC one year, I sat in a squatting-room-only lecture hall to listen to Warren Spector speak. The next year I sat in the same hall and listened to Ken Levine. Yet as awesome as all of that and a thousand other beautiful moments from the past two years may have been, none of it compares to this year’s E3.
The show itself wasn’t the best – or even one of the best – shows I’ve ever attended. In fact, taken on its own merits, this year’s E3 was kind of a bust. The vast, empty spaces of the Los Angeles Convention Center mocked us with their lack of decoration. Where previously there had been gigantic displays, animated with light, sound and television monitors, this year there was nothing. The hallway where two years ago John Woo’s Stranglehold had held court, announcing its presence at ear splitting volume to all who scurried past toward the West Hall, was this year once more just a hallway. A large, empty hallway. It was more than a little depressing.
That’s not to say there weren’t any games. On the contrary, there were plenty. And the hands-on demonstrations were among the best I’ve witnessed. Without the teeming throngs of adoring fan(boy)s, the game reps had all the time in the world to put on a good show, ensconced in their tiny, little meeting rooms, worried only about talking over each other, instead of a thousand other people and the amplifiers at the Guitar Hero booth.
For making appointments, getting a good look at the year’s upcoming games and hearing yourself think, this year’s E3 was in the top of its class, and anyone who really cares about all of that can write the ESA a letter and thank them. We’ll wait. Game publishers don’t count.
Here’s the thing – games are fun. They don’t have to be, as the Bohemian “games are art” crowd keeps insisting, but they usually are. The best of them anyway. So much fun that occasionally more people are playing them than are buying movie tickets, and the sales numbers keep climbing higher.
Convention centers are for more than housing giant displays announcing upcoming games. A lot more. Ours is not the only industry that holds an annual convention. The LACC calendar for the rest of the year boasts such vastly esoteric conventions as The California Construction Expo, the American International Real Estate Expo and Conference and the annual meeting of the Association for Financial Professionals. Not exactly dying industries any of them, but not fun. Not fun the way games are fun. And at their conventions, you’d generally be wandering blank hallways, eyes glued to schedules and bored out of your mind. Like I was at this year’s E3.
What happened? This is not a boring industry. People do not fall into careers in gaming the way they fall into a career in construction. You don’t take over your father’s game-making business and think to yourself “my dreams are shattered, woe is me, woe is me.” In fact, it’s usually the opposite. Making games is the thing you give up a career in finance to do. Making games is the dream job. Making games, although often punishing (like writing about them) is fun, and the exuberance of the people who are lucky enough to have careers in the industry is hard to suppress. You see it in the products they make, the speeches they give and, until the past two years, at their convention.
E3 used to be the preeminent game industry conference. The world’s eyes turned toward LA each year to see what fabulous new games were coming out, hear from the people who made them and, above all else, to bask in the exuberance of the industry, made tangible in the form of the sturm and drang of the multiple show floors. This year? I walked all over that damn convention center, but there wasn’t any sturm or drang to be found. That is, except for at two places, both of which were well away from the convention center.
You probably know by now The Escapist has a video crew, and that I took that crew to LA to cover the show. If you didn’t know that, well, now you do. Go watch the videos. They’re fun, and you might learn something. But aside from the games we covered and the interviews we conducted, we had another assignment: We covered Mike Wilson’s campaign for the ESA presidency.
Mike Wilson is the president of Gamecock, the bad-boy game publishers who threw a funeral parade at last year’s E3, and who, in their previous incarnation, GOD Games, became famous for rock-star publicity stunts like dressing their booth babes as Catholic schoolgirls. This year, Gamecock wanted to spread awareness of their brand by drawing attention to the fact that E3 isn’t fun anymore, and calling for a change in leadership.
Here’s the thing: I can’t disagree with the point. E3 isn’t fun any more. The ESA has sucked the life out of the show, whether through action or inaction it isn’t clear. But there’s a problem with Gamecock’s approach to solving the problem: The ESA doesn’t elect its president. And even if they did, Mike Wilson wouldn’t be eligible; he’s never been a member. What’s the point, then, of his candidacy? Ask him and you’ll get little more than a blank, mojito-soaked stare. The answer: There is no point, he’s just having fun.
When I heard about the campaign and its jubilant pointlessness, I knew we had to spend some serious time with Wilson getting to the bottom of it. And so it was that my crew and I found ourselves in a crowded hotel suite late one night at the Hotel Figueroa with over a dozen drunk developers and two mostly naked women, filming them give Mike Wilson a “bed dance” to boost his spirits over the flagging campaign and a near tragedy he’d suffered earlier in the day. There were lights, there was sound and there was a smoke machine in the corner coughing up a strip club haze that made the moment seem, if not natural, somehow inevitable.
The dance completed, Mike’s spirits soared and we got our footage. Earlier that same day we’d covered his campaign speech by the pool. The next day we’d given him one of the toughest interviews of his career, as he squatted in a bathtub the size of a small car, but that night was, for lack of a better term, the money shot. I’m not sure what all will come of Wilson’s campaign, or what sense we were able to make of it through our still forthcoming film, but as we wrapped for the evening, I couldn’t help but think to myself that I might just have the best job in the world. The next night, I’d be sure.
You’ve undoubtedly heard by now that The Who played the Rock Band party. It was a surprise to some, but word had been leaking steadily for about a week before we filed in, and I was expecting it. I made sure everyone in our crew had a ticket. I was certain it’d be a show to remember, whether you were a fan of The Who or not. I wasn’t wrong.
I had plenty of occasions to regret taking the trip to this year’s E3, but that night, as I listened to Roger Daltrey pour his heart out through his voice, and watched Pete Townsend windmill his way through the band’s catalogue of hits, I realized I had at least two solid reasons to feel good about the trip: two experiences I’d never have had if I weren’t involved in this glorious industry. I don’t know what else there is to say about that. Thinking about it, I get lost in the awesome of it all.
I have to confess I wasn’t always a fan of The Who. There was a time I found their anthemic bombast a bit too much to take seriously. It shrieked when it could have cooed, and blared when it could have flowed. But I wasn’t listening hard enough. There’s pain, longing and love in The Who’s music, and I’m sorry I’m not the music writer I’d need to be to explain why. Tommy is an ace at pinball, a wizard among men, but he’s also deaf, dumb and blind. The Who, in one of their most memorable songs, perfectly captured the stultifying emptiness of his achievements, the tragedy of conquering the art of the game, but nevertheless failing at life.
“Meet the new boss” crows Daltrey at the end of “Won’t get Fooled Again.” “The same as the old boss.” It doesn’t matter what he was talking about originally, anyone who’s lived more than a couple dozen years has been there; nothing changes, no matter whose name is on the door. Power corrupts, and you don’t get to the top being the boss if you’re not a jackass in some way or another.
Don’t you get fooled by the blistering, borderline schmaltz of The Who’s music; their songs have hidden depths that speak to all ages, no matter what your generation. And Mike Wilson, sure he may act the buffoon, but the man has a point: The industry is losing touch with it’s roots, and all of us are at risk of forgetting why we’re here in the first place. What do Wilson and The Who have in common? They both reminded me that you can be exuberant and still have depth. That fun is not the death of meaning, but in fact the opposite. Something the ESA and the game industry would do well to remember.
Russ Pitts won’t get fooled again. Oh no. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com