Talking up E3 has become something of an annual pastime, as each year the size and scope of the event is inevitably related in breathless detail by exhibitors, media, and attendees alike. It's as if the sheer spectacle of it all, with the booth models, the swag, the towering LED displays, and the endless rows of plasma screens, endows the event with great meaning and purpose. The resulting image, of a bacchanalian celebration of gaming-related privilege, bestows upon E3 an aura of near-holiness.
For three days, attendees stumble about in sensory overload, on a single-minded pilgrimage for coveted trinkets and experiences infused with the importance of the event. The glory achieved by those who obtain such valuable gifts as inflatable swords and blinky LED pendants is apparently second only to the bragging rights granted by 10 minutes with a game demo that, amongst the din of the show floor, can't even be heard. It is at times baffling, and even disgusting.
And yet, despite E3's overblown, chaotic facade, there are moments when gaming's irresistible allure and the genuine enthusiasm of those in attendance transcends the tackiness and excess of it all.
I experienced one such moment in a closed-door demonstration by an independent German game developer, whose tired staff had flown across ten time zones to show an elegant, beautiful strategy game, coded lovingly from scratch. On a single monitor in a quiet room, far removed from the show floor, they carefully and methodically displayed their work with an endearing combination of pride and anticipation.
It happened again, with a triple-A Xbox 360 title, when I saw its creators exchange proud grins as the initial fatalities of their team deathmatch demo were met with appreciative gasps and cheers. I watched those same developers patiently coach a confused foreign journalist, who relied on his colleagues to translate their advice, until at the end of the half-hour demonstration he was gleefully and expertly dominating his opponents while the entire room cheered him on.
I also found it in a ridiculously tiny booth in the oft-overlooked Kentia hall, where an Eastern European game distributor described their very first development project, an intelligent and extremely ambitious RPG, obviously a labor of love. They painstakingly outlined the attributes of their game, despite having to do so in broken English, at the top of their lungs, while a Guitar Hero II stage show across the aisle nearly drowned out their presentation.
I even found it while heading home, stuck in the security line at LAX for twenty minutes, by chance with Peter Moore and Rich Wickham, Director of Microsoft Games for Windows. As we shuffled tiredly toward the metal detectors, Peter good-naturedly taunted Rich about the strong 360 lineup, and Rich and I talked about games, the expo, and our families. It was a conversation devoid of hype or salesmanship, marked instead by a genuine, shared appreciation of games and a love for the medium.
I realize that, above anything else, E3's presentations serve a commercial purpose. And I am not nearly so naive as to imagine that the smiling faces and handshakes that so often greeted me and my media badge were not motivated by financial considerations. Yet the commercialism that perhaps tainted these interactions simply could not diminish the earnest conviction and passion that so many E3 exhibitors obviously had for their games. And to talk with them as they displayed their work, even in contrived, carefully controlled circumstances, was often gratifying and inspiring. I wasn't consistently amazed by their games, but I was nearly always impressed by their drive and enthusiasm.
Even more gratifying was the opportunity the expo gave me to meet people whose online contributions, at GWJ and elsewhere, I've admired in recent years. Inevitably, these people were even more engaging and likeable in person than in print. Their humor, skepticism, and insight was infectious. As a result, despite the time, expenses, and energy that E3 requires, I find myself regretting that it only happens once a year.
We'll be talking about this year's crop of games for months and years to come, but for a moment, at the risk of sounding sentimental, I wanted to turn the spotlight toward the warmth and enthusiasm of those who work within, write about, and otherwise contribute to this industry. That these qualities still managed to shine clear and bright, amidst the chaos, stress, and commercialism of an event as huge and unwieldy as E3, was for me an unexpected and rewarding surprise. This year I went to E3 to see the games. Next year, I'll be going to see the people.