I'm sullenly slouched in the corner of a half-lit club. The music's just been turned down and I've got my voice recorder held out in front of me, like I'm presenting someone with a dead mouse. A male voice booms across the loudspeakers that were playing house trance just a few moments before. "Thank you all for coming this evening! We know you could have gone to other events this evening, and we appreciate you being here." Some scattered laughter from the (almost entirely male) attendees. Across town is the Rock Band concert that (though we don't know it for sure at this point) will end up featuring The Who. Everyone in the room except for me wishes they were there.
"I'm proud to be a part of the world's largest platform for gaming ..." the voice continues, and I tune out. I arrived about 30 minutes ago, along with some bloggers from the Joystiq network, looking to see some PC games; to write about them, to sing the praises of the 'dying' platform that is Windows gaming. Instead of showing off the brand, the event codified, for me, why Microsoft hates the whole 'PC gaming thing.'
It also underlined, in a single evening, absolutely everything wrong, horrible, and debased about the games industry.
Our long and incredibly expensive cab ride from our hotel came to an end at an amazing intersection. I absolutely hate Los Angeles, but I can't really deny that the downtown area has some fantastic architecture. We found ourselves standing in front of one of the bi-level strip malls that seem so common in the city, a Johnny Rocket's topping a line of coffee shops, boutique stores, and fast food joints. On the end, on the lower level, is a club that will be playing host to the evening's event.
We're there about 15 minutes later than the specified arrival time, but they're not letting us in yet. A small crowd of (what I assume to be) game journalists is eying the entrance. Some are chain smoking like crazed men, and I peg them as Europeans. Walking up next to a huge "GFW" sign to find out what' s going on, a trio of men in black suits and (I'm not kidding) ear buds block my path. "Sir, we're going to need to ask you to stay put," one says. "We're dealing with the situation and you'll be allowed in shortly."
What situation? Is Gates in there prepping the team? Was there a PC-gaming related fist-fight amongst the Microsoft brass? I mull these questions as I wait with my fellow bloggers, but we never do find out what 'the situation' was. Instead, we're given wristbands and ushered into the club. It's dimly lit with colored lighting, and the noise level is (as usual) a full decibel range higher than it should be.
Games are so uncool that marketing wags feel the need to throw the coolest, trendiest parties possible
My first impression of the room itself is that there are number of kiosks set up to show off games. I smile, thinking that by braving the long cab ride and this harsh environment, we'll walk away with a bounty in game-impressions content. I walk towards the nearest 'kiosk' only to find it's just a widescreen television showing a trailer. I frown, turn, and regard the room. Most of the 'kiosks' are just televisions. In fact, there are only four actual PCs, and they're clustered around one end of the room - huddled in a corner. I braved LA traffic for this?
Events are very rarely about games
Looking closer, I realize that in reality there are only three games being shown across these four stations. Two are showing off the upcoming RTS Dawn of War II, the sequel to the Warhammer 40k game. One is labeled Crysis:Warhead, but appears to be alternating between bluescreening and the desktop. The final kiosk appears to be showing Call of Duty: World at War. The rest of the stations look pretty dead, so I head over to that (crowded) area. There are game journos swarming around the player's back, an attractive woman. Amazing how that happens. I watch her play as she gives the Nazis what for, then lean forward. "Sorry to bother," I say. "Mind if I check out the next level?"
She looks up at me for the briefest of moments, her eyebrow arched as she no-look frags a German soldier. "Sorry, but this is an eyes-only demo." She smiles a plastic smile, purchased during her years getting a degree in marketing. "Can I answer any questions about the game?" I incline my head to look at the screen. She's just breached the beach of Normandy, France - apparently from behind German lines this time. "No, that's okay," I say with a dip of my head. "Thanks anyway."
"Hands On" impressions don't always mean you get to play the game
As I'm walking away from the kiosk, scanning for my blogging buddies, a tight-faced woman intercepts my path. "Micro-chicken wrap?" She's offering a plate on which very tiny wraps have been neatly arranged. I pass, and am stopped not four feet later by a man bearing a plate of drinks. "Mocktini? Or a Passion Fruit blender?" I thank him and shake my head no, just barely dodging out of the way of a pair of already-inebriated 'journalists' who want to take him up on the offer. Looking around, it seems like everyone is swilling a crappy drink or scarfing a micro-hors d'oeuvre.
A lot of industry events are just excuses for games journalists to stuff food down their craw, swill free liquor, and ogle the PR chicks
In discussions with the other bloggers, I vow to come away from the event with at least one postable item by talking to the Dawn of War II folks. The other bloggers try to make themselves as small as possible to avoid notice by the prowling waitrons. One of my fellow blogeristas says she was offered something roughly 20 times in a 5 minute span. I believe her.
I stand near the (working) DoWII kiosk watching the conclusion of a demo, and introduce myself to an enthusiastic PR rep who's happy to hear Joystiq is around. The one bright highlight of the evening, she was a professional about the entire experience. She gave me her card, thanked me for being there, and said she'd make sure I saw the game when it became available in a few minutes. Even over the din of the music it was obvious she wanted to get some work done that evening.
The demo ended, and I sat down next to what turned out to be the game's lead designer from Relic. He was just about to get started when the music softened and the loudspeaker flared to life. "Thank you all for coming this evening!" My brain shuts down until the Peanuts-teacher droning comes to a stop.
I stood to listen to the executives speaking, mentally making a note to try to get some facetime with them after my demo. The music was just coming back up, the waitrons began circulating feverishly again, and I was resetting my voice recorder for my demo, when another journalist sat down in my seat. With a definite thump. He was from Europe (a running theme) and didn't care that I'd been there ahead of him.
I stood to the side as the designer began to ramp up his schpiel, when the press rep stepped in to speak in the designer's ear. He thanked me for coming, and offered me his seat - he spent the entire time demoing the game in a crouched position on the floor. It was appreciated. What wasn't appreciated was the input from my almost-interloper. The man had no notepad, no voice recorder - no obvious sign that he was there representing any kind of media outlet except for a stiff drink in his right hand.
There are a lot of games journalists that deserve the reputation we have as a group.
He asked hard-hitting questions like, "When will I get to play it?" "How did you make it cooler?" and, my favorite, "How did you make that so badass?" The only thing more annoying was his cohorts, who towards the end of the demo took up residence right behind me. One pressed the top of my chairback down as he leaned over me to look at the screen, while another bounced his knee off of one of my chair legs. I'm not sure they knew what country they were in, let alone what game they were watching. The demo took half an hour, and I walked away relatively pleased that it had gone well. I'd asked some followup questions that had uncovered some interesting insights - pretty much the only reason I wake up in the morning.
I stood in front of one of the televisions making notes, waving away the buzzing waiters, when I realized that the current trailer wasn’t for a PC game. It was for a 360 game. Journalists at this point were hovering freely near the booze and food stations. The few reputable outfits I had recognized at the beginning of the evening had either already left, or were skulking about the corners looking about as pissed as I felt.
Games writers don't write about PC games because they're not 'sexy'
As one last harrah, I attempted to get an interview with one of the execs. It was not to be - appointments for the gents’ time had filled up before the event had even begun, I was told. “Was this in the invitation?” I asked. I was given polite smiles and ‘thank-you-for-coming’s in response. Tail firmly between my legs, my will to continue for the evening defeated, I hooked up with my fellow bloggers and made for a hotel cab stand across the street.
Make sure you find out the secret password before you go to a party
We were across the street and heading down the block when we spotted a cab and hailed it over. It pulled up ahead of us, and we saw the cabbie turn to face us. We were almost upon it when a guy crosses the traffic-less street and jumps into the back. The cabbie pauses a moment, considering, and then races away with what sounds like verbal commands being laid down inside the cab. We pause, momentarily awed, and one of my fellow bloggers shouts some abuse at the departing vehicle. I nod at her sentiment, then snicker loudly.
“What’s so funny?” someone asks. “Didn’t you recognize that guy?” I say in response. “He was the dude that droned into the microphone earlier. Guess he had somewhere more ... rocking to be.”
They've since announced the only news from the event - Games For Windows is going to be a free service. Some outlets got the chance to learn that, in full, at the party. Others didn't. Regardless, I hope this will stop the slow hemorrhage I witnessed last week. Just don't expect them to call you a cab.