E3 Excuses

I find myself paying attention to E3 every year, even though I probably shouldn’t.

I’m writing this on June 8, 2014, the day before E3 kicks off. By the time you’re reading this, all the drama has been dissected many times over. The booths have been packed up, winners and losers have been declared, and many a snarky GIF has been made. I’m nowhere near the whirling vortex of pounding music and perspiring participants that is the LA Convention center, but I will be watching. View this as a retroactive explanation or perhaps even as an apology. E3 is obnoxious, but I still go out of my way to watch it.

There will be some kind of cringe-worthy incident in which a company uses sexist and/or culturally-insensitive material to promote their game. Maybe it will be an on-stage rape joke like last year’s Killer Instinct demo or maybe there will be scantily clad models with MSRPs painted on their bodies as there were for the N Gage’s 2003 reveal. Rest assured there will be something that perpetuates the notion that the games industry is stuck in a perpetual adolescence during the one time of year when the industry gets the most widespread publicity.

There will be huge multinational corporations taking public jabs at each other and trying to curry favor with consumers. This aspect is actually a guilty pleasure for me, as I enjoy seeing some of capitalism’s feisty side, and I can pretend for a moment that my tiny buying decisions are having an impact on the decision making process within these companies. Since the beginning, E3 has been the place for big gambles. In 1995, Sega surprise US consumers with the announcement of the launch of the Saturn at E3. Sony took to the podium, announced that the new PlayStation would undercut Sega’s price by $100 and walked away. Almost 20 years later, they’d do basically the same thing with the PlayStation 4 and it was just as entertaining.

Think too long about it and these tiffs, as well as the massive parties and demo booths that support them, are increasingly questionable events. In an era when demos are streamed directly to YouTube and where Kickstarter regularly funds multimillion dollar projects, the show becomes little more than a display of conspicuous consumption. I’m sure someone somewhere has a spreadsheet that shows that it’s still worth it to spend money on a stadium-size TV and a life-size statue of Master Chief, but I have to believe that margin is getting thinner. How many independent game companies could make an entire game with the funds used to set up one booth? Probably a depressingly high amount.

Despite all this, I still can’t help but look forward to the bloated spectacle. The showiness makes for truly surprising reveals. If we’re lucky, there will be something that approaches the sensation of the Metal Gear Solid 2 trailer:

There’s something so refreshingly earnest about all the dorks’ reactions, probably because I can see images of my own dorky self in them:

On a less fanboyish note, E3 is increasingly a crossroads for the huge, traditional publishers and independent developers. Thanks to social media, every company (big or small) is becoming more personality driven, which leads to more “off-message” (and therefore more interesting) conversations about the medium. One of my favorite interviews of the past few years was the after-hours Giant Bombcast in which Jonathan Blow and the folks representing Xbox Live had a real conversation about Blow’s criticisms of the platform certification process. It’s getting to the point where press releases and scripted presentations aren’t the only sources of industry information, and the event is more interesting because of it.

Finally, the fact that my one and only trip to E3 was a good one probably does a lot to balance out my exasperation with the show’s seedier aspects. I attended E3 2012 without any particular mandate: just try to find interesting stuff, write it up, and do the kinds of podcasts I love doing. It was a college-like road trip for Jorge and me right down to the terrible fast-food and dingy motel. It was an opportunity to happen upon friends we rarely get to see and share with them the feeling of excited exhaustion that the show fosters. Even if things were terrible or annoying, we had the chance to commiserate.

Despite all of E3’s problems, the promise of an unexpected surprise and the smattering of fond memories are enough to rope me back in every year. I always end the experience a little grossed out, but I can’t hep but look forward to the next year.