E3 2012: Backstage Pass: Confessions of an E3 virgin
What really happens behind the dazzle
by Nicholas Capozzoli
©2012 Nicholas Capozzoli
A lot of work in games journalism is undertaken on a part-time basis, and I’m no exception.
I’ll confess I’m relatively new to the industry, with barely half a year of writing about it to my name.
So when OXCGN offered me the chance to be part of the live coverage team for the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), I was surprised, and flattered.
Needless to say, I hadn’t expected such an opportunity so early into my writing career.
I knew right away that I wanted to share the day-to-day of the experience, somehow. A journal of the trip seemed like a good idea.
The plan is also to use E3 as a chance to get a feel for the industry, which is probably a bit like trying to gain an understanding of fluid dynamics by hurling yourself off Niagara Falls.
Also, your swimming experience begins and ends with having once seen the movie Splash. So yeah, there’s a 64% chance that I won’t survive past day 1.
I ended up experiencing the underside of L.A., the glitz and outrageousness, the celebrities and parties, and all the madness of the show.
And even a bit about games too.
I’ve chronicled my experience with the trip and show in a Bill Simmons-style retro diary.
I hope it’s informative and fun for anyone who’s never been, or who’s interested in writing about games.
Let’s jump right in, shall we? (All times loosely approximated).
Sunday, June 3rd. Two Days Before E3.
Some pre-trip jitters have me running on about 3 hours of sleep.
I’m well on time for what’s to be an uneventful flight, shared with an NBC statistician who’s heading to L.A. to cover the Stanley Cup.
Between the NHL Finals and E3, it’s slim pickings for hotels in the city.
I’ve managed a room in something that’s halfway between hotel and hostel, a private bedroom and bath with shared showers. It’ll do.
It’s budget-priced and just a 15 minute walk from the convention center, assuming that you cross the roads when they’re clear, instead of waiting for the “walk” sign.
I hate to be that Manhattan guy, but seriously, California folks, you can just walk across when you don’t see cars. You’re not going to get hit by the phantom ice cream truck from Toejam & Earl.
I drop off my baggage and head over to the Los Angeles Convention Center to grab my media pass early. I’ve heard that it’s preferable to pick them up today, before the crowds really arrive in full on Monday.
The convention center itself is pretty sizeable.
I should know, as I walked nearly the full perimeter of it with a Japanese cameraman trying to find the registration area. We wise up and ask for directions after passing roughly our 5th consecutive freight entrance.
Nice to know that I’ve got the directional sense of someone who’s been in the country for 3 hours.
Registration itself was a breeze, thankfully. I now find myself in possession of one obnoxiously oversized media pass.
It’s 82% advertisement for the game Persona, 15% white space, and 3% pertinent info.
My trip back to the hotel along 7th Street is shared with a homeless man singing “Gon’ get me some crack. Get me some crack. Get me some crack. Get me some crack…” repeatedly for about 4 blocks. Ke$ha’s latest tune, I guess.
We’re off to a great start, Los Angeles!
The elevator door of my hotel opens to the sight of 5 police officers pulling on latex gloves.
Says one: “Uh, you might want to get the next one.” Right.
Now I’m thinking that it might have been a good idea to take out a life insurance policy before coming here.
Monday, June 4th. One Day Before E3.
It’s up bright and early for the first video gaming event on the docket: Microsoft‘s press conference.
I will say that I thought it went fine, and I don’t see any reason that these things need to be “all about the games”, a line that we heard nearly everyone parrot (be it true or not).
At any rate, the first few hours of the morning are spent in line for the event.
Shoddy planning on the part of Microsoft, but it has the side effect of creating a relaxed opening to the week.
Journalists exchange greetings around us, and every new arrival gets an appraising look as folks search for faces of the industry and old acquaintances.
We’re seated and giddy.
My fellow writer (also named Nick, a source of confusion for many a PR rep) and I feel like kids at the adults’ table during a holiday dinner.
All around us are suits having pointed conversations about industry finances; we’re debating whether it would have been cooler if the wristbands we were given for entry were actually slap-bracelets.
And suddenly, Halo 4.
If you told me in 2001 that one of the biggest games of all time would star a protagonist named “Master Chief“, I’d have decked you.
But what a way to kick things off! The effect of the bass in the theater is so deep that it rattles your organs.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist.
Anyone made a Tom Clancy title generator, yet? The dude just mixes around the words like Ghost, Cell, and Recon with military letter codes and a word generally synonymous with “operation”. Splinter Cell: Tango Initiative. Ghost Recon: Omega Protocol.
Alpha Spectre Unit: Ghost Phantom Recon Cell.
Joe Montana is yelling “Crabtree, streak!” Better with Kinect, indeed.
Forza trailer. BWOMMMM. WUB WUB WUB. BWOMMMM. BEEP. ZAP ZAP WUB.
Nick leans over to inform me that there’s now such a thing as “post-dubstep”. Post. Dubstep. I kid you not. [Ed.: Curious can find an example here.]
So, Lara Croft gets in crazy pulp action adventure scenes, and gets injured in the process, thereby showing that she’s human?
I preferred the earlier version of this Tomb Raider game. You know, the one where they called it Uncharted.
Also, I preferred the earlier version of Uncharted, where they called it Tomb Raider. And, uh, the earlier version of Tomb Raider, where they called it Pitfall.
I confess I don’t really understand the folks who’re relieved that Infinity Ward “reinvented” the series.
If you’ve read our mini-previews, you know that I think the scene of people, vehicles, and hacked drones attacking a city in Black Ops 2 looks almost entirely like the scene of people, vehicles, and regular drones attacking a city in Modern Warfare 3.
At some point, you will slam a personal pan pizza box against a door and blow it apart in slow motion. Sure, now there’s the added novelty of sending in your robocopter to do your dirty work (wake me when you can use a catacopter, Activision), but you basically know the drill here.
And here’s the thing: that’s totally fine. I like the product, and there’s no reason to fix what ain’t broken. It’s not like they’re holding an entire genre back by letting an exclusive license stagnate, right? *cough* Madden *cough*
That’s one conference in the books. Got nothing on the schedule for the rest of the day, so I do some writing, then head out to the bar to watch my Spurs in yet another crushing loss to the Thunder.
Tuesday, June 5th. First Day of E3.
Though the other Nick is pegged to run to a variety of press conferences today, the only one I’m on the hook for is Nintendo (the irony of being OXCGN’s de facto PS3 fanboy and getting snubbed for the Sony conference was not lost on me).
We queue up, get wristbands, and get seated. Really, it was a minor ordeal of registration bar codes not scanning, and much waiting around.
But we’re too psyched to be truly bothered by anything at this point.
Microsoft are the jocks.
Sony are the nerds.
And Nintendo? Nintendo want to be Disney.
You needn’t look any further than Miyamoto-san’s pocket Pikmen to see it. Nintendo has adopted Disney’s “nostalgia and magic” hook. They bank on it. And when Miyamoto cryogenically freezes himself, you’ll know for sure.
If Miyamoto is Nintendo’s Walt Disney, then Reggie Fils-Aime is its Michael Eisner. Watching him engage in awkward fake banter and product demonstrations is painful, but there’s at least an ironic self-aware side of it that Microsoft seemed to lack.
If Reggie is going to mention that you can draw pictures that will be seen by others in the Mii-verse, he should be required to follow it with an explanation of how that won’t result in everyone’s home screen becoming a dynamic wallpaper of crudely-drawn penii, waving gently in the breeze like so many blades of grass.
Price point is going to make or break these titles. In all seriousness, some of the additional functionality for the games from the Wii U controller look neat, but will you want to spend for them when you can pick up, say, Arkham City with all DLC from Steam for $0.07 and a few bits of string?
I’m officially concerned about Nintendo. Though they’ve proven me wrong in the past…
In a truly bizarre stretch of the conference, Nintendo spends roughly eight years explaining the very basic asymmetric gameplay in a Luigi’s Mansion minigame, then shows us Super Mario Brothers twice in a row.
“It’s totally different than the last one we showed…you’ll notice how there are more coins!” says the speaker about the latter version.
He pauses, clearly expecting someone to fly from their seat and slap him. Nobody does.
For my part, I’m stuck in mute awe of Nintendo’s cojones. They really can get away with whatever they want.
Remember that “Nintendo wants to be Disney” bit?
Well, the transformation is complete. Heck, they barely even changed the logo.
Aimless and bored, the gaming press creates a small tent village in front of the E3 doors.
We scrounge in landfills for cat food and hoard weaponry. Jack Tretton wanders through on a humanitarian mission, comes in contact with a strange device, and slowly morphs into Jim Sterling over the course of the week. His whereabouts remains unknown.
The doors open.
It’s really a great moment. We’re at the South Hall, where entry is cordoned off to a set of escalators. You wait your turn and watch those heading up take pictures and video of everyone waiting behind them.
It’s got a real amusement park feel.
We make our way in. EA has the front space occupied with their booth, and it makes for quite a first impression.
I’ve never been to Vegas, but I have to imagine that the level of spectacle is pretty comparable. You’re inundated with lights and sounds, roars of gunfire and pop music. There are giant statues and people in all manner of costume.
Over the course of the week, I’ll come to realize that you need to take a break from the overstimulation every couple of hours.
It really is that intense; you frequently need to find a quiet corner just to get your IQ back to sentient human levels.
Your mileage here may vary. Though I work in Manhattan, I’m really more of a small town guy.
Entering the halls each morning, I began unconsciously taking a big breath before going through the doors, knowing I was about to submerge myself in an ocean of marketing excess.
The booth is an incomprehensible mess of marquee lights, gaming stations, race cars, Snoop Dogg, and booth babes.
At one point, there’s a giant, tatted Samoan wearing a hubcap as a necklace posing for photos. I have no idea what he’s supposed to represent.
A cynical commentary on the American population by some Japanese publicists? Perhaps. I’m fairly certain that they got their booth babes from the Hooters across the street, and I’m pretty sure they just reused the outfits, too.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Tekken booth was easily one of the most popular.
I have to think that sort of spectacle is on its way out, though. Gaming culture is shifting. It’s getting a little more introspective, and less male-dominated. I note that there’s a decent showing of female journalists around, which I’d wager is a growing trend.
We arrive at a booth for or our first appointment, an awkward affair in which the publisher clearly was not expecting us.
We manage to check out some trailers and play two demos, but I’m worried that this will be exemplary of the kind of welcome we’ll be getting throughout E3.
In fact, attending E3 as press is amazing. You get a degree of VIP treatment, deservedly or not, from almost all of the PR staff at the show.
Here’s the typical experience for us: after arriving for your appointment, you’re either directed to a waiting area or lounge in the back of the booth (often with comfy seats and refreshments), or a PR rep comes out to meet you.
From there, it’s off to either some small theater in the booth to view trailers and demos, or to the playable game stations for a hands-on.
In either case, the rep will bring you to the front of the line if there’s general public allowed. In many cases, however, it’s press only.
I’d really come to appreciate this when I walked past lines of people who extended for hundreds of feet, undulating among velvet ropes and around other booths. I can’t imagine paying the general entry fee and sitting in line for two hours to play Halo 4 for 15 minutes.
It’s all capped off nicely with a trip to Bethesda to see The Elder Scrolls Online and Dishonored, the latter of which we round out with a brief chat with Harvey Smith, the co-creative director.
It’s a new thrill for me to be able to meet and talk to someone so intimately involved in a game’s design, and I’ll get to experience it a lot over the week.
Each time I get to ask questions, or jump to the head of a line, or gain entry to a restricted area, I feel like I’m pulling a con on everyone.
Whenever security waves me through, I get a feeling like “I can’t believe it’s actually working! These people actually think I’m media!”
After I eat, get to the hotel, and power through some writing, I crash hard.
Training Day is on IFC, so I intermittently doze to the soothing sounds of gang members threatening to rape Ethan Hawke. Early to bed.
Wednesday, June 6th. Second Day of E3.
I’m alone for two of Capcom’s offerings: Lost Planet 3 and Devil May Cry. Both, as it turns out, are pretty fun to play, though the pounding industrial-techno and laser light show of the DMC demo eventually induces a headache.
Then it’s off to Ubisoft for a marathon session that includes roughly 47 games, give or take.
Most impress, and the PR rep is remarkably patient, waiting for us outside of demo rooms and ferrying us to each new showing.
Far Cry 3 nabs my “Surprise of the Show” nomination with its heady brew of psychedelic imagery, and Assassin’s Creed 3 locks up my “Game of E3″ nod by virtue of its smorgasbord of compelling content.
Also, it turns out there are alternatives to that glaringly out-of-place Assassin’s garb, thank the heavens.
Every once in a while you’ll see a tweet from someone like Ben Kuchera or Cliffy B that says they just left so-and-so’s booth. They’re like radar pings; be there first when an event happens and you can watch the dots converge on you like it’s Aliens.
It’s bizarre to be so acutely aware of the fact that these are real people, and they’re all around you.
Hell, sometimes they’re even getting turned away from the same booths.
Coming from a field where the biggest names don’t even seem to occupy the same plane of existence as the rest of humanity, this aspect of the video game industry is a breath of fresh air.
The brilliant folks and vibrant personalities that you admire are around, they’re accessible, and they’re just like they outwardly appear everywhere else.
By example, it seems like if you haven’t shared a cab with Tim Schafer at this point, you’re in the minority. He must be driving them, I suppose.
I finish things up with THQ, who instead of a booth, occupy a meeting room on the concourse level. Picture the office from The Office, and you’ve pretty much nailed down the look of the place; it’s clearly a cost-cutting measure.
That being said, a secluded, quiet cubicle is the perfect environment after a day’s worth of bustle of the show floor.
I’m pleased to toss on some headphones and sample Metro: Last Light, Darksiders 2, and Company of Heroes 2 in relative peace.
From Metro, I get a gas mask as swag (I thought about bringing it back with me, but then I thought about trying to explain it to the TSA. Then I thought about cavity searches for a bit. Then I left it in the hotel).
There’s a giant foam scythe for Darksiders that people are posing with. During my playthrough, someone accidentally breaks it in two. I’m still trying to decide if that constitutes an omen.
I’m not about to turn down the offer, though, and I’m certainly in need of things to do after hours, so it’s off to to the club.
I’m not much for the club scene, but this turns out to be a thoroughly pleasant affair. It’s set up as more of a lounge, at least tonight, so you can hear yourself think. There are gaming stations everywhere, and plenty of enthusiastic staffers. Plus, the drinks are free. Free!
Apparently, I spend a good 15 minutes standing next to Nathan Fillion and Steve the Pirate (aka Alan Tudyk), completely oblivious.
Arthur (representing OXCGN’s Aussie contingent) shows me the photos later. I think I’m so unused to seeing celebrities that I don’t just tell myself “That can’t be Nathan Fillion.” I actually physically do not see Nathan Fillion.
Probably for the best, though. I’d have been the 253rd person of the evening to ask him when they’re rebooting Firefly, he’d give a subtle nod to the side, and the last thing I’d see in this world would be a glimpse of Summer Glau moving in my periphery, knife in hand.
Instead, I get to spend the evening drinking and chumming it up with some Australian press, who are good fun. And I learn what a Covenant energy sword is, so that’s neat (cut to hundreds of angry Xbox owners shaking their heads disappointedly).
Thursday, June 7th. Last Day of E3.
2K were a real pleasure to visit, with friendly PR folk and a well-appointed lounge. Nick and I loiter about in their booth for lunch, chatting about the games we’ve seen.
We part ways, but not before he makes me take him to THQ so he can bag a leftover gas mask. I hope he deemed it worth the cavity search.
I’ve got the rest of the day to peruse the ground at my leisure. I get in some more time with PS All Stars and Resident Evil 6, then jump into a Sim City demonstration on a whim (it’s looking great, despite the weirdness of the presenter having the voice of Vince of Shamwow infamy).
Walking past the rear side of the press booth for a major website, I get a completely chance encounter with some huge figures in games journalism.
In my mind I hear Russell Brand saying “You know when you hear about someone, and then you meet them? That’s happening now.” Out of my mouth comes…I don’t even know. I babbled.
Yeah, turns out that I’m absolutely lost and flustered when I meet people whose work I admire.
Thank Kevin Butler, they were friendly and gracious, and I even got an implicit invite to their post E3 meetup, somehow.
I manage to stagger out of their line of sight before passing out from delirium and embarrassment.
I awaken in Kentia Hall, just in time to fend off a couple of feral nerds who were about to loot my Planetside 2 beta code.
I make my way back to West Hall to get some more time in at Sony before the show wraps. It’s hard to get myself to leave.
E3 is over, and I’m at the aforementioned bar early to catch what’s left of the Celtics/Heat game. Pacific time, and the resulting early basketball games, are really throwing me for a loop.
The place is pricey (typical for L.A?), and I accidentally order two $10 beers before I realize the costs. But I can’t argue with the quality, and they’ve got a pool table, so I’m golden. I get so absorbed in pool that I miss the journalists entering, so later I sidle up awkwardly and introduce myself.
Turned out to be a great decision.
Everyone is down to earth and remarkably welcoming considering that I’m the only person there who isn’t among their circle. Sitting at a booth, people approach to say hello to their coworkers (names changed to protect the innocent): “Hey Frank, Jim, Craig, and [pointing at me]…uh…who are you again?”
We’re there until closing time, waxing about the show, the industry, and what it’s like to cover it.
It’s a perfect way to end my trip, even if I most certainly overstay my welcome (I think the George Costanza theorem on leaving on a strong joke applies well in situations like this).
Either way, the evening lends itself well to the point I hope that you can take from this.
Writing about games has opened up a world of interesting possibilities for me, and it’s done so in the time it takes to throw some words down and email them out.
Now I’m meeting people I never thought I could meet, seeing things I never thought I’d get to see, and getting it all through a creative, expressive outlet that I’ve always loved.
Video games have always been a major piece of my life, but there seemed to be a degree of intangibility inherent to them. I played and enjoyed them, but the larger industry remained nebulous.
I’ve come to find now that the opposite is true. There’s an inclusive and supportive community that serves as the medium’s foundation. Turns out they’re rather easy to find.
I don’t think I’m a special case. I think anyone can do this. Just throw a few points into charisma and luck (who does that?), and you can get your foot in the door. Even just a couple of toes will probably make the endeavor worthwhile.
Look me up if you do. I’ll buy the first round next E3.
Join me at Twitter: @NickCapozzoli
©2012 Nicholas Capozzoli
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