The Problem with E3

September 4th, 2012 by

Having had the privilege of attending the Electronic Entertainment Expo, as well as all three major press conferences held in conjunction with E3, for the first time this year, I think it’s my duty to inform you about just what it’s like walking through the hallowed halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center with the Future of Gaming all around you.  It was, in a word, disillusioning. 

It was in 2004, at the ripe young age of 16, that I first took notice of this magical conference that gamers talked about with great esteem, where representatives from the major gaming companies would descend from their heavenly perches in Japan or Washington State to come to LA and tell you what games or systems they’d been working on over the last year or so.  I watched the videos with awe as Reggie Fils-Aime first took the stage for Nintendo, used the word ass (!) and introduced us to early footage of the then unnamed Twilight Princess. 

After that, E3 was transformed in my mind into a gaming mecca where visitors could play games and systems that wouldn’t come out for years, see game industry celebrities like Shigeru Miyamoto (my online handle’s namesake) and get tons of unbelievably rare and collectible swag, sometimes even including free movies or games.  It became my dream, as I’m sure it is for many gamers, to one day visit E3 and experience this “gamer’s Christmas” first-hand.  After running Game Usagi for five years and almost an entire year of planning, my dream came to fruition and I was on my way with my media team to Los Angeles to cover E3. 

After a single pre-conference day in LA, I became very disillusioned with the city itself, but that’s a different story altogether.  Attending Microsoft’s, Sony’s, and then Nintendo’s press conferences, with their varying degrees of celebrities and announcements, only made me even more excited about the wonders that E3-proper had in store.  We were first in line for entry into the LA Convention Center’s South Hall, having stood there for a good couple of hours, and as soon as I walked onto that long-anticipated showfloor I noticed that something was off.  It didn’t bother me right away, as I was still blinking in the brilliant lights shining from dozens of booths emblazoned with the logos from some of my favourite game companies, but there were already lines formed at many of the booths even though I was the first one in the doors.  It didn’t take a detective to figure out that they had a different kind of badge than me, instead of a green bottom proclaiming “Media”, their badges all had red bottoms proclaiming “Exhibitor”. 

I had seen people with Exhibitor badges going up the escalators long before the official opening of E3 and I naturally assumed that they were there to do their jobs, operating booth demos or becoming scantily clad to promote video games in some roundabout way.  As far as I could tell during my three days on the showfloor, though, these people were apparently paid by companies to clog lines, particularly the one at the Disney booth for embroidered Oswald ears (which I never did end up getting), long before media were allowed in.  With each passing day at E3, I began realizing the two facts that more or less served to shatter this shining image of E3 that I had held in my mind for so long: E3 is not for gamers, and my media badge did little more than let me through the front doors. 

Since I’m still on the topic of E3 attendee badges, I’ll finish my thought before telling you why E3 isn’t for gamers.  Aside from admittance into the actual halls, I saw almost no discrepancy between the different kinds of badges while I was at E3.  Before coming to E3, I essentially thought that there would be media badges for most of the general attendees who would be covering all of the things being exhibited, exhibitor badges for the people actively running the booths, and then the special exceptional badges for people who paid up-front to get onto the showfloor (but therefore wouldn’t be able to have booth tours or behind-the-scenes presentations like the media) as well as the various company executives that are known to tour the showfloor from time to time.  What I ended up seeing was something quite different that ended up making me angry more than anything and also kind of encouraged a low-level badge-ism among attendees where people were judged based solely on the colour of their badges. 

The badge-levels that I observed while at E3 were: Green for Media, Yellow for “Exhibits Only” (meaning, I presume, that they paid to get in), Red for Exhibitors, and then Blue for “VIP Buyer” (for representatives of large retail firms).  I have several anecdotes that relate just how little these levels mattered, though.  I’ve already explained how about 60% or more of the people I saw in most lines for presentations and swag were wearing Exhibitor badges when they clearly weren’t actively exhibiting anything, but the Exhibits Only badges were equally meaningless. 

I had a small window open in my booth tour schedule, and I decided to see if I could get into any presentations at the Activision booth, as I had not been able to contact them before-hand to schedule anything.  They graciously told us to come back about 15 minutes later and let us into a private walkthrough/Q&A presentation about one of the levels in the campaign of Black Ops II, but as soon as I was in the supposedly press-only area of the Activision booth I was struck by how many people there had “Exhibits Only” badges.  I don’t know if these people just had the right connections or what, but the trend continued when I was in the press areas for Capcom, 2K Games, and Bethesda too.  Almost every press or industry only special booth area I was in (except for the ones for Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo) were almost equally full of people who had paid their way instead of having valid press credentials.  I realize that sometimes industry members, under extenuating circumstances, may have to get an Exhibits Only badge for one reason or another, but that couldn’t have accounted for every single yellow-badged person I saw where they, by rule, shouldn’t have been. 

The VIP Buyers I saw seemed to be having an upsetting time with their badges too.  Only the people lucky enough to have somehow scored an Exhibitor badge were allowed to enter the showfloor early to form various lines for things.  Every morning while I was waiting at or near the front of the line for entrance into one of the showfloors, I saw VIP Buyer people trying to get in along with the Exhibitors but being refused and directed instead to the VIP Buyers lounge (which I’m sure was probably quite nice anyways). 

Finally, the good old Media badges.  Before attending E3, I didn’t really think there would be any perks to having a media badge since it’s an industry only trade show.  Once I was at E3 and saw the large volumes of Exhibitors and Exhibits Only people, I started thinking that maybe my media badge should let me in lines ahead of people who didn’t have the professional need to play/see the games in order to preview them for their respective audiences.  My experience of media-related benefits at E3 were quite hit and miss, though, and mostly miss for that matter.  I was too busy going from booth to booth to use the rather meagre media lounge they had.  When I checked it out just to see what it was like I noticed that they had free drinks, but since the lemonade dispenser was all out I had a mouthful of bizarrely unsweetened iced tea before basically swearing that I’d never enter the lounge again if they were trying to poison me with practical-joke-level bitter drinks.  The Square-Enix booth gave me a sticker on my badge that on paper was supposed to give me line-skipping powers, but the only thing at their booth that there could have been a line for, an in-depth look at the great Quantum Conundrum with its Art Directors, was not even half-full when we attended.  After the presentation, I had to wait about 15 minutes for the non-media-badged dude in front of me to stop failing horribly at the 360 version of QC to get a couple of minutes in with the game, as they only had two kiosks of each version (PC, PS3, and 360) of the game and there was no one policing the crowd to give my be-stickered media badge any actual meaning.  The only real benefit I received due to my Media status was when I decided on a whim to see if I could get into a presentation of the upcoming Star Trek game that I had not booked in advance.  There was a constantly fairly long line to get in (I presume because you got a nice t-shirt afterwards) and when I asked the Namco Bandai receptionist if I could get in for a presentation he informed me that there was a special media-only line that allowed me in ahead of the Red- and Yellow-badged people that had been antagonizing me so.  Of course, there were still some Yellow-badged people in the special media line, but I was able to get in to see the next presentation so that it fit beautifully into my booth tour schedule and it definitely made me wonder why the rest of E3 hadn’t been operating in this fashion.

So, the badge system at E3 is essentially broken and it can make it quite hard for media to do their jobs, but the level of trouble I had as a member of the media doesn’t even compare to how I felt as an actual gamer at E3.  My first booth tour on the first day was with Disney, and little did I know that it would more or less set the tone for my entire time at E3.  We were taken around by my media contact, but also some guy who I think was the director of marketing for Disney Interactive or something like that.  As a gamer, what I wanted to do was play their games for fun, as a member of the media I wanted to play their games so I could write about them, but as a marketing guy all my tour guide wanted to talk about was the business element of the games.  During my tour I learned that the alligator dude from the Where’s my Water iOS game is Disney’s biggest character who has never been in an animated feature, that they would soon be optimizing their revenue streams by releasing a Brave re-skinning of Temple Run and a Perry the Platypus re-skinning of Where’s my Water, and about the demographics related to their upcoming Disney Princesses game for the Wii, but I almost had to beg before I was allowed to play Epic Mickey 2 with Playstation Move.  I don’t know if he just didn’t understand that I was from a game review website, but that tour certainly wasn’t how I had imagined my E3 experience would be.  This trend was continued much more often than I would have liked at other booths too.  I was given presentations about Black Ops II, Resident Evil 6, and DmC, but only managed to play a bit of RE6 and DmC by loitering around in the back area of the Capcom booth after the presentations had finished.  I spent more time watching other people play games at E3 that I think I ever have in my life. 

Microsoft wasn’t even interested in showing us any games.  I showed up for my booth tour and was introduced to a couple of Microsoft executives and told to interview them.  I politely listened to their spiels and asked relevant questions that they more or less couldn’t answer anyways, and when it was over I went back to my media contact and asked what games we were going to see.  “That’s it”, was basically the message that I received and I was awestruck.  I had left the beautiful exclusive media area of the Nintendo booth where there was a whole extra set of demo kiosks with greatly reduced lines to make my Microsoft appointment and they weren’t even going to show me any games.  I asked if he was sure and mentioned that we had been able to demo games during our other booth tours, but he was, so due to time constraints I never got to see (let alone play) any of the games Microsoft had on display.  A game company not even wanting to show a game review site their games?  This is when the reality of E3 struck home for me.

E3 is a trade show, it’s made by the game industry for the game industry.  Gamers, if anything, are the commodity being bought and sold.  The people who have a good time at E3 are the VIP Buyers, the corporate executives, and to a lesser extent the Exhibitors, the people that aren’t bound to a tight schedule to try and see everything and to write/report about it all night.  The media, meaning the ones that don’t have their own booths which make them Exhibitors who get in early, are a necessary part of the equation to draw the public’s attention to the announcements and products on display, but we’re no more important at E3 than the people who can throw together nearly a thousand dollars to attend.  Gamers themselves are almost an afterthought.  “Why would you need to play the game yourself when you can see one of the devs or a paid professional play it?”, ask the corporations.  The best place for a gamer during E3 is at home.  You can stay in your pajamas, watch the live streams of the conferences in HD (with direct feed gameplay trailers), and both eat and sleep regularly and without the fear that walking to the restaurant down the street at night will result in your early demise at the hands of numerous street vagrants.  You may wish that you were there to physically handle the new gadgets, but you’ll get to do that yourself soon enough and there will be plenty of pictures and opinions from the sleepless media professionals attending the conference that you’ll probably know more about what’s happening than any single one of them anyways.

Truth be told, it wasn’t all bad.  Our Konami PR contact was amazingly personable and got us in to see everything that they had on display in record time.  Our Sony Canada PR lady let us skip ahead in the lines in the Sony booth to try any game we wanted instantly.  The Nintendo press area of their booth was nice and quiet and a much better way to experience the games than on the showfloor.  Many of the press areas of the booths were catered too, and it’s always nice to grab a quick free snack or water when you’re running around the showfloor all day. 

Our first experience with E3 was an eye-opening one indeed.  We found out that E3 is mainly for industry execs and corporate buyers, that one badge is as good as another in most respects, and that downtown LA very, very shady almost 24/7.  We’ve been looking at other conferences where many of the game companies show similar things to what they show at E3 like Gamescom, Comic-Con, or even PAX, because it seems like media would be treated with higher regard there than at E3.  (They also have the great fringe benefit of not being in LA.)  We’ll keep you informed as to what conference(s) we’re covering next year when all of our options have been weighed.  Just be warned that if you’re a gamer dreaming about going to E3, you’d probably have a lot more fun at a public convention, and if you’re a member of the media dreaming about going to E3, just be sure that you book a lot of booth tours and try to find out if you’ll be able to actually play games during them before-hand.

  • ShinyVictini

    As is too often the case, all that glitters is not gold.
    Despite the unfortunate “class-ism” you experienced, you still got to see what millions of gamers would sell their first-borns to witness. And I know you took a photo with Reggie kickassenator, so it couldn’t have been all bad :)

  • http://twitter.com/jill_rae jill_rae

    PAX is definitely a gaming convention that is pro-gamer. I’ve never once seen anyone with an Exhibitor or Vendor badge in line to play a game. I don’t know what media do at PAX, but I assume they are given a better tour than what you have gotten. They do get a separate badge and all. :D

    Also, unsweetened iced tea? That’s an american thing, not a torture-you-in-the-media-lounge thing. :P Best is sweetened raspberry iced tea, by far.

    • http://gameusagi.com Miyamoto

      The more I think about it, the more it’s coming down to either Comic-Con or PAX for next year’s Game Usagi coverage.