The Secret E3

There’s another E3 that no one talks about. No one talks about it because the people involved don’t want to be noticed and the people that aren’t involved don’t know any better. It exists merely as a vestige to days long gone and a purpose long forgotten. It is, indeed, a Secret E3.

History, as some would say, is cyclical, and E3 can prove that in microcosm. For back story, E3 is a trade show put on by the ESA, or Entertainment Software Association. The ESA—formerly known as the Interactive Digital Software Association until 2003—is a trade association for the video game industry, meaning it represents companies like Atari, EA, and Microsoft as a whole when combating copyright infringement, federal censorship and regulation, and putting on the Electronic Entertainment Expo each year.

Traditionally, E3 is used to fill the gap left when game publishers and hardware manufacturers had nowhere else to go with their video games and video game accessories. Instead of going to the Consumer Electronics Show or the European Computer Trade Show, both of which are open to the public, E3 would be an industry-only event where one had to be invited to attend. In fact, because CES turned down the IDSA for its exclusionary policy, E3 was born as a separate entity from CES.

And that was a banner year: the Sega Saturn was released on opening day; the PlayStation, Virtual Boy, Neo-Geo CD, and Nintendo 64 (still codenamed Ultra 64) were announced; and thus began the big company keynotes with Sega’s CEO Thomas Kalinske, Sony’s president Olaf Olafsson, and Nintendo chairman Howard Lincoln speaking. 80,000 people were in attendance for the inaugural event.

And so it continued for a while. Except for the occasional dip into Atlanta, Georgia, E3 has always been in Los Angeles and always boasted the biggest announcements like Resident Evil and Crash Bandicoot, Half-Life and Metal Gear Solid, Ocarina of Time and Halo.

Slowly but surely, however, E3 grew too big for its britches. Booths eventually stopped being about showcasing games and more about being bigger and badder than the one next door. The “industry-only” homogeny eventually gave way to an influx of the gaming proletariat, invading and tarnishing the bourgeoisie. The straw that broke the camel’s back? Being televised on G4.

Another year of it and the ESA had had enough. They split E3 up in 2007 and 2008—the former of which was located in disjointed warehouses along Santa Monica—into once again an invitation-only event for the industry and the general teeming, unwashed masses dubbed the Entertainment for All expo. This proved to be unsustainable with dissention and lack of interest plaguing both sides, resulting in a merger once again into the E3 we know now from 2009 onwards.

Why do I bring this up? Why bother with such an unnecessarily exhaustive history of E3 just to talk about one particular facet of the expo? Well, didn’t you ever wonder why the division failed?

You see, when I say E3 was originally “industry-only,” I meant it. This was for store and chain owners to determine how to stock their shelves in the coming holiday season and for the rest of the fiscal year. What they learned at E3 was how they made purchasing decisions. Press was nominally there both because it was happening pretty much in the video game press’ backyard of Los Angeles and because getting first-hand accounts of announcements and hands-on experiences would undoubtedly get readers and viewers.

As it ballooned, though, and the event began to get televised on G4 and everyone with a WordPress account started to qualify for press, publishers realized that they could make a bigger impact by using their million-dollar booths and coincidentally free screen time to advertise directly to their money-wielding fans instead of retailers and corporate purchasers. They’re already spending all this money and tens of thousands of viewers were locking eyeballs to the pre-show press events online and on TV anways, why not take advantage?

Of course, retailers found the silver lining, as well. Instead of having to do market research and take guesses and stabs in the dark at what might sell well in the coming months, they could gauge it all directly from audience reactions at the press conferences and by the lines on the show floor. What better way to judge selling power than by asking the people you’re selling to?

So then the E3/E for All split in 2007 and 2008 divided the naturally symbiotic relationship at the expo. The corporate buyers had to make decisions months before they could get a finger on the pulse at the E for All expo, and this also meant that each expo only got half (or at least a reduced) budget, so long gone were the acre-wide booths and swaths of booth babes that got your attention and a press kit into your hands and gone was the electricity.

Riding a timed shuttle around the piers and warehouses of Santa Monica doesn’t provide the same spectacle as watching a trailer with hundreds of other people on the show floor on a 100-foot wide custom made screen. There was no need to put the effort in making fantastic announcements and reveals if you could get the same benefits from a press release a week later.

So uniting the two halves once again brought back the “are you excited? Oh god, they’re excited” voyeurship of past E3s with the industry and the non-industry. But this also reaffirmed the problem of those past E3s: who was the show for?

You see, the retailers still show up, determined to suss out what is worth buying and what is worth ignoring, and the general public still shows up, waiting to be wined and dined by nonstop visual flourish. The identity of E3 has been corrupted for a while and started almost from the beginning. If you are industry, you are inundated with a smelly, swag-hungry mass that simply prevents you from doing your job. Whether you work for a retail chain or you are press, all those people in Nyko capes and Oswald ears, running around in the waning moments of the show looking to score that last bit of free tangible goods, are literally impeding you mentally and physically.

And if you are one of those sad saps that the people you look up to actually look down on, you are being used. You are a tool, a thermometer to test the waters. Are you taking a picture with Sonic? Good for you. Now you are the person who is going to bore their friends with stories about hugging a dude inside a Sonic costume as Sega gently sleeps to the sounds of cash registers dinging.

And no one wants to show you this original purpose to E3 because it reveals the dirty implications of the show. Instead, the G4 and GameTrailers sheen hides these secrets so the retailer scenes behind the curtains can continue to operate. In Concourse Hall where people wander when they are lost and upstairs where ushers and security forcibly point you the other way if you don’t have an exhibitor or media badge, the secret E3 takes place. Every time you see people with cameras or people wearing suits and ties go behind closed doors or up a flight of stairs to an unseen level of the Nintendo booth, know that things are going on best not known. Know that, and forget it, and keep standing in line for your free t-shirt.

(This is obviously not to say retail purchasers don’t still do research or anything like that. This is simply a piece to present to you the problem with combining the two halves of the E3-goer experience. The contrast of the two sides of the dichotomy should be made aware to both parties not to affect either’s decision to attend or how they enjoy themselves but hopefully making them aware that not everything at E3 is for everyone. Enjoy what you like but know what sometimes the fire hose isn’t necessarily intended for you fire)

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  • GameTrailing G4

    So true…