The big game 

The gaming industry's largest convention has downsized, but the nerd factor's still high

click to enlarge d43e_gamebreak-24878.gif

Fanboy (adjective, noun) fan-boi A lover of all things videogames; possesses a strong desire to wear Nintendo T-shirts and thinks Mario is one of the greatest fictional heroes ever, along the lines of John McClain and the guy Wesley Snipes played in Passenger 57. Also used to describe a gamer with blind loyalty or devotion to a game or franchise.

For videogame enthusiasts, nothing tops E3 Media & Business Summit the largest computer and video game convention on Earth. It's the one time each year where publishers from around the world show off their soon-to-be-released titles with all the pageantry of a presidential inauguration.

Hot new games, late-night parties, over-the-top press conferences and celebrity sightings they're all here for the taking.

The gaming journalists in attendance are eating it up. Each one is essentially a fanboy; the convention is full of men (there's a healthy 100-to-1, male-to-female ratio at this event) who turn giddy about playing yet-to-be-released games and talking to the people who make them. And even these gaming journalists were getting some love. The event was packed with bespectacled writers with Donkey Kong T-shirts (like myself) from Web sites, newspapers, magazines and TV shows, all staring at each others ID's to see who wrote for what. It was like junior high all over again, but without the acne. But that's part of what makes E3 so special: Everyone here and I mean everyone has a passion for video games.

This year, that passion circled around Santa Monica, Calif., the city to which the expo has relocated its big reveal after years at the Los Angeles Convention Center. It was different from past conventions, too. Heading into this year's event, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the organization of U.S. gaming companies that runs the event, decided that E3 was in need of a Rosie O'Donnell-sized makeover.

When E3 first started, in 1995, it was open to the public and essentially nothing more than a trade show. But as the industry grew, E3 gradually turned into the annual Woodstock of gaming. Last year's three-day event drew 70,000 people to L.A. and became a spectacle complete with laser light shows, celebrity endorsers and scantily clad women (known as booth babes) that distracted from the convention's original purpose. Going to E3 was like a movie buff heading to the Academy Awards, a music junkie attending the Grammys and a TV addict with a front-row seat at the Emmy Awards all rolled into one. In other words it was a loud, disjointed and overpopulated event. ESA had to make changes.

click to enlarge The E3 Media & Business Summit opened with Microsoft - sharing its newest gizmos.
  • The E3 Media & Business Summit opened with Microsoft sharing its newest gizmos.

Games are a booming industry, and with its clients a median age of 33 years, the typical videogame consumer has plenty of disposable income. In 1996, $2.6 billion worth of computer and video games were sold in the U.S. Last year, that figure had grown to $7.4 billion. Compare that to the more established movie industry's $9.2 billion in box-office sales for 2006, and you have a form of media looking to establish itself as a legitimate art form.

This year, the ESA switched locales and made E3 a media-only event no non-credentialed fanboys allowed. Suddenly, instead of 70,000 people, gaming publishers only had to worry about impressing 5,000.

(There is still a convention in L.A. that ESA runs for the laymen fanboys of the world but that won't happen until October.)

"The writer in me loves it because you can move around and get your hands on a game without having to wait for people," says Adam Sessler, an on-air personality for G4TV, a cable channel focused specifically on the gaming industry. "The TV guy in me doesn't see as much of the noise, the crowd, the pomp and circumstance which makes for really good television."

While Access Hollywood won't be covering E3 like the Oscars any time soon, the new E3 is a step in the right direction toward making gaming a respected form of entertainment. And as entertainment news goes, there was plenty to absorb.

' Microsoft introduced a Halo 3 console, announced an arrangement with Disney to allow that company's library to be downloaded on Xbox LIVE Marketplace and confirmed that the Xbox 360 would, come November, be the sole system upon which three surefire juggernaut games (Halo 3, Madden NFL '08 and Grand Theft Auto IV) could be played.

' Nintendo announced the Wii Zapper, a new shooting device for its Wii system, and a balance board controller that turns the video gameplay for its newest game, Wii Fit, into a workout.

click to enlarge Nintendo continued to dazzle critics by showing off its - latest Wii attachments.
  • Nintendo continued to dazzle critics by showing off its latest Wii attachments.

' Sony, meanwhile, in an effort to stay relevant despite subpar sales, made the least-surprising announcement of the convention: It will be slashing the price tag on its PlayStation 3 by $100.

But whereas console news dominated last year's overpopulated expo, this year's biggest buzz-getters were the games themselves: Electronic Arts' Rock Band and the surprisingly good-looking The Simpsons game, 2K's great-looking BioShock, Sony Online Entertainment's tight Gods & Heroes: Rome Rising, Midway's sweet-looking Stranglehold, Microsoft's surefire must-own Project Gotham Racing 4, SEGA's good-looking Condemned 2: Bloodshot, and LucasArts' impressive new Star Wars release, The Force Unleashed.

Yet, even among those standouts, Bethesda's mind-blowing Fallout 3, set for a fall 2008 release, was easily the best game of the week. Game producer Todd Howard hypnotized a room full of journalists with an hour-long presentation. After it was over, everyone just sat quietly, mouths agape, catching flies.

But none of these reactions was unanticipated, given the pre-E3 buzz. With no new consoles or games catching anyone by surprise, the story of this E3 turned out to be the new format itself. Gaming journalists loved the one-on-one time with games and designers but hated the layout. Getting around to the many hotels hosting gaming publishers spread all over Santa Monica proved time-consuming.

But the fanboys within these journos? They didn't have it so bad. They couldn't scam free T-shirts or wait three hours in line for Tony Hawk's autograph this go-round, but there was a true sense of importance to the whole ordeal as coverage could be found daily on TV and gaming Web sites.

It was almost as satisfying as those booth babes the year before.




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