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On the Couch
At the Office
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Through the Mirror
E3 2003 Impressions

Well, believe it or not, this was my first trip to E3 (for the acronymically challenged, that's the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the biggest shill-session the games industry puts on each year).  The show floor was everything I expected it to be (too loud, too crowded, overloaded with screens and flashing lights), and LA was significantly nicer than I expected.  We stayed at the Bonaventure, which was about a mile from the convention center where the expo was held, so getting around was pretty easy, and LA is definitely more car-focused than New York, so the only time the sidewalks got crowded was when everyone was headed into or out of the show.

The show experience itself was fairly disappointing.  Pretty much everything was a sequel or a licensed property.  Half-Life 2, Doom 3, and Halo 2 were obviously the fan favorites, but I was really hoping to see more new titles.  Of course, that may have been my own bias.  I spent most of each day manning the Ubisoft booth, which meant, by the end of the first day, standing around in agonizing pain waiting for my shift to be over.  In college, I supported myself by working at an ice cream shop, and I regularly pulled eight hour shifts on the hard linoleum floor, but whether it's my advanced age or general decrepitude, even in athletic shoes, my feet were killing me.  By the end of the show, I was ready to cut them off if that would have stopped the pain.

So, my time to just browse the show floor and take it all in was severely limited, and after an initial look-see, any browsing I did was tinged with the pain of it all.  The overall look of the games was impressive; graphics have definitely continued to improve as the technology has.  Most of my time was spent in the south hall, which was dominated by the PC publishers, so a lot of it was in high-resolution, but even the console stuff I saw looked very good.

However, I was amazed at some of the crap that people included in their demos.  This is a general pet peeve of mine with the industry, that shoddy workmanship is often passed off at full-price, but I thought that especially at this show, where the buzz generated by press and the degree to which you can get retailers excited about your product can determine how big your launch is going to be, there would have been better quality control.  You'd think that if you're going to show your game on a big screen, you'd make an effort to get the typos out, or that if you're showing a gameplay movie (much more controlled than an actual gameplay demo), you'd make sure that the AI didn't just stand around waiting to be shot.  I saw one movie where I was literally laughing out loud at the absurdity of the "features" they were showing off.  Several other products, which I won't name out of professional courtesy, glossed over major gameplay flaws with professional patter.  Having seen this, it's no longer surprising to me that so much of what makes it onto store shelves is crap.

The press, after all, has to say nice things about what they see.  If they don't, they're not likely to get the behind-closed-doors previews, cut-to-the-front-of-the-line access, or personalized in-depth demos that they need to write up the content that pays their salaries.  Game retailers have slightly less of an excuse, since it's in their best interests to make sure that the quality level of the games they stock is the highest possible, but having seen the scope of the show, it's practically impossible to fit in just seeing it all (well over 300 separate titles were being pitched), much less looking at it all in depth.  But, what amazes me is the developers who either didn't see fit to fix the problems before they showed the product (and are thus unlikely to fix it before it ships) or who saw the products and just didn't see the flaws.

Now, I'm a more critical audience than most.  As a designer, after all, my job is to see how small choices may lead to large consequences in the long run and to make sure that every detail that goes into the game works with the game as a whole; plus, having done eight years of intensive study of the best that the literature of the last five hundred years has to offer within the most sophisticated critical frameworks available, I'm conditioned to spot every nuance, detail, and lapse of continuity.  But still, some of this stuff is just glaringly obvious, and the fact that it slips through production is only half as disturbing as the fact that the professionals in the industry aren't capable of recognizing it.

In the end, the consumer pays for all of it; the bloated price of games goes to cover the show floor, the exclusive parties, the grotesque booth-babes and their plastic surgeries.  And the consumer pays again for the silence of the press, the lack of attention from retailers, and the ineptitude of the developers by being presented, time and again, with a $50 box full of crap.

Thankfully, for everyone, there are some decent studios and publishers, and in the midst of all the dreck that was presented at E3, there are a fair number of good titles that should keep gamers happy for another year.  Which ones, you ask?  Well, we won't know, will we, until we take the wrapper off and see what's actually inside.

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