If you checked out of gaming sometime around Crash Bandicoot 2, you may not know that E3 is the largest computer game conference in the world. When you consider gaming is now Earth’s largest entertainment industry, surpassing video a few years back, it’s not surprising there are a lot of companies battling to rule over it. If the 60s were the golden age of television, and the 80s owned movie epics, then the 2010s belong to video games. With more money and development power behind these titles than any blockbuster, gaming is where the most innovative developments are being made. And E3 is ground zero for the console driven action. This year, Activision sent me along to experience the event in all its Fanta-fuelled glory.
Full disclosure: Activision flew me out to cover the release of Call of Duty and Destiny. Which thank god turned out to be super cool. But with that in mind what follows is the objective account of someone who was given free flights, accommodation and expenses.
Like any trade show, E3 is about making sure that your product dominates. And with every developer revealing their biggest projects in a three day period, the best way to do that is by getting it up on the biggest stage possible. At E3, that stage is one of the yearly blockbusting press conferences of Microsoft or PlayStation. First cab off the rank was Microsoft, held at downtown’s green-glowing Galen Centre.
Microsoft’s presser kicked off with the trailer for Call of Duty - Advanced Warfare. When people speak of video game success stories, the Call of Duty series is a defining model. Generating billions of dollars in retail sales worldwide, it rivals Star Wars as one of the biggest entertainment properties around. This time around they’ve even included a digitised Kevin Spacey (a real-life fan of the franchise) who features in cut scenes of the upcoming release. So in the lead up to E3, it was one of the titles the gaming world was most curious to check out.
When the trailer began, shots of eerie drone swarms and new weapons drew catcalls from the crowd. When a supporting character got his arm caught in a departing helicopter door, the whole auditorium gasped. Was this what watching movies used to be like? Moments later, when Advanced Warfare’s protagonist was dramatically – and graphically – maimed I felt dizzily concerned for the dude.
As the crowd alternated between cheering and holy-crap-ing, I tried to remember the last time I saw something that drew that kind of response. Video games mastered scary years ago, but it’s always been hard to make you feel for a character that looks like a demented leather puppet. With the huge steps in facial capture technology – characters’ pupils dilate in COD – games can rival most big budget movies for emotional impact as well as action. And obviously the fact you can decide if the main character stabs or snipers the bad guy is a major plus.
Later in the day Sony held their press conference at the LA Memorial Sports Arena. The rivalry between Sony and Microsoft press conferences is the subject of E3 lore, and following Sony’s domination at the previous year’s event, people were hyped to see what they’d deliver. Historically Sony had taken advantage of rolling out their announcements in the late afternoon, allowing them time to catch Xbox’s show and adjust release dates, prices and reveals to fuck with them.
Before the doors opened the crowd was treated to a carpark full of free beer and and fried foods. In most cases it would have been a relaxing setting but after a few beers under the hot LA sun, the vibe was tense, sweaty, increasingly dehydrated and excited. People speculated on how they’d top the 2013 reveal that just-launched PS4 would be able to run PS3 games – effectively kicking Xbox in the nuts. What new titles would be revealed? Would there be more price drops? Which NBA stars would they hire to give each other lap band surgery on stage?
Inside the venue was blue tinted, Lynx scented and packed with Playstation fans. The presentation started big with the trailer for Destiny and a lot of applause. Since the first veiled hint of its existence in 2009, Destiny and the rumours around it had permeated all areas of gaming conversation: it cost half a billion dollars, it would be the largest open world game ever created, 500 people worked on it, Peter Dinklage narrated it.
It’s hard to name a title in recent years that’s carried so much mystique without even being seen. Being a totally new creation with no pre-existing origin story, people were eager to see what shape this mythic sci-fi event would actually take.
I doubt anyone in the room was disappointed as the trailer, detailing the end of earth’s intergalactic golden age, opened the show. This year’s E3 featured a lot of new open world games, but this was clearly the frontrunner for conference prom queen. Group CEO and President of SCE Andrew House promised, “The Destiny trailer we showed tonight embodies our vision. It will help define the next generation of games.” And taking in the detail in the scenes, unique weapons and gear, exclusive multiplayer map and extensive strike and standalone adventures, you got the feeling you were witnessing something very new and very exciting.
There were murmurs afterwards that the press conferences didn’t live up to the excess of previous years. Personally I don’t know what else you could have wanted. Both had genuine surprises, games that made my hands ache just looking at them and immediately sparked chatter about the technological and – arguably more interestingly – the narrative advancements in gameplay. Sure they didn’t bring out Lebron James to perform keyhole surgery with a PS4 controller, but I was satisfied.
The next day was the opening day of E3. Walking into the LA Convention Center was a sensory assault as developers did all they could to lure you in and convince you to give up your lower back health to their game. The hangar-sized space was packed with stalls the size of houses offering the chance to play titles still months away from retail shelves.
What you’re seeing here is the Call of Duty booth. A multisensory theatre setup played trailers on a giant curved screen that was synced with a vibrating floor, gusts of air and smoke spurts that mirrored the action as it played out.
It was an impressive way to experience Kevin Spacey leering over you. I assume in the future we’ll experience TV and gameplay in multisensory environments where we share breezes and sunshine with our characters. In the future I will be carsick all the time.
For the whole day the floor was packed with COD fans watching the trailer and waiting for a chance to play the game for themselves. I noticed David grinning eternally in the line that didn’t seem like it was moving and asked him what was worth the wait: “I’m excited to check out the new battle systems they have, and the way the multiplayer looks so much more seamless. And I like how the surroundings are more open now.”
It wasn’t just fanboys milling around. When I spotted Jessica and Eden chatting excitedly and clutching a toy balloon I asked them what was that drew cute best friends like them into the world of futuristic combat. Jessica answered, “I’ve just seen my boyfriend play it.” Take note developers, love triumphs over all.
A benefit of being a jet-setting gaming reporter is being able to skip the queue. While other chumps stood around for hours to get a minute with the Destiny Alpha I jumped the queue to get a special viewing of the extended trailer and 30 minutes with the game in an air-conditioned room.
With all the back-slapping surrounding Destiny there was also the sense that a lot was at stake. While we waited for the session before us to end I asked Daniel, an animation student, if he thought it would really be the next-gen revelation we’d been promised: “I think there’s a lot of hype to it being so new and the idea being so innovative, but I also believe they’re taking elements of games we already have and they’re just mixing them together to see what will come out.” With all this big talk of how this shared world shooter would redefine both the shooter and open world genres I did wonder if they were biting off more than they could chew, and if this would just be a stressful mess. Entering the gaming area I can honestly say I didn’t know what to expect, despite rewatching the trailer several times since the press conference.
You have the choice of playing as a human, the Awoken and the Exo. I chose the Awoken because it looked like something out of Lord of the Rings. Personally I don’t really get off on playing against strangers , so after a bit of running around attempting to kill dudes who do this for a living I settled for exploring the huge scale of Destiny’s open world setting. It was easy to forget that you were experiencing the Alpha, the game felt totally complete and I didn’t struggle with anything beyond wishing we had the time to experience a more traditional mission. Call me old fashioned, but I’m a softy for story.
Playing its huge scale can’t be overstated. Open world games are the done thing at the moment, but the freedom that’s felt during play is distracting and endlessly fun in such a huge setting.
Talking later to Jason Sussman a senior environment artist for Bungee I asked him how you manage working on that scale, “The whole game is that humanity has been lost but how do you make that hopeful? How do you make that feel like a vibrant place you want to be in?” Personally that was answered with the game’s mythic sci-fi landscapes. “70s science fiction artists that sparked with us, we clamoured onto that and we brought that to our environment.” It obviously worked because I was so into in the Alpha I forgot to take pictures for an hour.
Although the big names dominate E3, the smaller companies are what make it worth spending three days there. Moving beyond the area dominated by gaming titans you really had to give it up for some of the little guys.
Indie games featured heavily in both the Xbox and Playstation press briefings, their booth was keeping every stereotype you have about the Brooklyn of game development alive in the most handsome way possible.
University of Denver were keeping in touch with the kids.
Like justice but don’t care for violence? Don’t worry, Ace Attorney has all the retribution with none of the messy vigilantism.
I’ve given a lifetime to terrible games, and in 2014 you should be able to spend your money on whatever you want. But waiting in line at an epic gaming conference to play a game that simulates what you’d be doing if you stayed home is dumb.
Oculus and virtual reality were obviously a big draw. There were rumours floating around the conference that VR could trigger your body's fight-or-flight reflex and cause you to freak out. There’s nothing they could offer at E3 that would comfort me if I pooped myself in terror.
The experience was pretty positive, the headgear is awkward but you can see how it’ll be simplified in coming years. Playing a basic first person shooter, the increased agility allowed you to dodge bullets Matrix style and nausea was minimal. My advice though, develop more options.
Sure, there were a lot of amazing games to play, but hands down Farm Simulator 15 was the breakout star of E3 and left me begging for more. Where is the Yard Work Simulator sequel? How to I get access to Farm Simulator 1-14? What new developments have come up in farming since Farm Simulator 14?
I had zero hygiene concerns until I saw this, then it was literally all I could think of.
For all the future stuff, one of the most popular exhibits was the gaming museum. I was just happy to mash buttons playing Mortal Combat until I noticed Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. The game – featuring concept and design by the King of Pop himself – has you playing Jackson as he fights bad guys with dance-inspired moves in alleyways to save tied up kids. Save enough and you swell in size. Mind blown.
After three days of playing games, carrying as much free swag possible and walking endlessly around the seemingly limitless space, I wasn’t sure if my feet or thumbs ached more. But the chance to see so much innovation in one place – that is also full of cute girls in costumes and a thousand free key chains – leaves you feeling really lucky to be a gamer in 2014. Spending hours with a console isn’t the domain of the shut-ins anymore, the people who are spending time on this stuff are seeing the future of entertainment and technology years before fans of other media. Unless you’re playing the Sims.
Follow Wendy on Twitter: @WendyWends