“It’s like the Academy Awards of video games,” I say while waiting for the Sony press conference to start. It’s my first E3, so I’m pretty excited, meanwhile my friend sitting next to me is an E3 veteran. This is his 5th time at the Expo, a streak he’s had going since 2009.
“It’s like Sundance, or the Cannes,” he thoughtfully replies back.
The Super Bowl, The Grammy Awards, Opening Night, there are a lot of comparisons people can try to draw to E3. While many similarities can be drawn, hardly any of them actually hold water when you break it down. I have always thought video games is a medium constantly looking to the future, always pushing forward rather than looking back. E3 is the perfect example of this. The height of the film industry is the Academy Awards, a moment in which Hollywood takes time to reflect on the year past, a symbol of Hollywood’s obsession with its roots. Sports always have the height of their season at the championship, a moment entirely based around the present, fleeting joy and cherished seconds of the “now”. The biggest night in video games is all about the future, what’s coming next.
The presentations, the pomp and circumstance, rented out auditoriums, special-made trailers, E3 is all about flashy and big. It comes through loud and clear in the press conferences, but also reverberates through the rest of the week as well. Giant booths spread out over two separate show floors, banners which accent the halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center, a whole week dedicated to the blockbuster and the hype machine which pushes these monstrous projects along.
After the hype wears off, the moments when you exhaustedly collapse into a chair you viciously fought for in the over-priced cafeteria, you look around and realize the hype is just for show. E3 is all about flashy ads, copious interviews, minute-long demos, and pipe-dream promises on the outside, but on the inside it is about the business. It leaves you with a little bit of an icky feeling, seeing the gears at work.
The business of video games is easily the worst kept secret in entertainment. Behind every piece of DLC and every Kinect-exclusive, there’s a name scribbled at the bottom of a contract. Developers let fans know the state of money all the time, explaining why beloved sequels won’t come to pass or why they have turned to Kickstarter for assistance. CEOs are more well-know than creators, pre-order bonuses are out of control, the only way for business to be any more prominent in video games is for it to kick down your door and punch you in the face while delivering your copy of Madden 15.
Still, this dark side of business rears its head at E3. While your badge might get you in the door, it doesn’t get you appointments, it doesn’t get you the VIP bracelets, and it doesn’t get you into parties where you are fed and boozed while given free reign of certain booths. Security guards linger all around, telling you where you can and can’t go, I was asked to show my ID more times in the last three days than any time in my entire life. Due to my press affiliations and opportunities, I got a lot of special access to play certain games, but it left me feeling weird as I would turn to see others waiting in line, hopeful of an opportunity and contemptuous of me skipping in front. Part of this is business and I could bore you with the double-edged sword of media access, but I’ll spare you the details.
The other downside to E3 is the lack of indie presence. Sure, games like Aztez and Hyper Light Drifter find a home at the Microsoft and Sony booths, but they are tucked away in hard to see places, failing to get the prominent display of The Order: 1886 or Fable Legends. There’s no unknown quantity or surprise hit of the show, no proud developers waiting to hand you a card and tell you about their life’s work. Instead developers are uniformly dressed in a Sony or Microsoft shirt, blending in with the mess of blue or green surrounding them. When I was trying to find the team for Ori and the Blind Forest to award them “Best of E3”, the Microsoft team couldn’t even tell me how to find the team and give them their kudos.
PAX isn’t perfect either. There are still appointments which get you special access to games and behind-closed-doors showings. The lines are longer, the booths are just as big, there are plenty of things PAX is just as guilty of as E3. However, I find the crowds of fans lighten the load a little bit, when you are pushing and shoving your way through the show floor. The business is still there. Heck, their selling things to you as you walk by, but the people doing the selling and buying are people who are passionate about the products. There are panels where people can share their knowledge and learn more about the industry, there is interaction with beloved icons and adoring fans. There’s booths upon booths where the smallest games can stand out and be recognized because of the game they brought, not the publisher they signed with.
Why do I like PAX better than E3? Because as much as E3 will make you feel like part of something massive, part of a behemoth billion dollar industry responsible for some of biggest entertainment franchises, it feels like work. I was thrilled to be at E3 and hope that I can continue going for as long as I can. I saw more games than I could have imagine, met many wonderful people, and was utterly spent by the time I crawled back to my hotel room. E3 was the hardest I have ever worked on games. PAX has some aspects of work, I’m still writing about games, still running to appointments. But when I sit back and take in my surroundings at PAX I am rewarded by the sights and sounds of people who don’t make money from games, they simply are indulging a passion, immersing themselves in their love. Love is a lot more fun than business.