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High off the Hog: The Disgusting Pigs of E3 2010
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High off the Hog: The Disgusting Pigs of E3 2010

Attempting to find salvation amongst an industry of unfettered greed and opulence; a personal missive from one of the swine.

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With sincerest apologies to our porcine friends, those giver of delicious pork chops and crisp bacon in a world gone stark raving mad.


 

Hello, my name is Nathan Evans, and I’m a managing editor that doesn’t much care for E3.

Now I know that last statement might sound a little crazy to some of you reading this, especially those who would be willing to give their left joysticks (and I don’t really mean joysticks) to even stand outside the LA Convention Center while the magic happened inside. I’m empathetic, because I’ve been in your shoes and know what it feels like to be on the outside looking in. Most of my staff, even after attending the show, would probably disagree with what they may think is my cynical outlook on the show and, by extension, the videogame industry as a whole. They’re probably right.

But I’m not here to regale you with insider dirt and sexy stories of fabulous make-out sessions between attendees and publishers (though it happens more often than you’d think). If its trash you want, there’s plenty littering up equally trashy websites and social-networking sites, and I’m sure the latest boozy soiree has been uploaded to YouTube for your viewing pleasure. No, I’m not here to waste your time with stories about my own experiences with the event, because I’m not into waxing poetic over what’s essentially a sterile marketing machine.

And because I genuinely care about you guys (well, most of you) I’m not going to hold anything back. I need to get this poison out of my system before it calcifies into a cancer that eats me away from the inside, rotting whatever strands of enthusiasm I have for this industry still remain. With that in mind, please forgive what I’m sure will be a rambling mess to anyone who still believes events like E3 still hold power with true fans out in the wild. Regardless if you agree or not, just remember you’re far more important to this industry than most will ever acknowledge.

Part 01 – Identifying the Problem

There are still those who may be under the misguided impression that E3 is the Holy Grail of the videogame industry, a mix of Chuck E. Cheese crossed with magical rainbows oozing happiness and sunshine, with enough game controllers for everyone. Don’t feel bad if this is how you see the annual event as this is how it’s presented each and every year; a veritable cornucopia of gaming bliss where the best and brightest of tomorrow’s most exciting technology showing off what they’ve got. A digital proving ground where the fiercest virtual gladiators clash and bash their way into the hearts and minds of their cheering fans – and with any luck – their game consoles and computers.

Apart from the colossal time suck the event is for professional developers (who would rather be doing anything other than schmoozing with the unwashed masses, many predestined to hate whatever project they’re working on), the show itself has become little more than a marketing machine to help promote and shill the next generation of games and retail products that consumers should be looking out for.

Sadly, this often comes at the expense of the very people charged with promoting it – journalists. Or what passes for one these days anyway. The line between paid endorsement and editorial content has become so distastefully blurred it’s difficult to tell where the review begins and the free T-shirts end. Legions of industry insiders and ‘professionals’, most terrified of having their credentials yanked and finding themselves relegated back to the Gamestop counters or the basements of obscurity, are more than willing to spread ‘em wide and lube themselves with the grease this machine requires to function.

Where else can untrained, unqualified masses call themselves impartial reporters – with straight faces – while accepting untold gifts and presents from the very companies they’re charged with reviewing with objectivity and fairness? What other industry would prop these clowns onto pedestals and entertain their drunken rants and embarrassing deluges while anthropomorphizing corporate entities into singular personalities? Armies of these goose-stepping fools, brainwashed with the realpolitik of their marketing masters, all too willing to exchange their multi-colored anime shirts for brown and nibble at the crumbs from tables they’re seldom invited to join.

These people make me physically sick. While we (i.e. fans) expect our enthusiasm and passions to be treated like ranked commodities and callously marketed to, we expect better from those outlets that earn their living selling the Big Lie of objectivity. Note to these knuckleheads: you’re job isn’t to simply eat their spoon-fed gruel, but to challenge these companies and to hold them accountable when they stray from the path. That’s what journalists do and you sure as hell aren’t living up to that ideal.

Successful websites and magazine typically fall along the lines of having content and advertising, and when you forget what side you’re beholden to, it’s time to pack up shop and move on. If you want to cheerlead your favorite company than do it openly, and find yourselves a job in marketing. The swag may not be as plentiful, but you’ll feel better when you retire.

Sony doesn’t care that you followed their directive and replaced every TV in your house with a new 1080p LCD HDTV, and as much as some of you would like to think that Nintendo is genuinely concerned over what happens to you online (i.e. Friend Codes), they don’t; they just don’t want to get sued when idiots get themselves kidnapped and molested. These mega-corporations aren’t human beings, and they also aren’t your friends, no matter how much project they send you and how delicious their cookies may be. So stop treating them like they were and like you owe them a damn thing.

Then again, maybe it’s fitting that an industry about videogames would find so many of its own media reps getting played. To paraphrase the great George Orwell’s most appropriate of observations, all pigs are equal, but some pigs are more equal than others. The lights go dim as the ringleader demands your attention for the moment you’ve all been waiting for – on with the show!

Part 02 – The Diminishing Relevancy of E3

Despite its occasional trip into obscurity and small experiments with media-isolation, E3 has remained the go-to gala for all things related to the videogame industry for almost two decades now, and that isn’t likely to change in the immediate future. It’s also an event that’s become more accommodating to the growing ranks of the ESA (Entertainment Software Association), and those covering its activities.

If one were to use Google-like precision to populate a map with little red dots showcasing the majority of the show’s media attendees, something tells me there’d be clusters of the things filling the center. In this age of internet-savvy journalists and the rise of independent media, those looking to gain a foothold in this industry no longer feel compelled to live on one of the country’s coastal lines, and can manage a respectable career from practically anywhere they can snag a decent internet connection.

Still, the vestigial organs of the industry’s past still persist, and major tradeshows and events, such as the E3 Expo (itself an evolutionary break from the tech-heavy CES) remain a staple in downtown LA. This is a shame, as anyone who’s ever spent any time downtown knows it’s a logistics nightmare, and its maze of intertwined streets and disconnected throughways are enough to send even the most seasoned professional straight to the nuthouse. Then again, you’d have to be more than a little crazy for even wanting to participate in this industry-sponsored delusion of grandeur in the first place. Those choosing to drive should draft their wills before even stepping outside, as the already-overcrowded streets become clogged with tens of thousands of industry types, vendors, and mercenary homeless bums who recognize an easy mark when they see one.

Still, given the complexity of booking flights, hotels, and transportation reservations (often months in advance), at least you’ve got three solid days of what’s surely a well-oiled machine of carefully planned exhibits and conferences, because you’d expect nothing less from the biggest videogame tradeshow in the world…right? Better hang onto that optimism, folks, because you’ll be needing it later.

The official website for the 2010 E3 Expo lists the show as running June 15th – June 17th, though these dates apparently have little meaning outside of being glorified placeholders. While most exhibitors play fair and stay within this loose timeframe, others have no problem in breaking street dates to gain maximum exposure for their wares. Early coverage of select games and products isn’t unheard of, companies like Microsoft and Activison (who has a strained relationship with the event) completely jumping the gun and having their ‘official’ E3 conferences before the actual conference itself is a bit sleazy.

But actually being in attendance has become increasingly irrelevant (there’s my theme again) as the show’s key players choose to stream their conferences live over the internet. In recent times this has come to mean Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony. And while several third-party developers and publishers are choosing to show off their goods when they statistically know fans are most interested, most eyes are still drawn to what the Big Three will be showing their goodies during their clumsy, staged, and often thrilling moments in the sunshine.

Of course, watching a streamed performance may not have the immediate thrill of actually ‘being there’ in its favor (or in Sony’s case, donning glasses to watch in 3D), but not having to scuttle through traffic and make haste in the early morning/afternoon to watch the same thing that others are enjoying in their comfy pajamas and sipping lattes is a trade-off worth considering. As most key announcements and the show’s traditional ‘wow’ moments occur during these hour-plus conferences, they’re usually the most headline grabbing and event-defining of the show. You want to be there when Sony redefines Japanese history with giant enemy crabs, or when Miyamoto dons a sword and leaps onto the stage. More than anything, it’s these moments that really make you want to be part of the crowd.

For better or worse, the yearly E3 Show is the closest thing the videogame industry has to its own version of the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, or even (shudder) the Emmys. Except in this case, awards are given to works that are representative, unfinished, or worse yet, haven’t even been played. In the case of the Oscars, the Academy’s elected board requires those voting to have actually watched the film they’re voting on – a novel concept. The videogame industry is exactly the opposite, as the most important of retail affixations, the ‘Best of E3’ sticker, requires little more than simply looking at game footage playing, if that.

In an ever-crowded retail market, this is understandable, and only the coldest of critics would blame publishers for doing their best to help their product stand out from the pack and justify itself to a pack of consumers that wouldn’t know E3 from the AVN (i.e. porno) awards. It’s appropriate, because either way, someone’s getting screwed. Oh, and about that cold-hearted critic comparison? Well, just call me Mr. Frosty…

Part 03 – Fattened up for the Kill

The process to guarantee that certain games and platforms are represented at the industry’s biggest tradeshow begins long before the show itself, and this happens by selectively choosing which media coverage will have the most access. Anyone who’s ever been lucky enough to attend the show will recall the giant IGN, Gamespot, or GameTrailers (who were the official event-streamer, btw) booths that were omnipresent throughout. Future Publishing, who publishes the official Xbox magazine, NGamer, Edge, among others, was the official publisher and produced daily mini-magazine recaps of the previous day’s major events.

This isn’t a snub to any of these websites or publications, as many had fine coverage throughout and were quite informative. And with such backstage access and privileged status, how could they have anything but? Special invite-only parties and exclusive interviews tend to lose their luster when they’re not hard-fought victories, while the ‘lesser’ folk are forced to make do with their limited-access badges and slum for whatever leftovers slops remained when the big players were done chowing down.

I’m not complaining, as I’m a strong believer in the whole ‘to the victor go the spoils’ mentality, and it would be insane to think that smaller publications such as ours and countless others would be given the same type of backstage-access as the likes of G4, IGN, Gamespot, and others enjoy. It’s like they say, when you’re given lemons, you make lemonade. And when you’re given leftover slop, you make the tastiest damn Sloppy Joes you can. Yum, yum, yummy!

Still, in jostling through throngs of people I couldn’t help but marvel at the various ‘Best of Show’ nominee and award stickers that were already plastered on many of the show’s marquee titles. I really started to pick up on this on the second day, but some informed me that they were already present on the show’s first day of media access and had most likely been decided before that.

Not that Capcom’s Marvel vs. Capcom 3 wasn’t the best fighting game on the floor (it was), but by giving it that distinction – or letting a single organization (in this case, IGN) plaster its decision – before allowing the other attendees make up their own minds is a bit troubling, to say the least. Forget the incredulity of handing out ‘awards’ to unfinished games during a tradeshow (before the tradeshow even begins) by key sponsors of said tradeshow to help sell your product to the masses, as this is little more than branding in the most transparent of ways imaginable.

It’s a good thing that I decided to hold back this post-show coverage a few days, as it wasn’t long before the annual ‘Best of Show’ nominees and awards came trailblazing their way across millions of screens for eager non-attendees to pick apart and use to justify their platform-of-choice’s superiority. Like clockwork, this year’s picks and nominees were distributed across a network of media blogs and sites compelled to see their opinions and thoughts validated by true professionals. After all, who doesn’t like to be on the winning team?

So imagine my surprise when I clicked open the story and was presented with what the consensus of today’s media coverage believed were the major highlights of E3 2010. Selected by a group of self-titled industry experts whose ranks include USA Today, VentureBeat, Kotaku, Joystiq, 1UP, Gamespot, G4, IGN, Gamepro, GameTrailers, and many others, apparently the ‘Best’ this year’s show had to offer were titles like RAGE (Bethesda), Portal 2 (Value), Dance Central (Harmonix), Epic Mickey (Junction Point), and even more RAGE. In fact, RAGE led all other nominees by a wide margin, gathering nominees for Best Game, Most Original Game, Best Console Game, Best PC Game, and Best Action Game at the show. Good thing they didn’t have a category for Best Thing Evah, because id’s latest epic would probably have swept that one as well.

Not bad for a game that received almost no actual coverage during the actual show and wasn’t even playable. Remember that last part, because I’ll detail how it’s pretty damn important here in just a bit. Follow me closely here, because it might get a little complicated…

Not that I have anything against RAGE or id Software, as I’m frothing at the bit to actually play the game for myself and see if it can possibly live up to their past successes and the post-show hype that it’s been gathering. Apparently, so are the people who were actually tasked with building said hype, as it seems that none of them have actually played the game, either. If we (or the Game Critics Award nominating board) were still following their own rules, this would have made RAGE – as well as games like Portal 2 – ineligible for so many accolades.

Even nominating RAGE for any ‘Best of Show’ awards – apart from best graphics or visuals (where it no doubt excels) – is a clear violation of the very Game Critics Award nominations it’s been slathered with. According to the very nominating process described on the club’s website:

“Games that are only demonstrated on videotape or through screenshots, concept art, rendered movies, pre-scripted (i.e. non-interactive) gameplay sequences, or developer-controlled theater demos are automatically disqualified from consideration in the major award categories.”

A quick check through the coverage of many of the club’s most prestigious members’ coverage of RAGE at the show reveals that none of them actually played the game, and their only exposure was through a guided demonstration by Bethesda’s own people. Come to think of it, fellow ‘Best of Show’ nominee Portal 2 wasn’t playable, either. I know this qualifies as a ‘developer-controlled theater demo’ and that disqualifies RAGE for any of the club’s major awards.

If I’m mistaken about how the Game Critic Award nominees and winners are decided, or if I’m somehow misread the official website’s rules and regulations section, I apologize. But with all due respect to RAGE and the other nominees, I think a better way to honor them would be put their influence in perspective, at least in a way that is commensurate to their actual presence during the event. To say any particular game was significantly better or gathered more attention than another is one thing, but as someone who was actually at the show – and someone who was guiding a team of seven others – I can tell you firsthand that in the case of RAGE this simply wasn’t the truth.

Part 04 – Living High off the Hog

It may surprise you to learn that after three packed days of covering practically every square inch of the LA Convention Center and other areas our simple media badges entitled us to, I didn’t play a single game that was at the show. Apart from holding the 3DS, Sony’s Move, and several prototype controllers, the extent of my E3 experience was spent managing my team and speaking with developers, publishers, exhibitors, and practically EVERYONE else at the show. I spoke to so many people at the show that I – literally – lost the ability to speak on the final day and was reduced to communicating via scratchpads, my iPod Touch, and the occasional laptop computer. At least thirty developers would back me up on this, and my rough estimates put my total ‘spoke to’ tally somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 people; my stack of business cards could rebuild the pyramids and touch the stars.

But it wasn’t small talk for me, as I was actually working the floor to get a better sense for what others were actually feeling at the show. I was after the real heart and soul of what made this thing tick, because I sure as Shinola wasn’t going to get the truth from this group of domesticated sows. It was only after sacrificing my voice and dignity did I discover that the most popular game on the floor was actually a Nintendo game, but not the one you might be expecting. I apologize for wringing this pun dry, but if I had a nickel for every time that someone told me that Kirby’s Epic Yarn was the best thing they saw – and PLAYED – at E3 2010, I’d donate the whole kitty to Child’s Play and sleep good tonight.

Don’t believe me? Don’t worry, because the internet has a funny way of keeping track of things just fine. Head over to Google or your engine-of-choice and type in queries like RAGE E3 impressions, opinions, and see what pops up. Try modifying the search criteria to mimic the real-time coverage that was posted while the show was actually going on. Good luck finding more than the occasional blog or breathless rant…all positive and no doubt earned. Now type in Kirby Epic Yarn E3 and watch the truth unfold before your eyes. The coverage isn’t even close, and Nintendo’s latest pink blob yields a whopping 4 – 5 times as much coverage, and that’s with me counting the mistaken references for Koei’s Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage game.

Some will call comparisons like this ‘apples to oranges, and they’d be right. It isn’t fair to just compare the Google analytics of the real-time coverage of two different games to gauge which one was the more popular at the time. But there’s a good reason you kept hearing about Nintendo and their many wares at the show; because they earned it. Apart from the expected big-hitters like The Legend of Zelda and the mysterious 3DS console, the rest of their show was so overpowering and smartly staged that attendees couldn’t help but find themselves sucked into the black hole of Nintendo-ness of it all. This isn’t opinion; this is fact.

Try showing that ‘Best of Show’ list of nominees to anyone not bound by the agenda of their own sponsored publication and they’ll probably think you were having a laugh at their expense. Apart from the sheer lunacy of calling games like Bulletstorm, RAGE, and Dance Central ‘original’, the majority of nominees from this official sanctioning of the media’s best seem cherry-picked to represent the best and brightest of tomorrow’s most anticipated (and financially lucrative) retail successes.

Their presentations, free of costumed actors, standees, giant banners, or any such flourishes, were designed to show their products to as many people as they possibly could. The only thing projected on their bare white walls were their own games, and the only music was that coming from the software they so desperately wanted you to see, touch, and (if patient enough to wait in their enormous lines), play and experience for yourselves. Even waiting in their lines was a taken opportunity, as they looped around and exposed people to multiple monitors to let you watch others playing. The crowning moment of the show itself, the 3DS, drew lines that were so long (up to three hours) that Nintendo was compelled to have their own employees wade into the crowd to show it off to those unable to make the time.

And the REAL media coverage reflected this.

It’s a wonder that a computer-rendered gorilla and sexless pink blob (of yarn, no less) could squeeze little orgasmic squeals of joy from even the most hardened cynic as they waited in line for their tenth helping of a little playtime while countless other (and many of them non-Nintendo) games were ignored and collected dust. Wait, what’s this about ignored games collecting dust? Now there’s a phrase I know we’ve all heard a time or two before.

For years the company has been the requisite whipping boy of the gaming media’s best and brightest, as they – along with their motion controls and ancient hardware – have come to represent the worst of the encroaching casual market. “Nintendo has abandoned the hardcore!” is a mantra that’s become just as popular on many of the so-called elite’s websites and blogs as their masturbatory rants over the latest first-person shooting clone or propping whatever gaffe some twittering fool happened to post online.

So imagine their surprise this year when their chosen guardians they assumed would protect them from the horrors of party and mini-game collections went to the Dark Side. Microsoft’s show and various booth bubbles was dominated by Kinect software – Wii clones and all – while Sony’s Move controller was showing us the future of ‘fun’ on the console that only does everything. The sophisticated gamer knows that quality 3D requires a new 3D-enabled HDTV (your old one is basically worthless now, might as well throw it in the trash) and $150 3D glasses per user, so the 3DS can’t be much if they’re just giving away the goods. Gotta pay to play, boys, because only whores give it up for nothing.

Don’t worry fellas, now that you’re back in bosom of your own homes and cut off from the real world it’s going to be OK. I’m pretty sure your readers will forgive your little dalliance with that cheap slut Nintendo and how such momentary lapses in judgment won’t make four long years of misdirected and often embarrassing deluges into online diarrheic splashes go swirling down ol’ Porcelain Patty.

They’ll understand how you got caught in the moment and forgot yourselves for a moment or two. But what a moment it must have been to make you break from the established narrative, the one where Nintendo forgot the ‘hardcore’, and how their silly flirting with fads like motion-control, fitness games, and inexpensive software/hardware would follow their own Power Mats and R.O.B. robots into the graveyards of history. About how games need high-definition graphics and 16-player multiplayer (and let’s not forget the paid DLC updates!) to even merit a whiff of attention from today’s sophisticated hardcore gaming elite.

The nerve of them to put on a show based on substance and actual gameplay, especially when simply playing looped videos or letting an employee fiddle with the controls would have sufficed. After all, it worked for the ‘Best in Show’ nominees!

Part 05 – Pigs at the Trough

As bad as the mainstream media was in covering the actual show, I’m not about to let the rest of them off the hook that easily. Those who know me well also know of my general dislike for so-called videogame ‘journalists’. While I won’t name specific examples here, the emergence of blogs and independent websites has only helped dilute what was already pretty watery to begin with. You can sugar up that dirty water all you like but don’t tell me it’s Kool-Aid.

They’re not all bad – and I was lucky enough to speak with several excellent and professional reporters whose work I look forward to reading from now on. And let’s not forget the über-enthusiasts, the ones charged with guaranteeing their platform-of-choice was properly represented to their segmented fans out there brand-land. The diversity of the crowds spoke to the increasingly compartmentalized nature of the gaming industry, and while I may disagree with their form of exclusivity, many were consummate professionals and carried themselves with a dignity their mainstream counterparts never could. Many of them were my favorite people on the floor.

But the vast majorities are pigs; rank amateurs all too willing to be fattened up with plastic trinkets and fed second-hand slops from their masters. These are the ones whose love and devotion – as well as good reviews and constant coverage – can be bought for as little as an extra-large shirt or bags of stickers. These are the ones who are happy to even be acknowledged at all, as the fruits of their WordPress or Examiner accounts finally begin showing sweet, sweet dividends. And publishers know this; heck, they count on it.

Nexon, a publisher that specializes in MMORPGS and other online favorites, seemed to understand this better than anyone else at the show. Not only were they a constant presence in nearly every corner of the exhibition halls (thanks in part to their ENORMOUS swag-bag promoting the game Dungeon Fighter Online), but they could sell snake oil with the best of them. The way they were able to gather a crowd to hear their late-stage conference – by promising to give away furry hats – was sheer genius, and was a textbook example of how to make the most of a bad situation.

The scene that followed would have looked familiar to anyone who ever spent time on a pig farm or was forced to attend a midnight screening of the latest Twilight movie. They cheered and applauded the Nexon presentation, slapping their hands together like trained seals as the presenters pimped games most had never even heard about were treated like old favorites. They enthusiastically tolerating the long speeches and awkward stage-diving (sorry Chris) while salivating at the thought of snagging a furry hat for themselves. But these were limited treasures, and when word got out they were all gone the crowd scattered like cockroaches from a kitchen light.

I don’t blame Nexon for taking advantage of them, because Lord knows it was probably difficult enough for them to operate a booth and stand out as it was. By promising them such treats and snacks they’re simply taking full advantage of a structure that’s been put in place for this very purpose, and they did it very well. So kudos for putting on one of the most intelligent, psychologically interesting events at a show that too often depends on booth babes fireworks to grab attention.

Part 06 – Pot-bellied Wonderland and the End of the World

The final hours of the show were filled with hundreds of these piglets scouring the halls looking for whatever slops they could find, hoping to suck the last bit of marrow from the bones of a show ready to be done. Packs of them clogged staircases and doorways, managing their treasures like they were on the world’s largest scavenger hunt and they simply couldn’t go home until they had EA’s springy little head thing promoting The Sims 3. Hearing them shout into cellphones as they sweated three days of junk food and cola to race to the locations of these scraps with such gusto, I couldn’t help but feel pity for them.

And for myself, too, because time and experience has stripped the last scraps of believability and magic that E3 once held over me. Despite a good effort by Nintendo and a scattering of enthusiastic publishers that genuinely believed in their craft, the heart of the show remains a bent and cragged thing to those who see it for what it really is. I suppose in this way it’s really not so different than other name-brand events like the Academy Awards and countless others; the videogame industry is just as deserving of its own spectacle as the rest. I wish it wasn’t so, and I wish I could still believe in Santa Claus; but I know who leaves the presents. But I know who makes them, too.

In some ways we’re all pigs, being fattened up for the slaughter. But while most are content to wallow in their own payola-speckled filth, there are others none too keen to find themselves on the wrong side of the dinner table. How’s that for some Sloppy Joes?

About the Author: Nathan Evans