This year's E3 was as big and bombastic as ever. A giant, 18-foot robot from EA's (Electronic Arts) upcoming Titanfall stands ominously in the lobby; Activision erected a semi-circle of giant, trailer-spewing screens around an open forum, welcoming the masses into its fold like the loving arms of St. Paul's Cathedral; Microsoft corralled actual zombies to moan and groan in a small corner dystopia to promote the undead slaughter-fest Dead Rising 3; and more media outlets than even last year broadcasted and podcasted live from the convention floor.
You can almost smell half a year's worth of marketing budgets in the air. But what really stands out this year is how high the walls are. The sides of booths at E3 have always crept skyward, but in years past, from an elevated vantage, you could at least gaze over the entire floor. Now, the steel-frames adorned with expansive sheets of plastic stretch nearly to the ceiling, blocking any trace of other exhibitors. They make it feel less like a gaming community (an illusion that my inner child should perhaps have released decades ago) and more like isolated pods of explosive glee.
Nevertheless, video game professionals — and those who managed to finagle a badge out of a video game professional — soak in all the bright lights, hyper-kinetic screens, booming tones, circus-like barkers, and busty seasonal models that characterize the annual event.
Spread out over the South Hall — the bigger of the LA Convention Center's two buildings — were heavy-hitting publishers such as Activision, Disney, Konami, EA, et al. While squeezed into the much smaller West Hall — almost as if trying to encourage a cage match — were the three console powerhouses: Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo. This is where the anticipation of the three-day event was most palpable. In the weeks leading up to E3, there were fiery debates in gamedom over which new console would dominate. An especially interesting question in light of the how the propagation of new devices, and an increasing global interconnectedness, spurred predictions of the gaming console's doom.
Nintendo, gob smacked at having fallen off so much in the console world since breaking records with the Wii in 2006, sits ringside for this West Hall grudge match. For Microsoft and Sony, however, the retail battle between the X-Box One and Playstation 4 starts at E3. Like a modern day Rumble in the Jungle, each has used the preceding weeks to talk smack, leak features, and suss out the enemy. And in the midst of rabid, cheering fans, each in its colorful corner — one Day-Glo green, the other littered with primary geometric shapes — the fight was on.
The real comparison lies in the freedom each system gives players, which for X-Box means not a lot: restrictions on lending games to friends, no backward compatibility to play games bought for the previous X-Box, and the system has to check in with the Internet at least every 24 hours or games will cease to function.
All Playstation 4 really has to do is just not be THAT, and sure enough, it isn't. Perhaps trading profit margin for market dominance, Sony has apparently given the fans what they want: backwards compatibility, trading freedom, and a strong graphics card to boot.
However, many of the restrictions of the X-Box One are not hard wired. They can be changed with system updates, which might mean that both giants will engage in a years-long tweaking process to find the point at which they can squeeze the most money out of players without triggering outright revolt. By that time, though, many players may be somewhere else entirely.
There are more development tools for amateur game creators than ever before, yielding an expanding catalogue of independent houses, all of which have a lot more choice for distributing their games. There was at E3 an indie game shantytown on the very edge of the convention floor, near the bathrooms. But the show was primarily committed to another incarnation of Wolfenstein and Call of Duty's next dumbed-down FPS.
In terms of innovation, the indies are outpacing the looming dinosaurs of gaming's recent adolescence. Last year's GDC best game award went to the independent outfit ThatGameCompany (distributed through Sony), beating out the multi-million dollar franchises that dominated the awards since their inception in 2002.
What I found encouraging was at the very least an attempt on the part of the big gaming studios to reach out to smaller, independent developers. Sony even committed a corner of its sparkling metropolis to independent devs who publish through the Playstation network.
The lack of indie games at E3 isn't surprising. It is an industry trade event and therefore is all about what is making the money right now. The indie gamers get more play at fan cons such as PAX Prime and PAX East. At the latter in March, the big game companies, for the most part, took a back seat to indie and medium-sized developers intent on engaging the gaming community. In that way E3 is more of a snap shot of what has been in the gaming world, while PAX feels more like a display of what will be.
As cynical as I am about the big-budget, blow-hearted, commercial behemoth of E3, I do, deep down, still have a gamer's soul. So when that giant, rotating effigy of Sonic bestriding the Sega booth spun my way, I could have sworn he winked at me, as if to say, “Don't grow up too fast, kid.”