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Lessons learned from my first E3 - Destructoid

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I'm a Gen-X gamer, which means I am likely older than you. I've been gaming I was 4 years old and received my first console, an Atari 2600, and I grew up during the Golden Age of Arcades. I didn't "get into gaming" so much as I was raised with it, and never grew out of it.

In addition to this cblog I also publish frequently over on Bitmob, am a writer for Gamer Limit, and the Editor-in-Chief of the English gaming website Game Kudos (http://gamekudos.com/). I also just wrote my first piece for The Escapist.

I prefer FPS titles over anything else. There's something immensely satisfying about throwing thousands of rounds at the enemy and feeling my living room shake. Anything sci-fi is likely to attract my attention, and I have a soft spot for RPGs and RTS titles due to my roots in tabletop gaming. I approach games the same way I approach music: I tend to have very small libraries of titles which I don't just play, but digest. Depth and longevity are my parameters for ownership - but I'll try just about anything if you hand it to me as breadth of experience is important to me, as well.
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Nailing down impressions of the Expo is challenging because the event has so much to throw at you, but E3 feels a little ridiculous now that I've gone through it personally. Take, for example, "Best of Show" awards. To the uninitiated, this might suggest that the items being judged are video games, right?

Head over to Kotaku's list of nominees and you'll see Homefront listed in the "Best New Game" category. Homefront is not a game yet. It was a concept accompanied by an extremely slick ad campaign - which I thoroughly enjoyed - but can I make any appraisals as to whether it might actually be a good video game or not?

"Showing" a game at E3 doesn't actually mean letting you play it, or even having a full game to display. It can range anywhere between a trailer with no questions and interaction from journalists or extended gameplay and lots of questions. "Best of" E3 awards have nothing necessarily to do with video games at all - they're about who best tapped into the hype machine that is the Expo.

It's really the verbiage I'm concerned with when we talk about "Best of Show" awards. I like words to mean what they mean...rather than throw a label on these awards to make them sound legitimate, can't we just call them "Coolest shit I saw at E3" awards? Homefront wasn't "the best game" I saw at E3, it was "the game I got most excited about seeing when I actually get to see it."

When the team from my site had our Ubisoft appointment, one of the games we got to "see" was Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. We asked about the abilities we saw in the demo like calling for satellite scans and marking targets for different human players so as to coordinate takedowns and VIP captures. Were these abilities that people would have in the game, or just parts of the demo presentation? No comment. That was the answer we got to any specifics we asked for: "No comment." Then I saw the GameSpot E3 nomination sticker in the bottom right-hand corner of the computer monitor.

How the hell do you nominate a game for "Best of Show" when it wasn't actually a game? Sure the graphics looked cool, but isn't that pretty much a minimum expectation nowadays? The display on the outside of the Ghost Recon booth with the fake combat armor, helmet, and weapons was pretty cool, maybe that's what should have received the "best of" nomination.

An acquaintance of mine works at a rather well-known and successful game development studio, and told me that the big gaming sites, "the 'Spots" as he called them, get invited to view the games that studios are showing at E3 three weeks before the Expo. GameSpot was already making its determination as to "best of show" awards long before they set foot on the show floor or had any appointments in the private rooms. According to my acquaintance, anyway, who has no reason to lie to me.

This seems rather problematic if the journalists attending the Expo are all supposed to be reporting. Some of them actually are, but for others it's like someone called them three weeks before they planned to set a building on fire so that said journalists could get there early and get the scoop and produce the best coverage, and then they get credit for being "good journalists?"



My next eyebrow-raising moment came on Thursday, when I popped into the Lucasarts booth to get a picture of Daniel Erickson from Bioware to accompany an interview I'd conducted with him the previous day.

I'd come into possession of some information about The Old Republic during that interview that I had not read about in the gaming press prior to that point, nor in any of the multitudinous interviews with Daniel conducted at E3 that I've seen since I got back. I'm intentionally being vague because I'm shopping the story around right now, but as an MMO player of long standing, what he told me was a pretty mind blowing revelation. As I was taking Daniel's picture I asked him how I hadn't read about this before. His answer: "Because no one asks any questions."

What do you mean, no one asks any questions? It clearly isn't true in the literal sense, as I've read plenty of interviews with Daniel that follow the Q&A format. He said that people tend to ask the same questions over and over again, so perhaps he meant that no one asks the right questions to get new information out of him?

The same acquaintance of mine tells me that whenever he's been in press interviews, the gaming press walks in, hears the PR-written spiel that the game producers and designers have to spout, and then that's enough for the gaming press. They don't ask probing questions, which is what a good journalist does.

My wife knows a lot about journalism and recently said to me "Journalism is kind of sleazy. It's all about getting someone to say something they don't want to say." That's a judgmental assessment, but consider this: Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone journalist who got General Mcchrystal to make his comments about President Obama, his career is made if it wasn't already. He got the head of the United States military in Afghanistan fired. My wife says it often works like that, just breaking one good story makes your career for you. I wonder if that's how it works in games journalism, as well.

I'm not down with dismissing all games journalists as being lazy. I can't honestly say that I remember the last time I've seen any investigative journalism in the gaming press, but I don't know why a games journalist wouldn't ask more questions during an interview. Maybe once they get staff jobs somewhere they stop hustling for angles, because they don't need to? Gamers who follow the press get very attached to certain sites, and then they likely get all their news from that site - so all those sites need to do is provide the same news that everyone else does such that their audience doesn't go elsewhere for it. When it comes to interviews, perhaps the "official line" from an interviewee therefore suffices?

Maybe, when it comes specifically to E3, it's a matter of writers not having enough time to ask good questions because they have a set of information they need to wring out of people to satisfy their readers, before they may indulge in more investigative queries? I didn't have that burden at the Expo because my site is very new, and we don't have many readers or much traffic. I could afford to focus on questions or angles that might differentiate my coverage from someone else's because that's what I would need to get anyone interested in reading my articles.

Even with that leeway, however, I wasn't always successful at finding those questions or angles either from being given nothing that was really thought-provoking from the limited demos, or being faced with "no comment" answers or obvious "drilled by the PR department" responses, or just plain running out of time. I barely had time to ask the Lucasarts rep two questions after the <em>Force Unleashed II</em> presentation because the PR people were hustling my group out of the room and shoving the next one in.



Which brings us to the PR people. My site Director has a friend who works in a fairly high position at a game development studio, and when he attended E3 this friend wasn't even allowed to book his own hotel room. My Director's friend reported being "shepherded" around, and the PR handlers needing to know his every move at all times.

PAX bans "booth babes" under the premise that anyone who is working at a game booth should know something about the game. In that case, wouldn't they have to ban PR reps, as well, in some cases? I mean no offense to the PR reps, I saw how hard they worked at E3 in trying to manage an insane asylum, but many of them didn't seem to know anything about video games. They sure knew about schedules and managing traffic, however. The PR people are the gatekeepers, and I didn't expect this to be quite so pronounced.



The last thing I walked away from at E3 has to do with how difficult doing the job of a video game journalist can be. I had never thought it was easy, but when you read some of the comments on gaming site forums you see how many people assume that the job is just playing video games and goofing off.

If someone doesn't write, you can't convince them that writing is work. That's a given - but running around E3 for three days was only fun because I was doing something I love. Running around between show floors and back and forth to private rooms with a messenger bag filled with gear and notebooks and other crap was not enjoyable. Writing down all the notes I needed to because audio recording would have been impossible in some of the venues felt like being back in a history or philosophy course, which is to say it was not "fun."

Talking my way into interviews or hands-on demos when I didn't have an appointment fed into my natural gregariousness, but it wasn't easy or fun by any means. A six hour flight to L.A. from Boston in coach is not fun...which is why my wife and I upgraded to first class on the way back...but I'm pretty sure not all games journalists get to upgrade their flights.

Doing this job full-time would be immensely fun for me, but it would also be a tremendous amount of work, and probably would be disruptive to family life once I had a child. It was extremely valuable to have the opportunity to stare the reality of being a video game journalist square in the face and not flinch - but if anyone ever tells you that it's easy, they've clearly never tried it themselves.


I also saw Rey Gutierrez and about five members of the Destructoid video crew in the red t-shirts hustling past me outside the Media Hospitality Room. Only Dtroid sighting throughout the Expo, however.



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