E3 has a mythic reputation. Three days a year, the LA Convention Center turns into an exclusive carnival of pixels as 60,000 revelers journey from every continent to listen as publishers and developers announce the future of a 25 billion dollar industry. But part of the reason that reputation is so legendary is that, until this year, E3 took place behind closed doors. While livestreams and videos give the public a window into that world, being there in the flesh is a unique experience.
Now that E3 is open to the public, I was curious whether reality could ever live up to expectations. For us at PC Gamer, E3 is a maelstrom of running to appointments, trying to pierce the veil of hype-driven marketing, and sucking down grossly expensive tacos while writing about Wolfenstein in the five minutes we have before our next meeting. It doesn’t have the same energy as PAX, with its rows of PCs and fan-focused panels, and it’s hard to imagine what it’s like without appointments and deadlines.
As I walk past thousands of gamers, I start asking some of them why they came, and how they feel about the experience. Below are a few of their stories.
Darren, who is stoked to play games
I spy Darren standing with some friends in line to play Super Mario Odyssey. When I approach him, he gives me a suspicious look like I might be trying to swindle him out of his coveted place in line. But once I explain what I’m doing, he’s more than excited to answer my questions.
“Truth be told, I’m so happy to be here,” Darren says. He flew out from Atlanta just to attend E3. “This has been a phenomenal experience for me. I’ve been wanting to come to this since I was a teenager, so to actually be here in the flesh is just amazing.”
That’s a lot of money to invest, but for Darren, it’s money well spent. “My expectations were probably higher than the roof of this building, to be honest,” he laughs. “But it’s also met those expectations. I’m so pleased with everything I’ve seen so far.”
He gushes to me about his excitement to play Super Mario Odyssey and all the other games he’s seen. I ask him if being able to play games before they’re released is the best part about E3. “Absolutely,” he shoots back enthusiastically. “The lengths of the lines are pretty bad, but honestly, it’s to be expected. If they could improve upon that, that’d be nice, but I also understand.”
Liz, who wants to learn
For people like Darren, being able to play games before they’re released is a huge benefit to E3. But not everyone attends just for that. I approach Liz expecting to have another conversation about games she’s excited about, but instead find that she’s come to E3 on a very cool mission.
With a PhD in English, Liz is here for some light research. “I write about videogames a lot for school, so I wanted to come and see some stuff that is in my research area which is medicine and literature,” she explains to me over the dull four-beat-thud of dance music from a nearby booth. “I write about how the history of medicine is integrated into works of literature from the same time period, but I’m also interested in how games incorporate that because it’s not just the story. With Vampyr, they’re trying to incorporate gameplay elements that play with medical history in order to make a compelling piece of entertainment. I think it’s fascinating.”
I find it wonderful that, of all the games on display at E3, Liz is excited to check out Supermassive’s The Inpatient and Dontnod’s Vampyr—games that could easily be forgotten among giants like Call of Duty: WWII and Battlefront 2. Not everyone wants to come to E3 just to get starry-eyed over cinematic trailers or 20-gallon tote bags full of swag. But still, E3 isn’t exactly a perfect experience for either. “I had deliberately lower expectations because I knew I’d be waiting a lot,” Liz confesses. “Today I waited in line for the Bethesda VR stuff from about 10 am until 2:30 pm before I realized I wasn’t going to even make it in. It’s just been really busy. I met a kid today who was 18 and he was waiting in line and he hadn’t been able to even play a single game.”
She tells me her boyfriend is off right now trying his hardest to get a controller in that poor kid’s hands. And while the experience for her has been positive, Liz says E3 probably won’t become an annual event for her.
Johnny and Grace, who are tired of waiting in line
Like Liz, Johnny and Grace both tell me they won’t be coming to E3 next year. Both are California locals, but each say they’re a bit disappointed with how E3 turned out. “I was thinking it was going to be hours of me gaming,” Grace says. “Instead it’s hours of me waiting in line and then playing one game for a few minutes.”
Like Darren, I find the pair standing in line to see Mario Odyssey. Under their arms are enormous Final Fantasy 14 tote bags. We spend a few minutes chatting excitedly about the new expansion, Stormblood.
When Johnny says it’s always been a dream of his to attend E3, I can sympathize—I remember once dreaming of the same thing. But while I still get excited for E3 every year, Johnny says that “once is enough” and that he won’t be returning.
For Grace and him, the extremely long lines and chaos of the showfloor just aren’t worth it. “They definitely need a press day and a public day, which is something they do at [Tokyo Game Show],” Johnny says. “There should be one day that’s made for the public, and one day for the press so we don’t always feel like we’re getting in their way.”
It catches me by surprise when he says that. I ask him if he feels bad being here, like he’s somehow making my life harder. “I honestly feel guilty for getting in the press’ way sometimes,” he confesses. “I can imagine if, for my professional job, if I had a bunch of people in my way when I’m just trying to get things done, that could get frustrating.”
It upsets me that he feels that way. After all, he paid money just to attend—doesn’t he have a right to be here as much as me?
I ask both Johnny and Grace how long they waited in lines for. Johnny says his longest was only two hours, but Grace toughed out a six-hour line before leaving after realizing it had only moved half way. I can understand their frustration. “Indie games were great though,” Grace adds. “They were way easier to get into and you don’t really have to wait to play them.”
Patrick, who is just happy to be here
“I’m so grateful this is open to the public,” Patrick says. “With so much stuff going online and remote, people wonder if we really need to travel from around the world and meet here, but I’m so glad that they are doing it.”
Of all the people I’ve spoken to, Patrick is easily one of the most enthusiastic. After I’m done asking him questions, he flips the script on me and asks about how I got into games journalism. For 20 minutes, we chat about games and their future. I tell him about PC Gamer’s new Large Pixel Collider and he laughs at the audacity of it.
Like everyone else, he has the same complaints about the lines and disorganization of the show, but he’s quick to talk about how special an event like this is. For him, it’s not just about the games but about the people—something that would be lost forever if E3 ever goes away. “There’s so many great people to talk to: developers, media, even just the people waiting in line.”
With E3 opening to the public this year, it’s opened the debate for what purpose the show really serves. After all, watching the press conferences on Twitch is really no different from sitting in the audience, at least as far as the announcements and trailers delivered. For many, the future of E3 seems uncertain and opening to the public seems like a desperate move. For Patrick, it’s an invaluable experience. “I think bringing in the public, people from the outside, will hopefully inject some new life into the show,” he says.
Ian and Tim, who just want you to like and subscribe
I approach Ian and Tim for several reasons. The first is that they are hauling around a massive video camera. The second reason is that they are dressed like what Mario and Luigi would look like if the two also played in a gnarly garage band. As it turns out, Ian and Tim are podcasters and YouTubers trying to score interviews and create videos for their channel. Because they’re relatively small, they aren’t be able to get access to E3 as members of the press.
“It’s that media and developer environment that I’ve always seen since I was a kid,” explains Ian when I ask why he’s come to E3. While Ian is frustrated by the long lines and general disorganization of the showfloor, he’s here on a mission and is willing to do whatever it takes.
“You gotta do what you gotta do,” Ian says. “It was just as much about coming to play the games as it was doing things for our show.”
Tim, as the cameraman, is less diplomatic. “The lines are definitely annoying,” he says. “Even the way it’s structured, a lot of it was a mess at booths like Nintendo. It was horrible for the public. There was no organization, they just had kiosks and would let people line up behind them. So that’s why we’ve been sticking to smaller games for just that reason.”
But E3 has value to them beyond just seeing cool games. It’s a way to grow their audience. When I ask if either plans to return next year, I’m not surprised when both nod their heads solemnly.
Hannes, who made me happy to be here
After approaching random people on a sweaty and crowded show floor all afternoon, I decided I needed a break. I head outside for a smoke and some fresh air. It’s the final day of E3. I’m tired, hungry, and just want to go home. I almost don’t even hear Hannes when he asks “Hey, how’s your day going so far?”
I turn to him and blink. He’s smiling at me expectantly. I answer, and then begin to also smile—he doesn’t know who I am, but just wants to chat. After spending a few hours interviewing random people, it’s refreshing to have someone come and interview me.
Hannes travelled from the East Coast by himself just to be here. Like most everyone else, attending E3 has been a dream of his since he was a kid. But for him, it’s not just the games, it’s the people. “The interactions I’ve had with developers, if you start talking with them, they’re just so excited to talk about games with you. I’m just some normal guy, but going one-on-one with some of these people and how open they are to feedback—that blew me away,” he says.
He tells me about a chance meeting with a Sony executive while waiting in line. He wasn’t trying to pitch Hannes or get him to preorder anything, he just wanted to gush about all the cool things that had been announced that year. It was a bonding moment between two very different people. It’s the kind of interaction that I take for granted.
For Hannes, many of these developers are people who only ever appear to him on a pedestal. They’re magnified through the lens of a camera as they stand on press conference stages. But even Shigeru Miyamoto looks like just another person on the show floor. For a dedicated gamer like Hannes, E3 is the great equalizer. He explains that E3 is about plugging into a culture that he doesn’t always have such direct access to. It’s deeply meaningful to him. “It’s been so awesome. Everyone’s been excited to talk to me, and this experience has been worth every penny. I want to try and get my friends to come back next year with me just so they can experience it too.”
Like everyone else, he complains about the lines. But he’s also the first person to praise how wonderful all the employees at every booth have been. He tells me that after failing to get in to play a game at one booth, an employee told him to come back tomorrow. When Hannes returned, the employee recognized him and escorted him to the front like was a VIP. His smile as he tells that story is infectious. For Hannes, there are no invisible faces at E3 and I get the impression that he’d be excited to meet each and every person there.
Opening E3 to the public has created no shortage of problems (Rami Ismail of Vlambeer ). All week long I listened and debated the benefits and drawbacks of the decision. But as I say my goodbyes to Hannes and walk back to the press room, I’m glad that he could have that experience. E3 certainly didn’t meet everyone’s expectations, but I think it’s great that people have the opportunity to find out for themselves.