It’s true that the bulk of a journalist’s work at E3 resembles standard trade show fare. You book a number of appointments in order to see new products and then spend a few days strolling through a convention hall with a goofy name badge hanging around your neck bouncing between live demonstrations and/or interviews. On paper, it’s probably not radically different than, say, the World Dairy Expo (with a few less cows and more dinosaurs).
But the experience of covering gaming’s annual spectacle is rarely that straightforward. You might stop dead in your tracks as a zombie (or at least an actor in professional makeup) stares directly at you while chomping on a bloody limb. Perhaps you’ll interview a professional while he rides a speeder bike replica from Star Wars. Or maybe Kanye West will cut ahead of you in line. Every game demo you get at E3 is a unique snowflake, and we thought it might be fun to give you a behind-the-scenes taste of some of the memorable types of sessions we encountered at this year’s show:
“Mind if I vape?”
“Cool. Want another beer?”
This was a sample of my conversation while sitting on a couch with the two-man London-based development team behind Eitr, a Norse-mythology-themed dungeon crawler. In sharp contrast to the theme-park experience of sampling major-publisher games on E3’s boisterous show floor, Devolver Digital’s small camp of tents and trailers in a parking lot across the street from the L.A. Convention Center felt more natural and relaxed, like I was at some tucked away corner of Bonnaroo.
Things were even more loose with the quartet of Frenchmen developing the ultra-violent retro beat-’em-up Mother Russia Bleeds. We were making jokes like a group of friends while punching the game’s weird Russian thugs in BDSM gear and pig masks. Sure, what essentially qualified as a keg party in the Hooters’ parking lot may not have been the most professional of environments, but I can’t imagine an experience more authentic to the way many of us play video games in real life. [Ryan Smith]
My time playing Halo 5’s elaborate 12-on-12 Warzone multiplayer mode was like a different kind of party. Microsoft was holding special demonstrations Monday night in the basement of The Majestic, a swanky three-floor event venue. The main floor was loaded with places to play upcoming games, but I have a sneaking suspicion more people enjoyed the finger foods and drinks from the several open bars than the demos themselves. The concept of a having a scheduled appointment at an event like this seems pointlessly formal, like trying to have a business meeting in the middle of a party thrown by the world’s wealthiest fraternity. Actually, that’s pretty much exactly what this was, especially if you factor in the guy dressed in a snow cap yelling at anyone within earshot to come down a shot of Fireball Whisky—which has officially supplanted whipped cream vodka as the Mountain Dew of liquor—straight from a Rise Of The Tomb Raider shot luge.
Things only got bro-ier downstairs at the Halo demo. While waiting for my session, I was treated to the hoots of a group of European dudes who must have been at E3 because they developed a new app where screaming in the vicinity of your phone replaces the need to push any buttons during the selfie-taking process. They definitely weren’t there for Halo, anyway, because they took their act elsewhere before even getting in. And remember all those obnoxious guys whose ceaseless verbal diarrhea makes you hate going anywhere near online multiplayer with a live microphone? Now imagine you’re stuck playing against them while in the same room and after they’ve had a few ice-cold Fireball shots or a complimentary “Master Chief Aperitif.” [Matt Gerardi]
The portion of EA’s booth dedicated to Star Wars Battlefront could easily be moved to Disney World as “Star Wars: The Battlefront Experience.” In addition to the aforementioned speeder bike, EA had a group of us wait in line in a long hallway styled after the icy rebel base on Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back. You could even snap selfies with an R2D2 model. We were then led into a dark theater that doubled as a military conference room, where we were introduced to a man cosplaying in full Rebel Alliance pilot gear and a C3PO replica. As a light fog poured in from the floor, Admiral Ackbar appeared on several large television monitors to provide a tutorial for the game we were about to jump into
After that kind of elaborate pre-game experience, the act of sitting down in a regular old office chair with a PlayStation 4 controller to try Battlefront’s 20-on-20 multiplayer skirmishes couldn’t help but feel like a slight letdown. Couldn’t the guy paid to set up the networked game at least be dressed like a Jawa? [Ryan Smith]
Many demos take place outside the glitz and glam of the main show floor, though. For example, I saw Rock Band 4 in an area called “Concourse Hall,” which is basically a giant room where they erect a ton of tiny makeshift meeting spaces. The game’s creative director, Greg LoPiccolo, was on hand to show me all the new ideas Harmonix is adding to Rock Band’s return, starting with the most exciting and complex addition: a system for improvising your own freeform guitar solos.
I took a seat, and LoPiccolo started walking me through the ins and outs of successful soloing. The only way to give me a good view of all the little button combinations and sound-shifting maneuvers, though, was for him to kneel in front of me and jam out. So there I was, sitting in this little chair and exclaiming my real awe over this feature, while the developer who led the creation of Guitar Hero and Rock Band—games that are near and dear to me—knelt less than three feet in front of me, looking me right in the eyes and making expressive guitar-faces John Mayer would be proud of. Reciprocating the weirdness later in the demo, I asked whether anybody would care if I took my shoes off to play drums. Seriously, I cannot play those things with shoes on. [Matt Gerardi]
When playing online, many competitive multiplayer games use matchmaking algorithms to try to pit you against people with a similar skill level. Not so at E3 booths, where the balance of team-based battles come down to sheer luck of the draw. Who will randomly sit next to you and become your one-off teammate: the seasoned joystick jockey or the poor sap who has never played a first-person shooter in their lives?
I drew the short end of the stick at my Call Of Duty: Black Ops III demo—opposing a professional player who wiped the floor with my lowly team without breaking a sweat. It was like playing pickup basketball at the neighborhood gym with a normal batch of weekend warriors—and also Stephen Curry. By the end of the 10-minute deathmatch, Mr. Pro Shooter Guy had amassed 60 kills to go along with eight deaths. At one point, he summoned a hovering airship to rain relentless death upon us from above. Earlier in the demo, I had the more enjoyable, surreal experience of seeing one of the main characters from the game’s story watch his virtual self on-screen for the first time (“You look like Bradley Cooper in the game,” noted one observed), but getting my ass handed to me soured the experience. [Ryan Smith]
One of my favorite games at the show was The Legend Of Zelda: Triforce Heroes, which focuses on a three-player co-op mode. I headed up to Nintendo’s press area and sat down to play it alongside two representatives—one who’d been manning Triforce Heroes all week and the PR rep who’d been assigned to drag me around the booth. The demo’s easiest stage was smooth sailing. My guides held my hand and gave me ample time to get acquainted with the “totem” system, where you stack Links on top of one another to solve puzzles and land hits on high up enemy weak spots. Then, because I wanted to see a more intricate level, we skipped ahead to the most difficult stage: a fiery volcano temple. That’s where things started to get a little tense.
The guy who’d been playing Triforce Heroes all day knew what he was doing and tried to toe the line between over-instruction and time-wasting floundering. The other rep was a little out of their depth and occasionally distracted by mysterious PR matters. They’d get stuck on the wrong side of a lava pool or quickly look away to take care of something while we tried to set off timed switches. We all laughed it off. I didn’t mind; after all, no game session is ever perfect. This is what it’s like to play in real life. But underneath the forced chuckles, I could sense the frustration seething from Mr. Triforce Heroes Expert. His directions got curter. His polite smile became more strained. It wasn’t until he stopped using the game’s adorable Link emojis, though, that I knew something was really wrong. [Matt Gerardi]