Gaming isn't just for kids anymore. It is now a multi-billion dollar business and it shows. Eric Huelsman reports from the Expo floor.
All right, call me a cynic...but first of all (and not regrettably so), I don't get paid much for writing articles about trade shows. Therefore, I feel no affinity for writing "up" articles if I think the event I attended wasn't very good. I write this stuff purely for my enthusiasm and love for all things connected to animation, and those are the only reasons.
Which is why I am not pained much about panning this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo, which was held at the Los Angeles Convention Center May 10 - 12, 2000. Furthermore, and despite the inducements of being comped for the exhibition floor admission, given a free lunch, quaffing free beer and spending time on a lot of cool games, on the whole of it, no amount of love and enthusiasm for the game industry would soften my view that this year's E3 exhibition sucked...and I don't mean in the good way.
The Thrill Is Gone?
Why would I think the biggest, most popular trade show of its kind anywhere in the world sucked? Especially given all the truly great stuff I got to play with (like Video System's truly groovy "F1 World Grand Prix," or the Sega Dreamcast version of "Dead or Alive 2")? Mainly because it was boring. Okay, call me sentimental, but I've been to four of these shows now and what I liked about the first E3 shows was that I could count on a few things -- like having fun. Pure, unadulterated and visceral have-at-it-ness. Being a kid again. Or maybe it was being surrounded by kids having fun that made me feel like a kid again.
First of all, this year's event was so corporate. I mean Disney-Interactive buttoned-down kind of corporate. The Microsoft booth, for example, despite the very sexy X-Box stuff, wasn't a fun place to be. Of course, anti-trust judges can make you this way. Geez, and Interplay's booth was muy serioso; in fact, the only smiles at the whole exhibit were on the faces of the Barbie-doll expo girls that passed out CDs. And then there were loads of conspicuous-looking folks wearing the "Hello, I'm Susan" kinds of corporate smiles at Activision. The kind that really say, "Let's get down and exchange dinero." Guys like me were looked straight through and into the soul to see if green were at our cores. No green, no scene. I didn't even get a T-shirt.
Secondly, the people I saw on the exhibitor floor were not there to have fun. Hey there, E3 event organizers, have we forgotten how much fun this event used to be? Where are the kids in sneakers? Maybe in the past E3 was fun because of the free T-shirts and not some jacked-up exec yelling potential profit figures for Blizzard's "Diablo II" into a tiny Nokia. Or could it be the free beer in plastic cups of previous shows had its own primitive kind of charm? (Do I really need the cocktail lounge effect of a leather couch in Dolby's booth and the Dos Equis to go with it? I'm there to play "NHL Hockey" for chrissakes.) Or perhaps it was playing the newest games (like the now-aging flight sims like "Mig Alley") or picking up the occasional demo and/or toy that I miss (like last year's LEGO stuff, which this year failed to be a major interest). No, this year if I wanted to have "fun" I had to a.) perform a public strip to get the T-shirt or b.) make an ass of myself at the Nintendo booth (or was that Sega's?) as hundreds of event goers watch some hack magician make me his unwitting "assistant."
At previous year's shows, if I got shoved aside by the occasional overgrown juvenile trying to get their hands on something, like 3DO Company's "Army Men Air Tactics," it was okay, because this kind of rudeness left me none the worse for wear. After all, weren't those kids, like I, having fun? I dug the whole scene, the atmosphere. Very carnival-like. E3 was fun because the event was geared to us kids; who are, you know, the people who BUY these products.
The Kids Are Alright
I was not alone in noting that almost everyone at this year's show was, if not the corporate types or the mini-skirted models mentioned above, the gone-to-pot, graying, middle-aged person that I have become. I went to this event with my publisher (who is also bulging, graying and plunging headlong into middle-age -- sorry, Dan) and we both observed that, although all three halls were jam-packed with companies, there were very few real kids (I'm talking less than 25 years old) anywhere to be found.
Now you know an event like E3 is in trouble when most of the show goers haven't the slightest clue how to play a computer-based first-person shooter, let alone a fast-moving console game like those being ported to the latest Internet-game marvels Dreamcast or Playstation 2. What I saw this year was a drastic reduction in the amount of young blood playing with the wanton abandon that I observed at previous shows.
Are you catching my drift here? All things considered, E3 has been a blast in the past because I could go and be a kid surrounded by other kids, which is more of a spiritual thing than a chronological age sort of thing. Go watch Disney's Pinocchio again...the part where he runs away to Pleasure Island. E3 used to be like that. I remember the '95 show had a Thunderseat Technologies exhibit with a real cockpit and a souped-up version of "Fighting Falcon" on it... WOW! Too cool! This year? Nada. Zilch. Not a single "ride" game in sight! Not even half the first-person-driver games of '99!
Which pretty much sums up what love's lost for me and E3...the whole notion of games and what they've meant to me and others who like the occasional diversion (like Simon and Schuster Interactive's "Amateur League Golf" or the Playstation version of Namco's "Ms. Pac-Man"). The pure, unadulterated enthusiasm for electronic entertainment that made E3 the show what it was because it was based on a youth culture that cannot survive without, well, youth! Over 30 or otherwise.
Speaking of being over 30: This year, by count, your kindly old journalist here got shoved aside no less than three times not by the beloved kids I've been pining on about but by fellow "media journalists" who were trying to score a T-shirt or operational demo that I should have gotten. This happened at the Acclaim, Raven Software (by the way, you need to check "Star Trek: Voyager," it looks great) and Eidos booths. In fact, one particular a**hole who wrote for some Japanese manga magazine was out to destroy my day because, imagine this, he was blocking my way to the coolest T-shirts of the whole event just to find out what frigging SIZES the Barbie passing out the T-shirts had! (At this point I felt imbued with such Russell Crowe-like rage I almost ripped the guy's head off. I dive-bombed past our manga friend for the last T-shirt, only to come up empty-handed.)
All right. Enough of this whining and bitching... Here are some of the highlights (and lowlights) of this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo.
E3 2000 Exhibitors of Note
3DO Company "Army Men" series. I had a good time at this booth mainly due to my love of the Toy Story inspired Tan versus Green "Army Men" series. Their "Air Tactics" spinoff was very fun, with Captain Blade heading up a helicopter assault team. And there is a Game Boy Color version! Did I say I want to buy a Game Boy? I want one! I want one! Those cute little handhelds are slick.
Acclaim "South Park." Yuck-o. This game is a deliberate (but to me, unfunny) knockoff of a movie that was hilarious and best left untouched. I found nothing about the game appealing. By contrast, however, I am a sports fan and thought "All-Star Baseball" was very cool. It's pretty scary how realistic these games are getting. Now all they need is a heckling mob yelling at the players and running on to the field from time to time (and I don't mean from the General Manager's office).
Activision "Dark Reign 2." I played just enough of this to find it slick-looking but somewhat awkward to handle. A unique feature was unit control from anywhere on the map. But the building manager itself, while a good thing, is far too much to manage. I didn't play any other titles at the booth but some looked kinda neat, especially "Star Trek: Armada."
EIDOS "Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver II." This gothic vampire classic returns with more graphic graphics (sorry) but also some amazing CG. Impaling nemeses has never been more fun on an RPG. There was also a really neat game called "Fear Effect: Retro Helix." Jesus H. Christ! Some of these games are getting to be better CG than movies! Incredible, incredible movie sequences. Game play is intriguing too. I really like this company. They never fail to deliver... "Tomb Raider" is still a favorite of mine.
Midway "Ready 2 Rumble: Round 2." Afro Thunder and friends return this November in one of Midway's most successful boxing/martial arts/wrestling games for 1999. It is incredible how much development has been put into this year's release. The bounce of Afro's hair alone is amazing to watch. The duck and punch moves are so real as to make your jaw drop. Only trouble is: I got tired of it even quicker than last year's game! How much ass can one person kick? Or punch? How about a Cosell-like interview after the match? That'd be more worth your efforts.
Microsoft/Nvidia X-Box. Okay, my question is: when is this thing REALLY available? If you can believe this, by November a graphics engine with more than three times the graphics performance of the newest-generation game consoles will be offered! Co-developed with experts at Nvidia, the custom-designed graphics chip will deliver more than 200 million polygons per second. However, the video engine being developed for generation two is going to handle a fill rate of 3 billion polygons per second, or roughly ten times (that's 1000 thousand percent) more graphics playback ability than the first generation model. Or 10,000 percent what the average PC player has available to them today. If true, the X-Box is about to turn the interactive/Internet game world on its ear.
Nintendo On the game scene it is very tough to ignore a force like Nintendo. They own seven out of the top ten selling titles for 1999. When you consider the heady combination of their consoles like Game Boy Color (I'm getting one) and N64 and enhanced versions of games like "Pokemon" or "Donkey Kong" being ported to their product, they are to the game industry what GM is to the auto industry. A giant with which to be reckoned. Which is precisely my point. I have come to view these guys with the sentiment I do GM. Lumbering, bloated. Stodgy and middle-of-the-road. Unwilling to take big chances. Oh, well, let us just say they are comfortably numb. They may be formidable, but they are not necessarily innovative. And that can be death in this industry. Watch out for Game Boy Color, though. Nobody can compete. With Sega Game Gear dead, they are alone in the handhelds for now.
Sega Dreamcast. Very interesting platform. Most games ported to this format are smooth. By all means own one if you are an Internet gaming freak. With the $50 rebate, the price point on this device drops to $149 to get into the game (provided you do a two-year signup with your friendly ISP). Genesis and Saturn continue to have interesting games ported to them, but this company suffers from wanting to do too much too often. Say goodbye to Sega CD.
Sony Playstation Playstation 2 is nothing short of a breathtaking marvel of technology. Argue what you will about Sony and its irascible sense of "being above it all," but these guys have made some serious inroads in the console game industry that up to now has been primarily Sega and Nintendo. I saw a game called "Fear Effect: Retro Helix" (by Eidos Interactive- see above) played on the Playstation and I wanted it REAL BAD. I'm sure the PC version is gonna be very neat, but seeing it made me want a Playstation, not just the game.
Let's Go Home
Well, this about wraps up what is useful and newsworthy, though it's reasonable to say that I could only cover a tenth of what really went on at the show. I didn't stick around for anything else mainly because my publisher, forever the curmudgeon, wanted to get out of there. I couldn't blame him this time. I too had had enough.
Needless to say, I got my T-shirts. I got lucky and snagged a few on my way out to the car. Someone outside the Convention Center was handing out some bitchin' orange and yellow ones.
Eric Huelsman is the over-paid, underworked er -- that's underpaid, over-worked -- guy in charge of the Friedman 3D computer animation program.