An Undercover Journalist & Gamer’s First Visit to E3, Part One

When my son jokingly said he wanted to attend E3 as his high school graduation present from my side of the family, he was never expecting us to find a way to make his dream trip a reality. However, our family believes in honoring real accomplishments with something special, and so my son’s gift from all of us was a trip to Los Angeles for the E3 Expo.

E3 is a conference in Los Angeles for video game designers, producers, distributors and retailers. A few years ago, they decided to open up the convention to a very small amount of regular game players, to allow them to see the upcoming games and help build hype for new games and products.

So while my son was getting more and more excited about his first trip to Los Angeles, the games he might be able to play, and the “swag” he might be able to take home, his father had another idea:

What is the experience REALLY like for gamers who come to E3?

You see, ordinary gamers are at the bottom of the E3 pecking order, just above things like pond scum, used chewing gum, and the launch of Fallout 76. However, E3 allowed them to be here, they paid their money to be here, and so they would be there whether developers wanted them in the vicinity or not. And since I didn’t have media credentials, I thought I would see what it would be like to report on how you’d be treated if you were “just a gamer” at the big industry event.

So while my son was geeking out on being able to go, I was watching things like how game and developer staff was interacting with people. How security was treating the people with the orange badges that indicated they weren’t VIPs in the eyes of E3.

And I can say, at least for day one, the gamers at E3 very rarely appeared to be given the short end of the stick. In fact, based on how our day began, I’d say gamers were treated as well as the Twitch and other streaming stars with hundreds of thousands of followers.

And today, publicly, I’m going to have to swallow some pride and give major props to Microsoft.

I’m a Apple guy. MacBook, iPad, iPhone, iToilet, if they make it, I have it. I’ve been down on Windows and Microsoft for many years, so much so that when it came time to move on from my XBox 360, I went to Playstation 4 rather than XBox One.

We arrived at the convention hall over three hours before “regular gamers” would be allowed inside E3. It was only open to the industry people, vendors, media, etc. Our idea was to just get the lay of the land, grab something for lunch and then get in line to go in at 2 p.m..

That’s when totally by accident we happened upon a line of people we were informed were going into the XBox gamer zone inside the Microsoft theatre. Since we had time to kill, we thought we’d go in, expecting to have to wait in long lines and get shuffled through with quick samples of games.

I was wrong. Way wrong.

We went into the theater and there virtually no lines. My son and I split up, with him dropping me off at the 7 person line for LEGO Forza Horizon 4. (My son’s logic being his dad’s gaming desires run for sports games or first person shooters involving Tom Clancy novels.) The game was a little wild to drive on because I was completely unfamiliar with the wheel and system to play but the graphics were really good. The folks who love Lego games (like my autistic son) will probably have fun with a game like this.

The Microsoft folks treated me and the other games just the same as they did all the other folks who were there with industry badges or media badges. I have to admit it surprised me a little bit to see that kind of almost honor being given to us considering we weren’t the VIPs, and it really made me (as I said before) eat some of my words about Microsoft.

The main bad guy is playing by Jon Bernthal, who also plays “The Punisher” on Netflix. Great casting choice by Ubisoft.

As I wandered, I noticed a booth set up for demos of Ghost Recon: Breakpoint on PC. I was never a fan of first person shooters, until my son came in one day with a rented copy of the Division and we had this exchange:

Dale: “Hey dad, you like Tom Clancy novels, right?”
Me: “Yep. Read them all.”
Dale: “I know you don’t like shooters, but this based on a Clancy novel. You should try it.”
Me: “Really? Well, if Clancy’s involved, it’s probably worth taking a look.”

So I decided to wait a little to play…and wait I did…because players were getting an almost 15 minutes playthrough of the game. (One of the PCs glitched while we were playing, so they had to reset a segment and it added some time, so we were there about 20 minutes.) I was really impressed with the improved gameplay over Ghost Recon: Wildlands and wanted to pass my praise onto someone connected to the dev team, but there was no one from Ubisoft there. (Later, when I went by the Ubisoft booth area, the “welcome desk” said no one was around to talk to gamers but they would “pass my comments along.” I’ve been around long enough to know that’s just a blow off phrase and my comments were forgotten before I was ten steps from the booth. One staff member did tell me quietly that on Thursday some of the team may be around the booth and not tied up in interviews with the folks who have media passes.)

When we wrapped up, I was shocked to look across from where we had just played and saw a Madden 2020 setup with NOBODY PLAYING IT. So I walked over and asked if you had to be some kind of VIP to play it and the very lovely woman in an EA t-shirt said “Nope! You want to play?” To which this Philadelphia Eagles die-hard said “only if I can kick the New England Patriots ass!”

Now, I will be the first to admit I am not the best gamer on the planet. In fact, with almost all the games I play, I’m average at best. However, I’ve been playing Madden since it was released in the very late 80s as John Madden Football and my parents still get it for me as an early Christmas present every year.

So it was Philadelphia 28 New England 0 halfway through the second quarter when the lovely lady from EA with whom I had been chatting about my love of Madden through the years sat down and said “you’re making this look really easy and I know this game isn’t that easy.” Turned out she’s the head of the release of Madden 2020! We actually had a really nice conversation about my likes and dislikes of the game, I gave her an example of how I could exploit the AI if I wanted to do it and it was all because in a room with literally a few thousand people, no one wanted to play Madden 2020.

By the way, the graphics on M2020 are significantly better than last year’s.

So as I was leaving the Madden game, my son texted he was ready to go get lunch because somehow we had spent three hours inside the Microsoft Theatre without realizing it. (My son had played Sea of Thieves and Doom Ultimate along with some other indie game whose name is escaping me.)

After lunch we went to the main hall and had to wait in a line of gamers to get into the convention center’s south hall entrance. (It was a little confusing, because there were signs that said “Entrance” if you “do not have a bag” but it wasn’t for gamers, just everyone else. There was nothing that indicated that gamers weren’t welcome at that entrance, so the guards had to keep repeating that we had to go wait in the long line despite no line at the “no bag” entrance.

Once inside, my son took off and I just used the time to wander and “people watch” with no real intent on standing in line waiting for a game. The only game I was even remotely interested in checking out while I was in that particular hall was Watch Dogs: Legion and I knew the line would be insane. (And it was, to the point they had it blocked off so no one else could get into line.)

I ended up just chatting folks up and met a large number of really nice people from all over the world. (I’ve had the benefit of traveling the world over my career, so I can usually find a way to strike up a conversation with anyone.) That helped offset the uncomfortable feelings of so many people being packed into the one hall.

The only thing missing was Wayne Brady.

I did play a virtual reality game based on a game from the TV show Let’s Make A Deal. They had the actual CarPong game from the show there for which the VR game is based. They told the VR game would be out in the fall.

I also played something called Super Buckyball because I was just standing there watching and one of the development team struck up a conversation. The best I can describe the game, it’s like Rocket League just with superpowered humans instead of cars. It was a pleasant diversion, but I don’t see myself playing it again.

If I ever hit the lottery, this will be in the basement of my house. Likely with a NASCAR simulation game attached to it.

I did get to try out a $12,000 racing game setup by Next Level Racing. (I love motorsport, so I didn’t mind waiting in line for a crack at this one.) It was FANTASTIC. These guys have some real quality stuff available and their lower end priced stuff ($350ish for seat and stand) are actually quality materials. If I did a lot more racing online, I’d look into their gear.

Now, you probably notice that outside of the Microsoft area, I’m not talking much about the big developers. There’s a few reasons why: 2K only was doing Borderlands and nothing related to their sports games, Ubisoft had huge lines & I had already tried Ghost Recon at the Microsoft area, and I don’t see the point of waiting hours for a 10 minute runthrough of a game on day one. (My son waited almost two hours for his playthrough of Borderlands 3.)

I could see at most of the booths areas that were guarded by security for VIPs, media and other “guests” of the developers, and when you could see inside it was obvious there was very little to no waiting to try out the games. So obviously, there IS a benefit to being one of the folks higher on the pecking order, and I completely understand why it’s done: those Twitch streamers can brag about a game to 750,000 people or more (I met a guy at the Let’s Make A Deal booth who claimed he had 750,000 followers) and at best I’ll get 8,000-ish people who will see my writing work for my current publication. But outside of those obviously “off limits” areas for the normal gamer folk, most of even the big game developer’s staff were nice to speak with today. (I asked a few staff some questions about games, and they gave me very pleasant and complete answers.)

Oh, and we ended the day with a surprise from the folks at Twitter. They rented out the Lucky Strike bowling alley near the convention and had a private party for E3 attendees. Gave Dale & I a nice mental break at the end of a busy day. Thanks, Twitter!

There was one big disappointment in the day…my son & I were hoping to be able to see some of the games from Devolver Digital who are set up across the street from the Convention, but were told that gamers weren’t going to be welcomed at all in the Devolver area. And given the videos Devolver has done the last few years in connection to E3, they seemed like the last studio that wouldn’t do something with the regular gamers! (Heck, they seem like the kind of folks that would come running at regular gamers with a beer in one hand and a controller in the other, yelling “let’s play some [profanity deleted] games!!”)

Our Day 2 has a tentative plan to cover the West Hall and see where things go from there, perhaps also check out some things at the E3 Coliseum because I really love Jack Black. (Will Wright, designer of SimCity which is one of my all time favorite games, is there in the morning, and I’d like to try and hear him speak.)

And I have a personal goal or two, actually both involving Ubisoft: I want to give some very positive feedback to the dev team for Ghost Recon.

The other is to shake the hand and thank a woman who works for Ubisoft named Raha Bouda. When I was working for a national radio network a few years ago, we had worked with Raha on some game reviews. One email exchange I told her about my son with autism and his incredible love for the Rabbids from the Raving Rabbids series of games. She surprised me by sending my son some Rabbids goodies in the mail. Now, I know she didn’t do it to get praise or attention, but I’m old school, and when someone does something special for your child, you thank them. I sent an email, but given that she’s a pretty big part of the PR machine at Ubisoft, there’s a good chance she’s around somewhere, and I want to thank her in-person. This is where having just a gamer tag will likely be a hindrance for me; there’s no way someone of her stature will be on the regular convention floor. She’ll be in the VIP areas with the credentialed media folks. But I don’t know when I’ll get another shot at an in-person thank you, so tomorrow I’ll take another shot. (I asked a few people in Ubisoft gear today about her and none of them knew where she was or if she was there.)

Now, looking at the overall experience on Day One, I’d have to say that being a regular gamer at E3 can be a great time for anyone. I came in with very low expectations, only to have them blown out of the water by the folks at Microsoft, who might be able to steal me back with their new Project Scarlett console from the folks at Sony (who didn’t bother to show up at E3.)

I’ll be updating with Part Two tomorrow night about how the second day goes and if the top notch experience of Day One is enhanced or dampened by another turn around the convention center.

Reader Comments