Hello there, ladies and gents! Welcome back to Brick & Mortar, the segment that’s always asking the questions “where am I?” and “can I play games here?”. My original plan this week was to head out to Salem to cover gaming culture there – in particular, Bit Bar (which is about to have its grand opening!), Harrison’s and Game Zone. However, another subject has been weighing heavily on my mind, so I have decided to hold off on Salem for now, and instead discuss something of great relevance at this pivotal, transformative moment in our culture – the glorious past and questionable future of the Electronic Entertainment Expo.
Previously shoved into the basement of the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, the video game industry in 1995 finally found itself with an event to call its own. From its humble beginnings in arcades and homes to the colossal crash of ’83 to the revival via Japan, video games were finally cementing themselves as a permanent fixture in media, art and culture. The 16-bit generation saw the first successful generational handoff without a crash, and also saw the first all-out head-to-head rivalry in Nintendo vs Sega.
Meanwhile, the video games media had grown from humble beginnings to become an independent and diverse series of publications that every gamer increasingly turned to for reviews, news, cheats, secrets, editor personalities, and mysterious rumors from the Far East. These magazines were a portal to a wider world of video games, through which gaming culture first found a central thread. They were a unified source of information to come together around, so that no matter where you lived, you were part of the same culture.
As 1995 arrived, a second successful generational transition was about to begin, and Sony was ready to make this a three-way race. The embrace of the compact disc as well as the arrival of polygonal 3D graphics gave games a mature polish for the first time that appealed to adults and begged to be taken seriously.
Never before had video games been such big business, and the Electronic Entertainment Expo – or E3 for short – would give the industry and culture a high profile stage befitting this golden age of interactive media. And when all of the major players converged in Los Angeles in May of 1995, the performances that followed would prove to be a spectacular thrill-ride that would more than justify the existence of E3 for years to come.
Tom Kalinske (Sega) was up first. Back in March, Sega announced that they were all but abandoning the Sega 32X and going full-tilt towards the Saturn for its “Sega Saturnday” launch in September. But Kalinske came on stage for the very first E3 press conference ever to announce that – SURPRISE! – the Saturn was in stores NOW, along with Virtua Fighter, for $399.
Sony, the unproven newcomer, came next. And Steve Rice (Sony) had a surprise of his own. After calmly approaching the podium for what was said to be a “short presentation”, Rice leaned into the mic and simply said “$299”, to wild applause. That single morning in Los Angeles would set in motion events that would determine an entire console generation. And the snide smack-talk between platform holders, as well as the jaw-dropping surprises, would become staples for years to come.
E3 1996 brought more thrills and surprise moves. Nintendo unveiled its powerful Nintendo 64 with Super Mario 64 and sent the crowd into fits of joy. But their $249 price-point was immediately undercut when Sony played the same card as the previous year by smugly announcing “$199”. By the second day of E3, Sega and Nintendo had completely relented on their price-points and were now advertising to anyone who would listen that they too would retail at $199. See, a single day of E3 could be this deeply impactful!
By E3 1998 (held temporarily in Atlanta), video games had cemented themselves as a permanent fixture in pop culture. Gone were the early, stuffy days of an E3 with a corporate trade show atmosphere. By this time, E3 had truly come into its own as the red carpet of gaming. Sony decided to send stretch hummers to the airport to pick up games journalists, equipped inside with demos of Gran Turismo. That evening, Sony had Foo Fighters perform at their party, while Nintendo snagged the B-52s…
Over the ensuing years, E3 would become THE pivotal moment in the annual video game calendar. It was the clock by which developers would set their watches. In a time before 24-hour games press, YouTube and live streams, it provided publications with their best-selling issues of the year, and gamers with a rare, behind-the-curtain peek at the coming holiday season, as well as holiday seasons to come. And as E3 increasingly became something we could witness unfolding live, we learned to love the spectacle of it all.
E3 would come to be associated with many trends, one of my favorite being “E3 Cringe” moments, where jokes don’t quite land, demos fail, performances are made in poor taste, and announcements fall flat. Let me just list off a few that you’ll all remember “fondly” – Mr. Caffeine, Jamie Kennedy @ Activision, Wonderbook, Konami in 2010, Nintendo in 2008, Don Mattrick freaking in general at E3 2013, and omfg Kaz Hirai at E3 2006 (“Riiiiidge Racer!”, “599 US Dollars”, and more!). To be perfectly honest, some of the magic of E3 has always been these spectacular failures. Either way, success or failure, E3 has always been a spectacle, and a can’t miss moment for gamers each year since its inception.
E3 has, in a way, always been the essence of gaming culture itself at that moment in its history, condensed into one LA convention center. And as the culture of both the fans and the industry shift, so too does the show itself. Long gone are male-centric (and grossly misogynistic) concepts like “booth babes”, over-sexualized female characters and overtly-violent male characters. The nature of the developers, the press and the fans have shifted, and so too has the show. The industry and culture has been growing more humble, diverse, accepting, and image-conscious as it matures from a Boys Only Club to a big tent where people of all ages, lifestyles and tastes are welcome.
And the shoe fits – this is a more socially conscious era. The rise of social networking brought human culture into closer contact then ever before. And as this was happening, the video game industry was hit by the 2008 financial crisis and went though an aggressive series of closures, buyouts and consolidations that left an innovation gap, as well as plenty of room at the bottom for new blood. With the arrival of cheaper development tools and friendlier architectures in home consoles… the aforementioned social media boom… new ways to crowdfund with websites like Kickstarter… and the rise of self-publishing and early access programs through Steam… the Indie revolution in gaming began in earnest, and the landscape of E3 has been utterly transformed ever since.
But in this brave new world, is there still a place for E3? Despite being so vital to the video gaming all these years, E3 seems to be slowly losing it’s relevance. And someday, perhaps not long from now, it’s quite possible that E3 will exist only in our memories. How could this happen? And is it a positive or negative sign for for gaming industry and game culture?
Well, I think we’re all out of time for today! We’ll focus on the potential doom and gloom next round. But this week, please share in the comments some of your favorite memories from E3’s past. Let’s all fondly remember what once was before we gaze in the abyss of what may be. See you all soon!