Articles » E3 2003: a Show to (not) Remember
By Jeff Fiske (4/1/2004)

A brief explanation about the origins of this write-up: After my first trip to E3 in 1998 I wrote up a game designer’s point of view of the show, both for our employees who could not make the trip and for the non-designers that had attended the show. I was surprised how useful this exercise was for me personally, and so I have done it every year since. I got in the routine of writing up my notes within 48 hours of the show, then monitoring the game sites on the web to see how the commentary of others compared with my own initial opinions. Two years ago I shared these notes on the Tilted Mill company website.

Last year (2003) was different. Where were games designed exclusively for the PC audience? Where were the games designed as an entertainment form not to be played while seated on a sofa with a controller, but in the convenience and privacy of one’s own PC? I wanted to see games designed with no apologies for not having multi-player play, not pretending to have it, and not giving you an adrenaline rush from the moment you start – you know, games that were just about you and a wonderful world you can only explore in a PC.

I also had some prognosticating about publishers that I did not feel like stating publicly.

Thus I did not want to share those notes with anyone, but in preparation for this year’s event I opened up my notes and was surprised at (dare I say) at how relevant they were, and still are. I think these actually are a better benchmark of the state of the industry than the general perception of the show, so here they are - I toss them out to the world as food for thought, and a commentary on what I thought of last year’s show.

Several years ago E3 was born. This was after a particularly confusing CES show where games were in one half of the space and the real CES show was in another half. After this debacle in Las Vegas key people decided it was time to do their own show.

So how can a show based just on games still manage to lack any focus? Why is it that booths have grown to become more important than the products in them? Are brands more important than product? Is the company with the best party going to sell the most games?

It has been established by many who make a living putting words on paper, real or CRT generated, that E3 means different things to different people. Over time, many vendors have come to the show hoping to attract knowledgeable buyers, cut lucrative deals from suits looking for tax write-offs, and of course all of us who actually make content to support all of these other people come to support our products. Confused? Well that is what E3 is (except I did not shout this at you with either the Carmina Burana blaring at you or with Gary Coleman telling you why you should love the show).

Every year E3 seems to take on a slightly different flavor. Though the general trend has been to tone down the debauchery so that people actually remember products they saw, the need to present everything as if it is a music video seems to get stronger. (Yes, MTV does show videos on occasion, check your local listings.) This over-saturation of real noise, computer generated violent/visceral/testosterone-focused action, combined with scantily clad pseudo-humans that fall somewhere between these two, combine for a mind-numbing experience.

Within this context we see salespeople and retail buyers trying to actually find out details on products so they can determine sales potentials, developers wandering around looking for a publishing executive who can keep their studios afloat, press people who have three page lists of the games they ‘need to cover’, more Europeans than you find at Euro-Disney, and lots of people meandering around looking like they partied all night, and being perfectly happy to sit in line for a couple of hours to watch the Half-life2 video while they recover.

Similar to the previous year, we went to E3 last year to meet up with past contacts, put a face to new contacts, establish contact with people we want to hook up with again - and to see what was coming around the bend so we could make sure we were on track.

Also, as always, we went to determine the state of the industry. As we walked around the show looking for gems in gameplay, or games with similar themes as ours, we also looked around to compare what we saw to our own project. Part of this comparison involved talking to fellow developers, and measuring our team and our content against theirs, making sure we could deliver a product that would meet all of your expectations in terms of innovation, providing something you can’t get from anybody else and doing so in a way that is thoroughly enjoyable.

What we discovered after our 36 hour stay there, was that with the exception of maybe two games that would compete with us, the rest were not even being shown on the floor. After the show, reading sites like Gamespy, and IGN, I could see that many of these games were in fact at the show; those on the show floor were emphasizing violent, visceral aspects of the game, instead of the strategy behind those encounters. Basically the gameplay that defined the strategy genre five years ago was not being shown on the show floor.

We also discovered that although the silly hype and partial nudity seems to come and go each year, last year was definitely about showing the most visceral and action packed of even what I would consider strategy games. The goal seemed to be to make every game seem like it had some console crossover appeal, even if it would never be played on a console. If I was watching Rise of Nations, there was a massive tank battle underway, Rome Total War was more about the Total War than it was about Rome, and so on.

Then I left the hall and started thinking about the experience our game offers. It is not about noise, action or adrenaline it is about escapist entertainment that only can be created on a PC. It is about relaxing and being pulled into a consistent setting whose ultimate destiny is within your control. You will build, nurture, evolve and explore in what will become a personal journey through the setting. A good PC game is like jumping into a novel while the ink is still wet and being able to write your own story.

Back to the show...

I remembered back to the previous year when Vivendi had had a terrible booth (think Scorpion King and black label games!! oops) and Microsoft & EA dominated the show floor. Last year Vivendi’s booth was much stronger, their licensed titles made much more sense and the games looked good (including WC online). Microsoft’s booth was huge, combining X-box with PC, which some might argue belittles both, and EA’s was getting tired, being basically the same booth for the last 3 years with the same titles regurgitated with last year’s number replaced with this year’s. However the titles themselves did look pretty darn good!!

It was also interesting how Activision and Take 2 seemed to have had the potential of being the next big boys on the block, and I felt that the subsequent year could prove to be interesting from the publishing side of our industry. Frankly I expected to see a lot of GTA rip-offs, but maybe that will show up this year - for now, Take 2 seems to have that market in their pocket as they added two GTA3 clones to their lineup.

But what about the games? We got stressed looking at all the adrenaline going on, even in the strategy games - and who has time to play 15 different MMPRPG’s? What about a relaxing, engrossing, mesmerizing, fascinating, stay up all night and call in sick to work the next day escapism offered by a well paced strategy game, with tunes from a real composer whisking your imagination to some far off place where you can explore places and concepts not available beyond the PC gaming experience!? Whew!

Okay, that is a little over the top, and I know I was a bit of a geek as a kid, but I also know that in a neighborhood of thirty kids, five of us enjoyed playing games that made us think, as much as we enjoyed games that gave us a rush. Where can we turn to find thinking games, or escapist entertainment games with the quality of graphics and technology usually associated with FPS or RTS games? There used to be a different kind of fun in pure strategy games, where you took your time, created your own little storyline and had a grand old time. As publishers QQP, Microprose, SSI, and Impressions made a living off of these games, where creating a private world totally different to anything possible in daily life was key.

Are we to assume that by adding big budgets and hi-quality graphics to the strategy genre the gameplay that made these games so much fun is somehow no longer relevant? Does that make sense?

Now, even the games that are supposed to make you think are focused on (and sold on) the crushing adrenaline, action or skin. Quality, non-time-stressful immersive strategy titles are being done on the fringes, (Strategy First, Sunflowers, our friends at Firefly and BigTimeSoftware) not in the mainstream, and those few strategy titles in the mainstream such as Lords of the Realm III and Rome Total War were either not on the show floor or were showing in some movie reel- they are not taking a prominent place in a publishers lineup. (I should mention Pop-Top and Railroad Tycoon 3 but I can barely remember their presence on a poster. Sorry Phil if you were there showing, I would have liked to stop in and say hi).

How does that make sense? I don’t think it does. We might have to show our game with noise-attenuating headsets in comfortable chairs so people can remember (or maybe experience for the first time!) how relaxing and enjoyable it is to escape to a world where someone is not blaring heavy metal music at you or trying to disembowel you.

Our level of escapism is complete, our artwork continues to stand out, our world is consistent, our game model supports both macro & micro-management seamlessly and intuitively, Keith’s tunes are as good as ever and there are more of them. In short we think our creation will show quite nicely at E3. It will be an oasis of calm and sensibility in a sea of cacophony, confusion and hype.

See us at E3 this year, and we should be proving all of this hype with more information.