E3 Lives Up to the Childhood Hype

This year, I finally got to realize a childhood dream. I didn’t become a firefighter, pilot or Batman. I also didn’t go to the moon. I did, however, go to the end-all-be-all of video game events — the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or “E3.”

How could going to a tradeshow be a childhood dream, you might ask? Well, you can probably chalk that one up to Nintendo’s crack marketing team. I used to subscribe to Nintendo Power as a child – before I did the math and realized that, as the official Nintendo magazine, it never gave a game a negative review. Each year, Nintendo Power hyped the E3 trade show in its features section to no avail. E3 was akin to a birthday celebration for new video games to be born into the world. It’s where everyone saw Super Mario World, Star Fox and Nintendo 64 for the first time. They even sent out VHS cassettes with footage of demos at the show. It seemed like a gamers’ nirvana.

Enter 2010. I was still in a state of disbelief that I was even allowed to cover the event as a member of the press alongside writers from Engadget, Gizmodo, and the New York Times; that is, until I saw a few guys in grunge metal T-shirts with press badges from DeVry, but that being said it was still a thrill.

The event took place this year at the Los Angeles Convention Center. From two blocks away you could see the multi-story banners advertising new titles. Out front, Virgin Interactive had a Plexiglas case with one million dollars in cash inside which was to be awarded to the winner of a contest. You have to love events where companies give carte blanche to their marketing department for expenses, especially in this economy.

Once inside, the spectacle and energy is palpable. Every company has a “booth” to advertise their newest products. Calling them booths couldn’t be more of a misnomer, though. A better description would be “excessive multimedia-rich art instillations,”—at least for the big boys, like Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, and EA Games. Sections located around the periphery of the show host rows of more traditional exhibitor booths, but one expects to see tumbleweed to bounce by in those areas. It really is both the Wild West and the urban ghetto of the show, where reps from import/export companies and resellers you’ve never heard of sit around, seemingly wondering why they themselves are there. I tried to stay away from that section as much as possible to avoid the first ten minutes of “Leaving Las Vegas” incarnate.

The big company booths were the real source of entertainment. Some call the booths opulent, but the whole spectacle really comes off as more like testosterone-fueled, ahem,  “part” measuring. For instance, Microsoft had a brand new Ferrari F430 parked in front of one of their Kinect demo booths (more on that later). Necessary, no; cool, absolutely.

Kinect was one of the major exhibits at this year’s show. Kinect is an attachment for Microsoft’s XBOX 360 that adds Nintendo Wii-like motion interactivity to the system but without remotes (it uses an array of sensors to interpret where your body is in space without accessories). I had read about this before the show and it seemed like a big gimmick, but when I got there, I saw something that changed my mind.

A Microsoft rep was standing in front of an HDTV looking at a rendering of the very Ferrari that was actually on display just a few feet away. This wasn’t unusual; good renderings of cars have existed for years in Sony’s Grand Turismo franchise. However, my mind was blown when he walked closer to the monitor and the perspective of the car came more into focus, even with monitor jitter that simulated footsteps. He then crouched down and the perspective on the monitor followed suit, now showing a view of a lower quarter panel on the car. To translate: imagine just waking towards an object on screen and having it scale proportionately to your perspective. It’s like turning the virtual camera in a game into a steady cam held by you—all without physical controllers. Truly a 21st century device. However, since I am not the biggest fan of the Wii’s control scheme, time will tell whether games for Kinect will be truly innovative or motion sensing knock offs. One thing is for sure — if the games don’t live up to the Kinect hype, it will definitely be to the fault of the software and not the hardware.

The other big event at the show was the first public launch of the Nintendo 3DS handheld. This device promises 3-D graphics without glasses on a handheld device. While I admittedly did not stand in the four-hour line to play one, I did get to see people play them, and the graphics were surprisingly impressive. One of the features that stuck out to me was the ability to dial up or dial down the 3-D effect anywhere from completely flat 2-D to super exaggerated, plane breaking 3-D. I have never seen anything like that before.

One 3-D game I did get to play was Gran Turismo 5, the long awaited sequel to Sony’s respected racing sim franchise. This was admittedly pretty spectacular, and worth the long line to play. The big misconception about 3-D people have is that things are supposed to pop out at you all the time. To the contrary, good 3-D is about expanding the perspective of the medium one is looking at. Added depth and sense of scale are far more engrossing than exaggerated parallax shifting or plane breaking 3-D effects. This is where GT5 excels – the subtle 3-D rendering treatment shows the artful restraint of the developers, and looks amazing in person. 3-D gaming, dare I say it, is certainly here to stay. (Let’s hope a UCI server issue prevents me from anyone fact-checking that statement in 20 years).

Overall, the experience was engrossing, stimulating and rewarding. Where else can you see a larger than life Pac Man, or see Russell Simmons bump shoulders with “booth babes”? The answers are nowhere else and probably a lot of places. For me though, the true joy came in realizing a dorky childhood dream. And what a joy it was.

Michael Boileau is a fifth-year political science major. He can be reached at mboileau@uci.edu.