E3 2013: It’s not about the games

e3_2013_writeup_headerby ncsuDuncan

Growing up as a very young Nintendo fanboy during the reign of the N64, it’s no surprise that Nintendo Power magazine was my first introduction to the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). Without the internet to rely on for gaming news and previews, I was forced to wait an entire month for each new issue of the publication to arrive at my door. A trade show where attendees could play unreleased video games all day instead of waiting on print media for gaming news? Reading about that filled my head with the kind of dreams only a kid raised on The Wizard could think up.

This summer, I finally got to fulfill my childhood fantasy of attending E3, but I think Young Duncan would be disappointed with how Adult Duncan spent his time: I never set foot in the Nintendo booth, I barely played any games, and I certainly didn’t challenge Donkey Kong to a round of Mario Kart 64. Just like PAX, I discovered that the greatest part of E3, the part that really matters, has nothing to do with the games on display. It’s buried beneath the surface – let’s go looking for it:

Sunday: Sightseeing and Serenity

My trip started on Sunday, June 9th, with an early morning flight across the country after a sleepless night of packing and driving. A one-hour layover in Chicago gave me all the excuse I needed to eat pizza for breakfast, though I admit that an overpriced airport mini-pizza might not be representative of a true Chicago-style pie.

Obligatory window shot over the Grand Canyon.

Obligatory window shot over the Grand Canyon.

Wheels down at LAX, I was greeted by my fellow DBO admin Colin (mastrbiggy) waiting with his modest Toyota Prius, the official DBO Clown Car for the week. (If you’re familiar with how tall Claude Errera is, the analogy should become apparent.) We spent the afternoon cruising around downtown LA in the eerily quiet hybrid before going on a scenic trip with our friend Tashi to see the lively streets of Santa Monica and the stunning nighttime view from Pacific Palisades.

The skybox is a little bland, but the lighting engine is fantastic.

The skybox is a little bland, but the lighting engine is fantastic.

Returning to the airport, we picked up GrimBrother One and immediately took him to an amusingly overcrowded In & Out Burger for a late-night meal. Sunday may have been low on excitement, but it was a relaxing day that served as an excellent prelude to the hectic pace of Monday’s jam-packed schedule.


Monday: Press Conferences and Parties

The early start time for Microsoft’s Xbox Media Briefing called for a groggy morning reveille for the DBO away team – we certainly didn’t want to watch the show on our smartphones while trapped in LA’s freeway traffic. After a harrowing encounter with the disgruntled police officer poorly directing traffic outside the Galen Center, we made our way into the venue and promptly ran into fellow community member Bryan Newman, looking very sharp in his fancy business suit.

I’ll spare you an in-depth impression of the press conference itself (you can listen to The Starside Lounge for that), but I do think it’s worth mentioning that GrimBrother One nearly wet himself when Killer Instinct was announced. To be fair, the Forza 5 segment left us both speechless when a shadowy pit opened on the stage floor to reveal a McLaren P1 rising from the foggy depths.

This explains the terrible valet service.

This explains the terrible valet service.

I’m usually not a fan of cheesy “audience participation” segments in a press conference, but I was very amused when the Crimson Dragon trailer’s audio cut out and the crowd helped fill the awkward silence with a chorus of explosion noises and “pew pew pew” sounds.

After the Xbox briefing ended, we decided to grab burritos for lunch with a handful of community members, including UnrealCh13f, Naked Eli, Tex, and former Bungie engineer Max Dyckhoff (who now works for Naughty Dog). The rest of the afternoon was spent on a slow orbit around the convention center as we picked up our E3 badges and watched various teamsters scurry around the halls, prepping the building for the expo’s opening on Tuesday. Our trajectory eventually brought us to the Sony Press Conference Pre-Party, set up in a sunny parking lot adjacent to the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. The outdoor gala featured a central area with a well-stocked open bar and an outer perimeter lined with food trucks offering an assortment of greasy (and free) meals.

Claude holding court.

Claude holding court as the jester makes his move.

What could possibly beat free booze and free food? Fellowship, of course. Bungie.Org’s first foray into the Sony world since the Oni days had us quickly staking out our own corner of the party, where we happily chatted about the possibilities awaiting in Destiny’s portion of the upcoming press conference. The conversation bubbled with anticipation, which only grew as community friends Mid7night, Domino Theory, and Voltron64 showed up to join the fun. Our cheerful group was soon subjected to a delightful interruption: the arrival of a large group of Bungie employees fresh from the last presentation rehearsal, ready to grab a beer and mingle with fans.

Any preconceived notions I had about the quiet, mysterious man we call Jason Jones were immediately dashed away once I talked to the surprisingly friendly and affable Bungie co-founder. When DeeJ introduced me to Jason, I did my best to play it cool and not geek out while casually shaking his hand, despite the fanboyish blubbering of my inner monologue. Moments later, I met Bungie hostess Brittany Lichty (a very helpful email correspondent during my E3 planning), and all of my pent-up excitement was released in a comically effusive exclamation of gratitude. Jason chuckled as my obvious act of “playing it cool” crumbled and a sheepish grin spread across my face.

The Sony press conference had its fair share of highs and lows, but hearing the crowd burst into excited cheers and thunderous applause at the mention of “No DRM” was a surreal experience. Despite the merry uproar of a thousand vindicated consumers, I knew that the best was yet to come: Joe Staten and company commanding the stage with an amazing gameplay demo.

Welcome to Old Russia.

Welcome to Old Russia.

Once the show ended, we walked to a nearby bar Bungie had reserved for a private get-together, chatting with Luke Timmins and Dan Miller along the way. The stern, calculating face of DeeJ The Bouncer stopped us at the pub entrance with feigned coldness before breaking into a warm, friendly smile and opening the door to an evening of bawdy jokes, candid conversation, and at least one broken pint glass. The Destiny community was well represented, with the Bungie.Org delegation joined by friendly ambassadors from The Guardians of Destiny as well as Bungie.net’s own forum. There were a surprising number of Bungie employees in attendance as well; I recognized many familiar faces from the ViDocs of years past. Pete Parsons was particularly talkative, providing some very interesting insight into his personal gaming habits and how they inform Destiny’s design. After a few hours and more than a few japes at Claude’s expense, we were kindly shooed out the door by the amicable bar staff who were ready to close up shop. I would have gladly spent the entire night chatting about Destiny instead of getting some much-needed sleep, so it was a beneficial push – the press conferences were over but the Expo itself was waiting in the morning!


Tuesday: The Expo Floor and the Crowds

The show floor at E3 is very similar to what you’d experience in the exhibit hall at PAX: elaborate booths, giant video screens, and a constant buzz of light and sound coming from every direction. Despite the similar environment, E3 is an industry trade show closed to the public – and you can tell. PAX is home to creative cosplayers, cookie brigades, and impromptu dance parties, while E3 is the realm of journalists looking for their next headline or sound bite. Everyone is still excited and friendly, but you get the feeling that a large number of attendees are there just to get work done, not play and have fun like the usual PAX crowd. The sense of community at E3 has a different flavor to it, one that reminds you that the gaming industry is still a business at its core. Fortunately, I had a solid group of friends, new and old, to keep the personal, brotherly spirit of PAX alive amidst the gruff professionalism of downtown Los Angeles.

Community member Zach Wigal, working at the Activision booth, managed to sneak us past the long line and into the second Destiny presentation of the day. I would eventually see the same gameplay demo six times over the course of E3, but it was exciting and informative every time. After a later showing, DeeJ pulled the DBO team aside to do a brief on-camera interview for his Day 1 ReCap video. It wasn’t hard to come up with nice things to say about Destiny, though I imagine editing together a coherent response from each of us must have taken a lot of work in post-production.

With three full days on the E3 show floor, we spent surprisingly little time actually playing games – I tried out Forza 5 just to get my hands on an Xbox One controller and stopped at a Blacklight: Retribution kiosk to test out the PS4 hardware. Assassin’s Creed 4 and Titanfall were the only non-Destiny presentations we watched – we didn’t want to spend half our trip standing in line! Strangely, the game I spent the most time playing during E3 was on a tablet – mostly because we made frequent trips to the Spartan Assault corner of the Microsoft booth to say hello to bs angel, Bravo, and the rest of our 343 Industries friends in attendance. (It didn’t hurt that the McLaren P1 – only two of which exist in the world – was a mere ten feet away, slowly rotating on a closely-guarded pedestal.)


They wouldn’t let me drive it after seeing my practice run in Forza 5.

The majority of our E3 time was spent bouncing between the Bungie booth and the media hospitality lounge (the only place in the convention center with a usable Wi-Fi network). We were doing our best to record content for DBO and keep the frontpage updated, but I always felt like we could have done more. Every gaming convention I attend leaves me feeling guilty afterward – I wish I could have captured more footage and recorded more interviews for the community folks that couldn’t make it. At least I know I’ll do better next time: with each subsequent PAX/Comic-con/E3 I always seem to learn a new lesson about content production during crowded, hectic events.

Media attendees like us were promptly kicked out of the show floor at 6:00pm each day, but the Bungie gang snuck us into their private theater before closing time Tuesday evening so that we could watch them rehearse with the next day’s demo team. Joe Staten passed the PS4 controller to DeeJ, who narrated his presentation with a hilariously ribald British accent, peppering the gameplay with a barrage of lewd jokes that would never be included in an actual public demo. A second rehearsal began after a large group of Respawn developers arrived at the theater, happy to be done with their own presentations for the day; in return, they invited the Bungie team to visit their booth on Wednesday evening for an after-hours presentation of Titanfall.

I can't believe the convention center let them drop this thing through the ceiling.

I can’t believe the convention center let them drop this thing through the ceiling.

Once the rehearsals were all completed, we left the Bungie theater and walked through the now-empty show floor, gawking at the unusually dark and quiet booths on our way out. Our destination? Dinner with DeeJ and company. Being introduced to Chris Butcher during our trek was quite a treat: “Your name is Duncan? As in ncsuDuncan? I’m a fan of your work.” Well shucks, Chris, I suppose I’m a fan of your work as well. John Stvan was hilarious at dinner, giving us the full story on how he became Tiger Man while Urk and DeeJ offered amusing Bungie anecdotes of their own.


Wednesday: Sneaking Missions and Street Smarts

“Do you guys work for Bungie?” This was a common question for the DBO away team during our stay in LA, and it’s easy to see why: we were often hanging around the Bungie booth, wearing Bungie shirts and Destiny lanyards! Sometimes we’d be halfway into a conversation before realizing that this friendly passerby had mistaken us for Bungie employees. The E3 media badges the DBO team wore all said BUNGIE.ORG except mine – for some reason my credentials were listed as DESTINY BUNGIE. This came in handy on Wednesday morning when we arrived late for an unofficial private demo appointment at the Activision press rooms. Held up by an enormous line at the entrance to the show hall, we finally got to the back of the Activision booth and realized DeeJ was no longer waiting at the door to get us past the security guard – he had to leave and go start his presentation in the Bungie theater. No problem – I confidently walked up to the security guard, flashed my DESTINY BUNGIE badge, and (after getting his nod of approval) waved my fellow DBO admins through the door.

We never got to play Destiny’s E3 gameplay demo with our own hands, but the private demo was as close as you could get without treading into awkward Ghost territory. I sat a comfortable distance away from Danny Bulla, the main Warlock, but could tell him where to walk, what to look at, and when to shoot the puddles of water. Seeing Destiny on a crisp HDTV really brought out the amazing detail and brilliant lighting in a way that the projector screen in the booth theater never did. Our appreciation for Bungie’s special treatment of DBO was enriched when we later found out that our private session had bumped an LA Times reporter to a later slot in the schedule! After the demo, we got a chance to interview Chris Butcher and I pointed out how my DESTINY BUNGIE badge let me waltz right into the Activision back rooms. “It’s a good thing you don’t know where the tech room is, you could just walk in and carry away a server!” he quipped, and we all laughed – the door a few feet behind Chris was clearly labelled TECH ROOM.

My eyes! The goggles do nothing!

My eyes! The goggles do nothing!

For dinner on Wednesday, Claude, Colin, and I gave the Bungie team a break and met up with forum member Cody Miller instead. It was nice to finally put a face to the name I usually associate with lengthy, heated forum debates and see that Cody was quite friendly and easy to talk to in person – we had a very entertaining conversation about the direction Bungie is going with Destiny. After splitting up the dinner check in the most complicated way possible, we decided that since Claude only had one beer he should drive the Prius back to the hotel. As we pulled out of the downtown LA parking lot, I softly and calmly spoke up from the back seat, “Uh, Claude? This isn’t a one-way road. You might want to get in the right lane.” Traffic was almost nonexistent, so the greatest danger to our health at the time wasn’t a head-on collision – it was the breathless laughter that soon filled the tiny car.


Thursday: Major Awards and Dude Huge

The final day of E3 was a little bittersweet, but we scrambled to made the most of it. Since our friend Tashi had flown home the night before, we wound up with an extra E3 badge we were able to give to local DBO member Stephen Laughlin. Our first objective for the day was to finally catch the Destiny portion of the Activision “ronut” presentation. Standing in front of the giant panoramic screen as Marty’s music filled our ears, we became children gazing in wonder at the stars. It was a unique experience that I hope more Bungie fans get to enjoy one day.

After grabbing an excellent, lasagna-packed lunch with Jessica Shea (bs angel), we wandered back to the Activision booth and noticed the outbreak of judge’s awards adorning the Bungie wall. It was clear what we had to do, and after an extensive hunt for a usable color printer we fashioned our own prize to add to the display of “real” awards:

Loitering outside the Destiny booth in the last hour of E3, I struck up a conversation with Bungie writer Dave Mongan. We were in the middle of a pleasant chat about writing stories for games when a couple walked up and interrupted us – it was none other than Cliff Bleszinski and his wife! He asked if there was a chance we could get them into the Bungie theater to see Destiny before the show floor closed for good, until Dave shut him down: “The line is over there, but I think it’s a few hours of waiting. Sorry!” Cliff started to walk away and Dave resumed our conversation. “I have no idea who that guy was,” he said, which got me laughing. “Uh, Dave, that’s Cliffy B. He worked on this little game called Gears of War…” Dave was absolutely shocked, “What?! Really? I like Gears of War! Cliff, come back! We’ll sneak you into the back of the theater.” You owe me one, Bleszinski.


Friday: Safe Travels and the Moral of the Story

My adventure in Los Angeles nearly over, I woke up early on Friday morning and took a disturbingly fast cab ride to the airport. Adding up the 7.5 hours of my two return flights, the 3 hours of time zone difference, and the 1.5 hour drive home from the airport, my journey home took the entire day. Having to choose between listening to a crying baby and subjecting myself to the audio of the in-flight movie “Safe Haven” was no easy task, but I managed to survive with most of my sanity intact. Home again, home again, jiggity-jig.

If you still haven’t figured out what I meant by “the greatest thing at E3” in my opening paragraph, I’ll spell it out for you: it’s Soylent Green. Er, I mean it’s people. People are the greatest thing about PAX, and it’s no different at E3. Waiting in line to play Forza 5 a few months early is not an experience I’ll treasure years from now. Laughing my ass off at the absurdity of Claude Errera trying to fix server issues back home over a phone-tethered laptop while sitting in a hybrid car hurtling through LA traffic – that’s a memory I’ll hold on to for a long time. The Superintendent sound effect from ODST is forever changed for me – I’ll always picture my fellow DBO away team members simultaneously reaching for their phones because we shared the same ringtone all week.

Away mission complete.

Away mission complete.

E3 got me excited for Destiny, not because of anything in the gameplay demo (as awesome as it was), but because the Bungie developers I met who are building the game were all wonderful, friendly people. I’m excited for Destiny because the Bungie fans I met and hung out with in Los Angeles were the type of people I want to build and share a community with. You have to look beneath the surface of E3 to figure out that it’s made special by the people you spend time with, not the games. Destiny is going to bring those people together and I can’t wait to see how the community responds, both online and in person.

I can’t wait for PAX.


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5 Responses to E3 2013: It’s not about the games

  1. Seenohte July 11, 2013 at 4:17 pm #

    Great writeup for those of us who couldn’t make it! Sounds like an amazing time out there. Looking forward to the other 2/3.

  2. linkdude64 July 11, 2013 at 5:50 pm #

    Full of win!!! ^0^ Beautiful write-up, and I’m glad that there is now even more Bungie fan-dom here in Los Angeles! So cool that all of your hard work and dedication has gotten you places. You’re really living the dream!

  3. Antonio Alaniz July 11, 2013 at 6:16 pm #

    Hope destiny slaughters halo, just simply because its bungie.

  4. butcher July 12, 2013 at 6:13 am #

    Nice writeup, Duncan. Glad you guys could make it.

    And I laughed out loud at the CliffyB anecdote. Too funny.

  5. mehve July 12, 2013 at 6:05 pm #

    Duncan, you remind me why going to E3 is worthwhile. Also… I agree with Butcher… Dave and CliffyB. LOL.

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