California Dreamin’

The Electronic Entertainment Expo is the premier event in the video game calendar. In this guest post, Abertay’s Paul McGee writes about his experience during E3 as an IGDA Scholar.

When I learned of my scholarship I was absolutely thrilled, having been a fervent follower of E3 for over a decade. However, none of this could prepare me for the week ahead and everything I gained from the experience. Indeed, it’s hard not to have excited, preconceived notions about this week of publicity, business deals and announcements; from a distance it can appear big, loud and crude. This is far from the whole story. Yes, I was certainly impressed by the bravado and showmanship; choppy video streams do not do the press conferences justice (although I remain less enthused by the ever pervasive dubstep!). What really made an impression on me as I chatted and got to know many of the attendees is that, E3, and by extension the videogame industry, is people: lots of dedicated, hardworking and interesting people. It was great to get a ticket to E3, but it was fantastic to get a chance to meet and be inspired by those who make up the industry.

Venice Beach near sunset.

It began on Sunday as Ashley Zeldin, our great IGDA Scholars coordinator, arranged for all of us to meet up in town and get to know each other over some food, I was humbled to be included in a group of such talented folks. My time in California was interesting and invaluable for not only meeting game professionals, but also peers from many different backgrounds. That evening a few of us, as the tourists we were, made the most of our little free time and visited Venice Beach, dipping our toes and breathing in the local air of the Santa Monica development scene. Welcome to California.

Me with Tim Schafer, being impeccably photo-bombed by recent NYU graduate and fellow scholar Liza Singer.

I will refrain from detailing my incredible trip in excruciating detail, but I will try and give a taste. Tuesday was the first day of the show floor, but, I barely got a moment to see it at all! It began with the Nintendo Press Conference, followed by bumping into some familiar faces afterwards, some sessions with the WiiU console, and a visit to the IGDA booth to say hello. We then decided to check out the Indiecade area, where independent and up-and-coming developers were showcasing their games. I was only there for a couple of minutes before a chance meeting with Chris Bell, a designer on Way, and Journey. A short Discussion on exciting future projects became a snaking and probing hour and a half of some of the most stimulating game design conversation I’ve ever had. This all happened during the hustle and bustle, at the same spot he grabbed me to say hello. Chris was unbelievably open, friendly and generous with his time. and this was reflected in many of the people I met throughout the week.

Following this, Jon (a scholar from UC Santa Cruz) and I hurried to catch Brendon Chung, an ex-Pandemic developer turned Indie Designer responsible for games such as Gravity Bone, and Atom Zombie Smasher. In the shade outside, removed from all the noise, Brendon regaled us with stories about game design and provided very enjoyable and experienced advice about independent development. Back inside we bumped into Ron Gilbert and talked about adventure games for some minutes before rushing to the reception of “Into the Pixel”. This was an art exhibition showcasing sixteen of this years strongest works of visual art created by those in the industry, accompanied by an elegant quartet playing great arrangements of such erudite classics as the theme from Mortal Kombat! Amongst others I had an opportunity to talk to a CGI composition and lighting artist at Blizzard, involved in the creation of one of the works on display, and got an interesting insight into the process behind it. Finally, just to top it all off in style, as the reception wound down we had an audience with Jenova Chen, founder and game designer at ThatGameCompany. For the best part of an hour we were able to pick his brain for insight on design, his own work, small studios and innovation. Yes, this was all in a single day!

A meal with many of the scholars.

While not every day was quite as busy as this, they were not far off and on the other hand generally included a lot more E3 parties! When I did have time to visit the show floor I tended towards places which gave opportunities to talk to the actual developers, such as the upper level of Sony’s booth, a VIP section which we were given access. Having the ability to talk with actual contributors to the games and understand the thinking behind choices and ideas as they demo their work they have poured sweat and tears into, was incredible rewarding – I had a great chat with a social game developer at the Konami booth. For similar reasons, I also spent quite a bit of time at ‘Indiecade’ where many of game creators were showing their current works in progress for the very first time and actively seeking feedback on them, such as Erin Robinson (creator of Gravity Moon). Indeed on Wednesday one enterprising young upstart, without any E3 pass and completely independently of Indiecade, except in spirit, demoed his game and fun homemade controller featuring a dozen huge buttons on some spare floor nearby. This little pavilion was not the only place you could find developers being a little brave though.

Dishonored, demoed by designer Harvey Smith, stood out as a game picking up from where other titles such as Thief or Deus Ex left off. By respecting the audience, and most importantly by rewarding and facilitating their creativity in gameplay. The industry is still largely treading water between console cycles and it was refreshing to see many developers throughout the week not satisfied with simply maintaining the status quo.

My last day in Los Angeles.

In the sun on Friday afternoon, my last day in L.A. Myself and another scholar, Drew Utterback, climbed into the Los Angeles hills and up toward the observatory above the city to get some distance from the proceedings. E3 isn’t just confined to the convention centre. For a week all of Downtown is taken over by our little industry; from the inescapable advertisements on billboards and buildings, to people talking in the street – and one guy excitedly talking to me in a phone shop – to parties filling hotels and clubs at night and even right into your own hotel. In fact one of the most rewarding encounters was with a small group of Austrian developers, Bplus, staying at my accommodation with whom I met and talked with most nights. On my last evening I finally got the chance to play and talk to them about their fun, upcoming 3DS E-Shop game ‘Bit Boy!! ARCADE’. You couldn’t help but succumb to their passion.

This week I met so many interesting people, every person at a different point on the path to reaching their goals, many taking wildly different routes. I feel like I got to know the other scholars very well too, we were all in this whirlwind together, and hopefully I return to Scotland a few good friends richer. I’m grateful to the IGDA, Ashley Zeldin and everyone involved who made all of this possible. The videogame industry is simply fantastic people, and this week I was thankful to be surrounded by so many all trying to make a spot for themselves to do what they love.

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