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A newbie's take on E3

This year's E3 was a first for CNET reporter Josh Lowensohn. Was it all it was cracked up to be, or were there just too many moving parts?

SAN FRANCISCO--Freshly back from my first E3, I can now view my time there with rose-tinted glasses. There were entertaining press conferences, an uncountable number of playable demos, and legions of excited gamers who spent hours in long lines to get a first crack at new games and hardware.

But beneath all that, what I saw was an event so large, and so difficult to cover that it's no wonder so many other gaming events like the Tokyo Game Show, Entertainment for All, and Leipzig Games Convention have sprung up to serve as additional outlets for the iterative, and fast-paced development cycle of modern day games.

Covering a show like E3 demands a workload that no small-time operation can hope to accomplish without giving up food, sleep, bathroom breaks, and many other human dignities. That's why CNET's sister site, GameSpot, sent more than 50 people to the expo--all of whom got to work in an office smack dab in the middle of the show floor that they affectionately called "the fishbowl" because of its clear windows, which allowed E3 attendees to peek in.

Privacy? What privacy? GameSpot's E3 office could be found right on the show floor, letting expo-goers get a look inside. James Martin / CNET

For any smaller operations though, it's a never ending cycle of squeezing into empty spots on the show floor, convention center hallways, or rolling the dice in trying to get a quiet spot in the media rooms, which serve as ad-hoc video production studios for mostly twenty-somethings from all around the world. In a way, there's something really beautiful about that, because at E3, media teams big and small can get access to the very same people from hundreds of development studios and publishers--all in one building.

Lots of moving parts, and lines
So how does E3 really work? All the big news happens before the Expo even starts. And in order to squeeze it all in, and get that many people from event A to event B, then to C,D,E,F,G and so on, all the major press conferences are stacked up right next to one another. That means a whole lot of people switching between various states of waiting--be it in registration lines, holding areas, shuttle queues, or the most crowded men's bathrooms in all of the world.

This cycle creates a froth of pack journalism, the end result being that E3 attendees know exactly what to expect, long before they enter the L.A. Convention Center. The really strange part about it though, is that there are often chunks of the really neat things the press gets shown at the pre-show news events that attendees never gets to see. For instance, many of the live demos seen during this year's keynotes from Sony and Microsoft could only be played behind closed doors, or in some cases--through scripted developer play-throughs. These are often the games that will be shipping next holiday season, and will get a more public look at next year's show.

For the hot hardware and software that does make its way to the expo floor though, showing it off to the public without long wait times is unavoidable. Nintendo's solution to keep things moving was to strap its new 3DS portable hardware to a hundred or so identically-dressed women that Nintendo of America's President Reggie Fils-Aime affectionately called "tour guides." These ladies served not only as security to make sure someone didn't take off with a 3DS unit, but to also politely tell fans to move along when their allotted playtime had run out.

The queue to get wristbands for Sony's E3 press briefing. Josh Lowensohn / CNET

Sony and Microsoft ran into a similar problem with trying to show off motion-sensing hardware, which required a much larger amount of demo space with many controlled aspects like enclosed rooms with one or more transparent walls so onlookers could gawk. Lines for these experiences stretched around each company's booth.

Could long lines be eliminated completely though? Not given the current scale. This year's show, which boasted 45,600 attendees over its three days, was packed to the gills. Trying to get even half of that many people siphoned into the amount of space exhibitors have to show off what can be a 5- to 10-minute entertainment experience isn't easy.

Things worth remembering
"What was the best thing you saw there?" my cabbie asked me we zoomed towards the airport. I told him I liked "the new 3D Nintendo thing" to avoid any long explanations, but in reality I was the most impressed by Sony's press conference. Not for what new hardware that was announced (or rather priced), but by the company's bravado, its inclination to bring out lots of developers for live demos, and huge set pieces like an ice cream van being driven by a clown holding a sword made out of riveted-together saw blades. That's just something you don't see every day, which is exactly what these events should be.

Twisted Metal's Sweet Tooth zooms out onto Sony's stage as part of the Twisted Metal PlayStation 3 reveal. Josh Lowensohn / CNET

To Microsoft's credit, it too managed to do a very good job at showing what could be done with its upcoming Kinect hardware, which will be out this fall. The company's onstage demos went off with little, if no issues. And we got a good idea of how Kinect will work with the Xbox 360's existing system software, which is getting a really smart interface overhaul that will support the newly-added gesture-based controls.

But one area where Microsoft really lost me was in its surprise announcement of the redesigned Xbox 360 hardware, which was saved until the very end of the event. Don Mattrick, who is Xbox's senior vice president, essentially glossed over many details, spelling out only the main bullet points you'd find on the box, while leaving out some of the really neat things the company had changed from the previous Xbox design; things like moving the optical audio-out port on its own so that people using HDMI connections no longer have to buy a proprietary adapter from the company, and that it is now using a more energy-efficient CPU and GPU built into one chip. These seem like pretty good selling points to me.

What was a bigger show disappointment was Nintendo's press conference. As I wrote up shortly after the event, the company did a great job at playing to its longtime fans with reboots or continuations of very popular franchises, but it was decidedly light on the onstage demos. To some degree, it made up for this with lots of kiosks in its giant expo booth, but in my mind a few more live demos would have jibed much better with what Nintendo's Fils-Aime had been preaching about adjusting everyone's expectations of what motion controls are good for at the press conference opener. If Nintendo really wanted to get Sony's Move and Microsoft's Kinect off everyone's minds, that would have been the best time and place to do it.

As my plane took off and whisked me away from the crowds, flashy new gadgets and games, I realized what I should have told my cab driver. My favorite part of the show was seeing 45,000 people from all over the world descend into the middle of Los Angeles to share in a hobby that hundreds of millions of others enjoy. And, hey--bonus points for not setting parts of downtown on fire, unlike those Lakers fans.