So you run a gaming web site. You have a decent following, land some big exclusives (even if no one believes you) and good traffic and while you’re not an internet celebrity, you are willing to travel halfway across the country (or further) on your own time and dollar to cover the latest and greatest games for your readers. But even after building a network of contacts, you’ll simply be shut out by the biggest companies, even lied to. Coverage of the expo’s biggest events are ruled by an exclusive few, an inner circle – the IGNs, the GameTrailers and the Giant Bombs – and everyone else is shut out entirely. Unless you’re in the business of covering indie titles by small developers, gaming journalism boils down to being in an established circle of friends – the touted 300-400 full-time gaming journalists that this industry can support – having a lot of financial backing to kick your way in or being a major news outlet like ABC or Fox News. If you’re not any of those, you’re iced out of coverage at the highest tiers. Let me explain how getting your gaming site into E3 works.
Step 1: You Start Getting Appointments, But Only After A Bunch Of Faff
The first year you come to E3 as a media outlet, you’re out to get business cards and make contacts. Your conversations with Microsoft, 2K and EA will usually look like this:
You: “Hi, I want to have a permanent contact with your company so we can cover your games. Our traffic is <admirable number> and <other qualifying remarks>.”
PR: “That’s cute.” (hands you a business card with a “[email protected]” e-mail address on it or “press.gamecompany.com”)
You: “Yeah, I’ve already done that, then dug through your web site and Google to find all the other e-mail accounts you have.”
PR: “Just e-mail them again, they’ll get back to you and we’ll take care of you.”
And then they don’t. So you find someone or know someone who knows someone and you manage to get some e-mails out to the right people. Over the next year, you set up appointments for the next E3. You’re going to count on all of them and plan your day around them. Despite the effort, some publishers don’t really care, but I’ll explain that in a bit. You’ll also get a lot of e-mails back about how review copies are restricted for games you want to review (because your site’s not worthy, obviously) while some random fool on YouTube gets one inexplicably. What?
In the lead-up to E3, we were told by Microsoft that there wouldn’t be any behind-the-scenes booth tours, no appointments to book to see games and because they were being dodgy in their answers, we didn’t even know what they were unveiling – even under embargo – to see these games in advance. How do you get an appointment for a game you don’t know exists? Ubisoft said their press conference was full and we would be notified if space became available.
So you book the appointments you can with some great publishers like Deep Silver and other independent studios, you book the hotel and you make it to Los Angeles. Then what happens?
Step 2: You realise It’s Pointless To Attend E3 Press Conferences
Do you know what the difference is between being in Los Angeles attending E3 game conferences and watching them on Spike TV or through your web browser? In the case of the former, you have to wake up at 5AM to get priority seating starting at Microsoft’s (since theirs is usually first) and then begin the dire march from conference to conference over the next twelve hours. For the latter, you can sit comfortably with a good meal and plenty of available water when you’re at home. So what’s the point of even having such big press conferences to physically be at when the stuff is being streamed to all channels of the internet forever?
There isn’t. So who’s making money off being in-person and reporting on these things? That same inner circle of massive game outlets; the big players who can make tons of revenue off providing proprietary streams and tied-in content and live shows and analysis after the fact with exclusive interviews with the big developers and game makers who are at the show. If you can’t do that, it’s absolutely pointless to attend these shows in person.
So why are these crowds so full? Why do they send invite so many people attend and have them standing in gymnasiums for hours at a time to see exactly what everyone else around the world with an internet connection can see? Because then they would have to fill those seats with actors and extras, which they already do, to a lesser extent.
And Ubisoft? Those who went told me they scrambled to fill seats, they just didn’t want to invite us I guess.
So now you go to the show floor…
Step 3: You realise Media Badges Are Useless
If you’ve made it this far, let me give you a golden nugget of advice: never book an appointment in the first half-hour of any expo day because you’ll never make it.
At E3, there are various badge levels. You have the Exhibits Only kids that we’ve frequently ragged on, which are qualified to be at E3, but are really just playing new games early. You have the Media badged people like us. Then you have the Exhibitor badges for people who run the booths and need to be in and out frequently at any time. So what’s the advantage of having a media badge? There is none. I mean, you have a different coloured tab on the edge of your badge holder, but that’s it. Heck, the LACC staff doesn’t even bother checking your badge holder if you’re up in the “media exclusive” upstairs meeting rooms, which are only a destination if you booked an appointment in advance (read: media or big-time playa). Media badge holders still need to stay outside the halls before the show opens, where they’ll be let in very slowly, 25 at a time, onto the show floor and are given absolutely no priority at all when they have pressing business to attend to.
So how do big media outlets get in and out with ease? Why, you’ve already figured it out: they set up booths to create a loophole. If you’re Geoff Keighley, Jeff Gerstmann or Stephen Totilo, you just show off your Exhibitor badge for GameTrailers, Giant Bomb or Kotaku and you’re in and out like flint, ready to see the appointments that only you were invited to. In other words, a media badge only looks like you did your homework despite the fact that you worked your arse off every week to write gaming content.
Then your appointments evaporate…
Step 4: You realise That You Aren’t Going To See Any Big Titles
We were invited to see Thief at E3 and scheduled a first-thing appointment to see it – which is mitigated because of Step 3. We didn’t get first showing, but we did line up outside of Square Enix’s theatre in the “priority” queue so we’d have better seating as opposed to the Exhibits Only kids. This isn’t anything new. We stood behind a velvet rope for 20 minutes when a group of other people gathered in front of me by the entrance to the theatre. “Excuse me,” I said, “why are these people being let in first when I was the first person to line up and I’m media, so I’m covering your game?” “Oh, these people have interviews with the developers.”
We were never even invited for interviews with the developers. Why did we set up an appointment for your theatre when the people who have absolutely no media contacts whatsoever are going to see the exact same thing that I do at any point they want to show up at your booth at all? So the presentation goes on and the Thief design lead providing the narration keeps alluding to playing the game, like it was something we could simply apply for at the media desk. In fact, I gave them a “Best Of E3 2013″ nominee sticker on the assumption that we would be able to play the game, a guideline to our awards process. After the demo, I march back to the media desk and ask the two reps at the desk to play the game.
Square Enix Rep #1: “We don’t have it/It doesn’t exist.”
Me: “The design lead told us to go play it.”
(The two reps look at each other)
Square Enix Rep #2: “It’s actually really tight, let me go check-” (she makes a motion to leave)
Square Enix Rep #1: (waves her hand over her Thief schedule without looking at it) “Yeah, you can’t even try to see it today, sorry.”
Square Enix Rep #2: (bounces back to table) “Come back first thing tomorrow and we can get you on a waiting list.”
So I do.
Me: “I was told to come back today to play Thief. I was told there would be a waiting list.”
Square Enix Rep #3: “Nope.”
Me: “So they were blowing smoke up my arse?”
Square Enix Rep #3: “Sorry.”
This repeats several times. Remember when Microsoft said that they weren’t going to be showing off anything behind closed doors and we couldn’t schedule any appointments to see their games? Half of their fucking booth was closed off to the public so they could preview games to the media via appointment. I’m media: show me your games, I want to cover them. No doing. Meanwhile, the big outlets brag about how they were. We couldn’t even get a word in edge-wise with Sony or Nintendo to see their games despite the fact that we’d been to their conferences the year before (and I managed to get in this year… just barely). Other games, like Ubisoft’s new The Division? Had to be invited. How do you get invited? Had to be a major outlet.
In many ways, we actually saw less from the big publishers over last year despite being a larger outlet now.
See us in the bottom left corner there? The Witcher 3 Is an incredible title that CD Project Red thought we should see, even offering us interviews.
Step 5: Find Hope In People Who Want You At E3
So after all the big names have let you down, you still have work to do. This year I got to meet with some incredible indie games and I’ll be writing about them over the next few days. Deep Silver, Bethesda, CD Projekt Red, Indiecade, Focus Home Interactive and many others opened their arms to us and we were really happy to see their games. If you’re a game developer that didn’t think you got enough coverage during the show, drop me an e-mail and I’ll be more than happy to give it a look.
While a company like ours is checking out games for the first time, Gamespot and Destructoid are handing out Best of Show awards. Why? Because they were also invited out to pre-E3 events weeks ago to judge everything in advance on top of their exclusive show floor access. It makes award decisions incredibly difficult, especially when the difference between winning and losing may be just getting your hands on a controller. Do I understand why Microsoft targets the big outlets? I sure do. My site gets a fraction of IGN’s traffic, so the same hour with me carries a lot less weight than an hour with them. That doesn’t mean you need to lie to me.
In the meantime, the big will continue to remain big and the small media outlets like us will continue to wonder why they get treated so poorly.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.