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E3 2006 Recap

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E3 2006 Recap
Alright, here we go. I was planning on doing running entries all through the show, but I quickly realized two important things: that my laptop's battery life sucks and I couldn't use it to take notes during the conference sessions and write journal updates at the same time, and that I was too interested in the show to waste time sitting around writing when I could have been playing games instead.

So, I'm going to brain-dump my stuff from E3 here over the next few days, into assorted topics and such. It won't be in any sane order, a lot of things will blur together, and frankly I probably won't make a whole hell of a lot of sense. But if you're desperate for juicies from E3, stick around.

The Trip Home

One word of advice: if you ever make travel arrangements involving other people, make sure you leave either before or at the same time as the guy who has the rental car. Because otherwise, you might get to do what I did on Saturday, and spend 14 hours in an airport with jack to do for entertainment.

Actually, to be honest, it wasn't that bad. I've spent a lot of long layovers in airports, and after four days of E3 madness, I was frankly a little glad for the chance to just sit and sleep for a while.

One guy came up and nervously asked me if I was going to miss my flight. He was rather shocked to hear that my flight wasn't for another 10 hours still (at that point). I also got snagged by a Hare Krishna who saw my laptop sitting next to me and decided I was a good target because (and I quote) "you look smart enough to be close to transcendence." Uhh... thanks, I think. I humoured him for about 10 minutes just because I had nothing better to do.

I also tried very hard not to kill myself from supressing laughter while an eldery and very conservative couple sat next to me and tried to watch me play GTA2. (Speaking of which, if you ever get the chance to play a GTA title in a crowded airport, go for it and enjoy it - it's one of life's amazing little dirty pleasures.)

Anyways, I eventually made it out of there and back home. The flight arrived this morning (Sunday) at about 7AM. The rest of the day was pretty much spent sleeping and slogging through several hundred backlogged pieces of email, 90% of which was (of course) spam. Such wonderful fun.

Collected Thoughts on E3
I had a few thoughts during the week that I thought were worth noting down, if nothing else than my own reference for next year. Actually, I'm making most of these up as I sit here, and I just wanted an excuse to use a bulleted list in this post.

  • Networking is Everything
    Last year (my first E3) I was basically in total shock the entire week, and I think I talked to all of one person in any kind of depth about games or technology. This year, I made a point to hunt down fellow programmers and pick their brains. Programmers are great because they're so eager to talk about their nifty technology that they'll spill all kinds of nice details without realizing that they're probably not supposed to be telling competitors how their tech works.

    Actually, sadly, the only programmer I really had a good talk with was from the Ageia PhysX booth, and we kicked around some thoughts on multicore/multiprocessor development. I also had to bemoan the lack of any real reason to integrate a physics engine with a game that occurs entirely in a vacuum, because their stuff is just so damn cool. Maybe we'll come up with some possibilities for X4 (I already have visions in my head of space stations spinning slowly as atmosphere vents and combusts from one end... then rupturing and exploding in massive chain reactions with debris glancing off of the surrounding ships and kicking them off course... mmmmm.)

    Actually, I did talk to one other ex-programmer, but he now does marketing and management type stuff. He described his job, but my eyes glazed over when I realized it didn't involve bit-twiddling or nifty algorithms, so I don't remember what exactly it was. We did have fun ribbing a CS student with nightmare stories of 100-hour crunch weeks, though.

    Most of the rest of the guys out there are marketroids, which frankly I guess is to be expected. It's kind of frustrating to finally see people in person representing some product/service, and then have them basically shunt you off to their website for some presentation. I have questions now, dammit, and you should be able to answer them.

    But in any case, networking is definitely everything at E3. It's all who you know. In fact, from talking with some of the press people, if you drop the right names, you can get into all manner of nifty closed-door events. Sometimes I wonder if I'm not in the wrong segment of this business...

    Actually, the really sucky part was basically being independent this year. Without a company on the floor to back your name up, nobody really cares (unless you're Bill Gates or Robin Williams or something). Last year we had our PR guy out showing off the X3 rolling demo, but I didn't get the chance to capitalize on his networking contacts. Hopefully next year we'll actually have a show presence and I'll be able to do a little more schmoozing.

  • Someone Got Better Swag Than You
    No matter how cool your swag is, someone got better swag than you. Apparently certain press members get some really nice (and expensive) goodies when dropping certain names. Lucky bastards. I was really proud of my glowing pen, too...

  • Time Dilation Is Real
    I have no idea how I pulled it off: I actually spent more time in sessions this year than last year, did less frantic scrambling around on the show floor, and yet managed to actually see a good half-dozen theatre demos and play close to 20 games. All I can say is, definitely push your time for all it's worth. Cram down a good caffienated drink and a powerbar just before the show, and you can last pretty much all day.

  • Carry Bottled Water
    I made the mistake of ignoring my own advice from last year, and didn't carry a bottle of water. I will definitely not do that again next year. Having a drink at hand at all times is very important, since the floor gets very crowded, and thus very hot. Thankfully I memorized the shortest routes to all the accessible water fountains, but it was still a nuisance.

  • Your Shoulders Will Hurt Like Hell
    My muscles are sore, my skin is rubbed raw, and it'll be a week before I can lift anything more significant than a controller or beverage. Especially beware of the swag-bags that have thin rope straps: they dig in to your shoulders (when the bag is laden with swag) and make things miserable. One day after the show I actually had a small cut along my left shoulder which bled a bit. Jeez. My tender nerdflesh is not ready for this vigorous assault.

  • Packing Clothes is for Noobs
    My scheme worked: I packed only three pairs of jeans and two shirts for the entire trip (plus of course all the other necessities). This left me with a vast amount of room for swag; and since swag always includes shirts, I was not wanting for clothing all week. Even with a tiny little suitcase (it'll pass as a carry-on in any US airline, if that tells you anything) I had no trouble at all getting my stuff home.

  • Bring a Backpack
    This is important on two counts. First, you don't want to use the stock bags to carry things all day: they hurt after 8 hours. Second, it gives you spare room for swag on the return trip. Any good backpack also has a spot for a water bottle (see above).

More Coming Later
As my brain continues to recharge, and my sleep patterns return to Somewhat Less Insane, I'll continue posting snippets. I particularly have two things I'd like to talk about at length sometime soon: storytelling in games, and multiprocessing.

By way of a sneak preview:

Storytelling in Games
Every time I'm around a bunch of gamers and game developers, this topic comes up. Pretty much everyone agrees that we're just not getting this right yet. Stories are too hardcoded, too flexible (giving the player too little guidance), or too expensive to produce and cover all the bases. Doing storytelling is hard in games, and we're far from mastering it.

However, I think we might have some weapons that will be usable in the fight to improve gaming and the stories that are featured in games. I've taken to calling it "emergent storytelling" in my head, although that really fails to capture the essence of the concept. Basically, it centers around a critical observation: go to any gamer community, and the vast majority of the discussions will center around recountings of how some players did some stuff: stories of big fights, guild raids, how someone defeated a tricky puzzle, and so on. The idea I have is to basically reframe gaming in a way that heavily emphasizes that kind of thing, but in a way that hasn't really been done before.

This is really the culmination of over a year of pondering on this topic on my part, and dovetails very nicely with the tech I've been working on for Egosoft. So I'm really looking forward to fleshing out this concept a bit and kicking it around with other gamers and developers.

This should come as no major revelation to anyone with some real-world gamedev experience, but multiprocessing programming is hard. Concurrency issues are hard. I have some thoughts on the Right and Wrong ways to approach concurrent programming in games, what programming technologies are needed to get us there faster, and the challenges of adopting (and maybe creating) those technologies for existing game studios.

And there you have it: far more crap than any mortal would ever want to read. That's why this is a storage dimension, after all; reality couldn't conveniently contain all the bilge that I pile up in here. Now if only the UI made it easier to extract interesting items...
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