Thursday, May 19, 2005

E3: Welcome to Steerage

I can't find my wallet.

I haven't lost my wallet as I walk down the corridors of LA International Airport (LAX, for those of us in the know who are here two days a year). No, my wallet isn't lost, but at this moment it just can't be found, because it's in my shorts. My new "cargo" shorts.

Remember what I said about practicing walking in the new heels before you go to the prom? Well, here are the chickens coming home to roost on that one: take your new shorts on a shakedown cruise before you go to E3.

These shorts are roomy. They're so roomy, in fact, that I lost my ass at 2 p.m. yesterday and it still hasn't been found. I have so many pockets, and so many zippers, that I need an inventory management program. My wallet, when last seen, was in the bottom-right hand corner of my cargo shorts, which roughly means it's two feet below my ankles. I’m trying to gather a search party, but the request “Can you help me find my wallet? It’s somewhere in my shorts” is doing poorly.

I'm not actually looking for my wallet at this very moment--I just used the present tense to amp up the dramatic impact of you reading about me stumbling through an airport with my shorts hanging off my ass. Present tense--used by the real masters.

At this moment, exactly, I'm on the plane on the way back to Austin. I didn't realize until this flight that there are three possible types of seats on an airplane--first class, coach, and steerage. Apparently, I've landed in steerage, which is the very, very last row in the plane. Incredible engine noise. No windows. On the aisle. So I'm sitting here and the bathroom doors (conveniently located one second behind me) are banging away, the stewardess is pounding on a block of ice to make cubes, the engine is roaring, and people are constantly brushing against me on their way to and from the bathroom.

In other words, it's pretty much exactly like being at home.

I would also like to acknowledge that mankind's greatest invention is clearly noise-canceling headphones, because after being at E3 for a full day, the roar of a plane engine reminds me of being in EA's show area, and that's the last kind of memory I need.

I have an absolutely ridiculous amount of notes. Disturbing, really. So there will be at least three E3 columns, plus Ben's, and there might be even more than that. It will take me several days to work through all of this, but one fact is absolutely clear to me after going to E3 for the fifth time: you absolutely do not need to go to E3 to cover E3. In fact, E3 is the WORST location from which to cover E3. So many of the best parts of the show are now behind closed doors, and those videos are available so soon online, that going to E3 guarantees you're going to miss a huge amount of information, unless you're willing to have three days solid of appointments.

I always hated the appointment concept, and I really hate the idea of "closed door" showings. When I first went to E3 (I think it was 1999, but I'm not sure), only a small portion of the show was by appointment only. Mostly, people set up their booths and had games you could play, and you'd try them out and ask questions, which is the way you'd want to find out about a game. Now, most of the big name companies have these freaking "theatres", and everything is absolutely designed to limit, as much as possible, what you actually get to see. It's a totally controlled environment, and it's designed that way so that everyone who sees the presentation will, as much as possible, have exactly the same opinion.

That's pretty funny, because it's not like E3 is the bastion of critical thinking and journalism. It's not like anyone ever writes "that game was a total piece of shit." All right, I do occasionally, but in general, it’s rare.

So here's how this is going to go. This column, as you can tell, is me rambling about the trip and talking about my ass. I'm sure you're all thinking "Wow--I'm really glad he's talking about his ass first!", but I'm pretty tired and this is the least demanding column to write. After this allegedly amusing column of anecdotes, I'll be talking about specific games tomorrow. Then, over the weekend, I'm going to work on a longer piece about some dominant themes I see going forward in gaming. This is going to be the most in-depth column of the three, and hopefully you'll see that on Monday.

So. Back to my ass.

There's one thing about going to E3, at least for me: Ben Ormand, DQ reader and now a much-valued friend, meets me at the airport. I got off the plane, walked to the curb, and Ben, like Clarence in "It's a Wonderful Life," is pulling up to the curb. It might have been a Ford Explorer, but believe me, it was conceptually a stretch limousine.

Oh, and since digression is a journalistic style for me, let me just say here that I'm draining battery life, and the notebook wasn't fully charged when I started (stupid). I just turned down the screen brightness to spelunking levels and turned on various alleged power management schemes to increase battery life. I spent exactly six minutes doing this, and much to my delight, I've now extended my battery life by--six minutes!

Ben drives us directly to the show. We've done this twice, and there's something about waking up at five a.m., stumbling through a shower, driving to the airport in a stupor, flying halfway across the country, and then going to the gaming equivalent of six hours of hyperventilation that I really enjoy. Seriously.

This is the first year I've been one of the unwashed masses--actually, I've been an unwashed mass ever year, but still got a media credential--so if you want to go to E3 and see the show, listen up. As long as you've got the cash, it's easy. Incredibly easy. Sure, you get the green badge, which basically means you suck ass and nobody who isn't desperate wants to talk to you, but it is easy. Registration took all of ninety seconds and my badge was printed out in less than a minute. I looked at Ben and said "This is the most efficient operation I've ever seen," to which Ben said "I'll say that as soon as I get MY badge." Which he did--thirty minutes later. There were apparently four printers running in a serial connection, and all the badge requests were getting routed to a single queue which was handled by those four printers. Piece of cake, at least until printer #2 went down, which took #3 and #4 (serial connection, remember) with it. I missed this disaster by about fifteen seconds, because Ben was right behind me, and suddenly everything was FUBAR. Within ten minutes the line was about seventy people, growing by five people a minute, and one badge a minute (never Ben's) was printing out.

This gave me an opportunity to people watch, and since you all know I'm a people person, that's what I did.

Another digression: the drink cart is headed this way. Since we're two miles from the front of the plane, it's going to be a while, but some scary albino dude in a suit is standing right behind the drink cart, following it along, waiting for it to pull over so he can go to the bathroom. But it can't pull over for another thirty feet, and there are about eighty drink orders in that fifty feet. Dude, there's no prize for being first to the head after the drink cart finishes. Go back to your damn seat. Your albino skin and dark sunglasses are freaking me out.

Here’s another delightful fact about steerage: when drinks are served, it’s bedlam. There are 150 people in coach, and after one sip of a drink they all stampede to the bathrooms. Everyone is lined up like a conga line. Destination: two feet behind me. Return to your damn seats, people. There isn’t a pre-allocated number of bathroom visits for all passengers combined. Stewardess Jackie isn’t going to pick up the microphone and say “Sorry—all bathroom visits for the flight have been used. Please return to your seat and hold it for two hours.” Although if she’ll let me use the microphone, I’ll make that announcement and sing “Kumbaya” as a bonus.

“No full cans,” I say to the stewardess, “and don’t fill those cups up all the way—that soda costs money.”

I just found out that there are power connections in this plane for passengers—and they end four rows in front of me. The cargo area, it seems, would have a low need for power strips, since chickens in crates, as a passenger class, generally have low power requirements. The stewardesses are kind, though. They’ll throw us a handful of dried corn occasionally, and just a few minutes ago they brought a high-pressure water hose to clean our cages. Plus they know that we like to play tic-tac-toe.

I’m just basically bitter about my laptop and the power drain. I have thirty minutes of power left, and I type an “e,” and then I have twenty-three minutes left. Seven minutes of battery power for an “e”? I’m assuming that if I want to write about “beekeeping,” the notebook will just shut off mid-word.

I just walked up to the front of the plane, where the bastards with the power strips hang out. They’ve all got their notebooks hooked up, cell phones charging, room air conditioners, Tesla coils (that guy must be using a converter), whatever.

Oh hey, it’s nice to see this lady in line for the bathroom for the third time in an hour. I bet she left her notebook open on full power drain, and why not? She’s got all the power she can use. Meanwhile, I type a conjunction and my notebook pops up a message that says “SHE’S GONNA BLOW!”

I’ve got to find something to do, so I take out the SkyMall catalog and thumb through it. On the top-left of page 108, an ad for Las Vegas with their new slogan “What goes on in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas.” On the top-right of page 108, the ad says “Eliminate cold sores before they ever appear!” Who says clever marketing is dead?

On page 181, there’s an ad that says “Professional-quality chocolate fountain tops the rest.” Man, I know exactly what you mean. I bought a chocolate fountain at Wal-Mart last week, and I’ve got to tell you, it was complete shit.

Three hours in steerage, even with noise cancellation headphones, is the flying equivalent of an M.R.I. A three-hour M.R.I.

There’s just been an announcement to turn off all electronic devices and return all seats to their upright position. No problem, because my notebook puked all over itself and the back of my seat is two inches away from a wall.

I look at the Japanese fellow sitting next to me, who, along with his wife, has slept for the entire flight, and I say “It must be really easy to travel with your wife—she sleeps the whole way.”

He doesn’t get it. I think he might punch me. I don’t know whether I should shout “Akihabara!” and smile or take my beating like my man.

When we’re disembarking, I start looking for Important Guy. You know Important Guy—there’s one on every plane. As soon as one wheel of the landing gear hits the ground, he’s on his cellphone, trying to corner the silver market or negotiate a hostile takeover of McDonald’s. Sure enough, Important Guy was two rows in front of me, and as the plane stopped he stood up to make sure that everyone could hear him. “I’m landing now. I’m in the back of the plane.” Thanks for that mission critical update, sir. If your exact location is that important, you might want to have a positioning chip installed in your forehead, because if the receiver uses the new WAAS standard, your staff will be able to track your position within three meters. Then you can call them and say “I’m in the back of that three meters.”

As I was walking out of the airport, I saw a young Japanese couple, looking up the escalators expectantly. So when I reached the bottom, I paused for a few seconds, and sure enough, they were waiting for the couple who sat next to me. The father shook hands sternly (probably still pissed off about that guy who made the crack about his wife), and the mother looked so happy that I thought she was going to cry. Hugs for everyone.

I love happy endings.

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