Thursday 5 June 2014

GUEST BLOG: Industry echoes: 19 years later, the first E3 still rings in my ears

I was lucky enough to attend the first E3 back in 1995. It was, I think, my second ever trip over the Atlantic.

For a reasonably young man, whose work travels had up until then taken him to Croydon, Derby and Woking, it was overwhelmingly exciting. I stayed in the hotel through which Arnie rode a horse True Lies, and the one friends tell me Pamela Anderson took her clothes off in “The Pamela Anderson Story” (sadly no longer available, apparently).

I thought of my teachers who said I'd amount to little and imagined them still tormented by little bastards like me, cursed to a life of endlessly scrubbing chalk phalluses off their suit jackets whilst I was on a business trip to where Americans came from.

They were actually filming Heat in the streets outside. Imagine that. No do: imagine that.

For an industry which had historically sold its wares on hunks of plastic or “floppy” “disks” (technically neither, though no-one seemed to mention this) that first E3 was a sign of intent. We were moving from business shows in stuffy hotels literally to Hollywood.

Of course, as a young industry, we were hopelessly naive. Rich execs decided that the best way of showing how great their games were was to throw vast amounts of money at their stands; setting a dick-waving precedent which would escalate so quickly that apparently Peter Moore originally suggested he announce GTA4’s appearance on Xbox at the 2006 Microsoft press conference not with a fake tattoo, but by dangling the game’s logo from his still smarting Prince Albert.

Poetically, in 1995, no stand was more impressive than that of Acclaim. Standing proudly inside the main doors, where EA usually is these days, it was a nightclub of a booth, all flashing lights, massive screens and pulsating music from show open to show fucking close.

I was working on the stand next door, so I was the regular unintended victim of Acclaim’s “theme “ – a 30-second ditty which opened the 10 minute showreel. I heard it 162 times.

Now and again – close to 20 years later – it still bounces round my skull.
It went like this: “[Something, something] Acclaim, your entertainment source. Hits on every format – can you feel the force? Interactive entertainment, it’s so hot you just can’t contain it, something something something something Acclaim!”162 times.

What’s most astonishing about this song isn’t that presumably an actual human being was paid coins of money in order to write it and that other human beings didn’t think that the first human was joking, nor that it made such an indelible mark on my then young brain that even now – at an age when I genuinely occasionally forget the names of my family – I can still recall most of it.

No, what was most astonishing was, that from a marketing point of view, spending such a vast amount of money on a stand and theme song did the job – even now, when people stop me on the street to enquire as to where they can find the source of entertainment, I remind them of Acclaim before showing them some SNES and Mega Drive cartridges and pushing them over so they can feel the force.

Sadly, that’s where the story ends. These people can’t buy Turok: Evolution, WWF Wrestlemania, nor Dave Mira’s BMX XXX even if they wanted to. Which they didn’t: Acclaim went out of business in 2004 – leaving nothing more than a few gaming controversies, some brilliant PR ideas and one dreadful song.
E3 has always been about attracting attention, making the most noise, having the biggest queues. Yet, with the exception of a just couple of years when, quite rightly, publishers questioned the amount they were pouring into the building that Nicholas Cage tried to blow up in Face/Off, E3 has got bigger but not necessarily better.

The news rarely comes from the show floor any more, beamed instead globally onto monitors the day before, via grainy, buffering streams. American execs trying hard to be casual without realising they’re memes in waiting.
Fact is, if you’re a publisher in decline or a hardware manufacturer which lacks confidence to deliver your vision, chasing Twitter favourites rather than sticking to your design philosophy, attracting such vast attention is pointless unless you’re able to deliver the goods. Come see my talk at Develop this year and I’ll show you how to be Mike Bithell – current King of the Indies, deliverer of goods and, at the time of writing, someone who’s yet to resort to a theme tune.

Though it is only a matter of time.

This blog was written by Simon Byron, a director at Premier PR. Simon will be talking in the new Marketing track at Develop in Brighton on 9 July.

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