If there’s one word to describe the EB Games Expo, it’s "spectacular". I mean that in all senses of the word. Of course, it was the "you've-never-seen-gaming-like-this" type of spectacular, with a 30-metre screen, pyrotechnics and motocross in the arena. It was also the Roman Coliseum type of spectacular, with masses of people, big queues and a sharp distinction between the hoi polloi and the corporate types involved in organising and exhibiting. Finally, it was a monument to spectacle: Predictably, as it was run by one of the largest game retail corporations in the world (EB is owned by GameStop in the U.S.), so it was ultimately driven by marketing and commercial interests. All up it was a mixed bag, but very well worth a trip from Adelaide.
Let’s get the bad out of the way first: We can’t pretend there weren’t problems with the event, but they did not ruin it as completely as some of the haters might suggest. Undoubtedly it was massive: The sheer number of people there would have been a bit overwhelming for the most outgoing, extroverted people (and there weren’t many of them there). The main problem here was that some of the booths in particular had too few consoles and so there were long waits (sometimes over an hour) for five or ten minutes of gameplay. Sometimes, at the Batman: Arkham City and CoD: Modern Warfare 3 booths, for example, having VIP access didn’t appear to help much.
In fact for some punters, having VIP tickets did not really seem worth it, especially for all three sessions. Certainly, it was nice to have shorter queues for some games, the show bag was nice (with a couple of interesting giveaways), and reserved seating in the arena was a handy bonus. But there was some talk of potential meetings with developers which never eventuated, and many of the much-vaunted benefits of VIP access ended up being underwhelming. In future I would recommend getting VIP access for one session to take advantage of the shorter lines for key games and then just joining the ranks of the great unwashed for the rest.
Despite these problems (many of which can be fairly easily addressed given the benefit of hindsight), the Expo was undoubtedly a fantastic experience. The opportunity to get hands-on with upcoming big titles was great: the campaign demo of Battlefield 3 was excellent, and the improvements in sound, animation, and overall gameplay were fantastic. Another highlight was Batman: Arkham City – the environment was phenomenally expansive, and although the combat system has not evolved much beyond some extra animations (if it ain’t broke don’t fix it), the opportunity to play as Catwoman was great, even if she'll only be in the game via online pass.
While the Skyrim booth was disappointing (just a big-screen viewing of trailer material from E3), and the constant Just Dance 3 demos got a bit annoying after the hundredth time, there were still a couple of pleasant surprises. House of the Dead: Overkill - Extended Cut (and a couple of other Move titles, actually) and Saints Row: The Third were definite standouts. SR:3 was not high on my list to preorder, but despite the crass but barely appropriate marketing by THQ (the franchise is not known for its subtlety or sophistication), I found the hands-on very enjoyable. A massive highlight was the Manapult: driving a vehicle which sucks up pedestrians and blasts them out of a cannon was one of the most stupid fun things I’ve ever done. This part of the Expo has definitely expanded my “must-preorder” list.
A cynic might say that the Expo was really only a marketing device. With the EB shop in the centre apparently taking over $100K on day one, and EB employees shaking aloft signs for pre-order stations, some elements of the Expo seemed to only serve the marketing prerogative of generating anticipation and making sales. This was especially true on Day One. However, as the weekend went on the event morphed into much more of a players' event. On Sunday, the suits and corporate types seemed to retreat to their dens, the cosplay really ramped up, and the overall environment became much more fun and relaxed. It was almost as if the event got into its stride (finally!), and there were some genuinely enjoyable game culture events.
The cosplay around the exhibition hall really created an exciting environment, and the Cosplay Evolved competition at the end of the day was enjoyable and, surprisingly, very high-quality. The winning entrant was “Mass Affection”, a team of five friends dressed as key characters from Mass Effect who performed a two-minute battle scene including in-game footage on the big screen. Two other entrants were very impressive: a couple dressed as P-body and Atlas from Portal 2 (with some excellent humour and audience engagement), and Captain Jax, a Jack Sparrow impersonator who actually did very well at emulating Johnny Depp’s campy affection and drunken mannerisms. The Cosplay Evolved competition sounded pretty lame on paper (or screen) but was actually very entertaining and served to inject a much-needed fan culture element into the Expo.
A massive highlight of the event was the final Arena show: Thankfully not yet another cookie-cutter motocross performance, but a 8-bit production of orchestra renditions of video game themes performed by the Brisbane Regional Youth Orchestra. The orchestra must have had 50 or 60 musicians, and most of the pieces were arranged and even composed by conductors and senior members of the orchestra, often with in-game footage shown on the screen. Undoubtedly, the effect of recognition (and often nostalgia, especially with a Mario medley) was dependent on familiarity with big franchises such as Final Fantasy, Halo, and Battlefield, but the performances were outstanding.
The orchestra was extremely tight and professional, and special mention must go to the main conductor Shaun Dorney, whose quirky introductions and Mario costume for one piece were a huge hit. Overall this was one of the best aspects of the Expo, and again served to dilute the marketing drive behind the event.
It was announced that the Expo next year will be held in Sydney, which will easier for many to get to, and so the event will probably grow further. There are some lessons to be learnt. The event definitely needs more consoles to reduce waiting times, as well as researching better line management, and some more varied catering options. More attention to the VIP experience will make it more worthwhile and less frustrating for some who felt that it was a waste of money. Definitely more keynotes (EA COO Peter Moore’s was very well-received, and it was great to hear from Lars Gustavsson speaking about Battlefield 3) and Q&A sessions with developers will give a deeper experience for those who want more than an overhyped shopping trip. But keeping the huge successes such as unique hands-on demos, the cosplay experience and the 8-bit orchestra production is also essential.
Overall, despite some inevitable frustrations and disappointments, the inaugural EB Games Expo (which it seems will be increasingly referred to as EBX) was a great experience, and I for one am already looking forward to the next one. Finally Australians have access to this kind of event, whether it is commercially-driven or something deeper, the likes of which have been a mainstay of game culture internationally for years. If the event organisers can learn what lessons they need to and manage to keep what was successful, this event will undoubtedly go from strength to strength. Bring it on.
Chad Habel likes long walks on an irradiated beach, and surviving deadly test chambers. His favourite dish is hadouken stirfry, and his Achilles Heel is gibbing headshots. In an alternate reality he works at a University.