Through the crowd snakes a procession of costumed characters. There's Scaryman, Hornhead, Captain Something, some sort of morose fish, that guy ... Chances are you'd actually recognize these video game characters if you were one of the thousands like Erica Nelson who came from around the country — even the world — to be here.
"I come every year. This is my Disneyland," says Nelson, before running off to get her picture taken with a huge man wielding two plastic swords.
The Electronic Entertainment Expo, better known as E3, runs Jun 16-18 at the Los Angeles Convention Centre and it's not open to the public. Those in attendance are part of the exploding video game industry, here to launch, sell, or try out new games.
Better VR technology
This year's big trend: virtual reality. VR has failed in the past, says Greg Miller of Kindafunny.com who hosts a video game podcast and YouTube channel. But better technology, he adds, means it's here to stay.
"If it was just Sony, if it was just Microsoft, if it was just Oculus, you could push it off as a passing fad," Miller says. "But the fact that everyone here has a headset, everyone here has a game they want to show you, this has legs. And this is only version one. Where it's going to be in two years, three years, four years, a decade? That's what's really exciting."
Cory Smallwood is already excited. He slips off his Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles after trying out Adr1ft, 505 Games' "first-person experience" about an astronaut in peril, and almost seems disappointed to find himself back on Earth.
"At first I was just moving the analog stick, and then I was like 'oh wait, I gotta move my head!'" Smallwood says. "It actually feels like you're in space. And that was dope."
Jessica Blum, who just tried out Microsoft's VR system, agrees.
"Virtual reality's the way to go now."
That's not necessarily what Toronto video game developer Benjamin Rivers wanted to hear.
"Whenever there's really awesome technology that comes out, I panic," Rivers says, smiling.
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His game Alone With You is designed to be pretty much the opposite of VR. With its intentionally primitive, purple-and-pink graphics a flashback to the '90s.
"I'm competing with everyone else here on the show floor who's showing off a game," Rivers says. "So if everyone else is making way better stuff than me, I'd better step up my game."
Luckily, his and other small game studios are benefiting from this year's other big trend: the huge growth in indie games.
A couple of years ago when Raphael van Lierop left the multinational video game developer and publisher Ubisoft to start Hinterland Games, the market was completely different.
"It used to be that in order to develop a game or market it and get it to the players, you had to have really large marketing budgets, you need to spend a lot of money on technology," van Lierop says. "So the basic infrastructure to build a game might be a million dollars just to start with."
Now he says The Long Dark, his game about survival in the Canadian wilderness has sold 350,000 copies and has been translated into 35 languages.
"And all from a small studio that's headquartered in Cumberland, B.C., in the middle of the northern Vancouver Island wilderness," van Lierop says with a laugh. "So it's pretty incredible."
Game creation tools
Why is this happening?
Toronto's Nathan Vella, co-founder of Capy Games, says there are more easy-to-use game creation tools on the market.
"The days of trying to find $10 million from a publisher — that doesn't have to happen anymore," Vella says. "People can kind of sit with their friend, just like we did when we started our studio, and build stuff. People have access to game engines that they can learn, to tutorials online, to communities in their cities and wider, and all of that amounts to being able to make your own stuff."
And as in the beer industry, the big companies saw the rise of the small craft industry and want a piece of the action. In addition to poaching indie talent and buying up small companies, they're also supporting the DIY games by incorporating them into their platforms. That means Rivers' game — designed by a handful of people — is now potentially available to millions.
"Now that a game like mine can come out on a Playstation platform, as well as a multi-million dollar blockbuster title, people don't treat them so differently like they used to," Rivers says.
"Now everyone's in the same stores. You would buy your Call of Duty at the same place you would buy my game. And that's a new thing."