Its loud, chaotic, expensive and some say increasingly irrelevant but attending E3 is still a games industry rite of passage

You see them at LAX airport in the second week of June every year, long snaking lines of them, sloping off long haul flights and waiting to pass through customs. Theyre mostly men, mostly in their 20s and 30s, dressed in jeans, T-shirts and trainers; theyre in big groups, laughing and joking, enjoying the air of jubilant anticipation, but pretending not to. Theyre all here for the same thing; the same thing 50,000 other people are coming to Los Angeles for; the same thing Ive now been doing for 10 years. Theyre here for E3.

E3 the electronic entertainment expo is effectively the Mecca of the mainstream video game industry. Held every year at the vast Los Angeles convention centre (except for a couple of ill-remembered jaunts to Atlanta, and two years when it was semi-cancelled), it is a trade-only event that everyone in the business has to attend at least once. This is where the big players Activision, EA, Ubisoft, Microsoft, Sony, etc show off their forthcoming multimillion dollar releases to a highly excitable crowd of retailers, investors and journalists. They do it at considerable cost (a stand on the show floor can cost around $20m) and with a ton of planning that takes all year. They do it because this is now a $100bn-a-year industry and there is a lot riding on building a buzz around your latest annual franchises. Even in this age of mass digital dissemination, you still need a focal point.

The day before E3 sees a series of press conferences held by the major publishers, often in historic Los Angeles theatres like the Orpheum. Rows of buses wait outside to take attendees to the next event. Photograph: Keith Stuart

Coming here as a journalist for the first time is a rite of passage. The LA convention centre is a gigantic mega-complex, housing multiple floors, halls and meeting rooms, and straddling a multi-lane highway that runs through the arse-end of Downtown. The two main halls south and west are where all the big stands are, which sounds easy to cope with, but theyre on either side of the road, connected by a series of raised walkways; getting from one hall to the other involves a 10-minute sprint, either through a glass-walled corridor that turns into an oven under the punishing Californian sun, or along an outside walkway, that also turns into an oven, but has the advantage of rows of food trucks serving over-priced burritos to madding crowds of people in promotional video game T-shirts. If you plan your meetings and appointments badly, you end up making this run several times a day; sweating buckets as you pass fellow show goers slumped against the walls like depleted marathon runners.

Inside these cavernous halls there is only noise and darkness. Each publisher has a stand that looks like some sort of crashed space station, all screens, uniformed staff, and hidden corridors, balconies and meeting rooms. There are rows of giant LCD displays showing their latest games, but you have to fight your way to the front if you want to play those. Get past the PR people on the main desk, however, and you gain access to the behind-closed-doors areas, where middle-aged execs in suits mill about looking rich and indifferent, while huddles of games journalists wait to get into demos.

The calm before the storm: a quiet Los Angeles convention centre two days before the start of E3 2011 Photograph: Keith Stuart

Demos are the mainstay of the E3 experience. Every stand has dozens of these hidden rooms, where you sit and watch 20-minute presentations of some game that will be out in a year. Or two. Three max. A guy from the development studio stands at the front of the tiny cubicle, with the haunted look of a desperate prisoner trapped in a tropical jail house. Hell read a carefully prepared PR spiel about the game, then show you a video trailer with the volume turned up so high you can feel your insides vibrating out of your nostrils. At the end hell ask if there are any questions, but this is a trick because the answer is always: were not ready to talk about that right now. Then everyone files out and goes into the next demo room and you do this for the three days that the event runs, like being strapped to a conveyor belt of hype, until you dont know where you are any more and all the games have merged into one narrative about a spec-ops warrior slaughtering orcs on Saturn.

E3 is where subtlety goes to die or more accurately, its where subtlety goes to be blown to pieces by a frag cannon. Every publisher has an army of PR people who try to keep all the demos and interviews to a tight schedule, but that always falls apart within the first three hours, and then everything is chaos and camera tripods. Youll spend what feels like whole days in line behind a film crew from Poland and three teenage YouTubers who want everyone in the vicinity to know how wrecked they got at the Sky Bar last night. People push and cluster their way through the narrow alleyways between stands carrying big bags of swag usually black T-shirts and posters and little action figures. A lot of this stuff is on eBay within hours.

The chaotic E3 showfloor, as captured way back in 2001, when now defunct French publisher Infogrames was still a big enough player to bring a police car into the convention centre Photograph: Damian Dovarganes/AP

Somewhere within this mass of consumer industry chaos, deals are done, publishers sign up developers, and presumably retail stores try to decide how many copies of the latest games theyll carry. But most attendees never see that going on. Most attendees are too busy waiting to play the latest Battlefield, Final Fantasy or Far Cry titles, standing patiently in long lines that snake around the elaborately staged hype caverns. E3 is great for revealing the shifting hierarchies of the industry: the publishers who have the money and power that year, the faded giants, the upstarts clawing at the periphery.

You also see how the media landscape has evolved. In the 90s, the specialist games magazines were in control; that was fun. When I covered E3 for Edge or DC-UK, I wandered about playing games for three days, then wrote 2,000 words on the flight home. Job done. Then sites like IGN and Gamespot took over, bringing a hectic 24-hour news agenda, so we all had to stay up until 5am every night writing news reports. Now the stars are those YouTubers with millions of subscribers. To an industry desperate to get its message out there amid the tumult of the modern digital entertainment marketplace, theyre like a gift from God.

Shigeru Miyamoto and Steven Spielberg
playing on the new Wii console at E3 2006. Celebrities are a common site during the event, though they dont have to queue for presentations. Photograph: Branimir Kvartuc/ASSOCIATED PRESS

E3 closes every night at 6pm, and everyone gets away as quickly as possible. Downtown LA is improving, but for years it was a desolate hell zone of freeways, office blocks and closed stores. The only entertainment within walking distance of E3 is LA Live a sort of bar and restaurant theme park, an alcoholic Disneyland, which is precisely as soulless and desperate as it sounds. Most developers and journalists flee to West Hollywood, cramming into the bars and hotels along Sunset Boulevard, confusing and terrifying the local population of tanned, beautiful actors-turned-models-turned-waiting-staff.

For the first eight years of E3, when there was much more capital sloshing about in the industry coffers, there were huge publisher-organised parties, where the drinks flowed into the early hours or at least until 2am when everything in LA shuts down except the strip bars. Sony used to run an annual party at its vast movie studio complex, using the sound stages to host surprise pop star appearances. In 2010, Activision held a party where Eminem, Rihanna and Soundgarden all played it reportedly cost $6m. You could fund the development and marketing of a decent indie game for that nowadays.

Although booth babes are now widely discouraged, publishers now use both professional and amateur cosplayers to attend stands dressed as game characters. Heres Marie Antoinette from Assassins Creed Unity Photograph: Kevork Djansezian/REUTERS

The bombast is dying down a little now, and some are quite rightly asking, what is the point of this big daft show in the modern industry? Increasing development budgets and the changing nature of the media universe means its not as important (or financial practical) to blast $50m at a three-day event. EA and Activision dont have stands on the show floor this year, and one of the most exciting publishers of the modern era, Devolver, prefers to take over a parking lot nearby, serving barbecues and doing its product demos in winnebagos. The good thing is, the show floor is much, much more diverse than it used to be: Sony and Microsoft are increasingly showing off indie titles amid the big releases, and theres a large IndieCade section where dozens of small studios show off their thoughtful, experimental projects. A few years ago, booth babes were effectively banned meaning that publishers could no longer hire in models to pose around their stands dressed as game characters. Now there are cos-players instead, and the sociocultural politics of this switch are very complicated.

Four days later, everyone is back at LAX, to catch flights across the globe. Theyll have had a couple of hours sleep a night; theyll have stories about falling asleep in demos that guy from Spain who threw up during the Call of Duty presentation. But heres the thing: almost everyone will have played or maybe even presented a game that will bring great joy and fun to the world. Thats why E3 still sort of matters, despite its fading stature. So much of what we play and write about now is discovered and disseminated through the internet, so much is consumed on laptop screens in quiet cafes or at home its easy to lose the sense of games as a mass cultural phenomenon, as a thing that real people do; real people with real bodies and personalities, and hopes and humour.

Being amid the madness and hubbub of E3, seeing the people queueing for two hours just to get a glimpse of some cult Japanese RPG its still exciting, its still a rush. Last year Sony caused mass hysteria by announcing an undated Final Fantasy VII, the revival of Last Guardian and a Shenmue 3 Kickstarter. They could have done this at one of the big consumer shows like PAX, Penny Arcade or EGX, but they did it at E3, because this still feels like the place to go to make a truly global impact. Witness the majesty of Sonys 2013 press conference, when US chief Jack Tretton destroyed Microsofts complex digital plans for the Xbox One. He knew this was exactly the right place to do it. Amid the constant NOW of the games industry, it seems like 20 years of history still counts for something.

A typically grandiose PlayStation banner above one of the main E3 entrances Photograph: Keith Stuart

I recall getting my first glimpses of Half-Life 2, Resident Evil 4 and the awful original PlayStation 3 controller in these halls; trying the brilliant Dreamcast music game Samba de Amigo; holding the Nintendo 3DS for the first time. The ghosts of past product reveals still haunt this cathedral of commerce. Last years highlight was sitting on a sofa with Keita Takahashi playing his new game Wattam, in which I was controlling a toilet while it kicked a giant football at a disco-dancing mushroom.

When much of the year is spent in a giddying heave-ho between super choreographed trailer drops, and the inexplicably raging, hyper-entitled social vortex of Twitter and Reddit, you lose sight of how wonderful games are as a shared experience. Skepticism is important amid the flurry of million-dollar promises, but its easy to become jaded and cynical, and that is a deathly trap when youre working in an entertainment industry.

E3 is silly, loud, aggressive and truly horrible at times, but it is also a real event, a real coming together; its still a place where you can discover great games that you would not have found any other way. And then you take those memories home and if youre lucky, theyre the ones you keep.

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