Eurogamer Expo 2010
My first expo, if you don't count the tremendously beige computer fairs of the early 90s, was 2008's Play.Com Live. I remember it boasting Wembley Arena as a venue, but in reality its cupboard-under-the-stairs of a room could barely hold the 50 or so games on show.
18 months later, I walked beside the river towards the second Eurogamer Expo. Abiding memories include a ten-year-old kid playing Assassin's Creed II - perhaps not on - and my having nobody to play the new Mario with - definitely not on. Once more, space to breathe was a valued commodity.
Now I trundle up the narrow escalator leading up to this year's Eurogamer Expo, again fearful my lungs will be in for a long day. As the Friday morning show floor opens out in front of me, I realize that I am wrong. In fact, the escalator is like the long, thin neck of one of those giant glass bottles you see with a hand-crafted ship inside. Earls Court is the giant glass bottle, and the Expo is the ship.
I'm not sure what I was expecting. I'm no moron. I do realize I'm in Earls Court.
I suppose the memory of the Wembley closet was playing tricks with my mind. Or maybe it's just how big the show floor looks minutes before it's filled with the scrimmage of gamers. Or maybe it's because the venue is genuinely massive. There are games as far as I can see. Is that Brink in the distance? Do mine eyes deceive, or is that the glimmer of a Skyward Sword on the horizon?
Of course, scale is relative. The Expo's new venue may imply the kind of annual growth that makes a Dragons' Den panellist foam at the mouth, but not everyone shares my astonishment. As I stare out into the many booths and screens ahead, two stocky gentlemen slowly sidle beside me. They scan the floor, noses upturned, for a long couple of minutes. Eventually the larger one says "It's not exactly PAX, is it?" The other leisurely turns round to face him before snorting, "Not even close."
OK, that last bit didn't actually happen, but in my mind it did. I can certainly hear the voices of such seasoned wayfarers, their sneers as vivid as the pink baseball cap adorning the Def Jam Rapstar rep to my left. The voices have a point. The 20,000 or so people that will go up that bottleneck escalator will make no dent upon the attendance of 67,600 at this year's PAX, and the figure will prove infinitesimal in comparison to the quarter of a million who were at Gamescom.
Frankly, I care not a jot. Like the majority of attendees, I've not been to E3, GDC, PAX, or any other grandiose, alliterated show. Instead, memories flood my mind of a row of BBC Micros, of tables brimming with floppy disks, and of booths proudly displaying the CD-ROM revolution. Just as those computer fairs once did, the Eurogamer Expo makes me feel like a kid in a candy shop. Except this time the shop isn't beige, it's a modern, new-carpet blue - with a touch of pink from that guy's cap.
Actually, that brings me on neatly to what soon sours my mood: the throng of music games on the show floor. Now, let me be clear: I am no grumpy old gamer. I have sung, danced, and strummed with the best of them. Nonetheless, there are entirely too many of the sort lurking around. Every other corridor seems to be filled with someone Just Dancing. Meanwhile, the placement of the deafening Dance Central and Def Jam Rapstar stands right next to the Fable III station is not going down well with the adventurers. As for Rock Band 3: sure, whatever. The keyboard does look fun.Dance Central itself looks pretty good, actually. The tech works, the people playing it are having a laugh, and the whole shebang is getting attention. Whether or not the sight of people dancing very, very badly is enough to make Joe Public part with a week's wages for the whole Kinect package is another matter, especially if he's had a look round at the nearby, woefully lagging Joy Ride.
By all accounts, and by all accounts I mean what the friends I bump into tell me, opinion is mixed on both Kinect and PlayStation Move. As you may have guessed, though, I'm not here to shake my arms or my arse. I'm here to play games, real games with controllers and stuff. Unfortunately, the midday show floor is now awash with eager attendees, and it's become a struggle to get any game time in.
Suddenly, I spot a queue forming near the Expo entrance. Surely people aren't leaving just because of the Def Jam Rapstar racket? No, in fact there's a guttural murmur rumbling through the queuing mass. A single word starts to filter through the line of gamers. That single word is 'Molyneux'.
Indeed, Sir Peter of Populous is giving a talk in a bustling conference room. Or he's about to. For now, a set of curious stage decorations has produced fervent debate among the audience. What's going on with that couple in period dress on the side of the stage? What about the giant well on the other side? Is Molyneux going to rise out of it to the backdrop of "O Verona"?
Sadly, our questions are answered when the man himself comes on stage employing a rather conventional walk. The period dress couple pretend he isn't there.
Molyneux makes up for his well-less entrance by giving a winning talk on the filmic influences of Fable. It's especially winning thanks to his true-to-form soundbites, ranging from dubious excuses for his strapped-up hand to bold declarations about wanting to touch the audience in a "special place".
Other conference room highlights across the weekend will include a made-on-the-spot LittleBigPlanet 2 level, industry legend Yuji Naka being surprisingly open about Sonic, and Tameem Antoniades of Ninja Theory giving an interesting if scatterbrained talk on Enslaved. Having decided he wasn't going to use PowerPoint, Antoniades goes on to cycle through the game's various colourful concept arts at such an intense speed that some confused audience members get up and start throwing their hands up in the air, thinking they're in the strobe lighting of a rave.
Back on the show floor: actual games! A carefully timed hit-and-run gets me into the Skyward Sword booth without too much waiting in line. When I say booth, what I mean is a couple of Wii stations encircled ominously by black curtains. Upon entering, I half expect to be swept beneath a trapdoor and away to a secret Nintendo facility for interrogation by Miyamoto-san. As it happens, I spend ten minutes playing a smooth enough demo that dispels that awful E3 one. The tech works great, whiplash et al. However, two of those ten minutes are spent escaping the clawed grip of a giant beastie by limply shaking my wrists like I'm having a half-hearted hissy fit - not so cool.
The other game with a big queue is Brink, Splash Damage's class-based multiplayer shooter. Having said that, it's hard to tell whether the queue's big because the game is popular or because it's just crashing quite a lot. Oddly, there's also a huge crowd round FIFA 11 and Halo: Reach. The crowd seems completely but happily oblivious to all the not-already-out games mere barrel rolls away.
There are some highlights scattered around, and some lowlights. Dead Space 2 ostensibly looks like its predecessor, but a bit more colourful and with Isaac closer to the screen - no complaints there at all. Dragon Age 2 has also had a colour infusion, which is lovely. On-the-spot judgments are that Killzone 3 works excellently in 3D, which is more than can be said for Gran Turismo 5. Meanwhile, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is like a ludicrous game of Renaissance-themed Tag, but in a really good way. Fallout: New Vegas is like Fallout 3 but brighter and in Vegas. Snap judgments are fun.
And suddenly, the day has come to a close. It's been a good day too, and a good expo. Eurogamer 2010 has been bigger and better, there's no doubt of that. I mean, we're in Earls Court for crying out loud, not in some closet or obscure building shuffled beside the Thames.
What's missing, I suppose, is a sense of atmosphere and community. There's no real area to just chill out and chat, nowhere to just kick back with a DS and exchange Pokemon with like-minded hunting addicts. Even as I exit, I see security guards take an unnecessarily aggressive stance toward queue-goers who just want to sit down. That kind of thing hardly engenders a sense of fun.
With no glitz and razzmatazz to support the venue and the impressive line-up of games, coupled with a carelessly commercial slant to the layout and hospitality, the Expo is on the precipice of becoming too soulless for gamers to truly get behind en masse. Maybe that's overstating it, but as trite as it may sound, there needs to be more than just the games at a great gaming expo.
It's all about perspective, mind you. Two years ago, I was done with the entirety of Play.Com Live before tea-time. As I head out of Earls Court on the Friday eve, I'm glad that I've got two days left to explore the rest of the show, because there's more that I want to see and play. That in itself is a signal of intent, a sign of how far the Eurogamer Expo has come in a short time. Next year? Even more Molyneux, please, and less dancing if possible.