At the Gates of Gaming's Babylon

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This column wings its way to you from the smog of LA, where the vast and terrifying trade show known as E3 is about to begin.

For those blissfully unaware, E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) is where the entire videogame and computer game industry gathers once every year to crow over its recent successes and loudly proclaim its coming attractions. But if this gives you the image of a bunch of spotty geeks in glasses sitting behind picnic tables grinning disturbingly at you over piles of CD cases, you couldn't be more off base.

Bear in mind, the games industry is now a couple of billion dollars bigger than the movie industry in terms of overall sales. Yet there's no geographical equivalent of Hollywood where legendary game designers gravitate. There's a bunch of them in Tokyo, a bunch in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, a bunch in Paris, a bunch in London.

So the titans of technological playtime have but one chance a year to get together and blow all that moolah on stuff like this: brash booths, brain-bashing music, epilepsy-inducing lights, top celebrities, parties that won't quit (the Sony party, whose last headliners were Lenny Kravitz and Macy Gray, is legendary for its Studio 54-esque exclusiveness) and hundreds of eye-popping models dressed as cheerleaders and space aliens. No wonder they throw this shindig in La-La land.

What does this all have to do with games? Very little, for the most part. Game developers are notorious for missing deadlines, and the smoke, mirrors and rubber-masked models are often there to distract you from the fact that the demo of the game itself is either pretty minimal — a couple of levels, maximum — or at least two years away from completion. Or hardly worth waiting for in the first place.

The most extreme example was Daikatana, a game nearly five years in the making from John Romero, co-creator of Doom. Each successive E3 would offer tantalizing glimpses of an action-adventure that never seemed to get any nearer to completion, and ultimately got drubbed by the critics upon its release in 2000.

There is such a thing as too much smoke and mirrors.

Still, it's fascinating to watch the big-league companies like Electronic Arts, Activision, Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft fall over each other to impress Expo-goers (who tend to be retailers and journalists; the 18-and-older bar to entry ironically cuts out a lot of the companies' customers, many of whom hang around outside the Staples Center attempting to learn the details second-hand).

As when networks unveil their fall schedules, you rate the big names, raise a critical eyebrow at the showmanship and secretly wish for stumbles. Last year, in the midst of Millionaire hype, Disney launched a PC game version of its hit network game show and trotted out Regis to promote it. But he was way out of his element. Rather than stop the show, he was swallowed up in it, obscured by all the sturm und drang of post-televisual entertainment.

When I asked if he'd done much exploring yet, he gave me a look like a domestic pet suddenly thrust into the middle of a jungle. Not yet, he said. What would I recommend? I mentioned what was then the hottest title for the Sega Dreamcast, Crazy Taxi. "Dream, Cast and Crazy Taxi, eh?" said Regis. "Well, I'll have to check them all out."

One suspects this year's network tie-in draws - Jerri and Colby from Survivor II — might have the youthful moxie to blend into their surroundings a little better. And yet it's doubtful whether any imported stars from another medium would be as big at E3 as the game world's own celebrities - the uber-designers.

Black and White creator Peter Molyneaux filled the floor way faster than Regis last year. This year, attendees are dreaming of Will Wright premiering the Sims Online, Sid Meier unveiling Civilization III or Mr. Miyamoto and his mysterious Nintendo Game Cube games. They can't wait to see what kind of a show-stopper Microsoft's X-box is, or whether last year's best of show, the still-unfinished Metal Gear Solid 2 for the PlayStation2, can live up to its Daikatana-sized expectations.

There is a lot of enormously cool stuff going on in the games industry right now, and it's a great time to be covering it. Graphics and sound have achieved unprecedented, movie-like levels of realism. Artificial intelligence in games is starting to rival artificial intelligence at the country's top research labs. A new class of storytelling geniuses, men who can enrapture your evenings with puzzle after enthralling puzzle, are emerging. It's all starting to feel like a Golden Age, a 21st century version of Hollywood in the 40's, only more cosmopolitan.

Which is why it's kind of a pity that E3 has so much sound and fury signifying nothing. Worse, it could be taken to signify that games haven't changed, that they're still the violent ghettoized preserve of teenage boys. If participants were to tone down their smoke and mirrors, turn away the aliens and cheerleaders, withdraw from the one-upmanship and TV-guest booking business and concentrate on what the E3 crowds really love, we might have a show worthy of this exciting emergent medium.

Ah, who am I kidding? Bring on the gaudy Babylon.