Walking into E3, through the steel-and-glass entrance of the Los Angeles Convention Center, always evokes a strange feeling in me. I feel excitement, sure, and anticipation, but there's a twinge of anxiety, too. I take a few deep breaths and brace myself for the experience ahead. Then I stride in confidently, E3 badge around my neck, embracing the sensory overload. In order to get to the brightly colored land of Oz, after all, first you have to step into the whirlwind.
And make no mistake, the event is a whirlwind, a hyper-speed vortex that transports you to a brand-new world filled with bright lights, magical creatures, and strange new experiences. Once across that threshold, you are lightyears removed from the daily business that grinds on in conference calls and cubicles throughout the rest of Los Angeles and the world. Out there there are desk jobs, grocery stores, politics, traffic jams, junk mail, and to-do lists. In here, there are only video games and people who love video games.
Inside the convention center, I gaze up at the massive red and yellow characters "E3" suspended from the ceiling, and my pre-show jitters begin to calm. I find myself thinking about the size and scale of this universe of video games. It's hard to wrap my mind around how truly massive it's become. When I was a kid, the gaming world existed primarily in the basement of my parents' house, in the soft glow of a black-and-white television that seems both gigantic and microscopic in my memory. Video games were a hobby back then, like collecting baseball cards or reading comics.
If "adult me" had somehow told that little redheaded kid, hunched over a controller and banging away at some 8-bit platformer, that his little pastime would soon be a global phenomenon, he wouldn't have taken that information seriously. He might not even have looked up from his game. Yet that's exactly what happened.
An old gamer learns some new tricks.
Reliable estimates place the annual profits of the video game industry somewhere in the $25 billion range, and that's just from retail (mostly console and PC) games. When you add in mobile gaming, the numbers start to get truly staggering. Sixty-three percent of American households are home to at least one "gamer," and nearly 80% of those homes have a gaming device. So, yes, the gaming universe has expanded exponentially. Video games are now everywhere, and they grow every year, and here I am, having just stepped into the center of the global gaming twister for the next three days. Somewhere in my reeling brain, the little redheaded gamer kid tells me, "We're not in Kansas anymore."
Speaking of huge, impressive things, gaming technology advances fast — so fast that not a year goes by without some breakthrough or another announced from an E3 stage to the "oohs" and "aahs" of the dazzled crowd. But even by gaming standards, the arrival of a new console from an industry titan like Microsoft is a seismic event. Especially when that console promises to be the most powerful commercial gaming console ever built. Well before I even hit the convention center, the internet is abuzz about the Microsoft press conference on Sunday and the newly revealed Xbox One X.
The thirst is real.
I won't linger on the tech specs of the Xbox One X because, while they are impressive, they are also a bit complex. Instead, think of it this way: If video game developers each design and populate their own worlds, the console is both the universe in which those worlds orbit and the power source from which the designers draw to create them. That universe expands as computing power and memory storage grows, making Xbox One X the largest and most plentiful console universe yet to host the video game worlds of this generation's brightest developers.
In practical terms, when game developers have more space and power to play around with, you get bigger, more ambitious, and flat-out cooler games. All of this should make video game enthusiasts and casual players alike feel pretty excited about what's coming in 2017 and beyond.
The age of the gigabyte — a famous byword of early 2000s tech-speak — is drawing to its end. Just like our new shorthand for the ultra-rich isn't "millionaires" but "billionaires," cutting-edge technology won't be measured in "gigs" much longer, but rather in terabytes and teraflops. So we might as well all learn what those words mean now.
Is this thing a teraflop?
Terabyte: A "byte" is basically the smallest unit of measurement used in computing to quantify data storage capacity. It is equal to 8 "bits," which is very confusing. A terabyte is one trillion bytes, making it roughly 1,000 times the size of a gigabyte.
Teraflop: A "flop" is a floating-point operation. It's a computer thing — don't worry about it. Just know that the more of these a machine can perform per second, the better. As we learned above, "tera" means "one trillion," so a teraflop is equal to one trillion floating-point operations per second.
I promised not to get too technical, so I won't start talking about GPUs or 4K or HDD (which are all real things, I promise). Instead, I'll just point out that a machine that can perform 6 trillion of any damn thing in a single second is extremely powerful. So, 6 teraflops of computing power means games will look sharper, load faster, play smoother, and feel and sound more real.
Which leads me to my next point ...
Without awesome games, all this talk about power and size doesn't mean a whole lot. Luckily, Xbox seems to have matched its hardware boost with an equally massive commitment to expanding the gameplay experiences available on the Xbox One X by looking both to the future and to the past.
First, they set an E3 record by announcing a jaw-dropping slate of 42 new games during their annual press conference, including 22 console-exclusive games. Aside from its size, what excites me about this lineup is the variety of the game types and the blurring of lines between AAA and indie titles. The power of Xbox One X means that all games, from huge open worlds to the smallest platformers, will look and play better. Suffice it to say, there should be something here for everyone.
Next, they're unlocking the treasure trove of original Xbox games to make some of their turn-of-the-century classics backward compatible, increasing the current "past gen" library to more than 400 game titles. We've all got shameful gaps in our gaming portfolios that we're itching to go back and fill in, those games we meant to play but that slipped through our fingers. For some of us, a console that lets us shore up our XP on games from a bygone era or relive old favorites is almost as exciting as one boasting cutting-edge new IP.
As I walk through the show floors and passageways of E3 I can't help but notice that the crowds this year are the most diverse I've seen. I see people of all shapes, sizes, genders, races, and ethnicities. As I pass people, I hear Spanish being spoken, and English, Italian, German, Japanese, and several languages I can't readily identify. The numbers back up my observation, too. For instance, women over the age of 18 now comprise over 30% of the gaming population, a larger demographic chunk than males under the age of 18. There's also evidence that video games are increasingly being adopted as a new activity for parents and children to share. This is great news, but it shouldn't be surprising.
Think about it: Just as you wouldn't categorize any one type of person as the "typical" movie-goer or book reader, soon a "gamer" will be everyone and no one. Already we are seeing the variety and depth of video game experiences multiply as the gaming community gets more inclusive, and there's reason to believe the best is yet to come as games find more stable footing in mainstream culture.
As the video game world expands, the diversity of those who make and play games will expand right along with it. The image we see in our heads when we hear the word "gamer" will be much different in five years than it is today. But even now, people who think they know what the "average" gamer looks or sounds like might be surprised by the reality I see reflected in the people around me. Diversity of perspective is necessary for the development of any art form, and especially when it comes to games – the more really is the merrier.
Calling Xbox's installation on the E3 floor as a "booth" is a little bit like calling Grand Central Station a "bus stop." The behemoth two-story fortress rises above the hectic corridors of the South Hall show floor. The Xbox logo emblazoned on its side walls is visible from just about any spot in the convention hall. Inside, it houses a fully functioning reception area complete with couches and coffee, a dozen or so meeting rooms, and a scenic balcony that will serve as the backdrop for the many, many interviews and photo ops during the show.
Things (and people) move fast here.
In the heart of the booth is its own miniature show floor, with banks of flat-screen monitors lined up in rows, each hooked up to a gaming console and labeled with a brightly lit placard that beckons to E3 goers to come and play. I'm lucky enough to score entry to a VIP event after the show floor is closed to the public, so games that I would wait an hour or more in line to play are now wide open and waiting for me. It's a truly amazing feeling.
The greatest video arcade on Earth.
The gamer kid inside me looks around in rapt disbelief. This is his candy store. He remembers begging his mom for a few quarters to go play in the mall video arcade on Saturday mornings. He remembers hearing the *clink* of the quarter as it disappeared through the coin slot, and the surge of excitement that welled up in him when the cabinet screen lit up. "Press Any Button To Begin."
"They're going to have to drag me out of here kicking and screaming," I think to myself.
As I walk back through the steel-and-glass lobby on my way to the exit, I feel more confident than ever that I've experienced something special today. For those of us who have watched the progress of video games intently for a few decades now, it can sometimes seem like the industry is stuck in a frustrating adolescence. Despite rapid growth and the status as a hugely profitable global industry, video games still don't quite get the respect of their older siblings: literature, film, or music.
This is your passport.
I'm convinced, as I walk to my car on the final day of E3, that this is destined to change. We love games for the same reason that people love films, or books, or albums: because they transport us to new worlds. "I'm super deep into that show," we say, "That book has taken over my life," we say. Whether we think about it or not, we talk about the entertainment we love in the language of immersion, and immersion is what video games do better than any other media in history. Driven by the power of consoles and the passion of creators, the worlds we find ourselves in when we press that "start" button are only getting larger, more impactful, more beautiful, and more real.
With astonishing advances like the Xbox One X, video games are on track to become the most transportive form of entertainment yet mass produced. The people who try to forecast this tipping point, or set a timeline to it, are missing the point. All you need to do is take your inner gamer kid for a stroll around E3 to see all the passion, energy, resources, technology, and flat-out human ingenuity being directed at that goal. Then try to tell me that video games will always just be for "gamers."