There was a particular woman standing there on that Monday night, on the cusp of E3, beaming at everyone at the door to the Loading Bar, London’s videogame-themed drinking hole. This is Britain’s Tracy King, grinning at me, ushering me through the small crowd gathered outside, bringing me into the hustle inside. Tracy’s the BAFTA-longlisted co-producer of Tim Minchin’s Storm movie. She produces animations, develops games, writes, and today she’s co-managing the very first EToo London, London’s alternative E3 held from the 11th to the 13th of June. Set up to highlight independent games developers’ work, providing a refreshing alternative to the tech fetishistic E3, EToo was organised in a total of ten days Tracy told me, but “you can do anything with enough experts and goodwill.” And the place was flooded with them: from Rufus Hound to One Life Left, the whole four days were exhaustingly exciting, and filled with interesting new ideas for interactive experiences.
Inside beer was free-flowing, videogame-themed cocktails were being made, and the two main instigators of EToo, Georg Backer and Keith Stuart, were live on the widescreen by the entrance, presenting the evening’s E3 coverage and interviewing guests. Georg and Keith are perfect for each other, presenting-wise: they are both slightly giggly and a little earnest, and if you have ever been around independent games developers these are the personalities they respond to best. Georg is an indie developer himself, ex-Lionhead and headstrong, and Keith is my commissioning editor at the Guardian gamesblog.
The production team are shushing us now, they’re calling the shots on the broadcast, which is going out live on the Guardian website. Tracy grins, hands me a VIP badge, and I sneak through.
Throughout the next four days, Keith and Georg curate an indie games floor during the day, broadcast commentary on E3 press conferences, and conduct interviews with developers who’d never normally receive exposure at the huge entertainment expo in LA. Different to E3 was the sense of community EToo brought: a collaborative atmosphere, a sense that we were creating supporting bonds. “Events help create an atmosphere and community that the internet doesn’t. Testament to that is the sheer number of friends and potential collaborators I made throughout [EToo],” Tracy told me later. “Lovely, creative people.”
“There was a frankly ridiculous turnout, I’m amazed the organisers managed to squeeze so many people in,” Thomas Was Alone developer Mike Bithell said. “Most evenings we spilled out into the street outside. Which would be fine, except it’s Soho, and we got to meet some rather interesting people.” The games weren’t half bad too - games Mike had played before were present, as well as some new surprises. “I had a quick go on a game called Ionage, which was really rather clever, think tower defence versus, but both players compete by building out their territory into each others’ space. Still Time was there, and remains utterly mindbogglingly brilliant.”
Curiously, though many of the big console titles at E3 were being run from PCs, PC titles were sparse there but for The Witcher 3 - not so at EToo. Just after Brandon Boyer announced it at sibling conference HORIZON, George Buckenham brought Die Gute Fabrik’s Mutazione on his laptop. It’s a calming atmospheric gardening simulator that would seem somewhat out of place next to the explosions and bullets of Ubisoft’s shiny guerrilla cop game The Division. Mitu Khandaker stopped by to show us Redshirt, her intergalactic relationship RPG, and along with Keith and Georg, I sat down to interview her live on the sofa on Wednesday evening about her decision to make a gender slider on her character creation screens.
One of my favourite guests was the comedian Rufus Hound, a man responsible for tricking me into craving the bar’s rum chocolate milkshakes. I witnessed him crash through the pinches of nerdly reticence that sometimes crossed our broadcasts and bring real warmth to a lot of our programming, such is his talent as an entertainer. Tracy asked him to come by only for one night, but Rufus dipped in and out of EToo often and played King of Tokyo with us late into Wednesday night in the nook after all the chairs had been cleared away and the broadcast had ended. But from what he saw of the press conferences in particular, he was unimpressed by E3. “To be honest, there’s been nothing that’s come out of E3 that really sticks in the mind,” Rufus told me. “A lot of recycling and continuations. Xbox One had been announced weeks previously, as had the PS4. E3 just aint what it used to be.”
But Rufus was heartened by EToo’s focus on what smaller teams are bringing to videogames, something that E3 is traditionally disinterested in, though Sony showed some interest in titles such as Octodad. “I think most creative endeavours are best when they’re authored by the smallest number of people possible. The thing that I liked about EToo was getting to meet small time publishers and inventors who clearly have a genuine enthusiasm for what they’re making. Mind you, I met some people from Rockstar who worked on Grand Theft Auto and they were the same. Maybe it’s just that fulfilled people are nicer to be around - regardless of what it is that fulfils them.”
While Rufus likes videogames, he’s on the cusp of falling into another game-based time sink. “So much of what we do now is plugged in, I wanted something fun and unelectronic to do. Started watching Will Wheaton’s brilliant Tabletop and went from there. I’ve never played D&D, but I would love to. The problem with it is that you have to commit to a regular game, and with doing what I do, I just can’t do that. However, there’s a bloke who works at The Theatre Royal Haymarket, who writes Doctor Who role playing games. He’s promised me that before I finish in One Man Two Guvnors, we’ll have a game. I’m really very excited about that.”
And his take-home game? “If I was still a touring comic, I’d have pre-ordered The GameStick by now.”
Glasgow’s Bitsocket, an online video show about videogames, contributed a video to EToo’s evening broadcast that was somewhat bleak. I like to think of Glasgow humour as being somewhat dark, having grown up with nothing but Glaswegian comedians on my television, and there’s something about this video that makes me miss Scotland particularly badly. I asked Scott from Bitsocket if he thought EToo was any good. “I was really impressed by the drive and enthusiasm behind the whole idea. It’s definitely something I can see growing, and offers a viable alternative to the more ‘regulated’ coverage most sites were pumping out over E3.”
EToo really got into its stride on the last two nights: not only did Rufus attend but the show slowly got quirkier and more interesting. On Wednesday night, Dave Green from BAFTA Games brought hacked Rockband keytars made to work with Arduino onto the EToo sofa and commenced to demonstrate a series of haphazard cover songs. Prizes were offered to those in the audience that could guess the songs: overkeen presenter Keith ruined it by naming every single one before the audience did. On Thursday night, legendary Resonance FM broadcasters One Life Left, headed by Ste Curran, Ann Scantlebury and Simon Byron, took over for an entire hour, regaling us with their thoughts on E3, and spearheading the latest gossip.On the same night, Director of Goldeneye Martin Hollis and former Lead Game Designer on Uncharted Richard Lemarchand had what was billed (by me) as a nice-off, in which the two legendary designers were legendarily nice to each other on camera. What resulted was probably the most British tipping of hats ever observed, where they quietly asserted each others’ brilliance, and discussed the industry’s obsession with E3.
Mike Bithell’s thoughts on EToo as a whole? “Georg and Keith did an awesome job mastering the ceremonies, and brought in some cool people to help them out. Except that soupgate woman, I thought she was a bit rubbish. Lots of great guests, and people willing to talk candidly, which was a nice contrast to the heavily media trained stuff coming out of E3 itself.”
And perhaps that is why EToo worked so well: the minimal PR presence, the candour and openness of developers talking about their work, of the problems they face producing their work. People were closer to games at EToo. Closer to the creators and their ideas.
My memories of EToo will be of people laughing at my demonstration of Born Ready Games’ Strike Force Zero on Oculus Rift, of the G and T-Virus cocktail served with syringes, of Steve Hogarty and Jon Blyth popping by whilst their hilarious E3 video showed on the big screen, and of drinking shots of limoncello after Loading Bar had closed on the final night, and waking up next morning near a copy of The Last of Us in an EToo t-shirt, dazed, still in Loading Bar, but entirely ready for next year’s event.
Try not to get killed in the 1912 Great Google Wars in the Late 23rd Century, because
ETOO WILL RETURN.