Tuesday, May 20, 2008

TA-ncient History #10: E3

The Electronic Entertainment Exposition 1997 was in Atlanta

My first trip to E3 was in1997. It was also my favorite E3. I wasn't burned out on the annual dose of noise and stress and I was only marginally aware of the colossal production road bump E3 would create for so many future projects. This was when E3 still alternated between Atlanta and Los Angeles each year.

I almost didn't go. Many parts of Total Annihilation were unpolished, broken or just plain nonexistent as we crunched our way into the Summer of 1997. Multiplayer was touch and go. The interface was in the middle of a major overhaul at that point. Our producer didn't think the project could spare me, but Chris went to bat for me. He mentioned that I'd already bought some clothes for the trip, fer gawd's sake. The moral weight of that carried the day.

We were beyond excited to show our game to the world. The recent magazine ad was getting some good buzz. We launched the Cavedog website right before the show and there was already a lot of activity in the very first fan forums. The "animated screen shots" on the site also helped to build anticipation. E3 was the perfect opportunity to build on that.

So, like an idiot, I bought new shoes. Things were going great until we got off the plane in Atlanta. Chris and I were feeling more hyper than usual, so we decided to run to baggage claim. How far could it be? Anyone familiar with Atlanta's behemoth Delta hub only need to combine that with the"new shoes" concept to imagine the state of my feet by the time we got to our luggage. Remember those sides of beef Rocky trained with? You get the idea. Cavedog's new VP of production, Scott Wallin, was nice enough to provide bandages and and soothing unguent.

We checked in to the hotel then went immediately to a press reception at the convention center. GT Interactive and Humongous PR folks whisked Chris away before we were there five seconds, taking him from one clump of press to another. I decided to seek out free food and drink while trying not to ruin the carpet with the bloody stumps that passed for my feet.

Okay, it wasn't that bad, but they really hurt.

After the reception Chris and I went down to check out the booth setup. For anyone who hasn't witnessed it, the construction of "old" E3 was in many ways more impressive than the end product. Picture a gigantic room, filled with thousands of workers all building what amounted to a small city in a few days. It was busy. It was noisy (almost as noisy as the show itself). It was damn hot with the loading bays wide open and the whole placed jammed with workers and machinery. Disney's Greco-Roman fantasy was rising up in one neighborhood, while an ersatz Medieval dungeon received dabs of paint next to a futuristic assembly of lighting truss and monitors.

There wasn't much to see of the GT area, much less a Cavedog display to inspect. Just about everything related to Cavedog was still packed in crates while the union guys wrestled with wiring and other logistical concerns. There were shipping problems. Parts of the display was still in transit and nothing could happen until everything was there. This is when we learned the laserdisc containing the TA trailer had been sat upon.

It was hard to see how it was going to come together, but the crew working on the booth were unconcerned. I'm sure it was a walk in the park for them.

It did come together, such as it was. GT Interactive was touting itself as the number three publisher, so they had as much real estate as the other big shot publishers. Thanks to their cutting edge design sense, they conceived of a booth that looked like a cross between a 1980's hair salon and a scrap yard. It looked like it was built out of leftovers from 11 other booths, or like a giant robot had taken a large, clattering dump on the show floor. When E3-goers weren't wondering where to get a sassy new mullet they savored GT's lineup of games.

GT featured a bevy of games that year, including Shadow Warrior, something Duke Nukem related and the little RTS that could, Total Annihilation.

I'm sad to say I don't have any pictures of the Cavedog section of GT's chrome wonderland. The setup was simple enough. We had three kiosks, each with three screens. We mostly ran skirmish mode with cheats enabled so we could quickly toss together a conflict during quick demonstrations. A couple PC's were networked, so we could do a little multiplayer, but that didn't run particularly well. This was flanked by a wall with a GIGANTIC 35" monitor set into it that showed the Total Annihilation intro movie all day (sort of like the one in the Unreal display below).

When you show product at E3 you don't always get to see E3. I pretty much lived around our three kiosks featuring Total Annihilation, with occasional trips to the nearest bathroom. I didn't mind. It was fun to show off our game. The enthusiasm from the people who stopped by just fed that. Some people stopped to play TA every day of the show (in the case of one guy for three hours). I met countless game developers, buyers for every major retail outlet, press and lots of gaming enthusiasts. Unknown to me at the time, I met and demoed the game for two future co-workers.

About the only folks who didn't seem happy to see our upstart RTS was Activision. Our kiosks were practically surrounded with Activision employees the morning before the main doors opened. Most would just stand there and play with grim looks on their faces. It was generally accepted that Dark Reign was destined to rule in 1997 (at least until Starcraft showed up). Suddenly, they were forced to share Christmas with Total Annihilation.

We never planned to have a showdown with anybody. We generally avoided those endless "bullet point wars," but "TA vs. Dark Reign" was a common forum thread until TA shipped. Given the wildly different resources, marketing and E3 visibility, it's amazing Total Annihilation did as well as it did against such a high profile game.

We left the show floor buoyed up by the reactions to TA. It really was a great experience. After three days of demos, parties and shouting ourselves hoarse, it was time to get back to Woodinville and finish our game.



CaesarZX said...

Uhhh!! Im so glad to see the new chapter of the TA!!! carry on CK.

Nils said...

Can only agree with caesarzx; this is a story that has to be told.

CaesarZX said...

how many chapters you expect to write? maybe five more? I will keep translating them into Chinese to show the great TA history to my country China.

E3 2008 is coming and.. please..just keep writing,

Clayton Kauzlaric said...

I'm not sure how many I will write. I want to do smaller, shorter installments so I can post them more often. I still have a lot of odd memorabilia related to TA, so I may start showing some of that stuff. The narrative might be less linear moving ahead.

Caesarzx -- I wish I could read Chinese. I'd love to see how you translated "the bloody stumps that passed for my feet."

CaesarZX said...

oh,i put it this in a more simple way in Chinese:

"I tried not to ruin the carpet with my 'terribly-bleeding broken feet'"

P.S. keep those treasurable memorabilia safe --- just dont burn them onto glass CD and SIT ON THEM! hah .

Clayton Kauzlaric said...

I sit on far too many things. Time for Wii Fit.

CaesarZX said...

hahah why? you dont like it?

Clayton Kauzlaric said...

I'm saying I need it. Improving my coordination will help to keep me from sitting on things I shouldn't.

Anonymous said...

1997 was my first E3 as well and I agree, the best too.

I was scheduled for an interview with Ron Gilbert. I think it was the day before the show officially opened and he was busy working down on the floor on the booth (surprised me that he was so hands on too), so he redirected me back upstairs to Chris who blew me away demo'ing TA.

I came back from that E3 accolading the game and pretty much everything from Cavedog and Humongous.

It's always good to hear more TA stuff. =)