Editorial by Bobby Blackwolf

E3 2013 Interactive Coverage - A Postmortem

E3 2013 Interactive Coverage - A Postmortem

E3 2013 is now a memory. Consoles were demoed, shots were fired, and the Internet is raging about "who won" E3. My answer still stands, and that's that the gamers won E3. There are so many great games coming out in the next year, and the beneficiary of those are you.

This post isn't about E3. This is about what I learned from doing our Interactive Coverage - what worked, what didn't, and how I'd change it in the future. I'm writing this while being three hours early for my flight home from LAX, so the entire experience is still fresh in my mind.

(The reason this isn't posted until a few weeks later is because of my house being hit by lightning the night after I got back from E3.)

The Idea

Lots Of People
Lots Of People
I had the idea for Interactive Coverage back when we were planning the VOG website over a year ago. A lot of people don't realize this, but the VOG website was built from the ground up, starting from a blank file, using VI. (Not VIM, not Pico, not Emacs.) It was designed to be able to do certain things in the future, and one of those far fetched ideas was the Interactive Coverage. It isn't running on any PHP framework - I built the entire framework myself. (It does use phpBB for the database methods, user registration, and user authentication.) As of right now, it's roughly 9500 lines of code, with about 2000 of those lines being the Interactive Coverage, both the part you see, along with our backend and automated features which wound up being broken for most of the week. (And no, the source code is not going to be made available on Github no matter how often you ask nicely. I like Open Source, but VOG isn't Open Source, and I like being the only contributor.)

This isn't a new idea, however...It's just one that we did before magnified. Orange Lounge Radio would send out tweets saying "Direct us to where you want us to go!" and people would tweet them questions. The downside of this is that you're sent on wild goose chases, as people will just ask about a game and expect you to know where it is. I learned that the people asking me questions have more information than I do (or, they have Google) so the design of this feature encouraged them to use that information.

How It Works Under The Hood

How I Saw It
How I Saw It
There are two admin interfaces you never get to see that were the bulk of the feature. One is the one I used before the convention to input all 158 booths into our system, which took roughly four hours. I swiped the floor maps from the E3 website, loaded the up in GIMP, and outlined each individual booth like you would an imagemap. Then, I would add the geometry of each individual booth (or meeting room) to our booth entry on the website. I was able to set the appointment time, description (which I used to describe what our appointment or other rules regarding that booth), and I could even set a header image if I so chose. (I didn't.)

The second admin interface is one I used on the show floor. It was an extremely stripped down version of our site with no graphics and very limited HTML, designed to take up as little bandwidth as possible. It sorted the booths by the number of unanswered questions, and I used this interface to answer questions and update the booths. I could even upload pictures from my phone and attach them to an update or an answer.

Then, there was an automated process that ran every hour on the hour that checked for new updates, and sent them to Twitter...

How It Broke During The Show

Two portions of the code broke during the show. The first thing that broke was our photo upload interface - it was programmer error of me not updating a file path of our VOG watermark from our development environment to our production environment. This didn't stop photos from being uploaded, but you'll notice the early photos aren't watermarked. This got fixed in the media room from my iPad at the end of day 1 while everyone else was sitting at the table writing articles. ("Yeah, you guys are writing articles, I'm writing PHP CODE!")

The other portion of the site that broke midday Tuesday was our Twitter integration. Six months ago, Twitter unveiled version 1.1 of their API, and announced that they would be deprecating version 1.0 on June 11. I wrote my Twitter integration two months ago using the PHP library provided by Twitter's dev site at that time, so even though I didn't know about the deprecation, I should have been fine. Turns out, that PHP library was only running version 1.0 (despite being the official one recommended by Twitter two months ago) and so, in the middle of the day, all of our tweets stopped being sent out. It wasn't something that seemed like an easy fix, and E3 being E3, I didn't spend any time Tuesday night working on it, so all day Wednesday, no updates went out. Rob spent time doing manual tweets on our account to make up for it.

I learned Thursday morning that all I had to do was modify a "1" to "1.1" in the PHP library, and everything worked again. Why this wasn't automatically done in the official library when I had downloaded it four months after the announcement of the deprecation, I have no clue.

Things I Learned

There were a few things I learned doing this kind of coverage about how people want to consume our coverage, and how the content providers want to provide us our coverage.

1. The Internet Sucks...On Tuesday.

The Epic Staredown
The Epic Staredown
Despite having five bars of 4G on the South Hall, I could not get any kind of decent internet connection, even on my extremely paired down backend page. I would spend five minutes waiting for something to post, and then wonder if it posted at all. Sending pictures were right out, even after using the Reduce Photo Size app on Android to resize them to 640x480 before uploading them. Tuesday's coverage suffered because of this, and I apologize that the updates were not as frequent as I would have liked. I tried to hit some of the smaller booths that were away from the crowds to see if I could get better reception, and to see what I could get away with.

However, on Wednesday, when I was in meeting rooms or the Concourse Level, I was actually doing really well with connection. I even uploaded some stuff from the day before while waiting for appointments. Thursday, I had no trouble at all.

2. You Guys Don't Like Following Directions

Despite multiple references to what type of coverage we could provide, including text on the question box stating "Please make sure the game you're asking about is on the show floor" we got a ton of questions about games that had absolutely no presence at the show whatsoever. There was absolutely no way Square Enix was going to answer any questions about Final Fantasy XV or Kingdom Hearts 3, yet those were the games that had the most questions. No matter that we made the big deal in the intro video that we don't have an appointment with Namco Bandai and therefore no questions would be asked, we still got questions to ask them. Despite having a disclaimer on the ATLUS booth that they are not talking about Persona at all, the only question submitted was about Persona. Despite stating "don't ask general questions" we still got extremely general questions that were answered in any preview on the larger gaming sites, we still had people say "tell me everything about..."

This was to be expected, though, because that's what you guys want to know about. I did my best to try to get answers, even though I knew the answer every single time ("we're not talking about that this week") but I will admit, it took up time away from answering questions about things that I probably could have gotten answers to.

3. Big Companies Don't Like Going Off Script

The larger the company, the less likely they have any desire to go off script. I'll use Square Enix as an example. I had an appointment for them, which consisted of them giving me a sticker to get into the front of the line for two theater presentations (with no Q&A) and a ticket to play Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. There was no guided tour, and absolutely zero spokespeople available to answer questions. I was left to my own devices. Luckily, there was a developer that worked on Deus Ex standing by their area that was willing to answer my questions, but was very cautious. There were no Thief developers available, and the people running the demos for the other games only knew what was in the demo and that's it. (They are contractors that are brought in specifically to work the trade show.) Even then, if you're asking about the game they're demoing, they don't want to answer some questions.

Example: The question about "How many real-time minutes is one hour in Lightning Returns" had me bounced from a demo person, to a Square Enix employee, and none of them were comfortable answering that question. He referred me to PR, who had already denied me a PR spokesperson. Even though I was in my allotted appointment time, I could not get my hands on the game without waiting in line behind other people, when all I wanted was an answer to that question. At the end of Thursday, I played Lightning Returns in the Sony booth right at the end of the show, manually counted out the three seconds per minute tick, and updated the answer.

Example Two: Konami was literally the first booth I hit on Tuesday, and I scheduled a booth tour and appointment for Thursday to get your questions about Castlevania and Pro Evolution Soccer. When I show up, I get an extremely nice booth tour person (and that isn't sarcasm, she really was nice and understanding) but the questions I had were way too hardcore for her. She brought over another Konami employee who also could not answer the questions. The question about the voice actor in Castlevania caused him to refer me to IMDB. For the PES question ("What leagues are available in PES?") I got bounced into the "PES Arena" (which I got into because of my wristband I got from my booth tour) where I asked someone overseeing the demos. He didn't know the answer, asked me to go to PR. When I told him that I was being sent there by PR, he got someone else, who also said that was a very complicated answer, but he would try to get someone to answer it. He said it would just be a minute. After about ten minutes (on the last day of E3) I gave up and left.

Nobody asked about the Forever Alone Intellivision.
Nobody asked about the Forever Alone Intellivision.
I could predict the answers to 95% of the questions. "Do you have any news about *game that isn't on show floor*?" was always "No, we don't." They are there to talk about the products they are there to talk about, and nothing more. And even then, they aren't prepared to talk about anything that isn't in the demo that they're showing. Even if they're features in the game that they're showing, but not in the demo, there isn't anyone available to answer them.

Example Three: "Are there any new powerups in Mario Kart 8?" The person running the demo (also hired specifically for E3 week) could name the new characters, but had no clue about any new powerups.

Two exceptions to this were, surprisingly, Sony and Activision Blizzard. I had no appointment with Sony, but they found a PR spokesman once and he brought out his five page cheat sheet to try to answer my questions, and even those stumped him. He referred me to come back later to talk to their indie dev team to answer the questions about indie games, and they were unavailable for the rest of the week, and neither was he after our initial interview. Activision Blizzard actually does a very good job with smaller sites (they have a specific PR team just for smaller outlets) and I was able to get ten minutes with developers of Call of Duty: Ghosts, and even though they didn't want to answer ALL the questions (and specifically they weren't talking about multiplayer) they still answered questions about the rumors of what you'd be able in multiplayer, which was part of the 5% of the answers I DIDN'T accurately predict.

4. Small Companies Are More Ameable

Smaller companies that don't get as much coverage were extremely excited about our coverage, and even asked for links to it when we were done. They were willing to answer all of our questions, go off script, do whatever. Apparently, they haven't heard of anyone crazy enough to do what we were doing. Some larger companies were as well (Sony Online Entertainment thought it was just the neatest thing they'd ever heard of and made their top people available on short notice since I missed my first appointment) but for the most part, it was games that didn't get as much press that loved the attention and were flattered that people would actually want to know things about what they were showing.

In case you're wondering, this is the short 15 second spiel of what we were doing that I gave every company when I approached: "My outlet is doing 'Interactive Coverage', where we have all 158 booths mapped out across all 4 show floors. Our users can click on any of the color coded booths and ask us questions to ask about products in those booths, and we actually have some questions in your booth. Is someone available to answer questions about...?"

I was surprised at how often it worked.

One of the upsides of mapping out all 158 booths is that we got a lot of hits from people searching out E3 coverage of those smaller booths. It didn't translate much into questions, but at least we got some exposure.

5. Russians Really Love The Witcher 3

In case you're wondering what our most popular booth was, it's CD Projekt RED. We have a LOT of hits from Russian language websites to our CD Projekt RED page, such as this one. Unfortunately, the person who linked us mistranslated our site, and thought that we were giving the time of their press conference, at least according to Google Translate.

6. Wikipedia Sourcing Doesn't Bring Many Hits...Yet

To whoever added our Disney Infinity coverage to the official Wikipedia page (referring to the price of figurines) thank you. Wish it brought more traffic, though. We did get record traffic during E3, thanks to Facebook Promoted Posts and Twitter Sponsored Tweets. Our server looks like it held up just fine.

7. You Guys Are Awesome

Even though I took y'all to task in #2, the fact that you guys consider this experiment a success means a lot. I was very pleased that the amount of trolling was kept to a minimum, and that you guys were quick to say that the coverage was excellent was good to hear. I am my own worst critic, so from my vantage point, I see all the negatives and failures - how many questions I didn't answer, how many things I didn't see (I didn't even realize Killer Instinct was in Microsoft's booth until someone told me after E3 was over...Probably because I could only spend 30 minutes in there on Thursday morning and was fixated on Forza 5) and how infrequent my updates were at times.

What I'd Do Differently

The good thing is, this is a work in progress. We have a year to improve things for next year. Here's a list of my thoughts on changes I'd make:

1. It's Dangerous To Do This Alone

This year, the ESA only allowed us one press pass into E3, which meant that Rob had to stay home. We are making moves that would allow us to bring in more people even if the ESA blocks us on press passes. (The site is a social game, you see...which makes us social game developers.) This would free up people to go answer the little questions while someone else does appointments.

2. Some Appointments Are Worth It, Some Aren't

Now that we can talk about our coverage publicly, I can specifically talk about what kind of coverage we're doing and go ahead and just ask for a spokesperson when I attempt to book an appointment. "Booth tours" and stickers to get into theater lines don't do us any good, but a good 15 minute interview with a PR spokesperson would serve you guys a lot better. Now that we're being more open about our coverage plans, it should be easier to schedule these type of things.

3. Block Off Time For The Big Three

I didn't actually block off time on my schedule to see the big three since they all refused us appointments, which meant that as my appointments filled with other publishers, I had less and less time to check out the consoles. It takes time to try to see if someone from PR is available to answer my questions, which means a lot of standing around doing nothing. Having that time planned out ahead of time (not allowing me to schedule anything else) would be great.

4. More Tools For You

Now that I have more of an idea of how the companies respond to our type of coverage, I can start adding an indicator of the likelihood of questions being answered. This way, you won't be as disappointed when you get a "No Comment" or "Unable To Ask" response.

I'd also like to add a game dropdown that we would populate as companies announced what games they were showing at E3, or from a runthrough of the booth done early on in the show. This would help us greatly in our quest of focusing our coverage on things we can actually answer, instead of trying to repeatedly bang our head against the wall asking about Kingdom Hearts 3, which they weren't talking about. (You would be forced to select the game you're asking about before asking the question, and if the game wasn't in the dropdown, then you'd know that there was no point in asking.)

The Verdict

This was an amazing experiment that seemed to get a lot of positive reaction from a lot of people. I'm my own worst critic and have probably beat myself up over the "failures" and "negatives" of doing this more than anyone else would. To stand out in the indie game media space, you have to try something new, and all indicators I got on the show floor was that this was something new. We'll be trying it again, possibly at PAX East next year. (We are not attending PAX Prime due to Dragon*con being that weekend, and this feature is specifically designed for trade shows with booths, not interviews, and not fan conventions.)

To those who have been supportive of this experiment, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. To those who might have been disappointed that it didn't live up to expectations, I humbly apologize. We'll do better next time.

The question now becomes - which larger site will debut their version of our Interactive Coverage next year, and get all the publicity for being new, original, creative, and unique?

My Haul. No, you can't have any.
My Haul. No, you can't have any.

Bobby Blackwolf is the host of The Bobby Blackwolf Show on the VOG Network, lead developer of the website, and lead GM for VOG: The Game. Follow him on Twitter at @BobbyBlackwolf

Editorial by - 6/27/2013 7:44 PM1291 views



6/27/2013 8:39 PM

2 0

Despite the errors and mistakes that may have happened during the E3 coverage, I still say that it was a HUGE success for its first try.

If we can get more people there next year (for both PAX East and E3 2014), I dare say VOG will definitely do better.
7/1/2013 9:33 AM

2 0

I loved the coverage. Of course tons of my questions got answered, so I didn't realize how hard it was to get responses from these guys. I can't wait for next year, especially if you can get more help. I honestly was on the site as much as I could be during E3, more than I was on any other site.
6/27/2013 11:01 PM

1 0

Indeed, in spite of all the bugs and hiccups that occured during the E3 coverage, I really liked the way things turned out!

Hopefully at next year's you'll be able to have more colleagues at E3 to get questions answered... looking forward to it!
6/28/2013 7:24 AM

1 0

Awesome wrap-up, Bobby. You did an enormous amount of work to make this happen, and hopefully that is obvious to everyone!

Side note: That Lightning Returns swag is pretty sweet, and now somewhat ironic.
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