Our man in… Eurogamer Expo 2011

by John Cranston

Back for the fourth year running, the Eurogamer Expo is largely unchallenged as the king of UK gaming conventions. Taking place once again at Earls Court in London, this time over four whole days (September 22 – 25), the event had expanded to now fill the main hall at Earls Court One. Did their rising ambitions prove too much to live up to? What were the highlights? The lowlights? Read on to find out…

A sense of excitement was in the air as I approached the expo on Thursday, even as early as 8am enthusiast press and early-entry ticketholders were waiting to be unleashed upon the show floor an hour before everyone else. Gamers from far and wide (though mainly within the M11 corridor) had flocked to the event, accompanied it seemed by the mainstream press. Sky News, BBC News and Radio 1 had all sent their outside broadcasters to give London and the world a glimpse of the level of excitement this industry can create.

Everyone queuing was given a 92-page show guide to tell them what games were inside, though those savvy enough would have spotted the many additions made to the expo line-up as they were announced on Twitter, but given that there was to be upward of 85 playable titles – more if you include the Retro Arcade showing – there was so much on offer that those not attending all 4 days would really have their work cut out planning what to see. Factor in the addition of 24 planned developer sessions and a careers fair, that’s a whole lot of choice!

With all the big hitters for the holiday season making a showing in some form or another, gamers were in for a treat. There were many demos that UK gamers would yet have had the opportunity to play, unless they had attended E3, PAX or gamescom. Battlefield 3, Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3, Counter Strike Global Offensive, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and the OnLive booth seemed to garner the largest queues each day and it’s no surprise given the anticipation of their imminent release.

In a vast improvement from prior expos, the venue choice was a lot roomier, allowing more demo units to be placed and with adequate spacing between the displays, which meant the amount of time spent queuing was kept to a bare minimum, even on Saturday, the busiest day. Better ventilation meant that both consoles and gamers could stay cool, so there were also a lot less dead displays and funky smells, though sadly neither was completely eliminated.

Another feature that returned to the show this year was the GamesIndustry.biz career fair, in association with BAFTA. With a selection of panels and workshops, it allows expo attendees interested in moving further into the world of video game design and creation to gain insights and field questions directly to industry insiders and academic establishments.

It’s not just aspiring artists, designers and developers whose talents are being nurtured at the expo this year, the enthusiast press were able to submit their plans for community get-togethers which were then promoted on the main Expo site, adding wide-spread publicity and legitimacy to these one-of-a-kind events. Promoting the culture of the “indie media” is a nice little nod from Eurogamer, themselves once a members of the fledgling independent fraternity, there’s something very special about meeting people you game with.

So, onto my particular show highlight – the developer sessions. In the past they have included the likes of Peter Molyneux, David Cage, Yuji Naka and Chet Faliszek, so this year there was a sense of expectation that the speakers consist of some heavy hitters. It did not disappoint – Michael Denny from Sony showed off the PlayStation Vita, Steve Perlman evangelised the “future of gaming” OnLive and Richard LeMarchand, accompanied by the charismatic Nolan North, showed some exclusive Uncharted 3 details.

An exciting part about attending the developer sessions is that usually the games or technology being talked about are in some way playable on the show floor, meaning after the session you could seek out and try them for yourself rather than having to wait for mainstream media opinion to percolate its way through the social networks. Being one of the 500 in the session though, you normally get to see sneak peeks or get behind the scenes information, which can be very exciting.

If there’s one aspect of the Eurogamer Expo that has boomed from previous shows, it is the quantity and quality of free gifts. With literally thousands of OnLive micro-consoles being handed out over the 4 days this proved a huge draw and created insane queues. Bethesda were probably the runner-up gift giver, with an endless supply of Skyrim t-shirts, as well as exclusive Prey 2 and id Software t-shirts for those who attended developer sessions and the chance to speak to Tim Willits as he wandered around the Rage booth.

Some games in particular stood out for me this year and while I did not play everything, I tried my best to see them all in action. Guild Wars 2, Rift and Star Wars The Old Republic have rekindled my interest in MMORPGs, Journey and the Ico & Shadow of the Colossus HD Collection prove that the PS3 really is capable of beauty (sadly there was no sight of Ni no Kuni at the expo).

Batman: Arkham City and Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception show there’s still a place for character-driven action games, Pineapple Smash Crew and Smuggle Truck have tickled my indie taste buds, Dark Souls and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim are going to be enthralling, yet gruelling, tests of my patience and Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has tempted me back to becoming a Wii owner.

I’m not going to attempt a rundown of rapid opinions as I’ve done in previous years, as the participation of the publishers involved in the show was admirable and I’d rather not poo-poo their efforts at displaying a game that did not demo well (after all, demo’s don’t always represent final quality). For once it felt like the show was not about platforms, but instead was all about the games and it’s a move I hope the Eurogamer team build upon for 2012.

See you next year!