Hearing is Believing: E3 2013

E3

I attended my first E3 in 2004. It was the last hurrah for the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox, with next-gen consoles set to make their debut the following year. I was a newcomer to the video game industry, and I’d never been to a large tech-industry convention before. My memories of that E3 are two-fold:

First, I remember taking meetings to discuss the music needs of two projects that would become my first two gigs in the video game industry – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2K Games) and God of War (Sony Computer Entertainment America). These meetings would mark the beginning of my full-fledged career in game development.

Second, I remember not being able to hear any of the playable games in any of the kiosks on the show floor at E3. Developer representatives at the show would admit this pretty quickly when I asked them about it. “No, you can’t really hear the games here,” they’d say with a shrug and a smile. “There are speakers, but we turned those off. The noise level is too much, nobody can hear anything.” At the time, that really surprised me, but after several years of seeing that same E3 phenomenon repeated over and over, the surprise wore off.

Traditionally, the E3 show has relied heavily on visuals to propel excitement. In the past, seeing was believing, and audio couldn’t be experienced except in the big video trailers for the most important games being presented that year. These trailers were typically shown on towering screens on the show floor, where they dwarfed the demo kiosks and emitted thunderously epic music in a cyclical pattern, all day long. This often meant that the trailer music for the company’s tent-pole game accompanied the playing experience for every game in that booth. It could be a weird experience, particularly if you were playing a snowboarding title or a brightly colored platformer while listening to angry apocalyptic choirs and orchestral explosions of mayhem and despair.

The audio and music components of video games don’t tend to be acknowledged in early press coverage for an upcoming game title. Graphics, physics, story, design, controls… all these are discussed, sometimes at length, but audio and music tend to be missing from the discussion. At an event where the audio and music of a game are missing, this phenomenon is perhaps unintentionally reinforced.

As I write this, I’m about to embark on my second day wandering the E3 2013 show floor at the LA Convention Center. This year, I have been pleasantly surprised to see that some changes have been made. Headphones are all over the convention floor, waiting invitingly at nearly every game demo kiosk I’ve seen. While some of these headphones are clearly present to enable chat during multiplayer matches, others are there simply to afford retailers, press and industry reps the chance to hear the games they are playing. It’s a subtle but powerful change in the way games are promoted in the industry, and one that makes me hopeful that the music and sound of games will be more recognized moving forward.

E3 is an event primarily geared towards presenting a strong marketing pitch to retailers and journalists, and it’s well known that the world of marketing depends on the importance of music in reinforcing its messages. “The association of music with the identity of a certain product may substantially aid product recall,” writes professor David Huron, head of the Cognitive and Systematic Musicology Laboratory of Ohio State University. “Despite the largely visual orientation of human beings, photographs and visual images do not infect human consciousness to the same extent that some melodies do.”

Seeing pairs of headphones hanging next to displays at so many demo kiosks at E3 has been a great surprise, and I think it’s a very hopeful sign. I’ll be reading the E3 hands-on articles with great interest this year, looking for signs that journalists are getting an earful as well as an eyeful. Hearing is believing.

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