Notes from E3: Bring on the dancing bears!

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Editor’s note: Macworld’s man in the street at this year’s E3 gaming expo is game reviewer Chris Barylick. A battle-hardened six-time E3 veteran, Chris will be offering Macworld readers his observations about the show throughout the week.

Tuesday marks the first official day of E3—Monday was largely a warm-up, with press events from Microsoft, Ubisoft and EA. But if Monday night’s Destructoid podcast party at the Brass Monkey was any indication, E3 is alive and kicking.

Destructoid filled the Wilshire Blvd. club to the brim with game developers who wailed out on semi-drunken karaoke classics … straight up until the crowd got Rickrolled. How lame. Doesn’t anyone pay attention to Internet memes? It’s all about Keyboard Cat these days.

Meanwhile contractors and laborers of all stripes worked late into the night at the nearby Los Angeles Convention Center, assembling the intricate displays and booths that will populate E3 when it opens today.

When I walked into the bar, the event felt like coming home again: it was an E3 industry party running at full blast. It’s a refreshing change of pace compared to the last two years, when the “E3 Media and Business Summit” replaced the traditional E3 and felt, quite frankly, moribund from the start. In 2007, the show was moved to a much lower-budget venue: an airplane hangar in Long Beach. Last year, the event returned to the Convention Center, on a budget and with thinner crowds, the party diminished and a more corporate conference taking its place.

Programmers and gaming industry employees hugged the wall, politely stampeded the open bar for mixed drinks, nerded out over discussions as to what to expect today, and a mascot in a giant plastic robot head with bright red LED eyes danced through the event. Amidst gaming tattoos, discussions of cell phone features and the like, no one seemed hesitant as to what to expect from the show itself.

2006 was arguably the high-water mark for E3, the year where exhibitors threw absurd amounts of money to entertain developers, media and attendees. 2006 was also the year where the brakes finally came on: Bean-counters at the big game companies footing the bill for these parties looked over the budget for performers, million-dollar displays and dancing bears and came to a decision. That’s when the industry, led by the Entertainment Software Association—the owners of E3—decided to rein the show in, as publishers began to wonder aloud if they were getting their money’s worth.

But that’s changed in 2009. Even before the event has officially kicked off, the energy and enthusiasm for E3 is readily apparent. That’s a great sign, especially during challenging economic times that have finally begun to take a toll on the game industry, which not too long ago was considered bullet-proof against the downturned economy.

It’s just before 5:30 in the morning here, with my body still on Washington, D.C. time. I’ll be heading out in a bit to head over to the Nintendo press briefing, which is set to take place at a nearby club with the line forming at 7:15. In a few hours, we’ll know how this E3 compares to its high water mark of three years ago and whether the dancing bears have been released once again.

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