It's E-Party Central
After Video Games Expo, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo Let 'Er Rip

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 21, 2005

LOS ANGELES -- Here at E3, the Vatican conclave of the video game industry (only much louder), it's Sony's PlayStation 3 vs. Microsoft's Xbox 360. The new Xbox made the rounds, and Sony showed off dizzying specs for its new baby, due next year. Publicists are blowing smoke about both, but really it comes down to this: Which giant throws the best private party?

The global gaming industry appears to have picked up where old Hollywood, the anemic record industry and long-forgotten dot-coms left off -- throwing a week's worth of mass shebangs that get bigger every year, bigger even than what Vanity Fair and Elton John have done to Oscar night, minus designer gowns. E3 (shorthand for the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the 11th annual L.A.-based confab of all things video game) could never just be another industry convention. Partywise, it's an all-out war. It feels like the late '90s again.

Imagine the shouting match:

Microsoft: We've got the Killers! The Chemical Brothers! We're at the Shrine Auditorium!

Sony: Oh yeah? We're way up on a hill, overlooking Dodger Stadium, with a spectacular view of Los Angeles! We've got Jimmy Eat World! Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols! Brandon Boyd of Incubus! Liz Phair!

(Nintendo, the most modest of the three game leaders, played host to a relatively intimate yet still lavish party at the Highlands -- a club in the same megacomplex on Hollywood Boulevard where the Academy Awards are held -- with Maroon 5 as the musical act.)

"These parties are really about entertaining thousands of your best friends -- you don't want to do them halfway," says John Ellard, the party man at Microsoft, who for the past five years has planned the company's main shindig. Three years ago, he booked the alternative band Garbage to headline at the Park Plaza Hotel; the year before that, at the Hollywood Palladium, Blink-182 shared the bill with Third Eye Blind.

"Folks in the video game industry want to make a statement: We're in the entertainment business, and we want to be leaders, and we know how to throw a party."

Such are the insecurities of a multibillion-dollar industry -- no matter how big you get, you still want people to know it. You want them to know there are huge parties, to which they cannot be let in.

"Remember, these game companies have millions of dollars," says Christopher Heywood of LA INC, the fancy name for the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau. Heywood has calculated that E3 brings at least $13 million to the city's economy. "They have the ability put their money behind their business enterprise. It's throwing a party, yes, but it's all about promoting their brands."

He says his friend who works for Disney tried all week to a get a ticket into Thursday night's Sony party, the must-go-to, can't-be-fashionably-late event of the week.

"I've been to many parties at the Shrine and [compared] to a Hollywood party, this is very impressive, but it's more like what music or TV or film used to be like 10 years ago," says Lorrie Boula, who is chatting with friends, drink in hand, in front of one of the three white domes set up outside the Shrine for the Microsoft soiree, which was held Monday evening. She's been living in Los Angeles for 15 years and works as a manager for musicians.

"It seems like as music and TV and film, as their businesses have sort of contracted, gaming has grown so much," says Boula. "Now the TV or film people still have parties like this, but they're not to this scale."

The parties are invitation-only, their vibes are very VIP. You can't crash one, though you can talk to a friend who works in PR, who will talk to another friend who also works in PR to try to sneak you in. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. (The International Game Journalists Association threw a "Not an E3 Party" party at the decidedly unpretentious Golden Gopher bar, not too far from the Los Angeles Convention Center, where the convention is held.)

Inside the Xbox party, the Killers are about to go on in 20 minutes. The caterers -- the food people dressed in black T-shirts that read FOOD, the drink people in green shirts that read DRINK, for the easily confused -- keep bringing in more and more and more food. Past the teriyaki table, the taco table, the fondue table, the hot dog table, next to one of too many open bars (with fresh daiquiris that come in strawberry, mango and pineapple), is the cereal table.

Some guy with a red Atari T-shirt and an Activision baseball cap is mixing Froot Loops with Cocoa Puffs. Tyler Dikman, president and CEO of CoolTronics -- "We're outsourcing designing jobs to a team of Russian guys with PhDs in the Saratov region of Russia," he says -- flew in to Los Angeles on Wednesday afternoon. He's 20, a junior at Santa Clara University studying business management, and is standing in a line outside another party at the Avalon nightclub put on by a half-dozen sponsors, including Best Buy. The invitation says it's VIP only, but the line seems far too long for V or I, but has plenty of Ps. There's some red-carpet action going on, but it's out of sight from the end of the line. Someone yells: Is that Wilmer Valderrama?! No one answers.

"This is all an excuse for the game execs to just blow it up," Dikman says of the E3 parties, then quickly shows a piece of folded paper where he's listed the week's parties. Dikman just got back from the "chill-and-laid-back" party thrown by Ziff Davis, publisher of Electronic Gaming Monthly, at Hotel Figueroa, and he's going to the Sony party the next night, for sure. Last year's headliners were Missy Elliott, the Crystal Method and the Black Eyed Peas, Dikman says, but he doesn't know who they will be this year.

He doesn't know because nobody knows. David Bowie? Maybe. Weezer? Hard to get. Green Day? That's plausible.

"Everything's top-secret -- they want the shock factor," says Dikman. "People talk about these parties for a long time. People inside the industry and outside the industry."

The Sony party, indeed, proves to be a testament to E3's overindulgences-- even for old-timers such as David Thomas, who freelances stories about the industry for the Denver Post. This is his seventh Sony party and his ninth E3. It's a 20-minute bus ride from downtown (Sony provides that, of course) to the Dodger Stadium parking lot, then a five-minute tram ride (Sony takes care of that, too) uphill to a plateau. The top of everything.

You can judge a party by the vodka it serves, Thomas says, and the Sony party is serving Smirnoff. Not too bad. You can also judge a party by the people who are invited. "What all these parties represent is how kooky the video game industry is," says Thomas. "Look at the mix of people in here: half-Comdex, half-Hollywood."

Thomas points out a balding man who's wearing a Hawaiian shirt with khaki shorts and white New Balance tennis shoes, and right next to him is a man in a white Prada long-sleeved shirt, a pair of Seven jeans and a Gucci pseudo-fedora. (That's what the dude called it.) "What typical Hollywood party would have all these types of guests?" Thomas asks. Young and old, but mostly young; of all races, but mostly white and Asian; men and women, though mostly men.

Men and men and men and men. At E3 parties, there are never long lines to the ladies' room.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company