Investigating ‘The Secret E3’: A look behind the curtain at E3 Judges Week
Before June’s big event, a select group of journalists traditionally get to see all the secrets before everyone else
This article was originally published in 2019 and has been edited for clarity,
Before the pandemic, when 70,000 people annually descended on the Los Angeles E3 show, a select group of around 20 journalists were invited every year to see the games industry’s secrets before anyone else and game companies, in the words of one developer, “shit themselves”.
It’s called E3 Judges Week, and it’s a chance for publishers to get their games in journalists’ hands before they finalise E3 demo builds. It happens away from the public, and the journalists can’t write about what they see for up to a month afterwards, so you rarely hear much about what goes on during this four-day event, held behind the closed doors of various Santa Monica hotels.
I spoke to two developers and two journalists who have each attended multiple Judges Weeks to find out what happens, and they told me stories of unnecessary theatrics including themed food, of the occasional “entitled” critic, and of how it all feels like “summer camp for old time-y games journalists”.
Critics attending Judges Week have a packed schedule. They’re flown into Santa Monica and bussed up and down Ocean Avenue over the course of four or five days, meeting developers and playing early builds of upcoming games at booths in local hotels.
At each demo station, a publisher or developer sets the scene with a pre-amble. Then, the journalists play for 20 minutes to an hour, sometimes with a supplementary interview, before hurrying to the next hotel for another appointment. Events run through the day and evening, with the latest finishing at 11pm, and the journalists all stay together for the course of the week.
“Before I knew what Judges Week was I assumed…you’d get a real horizontal slice of what’s going to be at the show, and it’s not that at all”
Aside from an evening that’s specific to indie developers, Judges Week is publisher-led. Some stations involve a publisher showing off multiple upcoming games—others focus on a single game a publisher wants to push forward so that it can potentially win one of the Games Critics Awards, which are chosen by a wider group of journalists after E3.
One journalist who attended Judges Week in 2018 and 2017 says publishers also use the event to promote games that won’t get much attention at E3. “Before I knew what Judges Week was I assumed…you’d get a real horizontal slice of what’s going to be at the show, and it’s not that at all,” they say.
“It’s a couple of publishers partnering with [organiser Geoff Keighley] to show off stuff early, and the way I perceived it [was] some of it is positioned there because it might get overlooked on the show floor.”
For developers, pulling a demo together specifically for Judges Week can be stressful, especially with E3 looming. But the same anonymous developer that told me they “shit themselves” when showing their games to the press also says it’s more “sedate” than E3, and that they use it as a practice run for the main event.
“Sometimes this is the first full outing for an E3 demo, fresh from the studio. There might be time to polish any remaining bugs, just about, for the show floor build—but there’s always a nagging fear that a bug’s still there in this most important, earliest seen, version,” they say. “There’s a lot of rehearsing the key stuff you want to get over to journalists and consumers, both here and E3 itself. It feels like a more sedate dry run, really.”
“For developers, pulling a demo together specifically for Judges Week can be stressful, especially with E3 looming.”
Developer Alex Hutchinson has attended Judges Week on and off for the past 15 years, including while working in senior roles at EA and Ubisoft, where he was creative director on both Far Cry 4 and Assassin’s Creed 3. More recently he attended under the banner of his studio Typhoon Games, which made Journey to the Savage Planet, and he says the week is an invaluable opportunity for smaller teams to spread the word about their games.
“At this point, especially as an indie, you’re desperate to get your stuff in front of people,” he says. “Your first big problem is to make something that’s worth people’s time to play, and the second problem is to make anybody in the world aware that you’ve made it. This is an opportunity to solve that second problem, get it out there.”
He feels Judges Week is actually “bad for review scores” for smaller studios because journalists will compare what they play to other AAA games they see during the week. But it’s still a “risk worth taking” because of the exposure you can get from it, he says.
This is my demo
The journalists I spoke to liked that every game at Judges Week is playable. “[It’s] much better than just seeing some videos or sitting there while a developer plays a game in front of you,” one journalist who went to 2019’s event tells me.
The journalist that attended Judges Week in 2017 and 2018 says they enjoy the lengthy embargoes that are slapped on most of the games because they’re not forced to rush out articles for the next day.
“Any games journalist can agree you just want the information and the experience and have critical questions answered. And I think for the most part, Judges Week allows for that to happen in a less stressful format. Sometimes you have a month to write about it so you can take your time—that’s a flipping luxury compared to most events.”
However, the journalist was less pleased with the “theatrics” on some of the Judges Week stations. Most are “pared down” compared to E3, but some publishers still want to put on a show. They recall one event where the room was made up to look like a jungle, and the food was themed to match the game.
“The theatrics involved just drive me fucking crazy,” they say. “We’re just trying to do a job, and the best thing you can do is give us the context, show us what you want to show us, and let us ask some questions. You can skip all the coddling, the pandering. It makes me uncomfortable, the implication is it’s trying to sway our mood, or our perception of what you’re showing off.
“Exhaustion inevitably affects how developers feel while showing off their games. Hutchinson says the attending journalists can seem like the ‘jaded, grizzled, slightly bored version of E3, which can be painful for a dev.'”
“I get it because from a PR perspective, [you] really want to paint a picture and communicate what this is about, and maybe the tropical theme for the room is because it’s a tropical game. It’s not always over the top…I prefer the drab, featureless hotel ballroom.”
The other journalist I spoke to tells me they “always wonder how much it costs” to run Judges Week. “They fly us all in, put us up in a swanky hotel in Santa Monica, the publishers have suites in hotels around town, everything is catered and there’s food and drink everywhere. We’re shipped around from place to place on a bus and most nights events last until around 11 pm. It’s a bit of a party atmosphere in the evenings, though I’ve never seen anything crazy happening.”
Those late events mean it can be “exhausting” for the attending journalists, especially because they always have to be switched on. “I love video games,” one of the journalists says, “but I don’t like sitting there and playing all day if you have to be ‘on’, have the critical mindset, take notes, consider what your audience wants to know, [think about] the schedule itself and the interview you have coming up. It’s exhausting on the brain, but it’s doable.”
That exhaustion inevitably affects how developers feel while showing off their games. Hutchinson says the attending journalists can seem like the “jaded, grizzled, slightly bored” version of E3, which can be painful for a dev.
“For us, they’d just come straight from Oculus, so they were all nauseous. And I was like, ‘fucking amazing, we kill ourselves for two years and a whole bunch of people who want to throw up are about to play our game’.”
Some of the journalists, particularly those who have been around the show for a long time, also have an “air of entitlement”, Hutchinson says. They might refuse to play a demo that requires them to “fight through” a section that doesn’t work as intended, for example. “Most people are really nice, but there’s definitely a few that have an air of entitlement about it.
“One of the journalists tells me some of the longer-term attendees are ‘very comfortable with it, familiar with it’, and they liken Judges Week to ‘summer camp for old time-y game journalists'”
“I think it’s their chance to be the centre of attention. It’s a moment where they have a lot of power. And, you know, 99% of them are lovely people and awesome and super cool, but there’s always a few where you raise an eyebrow.”
One of the journalists tells me some of the longer-term attendees are “very comfortable with it, familiar with it”, and they liken Judges Week to “summer camp for old time-y game journalists”. However, they also say everyone is “very friendly”, and that they enjoy socialising with other journalists during the week. The indie evening in particular is a great space to speak to developers on a personal level, they say.
While bringing in those indie teams suggests Judges Week has at least tried to evolve with the times, Hutchinson tells me that the event hasn’t changed much over the past 15 years, that it’s very “America-centric”, and that he wonders how relevant it is. But that stability is also comforting, he says. “It’s nice in an industry that moves so fast to have these traditions. I quite like that part of it, it’s a comfort in a business where you’re worrying about not having money to cover rent.”
The way magazines and websites cover games is continually changing, but E3’s Judges Week stubbornly remains the same—and that’s exactly the way some people like it.