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In 2016, E3 is an amusement park

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E3 has transformed the Los Angeles Convention Center into an amusement park. Its attractions: the world’s biggest unreleased games. As people who publish and promote video games find fewer reasons to participate in the annual video game conference, those that remain are transforming the space into a spectacle.

A queue for The Legend of Zelda, which wraps around a warehouse-sized enclosure, terminates at a grand arch. Here, visitors enter a colorful re-creation of the world of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Nintendo’s only big, playable games at this year’s conference. A young game maker, attending E3 for his first time, explains that he’s been waiting two hours, with plenty of line still ahead of him.

E3 2016 stock Ross Miller

The Electronic Software Associate has long presented E3 as a trade show for media and retailers. Five years ago, booths tended to be open venues, lined with stations to demo upcoming games. And while that remains the case for the biggest game companies like Sony and Microsoft, who fill massive real estate on the show floor, many publishers have shifted to closed-theater demonstrations, novelty marketing displays, and lines populated not merely by press and buyers but fans, video hosts, and other game developers — some of whom paid the $995 fee for a three-day expo pass.

Nintendo's humongous booth showcases one game

In the South Hall of the Los Angeles Convention Center — home to the third-party developers who make games for Sony and Microsoft’s consoles — you'll find more and gaudier attractions, each paired with a roped-off strand of patient gamers.

Last Sunday, millions of fans across the world saw the first footage of the hotly anticipated Dishonored 2. But on the show floor, Bethesda doesn't have booths for players hoping to experience Dishonored 2 firsthand. Instead, the company’s games take a backseat to their marketing materials. For last year’s Fallout 4, there’s a life-sized vault door. Behind it, a meticulous re-creation of the robot from the Dishonored 2 trailer.

Dishonored 2 and other Bethesda projects are shown in the second-floor rooms. Limited to business partners, celebrities, and certain members of the media, they hover over the show floor like an alternate event.

E3 2016 stock Ross Miller

The best wait at E3 2016, unquestionably, belongs to a booth a short walk from Bethesda. An extravagant mid-century re-creation of New Orleans' French Quarter, it includes an active storefront, a hotel facade, a small cinema, a photo booth, costumed psychics, and a bead-tossing publicist.

Some guests waited four hours to play a single demo

The promotion is for Mafia 3, an open-world mob game soaked in sex, drugs, and violence. You get the sense from the promotional cost that publisher 2K would like this game to achieve the success of its similarly designed cousin, Grand Theft Auto. Like so many other games, Mafia 3’s colossal, decadent space doesn’t host stations to play the game. Instead, players line outside the theater for a prerecorded sales pitch of the game’s features, while trailers for the game loop on humongous, beautiful mode screens that are scaffolded onto the retro city block.

The carnival atmosphere of E3 2016 has more in common with public video game events like the PAX conferences that turn convention centers in Boston, Seattle, and elsewhere into celebrations of both games and the folks who play them. Such a change could help E3, which has been gradually expanding over the past decade. Last year's event had 50,000 attendees.

Despite its logo looking like mid-1990s clipart, E3's identity changes with the times: the "booth babe" man party in Atlanta; the paired-down invite-only affair in Santa Monica; the aspirational tech conference in downtown LA. Perhaps an open-to-the-public fan mecca is just another new look.

E3 2016 stock Ross Miller

This year, Electronic Arts, the publisher of the immensely popular Madden and FIFA sports games, along with shooter and roleplaying franchises like Battlefield and Mass Effect, gave up its notoriously large and loud spot in the Los Angeles Convention Center to host a press conference and a series of public-friendly gameplay events at the nearby NOVO Theater.

"[E3]’s totally changing," says Pete Hines, Bethesda’s VP of PR and Marketing. He stands inside the company's booth, near a handful of playable stations for The Elder Scrolls: Legends. He points to EA’s new location, and the fewer number of developers showing games on the show floor this year.

But Hines explains that Bethesda, a member of the E3-hosting organization ESA, doesn’t have plans to leave E3, nor does Hines personally want a more crowded, public affair. He seems comfortable with the current balance, somewhere between private and public, press event and carnival. He imagines what E3 would be like with 100,000 people, and grins. "I’d be on a plane out of here."