Rappers, Romans, Zombies: The Things Companies Do To Stand Out At The E3 Video-Game Show

'It's kind of freaking me out,' one attendee says.

At last week's giant Electronic Entertainment Expo video-game trade show in Los Angeles, midway through the crowded hall connecting one huge room (dominated by PlayStation and Nintendo games) to another (booming with games from Microsoft, Electronic Arts and just about every other major game maker on the planet), stood a blonde woman wearing a red toga and armed with a thick spear.

Standing tall, she thrust out some promotional material for a game called "Gods and Heroes." "You will take one!" she ordered those walking by. Many of the predominantly male showgoers took the command. And every few minutes, one of them would ask for a picture with this warrior princess, Candice Carbo. Carbo, who is married, was working her third E3; she spent the last one reclining on a Roman couch eating grapes. She's also capable of scoring 184 lines in Tetris — "Pretty good for a girl," she noted.

Carbo was partnered with members of Legio IX Hispania, a group that re-enacts ancient Roman combat and was armed with shields and armor to help bolster the "Gods and Heroes" effort.

The Roman contingent may have been offering the E3 equivalent of a soft sell: Down the hall a supposed zombie rushed hall-walkers: "You're infected!" he growled as he slapped a hand-shaped sticker on them. In the other direction, an interactive-media company called Reactrix provided LucasArts with a floor-based video ad that featured "Star Wars" X-Wings and TIE Fighters that exploded when you stepped on. Further down was a booming promotional stand for "War of the Worlds," a movie with no game connection at this trade show.

And this was all in the relatively quiet hallway that connected the actual exhibition halls at the show. This year's E3 drew 70,000 attendees, according to show organizers, and showcased more than 5,000 products, most of them games and gaming hardware set for release this year (see "Move Over, Sequels: 10 Original E3 Video Games To Watch"). In the thick of that activity, companies worked hard to stand out.

Consider the U.S. Army, which makes a video game of its own called "America's Army." To promote the game, the Army didn't just have a booth; they were offering attendees a chance to undergo an urban-combat-training crash course (essentially: put on Kevlar, kick down a door and mock-shoot at targets). A parachute team was scheduled to drop onto the corner of Pico and Figueroa, and a select few could take helicopter rides over the city — something we took them up on — all to promote the game and Army experience.

Back in the convention center, professional poker players, the Harlem Globetrotters, hip-hop Grandmasters Caz and Melle Mel, and many more small-to-medium-scale celebrities were tasked with drawing crowds to video games. In front of the Activision booth, 20 feet from a World War II-styled bunker showcasing the company's "Call of Duty 2," was a group of rappers promoting one of what industry professionals call "urban" games with a freestyle that deftly incorporated the refrain "Put your hands up/ If you want some free stuff/ Come closer/ You get up closer/ Maybe you'll get it like you're supposed to," as they threw free T-shirts into an eager crowd. Needless to say, free stuff was a popular commodity at the show.

In another corner, a booth showcasing the new handheld gaming/GPS/media-playing device Gizmondo managed to include within a 15-foot radius a hip-hop performance, a functional diner — complete with counter, stools and tables — and part of what might have been a Mayan temple. A publicist at the booth said the Gizmondo folks had also managed to include about 16 scantily clad "booth babes," the most she'd ever seen in one company booth in her several years working at the show. "It's kind of freaking me out," she said.

In the Sony booth, one 28-year-old showgoer named Brian said E3 wasn't always such a big deal. "For a long time, E3 was one of the best-kept secrets," he said. "Now that video games have become a widescreen marketing industry, it's blown up."

His comments explained why companies were making bigger spectacles, but the most dispassionate observer couldn't help but notice that an event supposedly not open to the public still had so many attendees who were apparently there to hang out and play all the free games. Was it hard to get in for less-than-legit business reasons? Here's Brian's experience from an L.A. bus station last year: "I held a sign up saying 'Looking for a pass to E3,' and I got a pass to E3."

The proliferation of non-professionals may have helped explain why so many at the show had time during their stroll through the concourse hall to ask the spear-wielding Candice Carbo for a photo.

Pictures with the "booth babes" have become something of an E3 tradition, one that Carbo says could be a whole lot worse. "I like working here," she said. "This is a very respectful group. There's a lot of very shy guys, a lot of very easily intimidated guys. They're very polite." She said this on E3's third and final day, as she resumed promoting, posing and pretending to choke an eager attendee with her spear. Within minutes a revelry sounded, the show began to close down — and the circus tent folded for another year.