Monday, September 6, 2010
Another year, another great PAX.
If you've never been to the Penny Arcade Expo, it's debatably the best gathering to celebrate videogames and videogame culture on earth. E3 might win out in terms of sheer size, number of parties, and the incredible quantity of games on display, but PAX has never attempted to be direct competition. Instead, this convention focuses more on the gamers themselves, and in doing so, has become the preeminent place to be a gamer.
I've been to PAX several times, and every year it just gets better… and bigger. It's literally impossible for one man to cover the entire show, so I'm not even going to try that. Instead, I'll talk about what I saw and tell you what I thought, and hopefully that will be enough to pique your interest for the length of this article.
Maybe you'll even be interested enough to go next year.
(Before going on, I would first like to thank my wonderful gamer wife Gina and my little boy, Whittaker. I feel incredibly blessed that I was able to attend this event as a unit with my family, and that I did not need to leave my loved ones behind. Not everyone can say that, and as a gamer who’s also a dad and husband, I'm certainly aware of how lucky I am.)
THE SOCIAL SCENE
Walking the show floor, I was struck by two ‘social’ things; the first was that there seemed to be an extremely healthy number of girls and families attending, in addition to the usual mob of sweaty single dudes.
I'm really not that old, but I suppose I am in relation to how many new gamers are entering the fold. “Back in my day”, a convention of this sort would have been overwhelmingly male, with the only females in sight (and on-site) being PR reps or bored, disaffected girlfriends dragged along by their inattentive partners. That's just not true anymore.
I spent more than a bit of time people-watching, and I was continually impressed with the sheer number of girls who were there of their own accord. They were playing kiosks, they were making game-trivia jokes, they were buying used cartridges -- they were just being gamers. I can't even begin to express how overwhelmingly positive a shift this is.
The same went for families. Seeing babies and small kids (like mine) has been generally unheard of, but I was constantly seeing moms and dads with baby carriers strapped to their fronts and backs. There were a fair number of toddlers running up and down the aisles, and plenty of parents accompanying older kids as well. In other situations, I can say with first-hand experience that announcing yourself as a parent who plays games is analogous to pulling down your pants and announcing to the room that you have anal warts. Here at PAX, being a parent AND a game player is just the next normal phase of life.
The other ‘social’ thing that occurred to me was how fundamentally Twitter has changed the nature of networking and meeting people.
Although I've attended PAX several years in a row, 2010 was the best because I had friends in (literally) every corner of the building thanks to following and being followed. Although this was the first time I had met most of these people in person, they certainly weren't strangers and it was a lot less awkward than walking up to someone cold and trying to start a conversation.
Morning, noon, and night, Twitter provided constant access to the goings-on of people that I wanted to know about, and I was able to share tidbits of my day with them as well. It was incredibly easy to coordinate lunchtime meetings and evening plans. If I was somewhere and put out a tweet asking if anyone was in the area, there would inevitably be at least one or two people who could come over to say hi.
As an even better example, GameCritics teamed up with Gladriel to host a tweetup at the Cheesecake Factory restaurant directly across from the convention center. Thanks to this electronic network, we gathered an eclectic bunch who likely would have never sat down with each other to share a meal under any other circumstances. It was a similar situation at the Sega party later on -- there were plenty of people I knew of tangentially, but thanks to the tweets, seeing some of these people face-to-face for the first time was like meeting old friends.
I don't mean to be a Twitter evangelist, but the service has done wonders to turn a traditionally forum/IM-oriented circle into something that's alive, vibrant, and immediate. I can say with complete confidence that if you are not already on Twitter and using it faithfully, you are missing out.
While PAX doesn't boast an exhibition floor as gargantuan as E3’s, it can certainly hold its own. With display spaces packed to the gills with upcoming games and vendors, there’s still plenty to see, and it takes quite a bit of time to get through it all. That said, in terms of quality I’d have to say that (in general) the selection was a bit lacking. I don't think it has anything to do with PAX itself; I took the uninspiring software and predictable entries to be more indicative of the industry overall. Still, there are things to talk about…
Taking a cue from Street Fighter’s back-to-its-roots reinvention, the developers of Mortal Kombat have apparently decided that it's time to drop all the goofiness and stupidity that has infiltrated the franchise over the years. Rather than being another parody of itself, this new iteration was dark, brutal, and unbelievably gory – even for a Mortal Kombat.
The crowd around the kiosks was electric, gathering around to whoop and cheer with each Fatality more explicit than the last. The dissections and decapitations weren't limited to the end of each round, though. During the fight, there were frequent CSI-style close-ups and X-ray views of internal damage being wrought. It was brutal stuff.
With redesigned characters, a roster that seems to include all of the fan favorites, and (apparently) limiting combat to a strictly 2D plane, this might just be the return to form that the series has badly needed for so long.
The biggest shift in the formula is that combat now takes place in real time for whichever character is currently under the player's control. All of the same menus, options, and strategy are still there -- the only difference is that rather than selecting a power or ability, the player presses a button and the action happens at that exact second. It may be a bit of a shock to some people, but after having seen it in action, I would definitely agree with the developers that this was a better way to go.
|Dragon Age lead writer David Gaider - A supremely friendly fellow!|
Graphics have received as much of an overhaul as the combat has. The visuals are now on par with the lushly-illustrated Mass Effect, and every aspect displays a much higher level of quality. The magic and skill effects are improved, and the supporting elements like the HUD and menus have been totally polished up, as well. Players (like myself) who journeyed through Ferelden on consoles will be quite shocked at the overall jump in quality.
There were a few other notables that warrant further investigation, specifically Hoard, Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine, and Plane Weaver. I ran out of time on the floor, though, so I can’t speak on them in any detail. Still, appearances were very promising.
BEST & WORST PR
I don't often comment about public relations reps, but this year I’d like to give special praise to Aubrey Norris of SouthPeak Games, Shaun Norton of Sandbox Strategies, and Lawrence Lacsamana of FortySeven Communications. All three of these folks knew what to do and how to do it, and as a critic who sometimes has to hustle and deal, it was a pleasure to work with some people who were happy to work with me.
On the other hand, I was more than a little put off by the quality of representatives at the Ubisoft booth.
After something caught my eye in Ubi’s area, I had a few questions to ask, but there were no reps in sight. I looked around and found a developer, but he couldn't stop playing his own game long enough to speak to me. Instead, he directed me to a desk around the corner, and when I got there, the person at the desk said she had no idea who I should talk to or where the person in charge was. I offered a business card and asked if she would pass it along to the person who dealt with such things, but she wouldn't take it. When I asked specifically who I should talk to in order to set up a line of communication, she shrugged and said “we don't really do that here, this isn't E3.”
Is this really how PR should be handled, Ubisoft? Somehow, I don't think so.
On the second floor of the convention center near the Rock Band stage, there was a small juice bar and healthy food café tucked away from sight. While their tuna sandwiches were great and the orange Creamsicle smoothies were too, the best thing was a special wheatgrass drink they made that blended the pungent juice with lemon, lime, and cayenne pepper. Instant perk-up GET!!
What fan-oriented convention would be complete without dozens of people walking around in fantastic (and some not-so-fantastic) outfits? There were a few impressive-looking costumes that we didn't manage to snap when the camera's batteries died (Renegade Shepard and Battle-Damaged Garrus come to mind) but more than a few were happy to pose before the Duracells ran dry. Also included: some of the more interesting floor displays and statuary. I think these speak for themselves, but you know what? Comments follow anyway…
In random order:
|This guy is at PAX every single year. He never misses.|
|No line-jumping! Hold those media bastards back!!|
|PAX took up every floor you see here, and more.|
|My son couldn't stay away from this giant dino. We visited it at least 50 times.|
|Apparently MS was pissed that these guys were backlit.|
|This was fifteen minutes before the crowds were let in. The floor was never this empty again.|
|My son Whittaker, racing to get a place in the Killzone 3 line.|
|At PAX, this isn't odd in any way.|
|Can he really see through that orange glow?|
|Bees about to take the Rock Band stage.|
|Subway sandwiches are the preferred sustenance of Black Mages.|
|No clue what this was advertising.|
|Seriously, take a shower before you come to PAX.|
|I have NO IDEA how she got someone to fit inside that Servbot.|
|BUY MY SPEAKERS!!!|
|I'm guessing the big blue guy isn't the brains of this crew.|
|That line of people against the windows? All sprawled out on beanbags. Downstairs, too.|
|A Big Daddy, a Little Sister, and... a maid?|
|Still looking for that damned Ring.|
|Can you spare 1.21 gigawatts?|
...And there you have it. This year’s coverage is a wrap, but endless thanks to Jerry, Mike, and the rest of the Penny Arcade crew for making such an amazing thing happen. PAX is always a high point of every year for me, and I hope it keeps going for many, many more.