So I just got back from my first PAX experience, PAXEast. For those who haven’t been to PAX before, it’s a convention that celebrates gaming in many of it’s different forms and has events for both gamers and game developers. I was pleasantly surprised as to how much was available for such a little cost (1 day passes gives you access to everything and it’s only $65 for a three day pass). Compare this to GDC 2012 where the all access pass was $1475 for the early bird ($2100 for full price) and you can see why this particular event keeps growing in numbers.
It is worth noting that, since this is open to both gamers and game developers of all ages, you will have more of a mixed crowd that isn’t there just to learn about furthering their careers or refining their skills. The panels weren’t separated into different tracks (art, programming, design, audio, etc) and were focused a little more on providing insight, but the nature of a panel can generally lead to more interesting aspects of game development that you overlook or take for granted.
Most of my time was spent going to the different panels of interest but I did have some time to try a few games. I was mainly interested in The Secret World and Max Payne 3 and, without boring you with the personal details of my reactions, I can tell you that I was disappointed in The Secret World and am more excited about playing Max Payne 3 than before I had hands on time with it. For those who follow the series and know how difficult the controls were; everything is much smoother now. Like, worlds smoother. They changed the controls quite a bit from the original setup but I was told that the buttons were still customizable.
I was also looking forward to seeing the Assassin’s Creed 3 booth but decided that a two minute alpha gameplay trailer wasn’t worth the two hour wait and an inflatable tomahawk.
Speaking of waiting times, one valuable lesson was how fast lines for the panels fill up. Underestimating how early people will line up for certain talks, I was usually in the back of the room where the audio wasn’t always the best, depending on the speaker. Certain panels had people line up as early as 3 hours before hand (the one being referenced was held by Gearbox who is apparently known to give out plenty of swag and pizza to everyone who attends). Having never played the Borderlands series (it’s on my to do list), it was hard for me to get excited about the entire panel, but it did make me want to play the games after I was done. But I will get into that a bit more later.
Some of the other unique aspects of PAX were:
- Daily live concerts and dance parties
- A massive section solely for board games
- An even massiver (I know) section solely for PC gaming
- A classic arcade section that featured an arcade machine collector from York, PA (kind of cool)
- Rooms dedicated to console gaming (I didn’t get to check this out)
This truly was an event for gamers; I’m certainly no hard core gamer these days but it was quite the experience seeing borderline obsessive gamers when they’re given the chance to go wild and talk with other borderline obsessive gamers. Until this past weekend, I didn’t have an understanding of just how insanely large the gaming culture has grown in both culture and demographics. It was certainly an enlightening experience.
My main concern for my first PAX was the panels: there were a lot of good ones and it was difficult because they were setup to start every 30 minutes with each panel lasting 60 minutes. Add to that the fact that multiple panels had the same blocks of time and you quickly prioritize the most interesting talks from the ones that you feel you can live without. I will briefly go over the ones I went to some of the lessons I took away from them.
Gamers with Jobs Presents: Gaming for Grown-ups
The gist of this panel was how to gamers who’ve gamed since childhood now engage with the medium on a personal level. I was interested in this panel because I wanted to get some insight into whether professional game developers still play for fun or if they mostly play for research. My initial question wasn’t answered but what was interesting was how games used to be such a solitary experience. Ken Levine mentioned how, having no friends, he would always be in his room making new characters for D&D and playing through campaigns by himself. His personal story led to the revelation that most people tell you that you have to grow up and he thought that that statement was bullshit. He’s proud that he still has the same interests now that he had as a kid and it’s enabled him to want to make such compelling experiences.
My take away from this panel parallels a similar frame of mind to the current viral video of John Cleese on creativity, where he talks about creating within a closed mode versus creating in an open mode, even going so far as to reference Johna Huizinga and his theory of play. Ultimately, what the research mentioned concludes is that the most creative people have no problem entering a state of play. Certainly, one should have a disciplined mind when working in a professional setting, but, like the Buddhist idea of the beginner’s mind, once you’ve acquired the experience to craft these experiences, true skill is exercised by having all of that knowledge in your mind but approaching the problem as if you didn’t know what you were doing. The connection between the two talks being the ability to stay curious and know when you need to make decisions as opposed to play with possibilities.
Design an RPG in an Hour
I wasn’t sure what to expect with this event but I was expecting the panel to break us into groups and actually design games. Instead, this was more of an audience participation chat where a game designer walks us through the framework of a successful RPG, has the audience suggest different things, and then the audience votes on the suggested items.
The most interesting thing about this particular panel was that it engaged the audience to discuss why they made certain decisions which then would lead to why certain elements are more friendly to game design than others. My biggest influence from this was actually using this exercise for events that we hold.
Educating Through Play: The Future of American Education
I was interested in this talk simply because I know it’s a growing issue and, since I will eventually be having kids, it would be good to have some developer insight into this subject.
The panel involved professionals from Extra Credits, RIT, and Learning With Portals, as well as Alex Peake who created Code Hero, and their individual efforts into how they’re incorporating elements of play into the teaching. The general consensus from the panel was that this is a healthy direction for education because generations from here on out will be so engrossed with technology and games that teaching them without utilizing these resources ,and applying what they learn to what they love to do, would actually inhibit their ability to learn. This stems from the fact that the current American education system was put in place when America needed to educate factory workers and soldiers. There is apparently actual research that shows that the current system in place was designed for drill instructors who are trying to get their soldiers to remember facts as fast as possible.
Ultimately, the current skills that are needed for the current workforce are lateral thinking, group collaboration, and spatial reasoning (I may not have transcribed those from my memory accurately), all of which are utilized in game design. The last interesting thing about this talk was the attendees who had their own unique challenges to solve like not wanting to lose the ability to use books. One particularly passionate attendee who was a college professor on rhetoric completely disagreed with the panel and it was interesting to watch the debate.
As for what I took away from this, it’s hard to say. I understand that there are more interesting ways of engaging students but there is some nagging doubt as to how well it can be pulled off. You hear a lot about successful implementations and it will be interesting to see how this develops as time moves on.
I wanted to sit in on this panel because the Extra Credits teams is amazing and I wanted to see my friend James Portnow in action. Unfortunately, the whole cast wasn’t able to make it due to deadlines, so it ended up being James and a microphone answering people’s questions. A lot of it turned into a breaking into the industry exchange so I can’t say that I really took anything away from this talk except I now know why Dan’s voice on the Extra Credits videos sounds the way that it does.
Irrational Games: Making a Monster
This was a highly anticipated panel which I’m glad I had the opportunity to attend. Not only did I get a free poster out of it (everyone did) but it was such a great experience listen to how passionate Irrational Games is about creating living, breathing characters.
Ultimately, the takeaway was that they always try to think of the monster not just in terms of the game but how they existed before the moment the player interacts with the monster. For each of their monsters, they always want the player to have a context for the monster’s existence; a moment when you almost feel sorry for the creature, hinting at the tragedy of what they have become before the moment that their kill mode takes over and a battle takes place that mimics the downfall of the city in which the story takes place.
I can honestly say that very few games have tugged at me emotionally in a way that experiencing a Big Daddy did. The combination of their hauntingly sad moans as they look for Little Sisters always caused me to pause for a moment and observe them, making up some sort of internal story of how they have come to be what they are. It made the idea of killing Big Daddies much harder than it should have been. Nothing is more motivating that being chased with a giant drill or being shot at with a rivet gun, but the moment before and after the battle is always filled with some sort of remorse.
Legal Issues in the Game Industry
This panel was meant to educate me on the current topics of SOPA related efforts and the lawyer side of game development. There was a lot of talk but the overall message to the audience was that the rights of video games as art are not in any immediate danger. The Supreme Court has stated that video games are just as much an art form as film, literature, and visual art. It was unfortunate to hear about some of the struggles of hobbyist developers versus indie game developers, but there are efforts to make it easier for smaller developers to be legally represented without huge costs.
Plot vs Play: The Duality of Modern Game Design
I attended this panel to get some more insight into Ken Levine’s approach to game design. The talk included other professionals rom Obsidian, Joystiq, and Kotaku. Honestly, I’m hitting a wall with this talk; I can’t remember much from it. I don’t recall there being much of a significant debate on the idea of plot vs play. There was a lot of experience sharing and positing of the reason certain developers focus more on story, but there was nothing apparently conclusive about this panel. Which is was kind of unfortunate.
Transmedia, Alternative Reality Games, and Storytelling: Why Players (and Creators) Should Care
This was the first panel that I attended that didn’t fill a room. Granted, it was at 7:30pm so most people were exhausted and/or hungry. Needless to say, it was sad not to see a lot of people interested in this aspect of gaming. The other disappointment was with the presentation itself. I went into this expecting them to go into some awesome examples of how ARGs can be further utilized for different situations but instead it was a simple recap of previous ARGs that came out. They speculated a little on where they think ARGs are going, but it was completely nebulous and didn’t offer any excitement. It’s a shame too because the description of the talk and the expertise of the panel built up this expectation of how the different traits of ARGS should be used in more areas of entertainment, not just advertising. In no way did this talk tell me why players and creators should care.
The Genre Divide: Reassessing How We Define Videogame Genres
This was another talk by my friend James Portnow and the talk was about how merging particular traits of certain games together is making it harder to know how to analyze games in general. This is important when it comes to understanding your target demographic or even knowing what games to let your kids play.
His talk was based off of a research paper called MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research which talks about the relationship that developers and gamers have with games, breaking all of the components down to three major parts: Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics. It then goes on to explain the different types of core experiences that gamers have how this can help us to start to understand games in a more educated light. I won’t go into the details but he basically made it a discussion with the audience as to what games they play and why they play them. This suggested that the different genres of games do have some core experiences that translate into different types of game mechanics.
James didn’t get to finish his talk but my initial feelings centered around the idea that if different people play for different reasons, how can you even begin to categorize games based off of the experience gamers have or want to have? I’ll leave it at that for now. I do want to explore this topic more.
Inside Gearbox Software
This panel was the Gearbox team showing off new things for their two upcoming titles: Borderlands 2 and Aliens: Colonial Marines. I can say that I want to play both of these games…that’s my takeaway from this panel.
Whew…that was a lot.