Edward Pollard

I remember from PAX05 that, for the most part, Sunday is pretty lazy and my expectations have been fulfilled. The most exciting thing going on is trying to arrange getting my gear from the Sheraton to the Days Inn while participating in an all-day Starcraft board game tournament.

This means I may miss the final of the Omegathon – the very climax of PAX it could be said – which is a touch disappointing, but I’m sure videos of it will hit YouTube soon enough.

There are a lot of children around today which seems slightly incongruous to me, don’t their parents know where they are? They seem to have a strong draw to console free play which makes some sense: PAX is basically a giant 3 day arcade for locals. The only non-local I’ve discovered were the SE++ crowd from the Penny Arcade Forums who I managed to party with until 3:00 AM. Forum posts indicate that they went until 6. I don’t party like that unless I don’t need to move the next day.

PAX underscores, for me, a lot of the problems I have with gamer culture. There is a terrifyingly bearded man stalking Handheld Lounge B in order to secure buttons for the distributed handheld tournement and he exemplifies the antisocial undercurrent on which “gammingdom” hangs its hat. I don’t pass judgment on such people, but a conference for an inherently antisocial subculture is kind of amusing to watch, the social exchanges are all clumsy and brash. It is the mathematics of the John Gabriel Internet Fuckwad Theory subtracting the anonymity, and I was disappointed with how most of my line conversations worked out.

And in terms of gender dynamics, 99% of the few girls that are here are wearing anime-style short skirts and impenetrable frowns. I don’t even know why they came – aside from the ones being visibly dragged by their boyfriends.

I only lurked at the concert last night for the Jonathan Coulton set, and seeing Skullcrusher Mountain performed live allays any misgivings I could possibly have about the entire adventure. While he was pelted almost disrespectfully by the audience with requests between every song, he handled it with ease and made enough nerd-friendly jokes to earn the favour of the audience despite not responding to the requests. M.C. Frontalot was up next and I can’t understand a word of what he does in a live performance.

There are some more intimate thoughts I have regarding PAX07 but I’ll save those for a summary post when I have more time.

PAX continues unabated. I was up until 5:00 AM with the night topped off by a trip to the nearest diner – the Hurricane Cafe – which was a good seven blocks from the Sheraton and the conference center. The thing with urban centers is that they are particularly lousy at facilitating living in the off hours, hours frequented heavily by the nascent zombies that comprise the PAX audienceship.

The exhibition hall is much busier today than it was yesterday, and there are quite a few more cosplayers and other adorable misfits filling the halls of the Washington State Conference Center today. I managed to get in games of Puerto Rico and Betrayal at House on the Hill before having a nice chat with the people from Prima Publishing about the ins and outs of being a strategy guide author. Assasins Creed made a big splash in the main theater today, but I was not in a position to snap up any media from the demonstration.

Betrayal at House on the Hill can be an uneven boardgaming experience, and I was pleased the game worked out as well as it did. I became the traitor, and had a pet dragon (Haunt 15 for those keeping score at home). I managed to decimate one of the other players, but the protagonists had the time to equip one player mightily and rather than drag out the affair I met him head on and died – badly. But it was fun.

There are a few things I’ve noticed about PAX: the vast majority of PAX goers are local, and they don’t seem to like strangers chatting them up in line. Also, the tabletop freeplay is pretty barren, and what I saw a lot of today was curiosity seekers wandering in and taking a game from the library, only to return it 10 minutes later after reading the rules. The groups of people doing this we’re all small and looked awkward and unhappy. I felt for them, I really did.

I’m going to return to tabletop land shortly and hopefully manage to facilitate some fun-making for such curiosity seekers.

Last note: Will Wheaton is really quite attractive in person. Is this some sort of latent impression from watching him on television all those years? The ineffable charisma of a celebrity? I don’t know. It was a short line to get an autograph, but I passed as, well, what the hell do I need signed by Will Wheaton?

While in line this morning I wrote as follows…

2 hours in line and things are starting to move – finally. Already you can smell BO, and I’m surrounded by two distinct types of PAX-goers: people who are chatting loudly with their own brought-to-PAX group, or those that have been quietly immersed in their own DS or PSP experience the whole line standing experience. Looking to my sides I can see 6 people in close proximity listening to iPods, small white earbuds keeping out the world around them.

Typical PAX GoerLast weekend I attended the Edmonton International Fringe festival which was a stark contrast to this scene. While this may be gamer heaven, it is well evidenced to no surprise that gamers are an antisocial bunch of people. As a peer group the frustrate the hell out of me.

But I have a few prearranged meet and greets, so despite a dull line experience I remain optimistic as to what the weekend holds.

And then the day continued…

I really didn’t get to meet many interesting people today, which I thought was a bit disappointing. I trolled the tabletop freeplay rooms on a regular basis and they were consistently barren. I hope that later tonight or tomorrow I can find a little more board gaming action.

Starcraft Board Game at PAXThe highlight of the day was a demo of Fantasy Flight Games new Starcraft board game. It really has turned out well, and I briefly chatted with a representative who summarized its development hell. They had a complete, Blizzard-approved game that they threw in the bin because they knew they could do better. And what they have now really shines! I don’t know about play balance, but the interacting mechanics feel really interesting and fresh – despite a lot of them coming out of other FFG titles. It was simply delightful to try it, and of course it was spectacular to behold. I had a hard time not buying one of the very few copies available. But the budget is stretched as is…

Due to phenominally bad planning I missed the keynote presentation an the Uwe Boll panel. Hopefully I can be more attentive to my schedule tomorrow.

Con swag was in abundance, but most of it was terrible. Nabbed a Bully “schoolbook” from Rockstar, a handful of stickers, and registered in a tournament for a card game I’ve never played before. Purchased obligatory PAX 07 t-shirt as well as Book 4 of the PA Dark Horse series – $10 at the con special you know. There is a concert tonight, but the Penny Arcade forum moderators are having a dinner so I’ll miss parts of it. Tomorrow has Jonathan Coulton, which I’m much more excited about.

Inside PAX PAX Merch WoW CCG at PAX

The smell of geekery is in the air. Penny Arcade Expo, the annual pilgrimage of gamers and misfits is this weekend, and I’m sitting in my Sheraton hotel room and couting down the 4 hours until the doors open. Yesterday we drove 14 hours across the Canadian Rockies from Edmonton, Alberta – spirits high, iPods filled with video game music. Was it fun? Well, I mean its 14 hours, thats a long time. Someday I hope to be uncheap enough to spring for a flight.

The BorderI’m here as a hanger-on to some of the team from BioWare presenting Mass Effect at the Microsoft booth, so while I am laden with choice tidbits of secret information I had to sign an NDA before stepping into the car. Damn. The guy I’m bunking with at the Sheraton is a programmer on their unannounced Xbox 360 project. Want to know about it? Sorry, they told me they’d have me killed.

As I’m unable to liveblog (roaming data for 1 cent a kilobyte? No thanks) and can’t produce much video my updates will be occasional at best, but I hope I can bring you a bit of the style of a super nerd video game convention from remote. This is the biggest independent gaming con in the history of foreverness, or so they tell me. And all for two guys who draw pictures and write funny words. I should have ignored my parents and followed my dream.

Serious PieThe line at 10AM was already considerable. People were playing card games and assembling jigsaw puzzles (?) while awaiting permission to enter gamer mecca. The street is decorated with banners, so I guess PAX has finally made it to something resembling mainstream. I ducked down the street for $11 donuts and coffee at Lola, having indulged in the best pizza in the entire world at sister restaurant Serious Pie last night. If you happen to be in the neighbourhood, you can drop me a note at [email protected] which I can pick up via mobile.

(if you hit Serious Pie the clam pizza was spectacular, as was the sausage and peppers shown here. The clam was better though.)

PAX 07 Line PAX 07 Line - Munchkin Early PAX 07 PAX 07 Street

Like many total nerds, I often feel that my wallet has become empty long before my appetite for games has been sated. Given the large number of games that sit unplayed, this is the dictionary definition of being really stupid. However a recent story by Games.net and a recent thread in the Penny Arcade forums got me to thinking about the industry that creates these games, games that so often are neglected not just by me, but by the gaming masses as a whole.

I personally try to avoid all forms of media that are created with profit as the main motivator. I want to encourage storytellers to have the freedom to tell stories, but I’m not one who likes to fill his hours with meaningless drivel just to be entertained and stimulated. I want my drivel to have meaning, thank you very much, and for someone to give a damn about it during the creative process.

Thus my hate for Spider-Man 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean 3. Notice how silly the sacks of cash were that followed those films. Obviously I am out on a limb here, waving a flag of opinion over a sea of disregard.

But in gaming the problem seems worse, probably because the market is so small. It’s just big enough to encourage attempted cash ins, but not large enough to create an ample supply of idiots to supplement the dollars spent in a more discerning way. So, instead of being pushed to the margins – you know, like those $5 direct to DVD movies at Wal-Mart, these lousy, lousy games share shelf space and mindspace with the AAA titles. Retailers don’t give a damn, they just fill the shelves and pray.

This makes our hobby look stupid. Really stupid.

But even worse, this creates casualties like Beyond Good and Evil, or Psychonauts. Games that were superbly crafted yet somehow got relegated to the discount bin within a week of release due to an inability to achieve critical mass in pre-release press.

While we are short on stupid game players, the confusion over game quality has created a large demographic of ignorant consumers who will absolutely not take any chances with their purchases. With something like Psychonauts, the artistic style was so unusual you wouldn’t know it was a great game unless you were immersed in the industry. So astute gamers got a deal, and the developers of Psychonauts got a pink slip.

Well, not really, as Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Productions is actually working on its next project, but still, the point still stands. And some people wonder why this medium isn’t growing as an art form.

There is no path that I can see to get us over this hump aside from waiting for the player base to grow in size. While gamers with brains are a small minority, the quantity of them still grows proportional to the size of the industry. It becomes a simple function of volume. Serious gamers knew Beyond Good and Evil was going to work because we knew Michel Ancel’s (Rayman series) track record, but nobody outside the core fandom would even recognize that name. His next game sold in huge numbers not because of its quality or his name, but because it was attached to a huge motion picture (King Kong).

I don’t offer solutions; my intent was simply to relate the problem, not attempt to fix it, as by its nature this column is preaching to the converted. Readership of a site like this is a self selected demographic that is already on the cutting edge of digital entertainment. But do we need to wait for MTV to do the totally obvious and realize that Guitar Hero is fun before we see people with the necessary resources begin pushing games to the mainstream?

The dominant forms of media consumption are still television and film, and the media conglomerates have almost hindered as much as helped interactive media to the extent they’ve been involved in it. Fox Interactive isn’t exactly known for its stellar titles, the parallels between Die Hard : Nakatomi Plaza, Live Free or Die Hard, and the abuse of dead horses being strong.

We live in an interesting age where computers are introducing a constant stream of new ways to interact with ourself and each other, and these ideas are being introduced in a world irrevocably changed by radio and television barely 100 years ago. As it stands, there really is no parallel then for the development of the games industry, and as the business of making and selling games continues to grow and evolve, the painful, sometimes depressing truth is that we can hold up no examples as illuminating in getting the storytelling style of interactive entertainment taken seriously.

[Edward J. Pollard is a web developer and freelance video game journalist from Southwestern Alberta, Canada. Some people think he posts funny and insightful things to his blog. We think you might be one of them.]