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If you ever want to be convinced that games are meant to be played and not looked at, go to a gaming expo. The point where I started enjoying myself correlates pretty precisely with the point where I started playing things that looked interesting instead of aimlessly wandering around looking at them.
If you ever want proof that games can actually be looked at and be just as fun, go to a gaming expo. I'm talking, of course, about the Omegathon.
The Omegathon is a multi-round spectator sport, with a random group of PAX attendees chosen to compete in front of increasingly large crowds. And I am kind of a shameless addict.
PAX is about buy-in for me. I learned about the convention from documentary episodes and blog posts by the event's progenitors. They talk a lot about the stuff that they're doing, and don't have so much time to catch other panels. So for me, the PAX myth was all about drawing comic strips and setting challenges for unsuspecting gamers. That's the experience I try to replicate when I finally get the chance to attend.
I'm not really into the whole streaming thing. I don't really get Let's Plays. I have nothing but respect for professional gamers, but I have zero interest in watching them. The idea of e-sports kind of makes me roll my eyes. I shouldn't enjoy the Omegathon.
But it's like the difference between live sport and televised sport, I guess. There's a whole element of atmospherics and crowd participation that I think, as a predominantly digitally mediated experience, gaming misses out on. There's something visceral about being part of a crowd. Even when the game isn't that competitive. We all knew, somehow, that we had to cheer during Katamari when someone managed to pick up the Kewpie Mayonnaise*. Everyone knew that Gongon was never going to make it past the first island in Monkey Ball, but that didn't stop people from chanting his name.
It's gripping and intense and addictive in a way that streaming just isn't. It's kind of indescribable, but you probably know the feeling I mean, and why I want to chase it.
There's a parallel of sorts to be drawn there: The Omegathon is to streaming as PAX is to gaming. PAX is a physical manifestation of a digital medium, and it exists to fill a unique experiential gap. This is a lot of what PAX is supposed to be for people: A physical place where they can hang out with their own tribe, and finally find a place to be themselves.
I'm not sure I experience that gap so much in my everyday life. I have a fairly decent bunch of mates, who already get this kind of stuff. And it's easier to chase that shared experience on the couch than it is to take it to Melbourne. I get why that particular value proposition might not have been there.
But there is another side to that. Because the people I noticed most were - and this is going to sound a little weird - other instances of us. Other groups of people who were kind of close knit, with snatches of banter indicating that this wasn't a new discovery but something old and comfortable. For these guys PAX isn't a homecoming or a safe space, it's just a really fun weekend out. And it's that level of PAX that appeals to me.
So. Do I go next year? That depends. I've done my "I want to do this, with or without other people" thing, and it worked, and I had an awesome time, but I'm not sure I'd do it again alone. PAX, the way I'm interested in it, isn't a spectator sport. I reckon it's meant to be about the people you're with. And that kind of puts it out of my hands. If I - we - go again, we go again. If not? Hey, I had my fun adventure.
*Katamari is a truly bizarre game. Even more so as a spectator sport.
The thing that this year's event really illustrated to me was the extent to which 2013 was an alpha test. The first PAX Australia was in a very different venue, and it wasn't quite big enough. Despite queueing for ages, getting into panels was pretty unlikely. For this year, though, that was vastly improved. The venue is perfect - logically laid out, and actually big enough. So this year, for the first time ever, I actually got to see a panel at PAX.
In fact, I didn't just get to see a panel. I got to see the keynote. Which last time I had to watch on the flight home, ripped from Youtube. That was a nice change.
The keynote was a pretty interesting way to kick everything off without actually saying all that much. At least not for me. The essence of the thing was Warren Spector, of Deus Ex fame, exhorting gamers to consider games on their merits as their own medium rather than comparing them to films, and trying to convince developers to stop trying to be filmmakers. Games, he said, were about interactivity and player choice, they were the ultimate in audience participation and collaborative storytelling, and we should be skeptical of anything trying to be otherwise.
All of which I've heard before, in a uni course on the subject.
The takeaway for me was kind of a corollary to that. Games are now bigger than cinema. Gaming is the dominant art form, not just a niche. So understanding how to use it to tell the stories we want to tell and craft the experiences that we want to share isn't just important for making the most of games. This is the medium that, for better or worse, is going to be the way we tell stories for at least this few decades, if not this century. Figuring it out, both as producers and consumers (and yeah, how that line blurs when you're playing, not just consuming) is going to become basic literacy for a huge chunk of our culture for all time. We owe it to everyone who is going to study the great works of this era as literature to figure this stuff out, to nail it, to start making interesting things that might be able to survive the tests of time. The state of the art right now is, mostly, not art, and we owe it to the fabric of the culture we're creating to actually do something cool with this.
None of which was in the talk, but anyway.
Two other panels kind of stood out to me.
One was the Nano Jam, where a motley assortment of designers, an artist, and a musician, attempted to concept out as many games as possible in 45 minutes.
This was bloody hilarious to watch, but also, in the context of the above, kind of depressing. What I would've liked to see was cool game ideas, totally wacked out mechanics, and weird concept art. And yes, a decent dose of humour. What I got was an incredibly funny panel of talented people who kind of phoned in every randomly drawn set of concepts by pasting memes on to one or more existing app store style game genres.
Maybe I was expecting too much? Maybe I was hoping for more of an actual game jam type thing, with an emphasis on creativity rather than a stand-up comedy show? Or - hey - maybe the creative juices just weren't flowing for them that day.
On the other hand, maybe I'm not actually missing out on much in the way of mobile gaming by locking myself up in my Windows-y tower.
So yeah, I had higher hopes for that one than it perhaps deserved, but I think I did learn something about mobile game development culture.
The counterpoint to this was Dragon Friends, which I was planning on skipping, because hey, I know what D&D is, right? How different can it be to watch it live on stage? Plus it backed right on to the closing ceremony, and I didn't want to miss out on the final round of the Omegathon*.
I decided to check it out when I found out that WA senator Scott Ludlam would be joining in the game.
It turns out if you get funny enough people, and a talented enough game master, and a hall full of people who understand the rules and the tropes (and aren't going to bring any of the stigma that the game traditionally carries in with them), and then sprinkle live background music on top, that D&D is actually a pretty great spectator sport.
And the senator brought his own dice, which if you ask me, is an excellent reason to vote for him.
*(More on the Omegathon tomorrow.)
PAX is a little bit like The Louvre. No, no, bear with me. The Louvre is so impossibly big that you can't ever hope to see it all in one visit. So it is with PAX.
And, panels aside, the thing I came to PAX this year to do was scout out some cool local multiplayer games in PAX Rising. And I tried to stay as focussed as I could on that goal.
But nobody's perfect.
Possibly the most significant of these mistakes was a little game called Build ARVI. It started as watching over someone's shoulder as they tried to manhandle some kind of physics-powered sci-fi contraption through what looked an awful lot like a World of Goo level. I was probably there watching them for a solid five minutes, and eventually, I think they realised I was there, giving up with a shrug.
"I can't get it man. Maybe you'll have better luck."
I picked up where they left off, mid-level, heading back to the drawing board and pulling their vehicle apart. I made it more compact, more balanced, and did some fine tuning of parachutes and centers of gravity. Over several dozen iterations, I solved it. And I was presented with the next level, and some new tools.
I quickly mastered air jets, rockets, and anti-gravity balloons, and attracted the attention of one of the developers who occasionally interjected with helpful hints. And I beat it, scratching a puzzle-solving itch I hadn't remembered I had.
I left the developer's keyboard, covered in sweat, to a little kid, and got to talking. I learned some interesting stuff. I found that the guy was an accountant, but was really into getting his physics just right. I learned that they'd originally tried to build a game about evolution, but stumbled on this idea of having the player iterate on a design along the way. I discovered that this was a reskin of a much cutesier game with identical mechanics, to try and hit a more mature market, and that explained the cartoon-y levels in the demo.
"Man, that's the best 20 minutes I've spent at PAX today," I remarked as I was leaving.
"Dude. That was an hour."
"I'm sorry. I have to run."
One panel later, back on the floor, I found myself scintillated yet again. This time, I feel I should add, was just because the thing was so darn pretty. On the screen is a gorgeous, bright, vector art planet, surrounded by darting chevrons and monolithic orbiting sky-towers.
"Hey, would you like to play Element?"
I looked up.
"Yeah. What is it."
The guy smiled the smile of a clever person who has a clever pitch and knows it. "It's a space-based real time strategy game for people who don't have time for space-based real time strategy games."
I kickstarted Planetary Annihilation just because I wanted it to exist. I think I knew full well that I'd never have time to play it. Maybe, one day, when the multiplayer is well and truly dead, I will finally get around to picking it up.
The RTS has its hooks deep in my gaming bedrock. I played the same single sprawling Age of Empires II game for about 3 years, all through primary school. I never got the hang of multiplayer, but-
"So, it's single-player. The idea is that each planet gets harder, and you mine a particular element from each one to escape the solar system."
I'm sold. He handed me a controller.
Element is everything it was pitched as. At the end of my play session, the dev asks me some questions.
"So how did you find the difficulty?""Good. It picked up really nicely from one planet to the next."
"And how many planets would you play?"
"In a row? Depends if I have work the next day."
Guys. Please. Please, please, please. Get this game Greenlit I need it to exist yesterday.
There was one more gem that caught my eye. It was, once again, brightly coloured, and once again, was scooped straight from my primordial soup. It was a 3D platformer. All whizzing death traps and impossible jumps. It was pretty great, if kind of unremarkable. I hopped from platform to platform, appreciating the map, and the way the hazards were placed to kind of invite you to solve the puzzle your own way. And just as I was about to start what I told myself would be my last run, a word floats past my ear.
I passed the controller to the incredibly patient kid behind me, and went in hunt of a programmer.
It turns out this whole glorious experience is crafted by a machine. Five worlds, each one generated in luminous colours from a random seed and then populated with exquisite mechanisms of destruction. They showed me a dev-mode shortcut which would rebuild the world in front of my eyes, and talked about plans for speedruns and leaderboards and challenges. But honestly, to me, it was pretty much perfect as it was.
And! And, it was on Linux.
The game was Rogue Singularity, and I kind of can't wait.
Tune in tomorrow for panels, concerts, and introspection.
So let's talk about some actual games. That's why we're all here, isn't it?
I hit PAX this year with a mission. A few months ago, I invested - and I use the term very loosely - in a set of knock-off Super Nintendo controllers and a USB hub. These, I proclaimed, would reinvigorate couch-based multiplayer in a way that Lochie's Ex Box One, so named for the number of controllers an ordinary human who is not made of literal gold can afford, could not.
While this has been remarkably successful, mostly through the medium of [Rockets], my mission at PAX this year was to find more things to do with them.
So without further ado, here are our candidates. I wish I had more photos of these setups, because I think it would be illustrative of how a lot of them play. Plus, a lot of the booths were really cool. Sadly, since my phone was in an induced coma for most of the weekend, you'll just have to be satisfied with my words. And this glorious array of calling cards.
Dungeon League plays like an incredibly fast-paced competitive [roguelike]. It's clearly been constructed by someone who thought, "Yeah, I guess Smash Brothers is okay, but it needs more Nethack." It's one of those recipes where you know instantly if that's for you.
Well, not quite. I'm a real fencesitter for both genres. I get my butt handed to me in fighting games, and while I love the concept of those deep random RPGs, I never really found the time for them, you know? This one was incredibly popular, so I only got a few rounds - but I'd be willing to give it a shot. The grid system should play nicely with a d-pad too.
Swordy is weird. It's kind of Surgeon Simulator with swords, and local multiplayer. Your movement is on one thumbstick, and your weapon action is on the other. If you've played Hammerfight, it's kind of like that. It's pretty decent fun though.
Unfortunately due to the two sticks requirement, it won't play nicely on my controllers. The poor things only have one D-pad. If I ever upgrade to cheapo analogue controllers though...
(Also, what's with the weird trend towards really lazy names? Flappy bird? Crossy road? Shooty sky? Swordy? C'mon guys. You're creative types. You can do better than that.)
Ah, this is just about perfect. Amoebas with guns in space. The more guns you pick up, the bigger and angrier you get.
I'm not sure how people will react to this one. The fact that you end up with most of the previous leader's weapons when you kill them makes it a bit king-of-the-hill-y, and unless you luck on to a weapon at the right time and manage to hit them in their gap in their defences (I think the weapons are randomly distributed about your circumference to ensure you do have a weak spot - but I don't know) it can be really hard to claw back an even game from being dominated.
On the other hand, actually killing the leader and taking every gun is just so satisfying that it might make up for it.
Thanks to a very friendly and helpful developer and his deep knowledge of Unity plug-ins, I'm pretty sure that Armed and Gelatinous is the most certain to work on my controllers. And it only uses, like, one button. I expect we'll play this one pretty much first up. Whether it catches on or not is another matter entirely.
This is part of a peculiar fad of single-button games. I ran into several of them at the show. This one was literally hooked up to giant buttons at the booth. Press them to start swinging around the blobs? And there's some kind of race mode?
I don't know how it will play out as multiplayer. I'll give it a try. What I can confirm is that on a phone - yes! A game was actually released for my phone! - it is weirdly addictive. Especially with some podcasts in the background. I've been playing it pretty much non-stop since I got back, and did I mention it's free? Come and join me in the technicolour addiction hole.
FIGHTING TUBE MEN. PUNNY NAME. WHAT IS NOT TO LOVE.
Well, the fact that it's another case of movement on one stick, violent flailing on the other. So again, off the cards without a significant controller upgrade. It plays quite nicely though. Very visceral and punchy. Naturally, I sucked at it.
One more with great potential - although it needs at least one analogue stick. The big boast here is replayability. Which is something I can appreciate, since we're getting a little tired of the one available map in Rockets Rockets Rockets over and over again.
The gist of the game is a 2D golf thingy, with all the players aiming for the same hole at the same time. The gimmick comes from the fact that the developers have apparently exposed every single internal variable they can get their hands on through the UI, resulting in what they claim is 'trillions' of different variants. And somehow, I don't doubt it. During one round, we played with bananas as balls, with weird inverted gravity, up cliffs...
This is my current favourite for a spot on the roster. The pitch is, essentially, Mario Kart crossed with Smash Brothers. Yeah - there was a lot of crossbreeding going on this year. It's a shooty racing game, but without any racing. While you do have to stay on the track, you don't actually have to win a race. You're just trying to brutally murder your other racers, either directly, or by forcing them off-screen.
It doesn't really describe well, but it was very, very compelling. They get everything right. The turnaround between bouts is very quick, so you're never left out. Little details, like figuring out which bizarre-looking character you are (you wiggle the thumbstick to light up your player tag!) are all thought through. And- get this - up to 16 players. Locally. On one machine.
And somewhat incredibly, they've built a webserver into the game with some kind of html-based controller you can load on to smartphones, for when you don't have that many physical controllers. They admit it's very much a 'better than nothing' solution to get as many people in on the mayhem as possible and the fact that they didn't (couldn't) demo it was unfortunate (I suspect it's not ready) but it's a very cool idea and I hope they pull it off.
Tomorrow: I get selfish.
I can't recommend the way I got to PAX this year.
That sentence feels like it should be followed up with a 'more', but it isn't. It doesn't quite deserve a 'less', because I can think of worse ways, but this was pretty bad.
I flew out at 5pm Perth time on Thursday, arriving 11pm Melbourne time, for an event that started at 10 on Friday morning. Probably not wise, but that's how the cheapest looking flights worked out.
That probably would've been okay, except that I was staying in a hostel. Specifically, United Backpackers Melbourne. And while everything about that hostel was perfectly adequate, it turns out I wasn't actually as good with hostels as I thought. Every other time I've stayed in one, I've been in a group big enough to dominate an entire dorm, or small enough to get a private room. This time there was just me, and 11 other American college gals and beefy chavs. None of whom were particularly subtle.
Needless to say, that was not a great night's sleep.
Anyway. Let's talk logistics, because I think I did pretty well and I want to record it for me to refer back to next time.
I managed to stuff everything into my trusty work/uni backpack, which was great. It's nice to have familiar pockets and know where everything should go. I mean, it's not like I have any other backpacks to use - my big pack is wayyyyyy too big, and the little detachable one that comes with it is wayyy too small.
I took (yes, this is boring - skip ahead if you like) clean shirts for every day, but only one pair of shorts, and took a gamble on Melbourne's weather cooperating. Which was a risky move, but hey - I was going to be in a lovely climate-controlled convention center all weekend. I managed to cram all that, plus a towel, plus a snack for when I got there, plus my laptop and charger, plus some dice. Because, y'know, gotta bring your own dice.
A couple of screw-ups, though. I switched out my sneakers for some which were better walking shoes (with actual soles and stuff) without thinking - and got a blister before I even left the airport. So that was a mistake. Don't do that.
My other big error would've been fine if everything had worked. I didn't bring a separate charger for my phone, expecting to be able to use my laptop. Except my laptop inexplicably died on the flight over, and refused to charge itself, let alone anything else. So I spent two days in low-power mode before I actually found time to buy a charger. And the charger sucked, so I spent the next two in low-power mode as well.
So, in conclusion: Always bring a backup charger. And always, always bring a book.
Tune in tomorrow when we talk about actual games.