Last weekend the dark horde of nerddom descended on Seattle, entering the heart of the 'Emerald City' to gorge itself on the music, culture, and humor of gaming. The Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) once again brought together fans of the influential webcomic for a festival that, without even trying, seems to be taking the place of old E3. Though they were expecting around 30,000 people, the word was that by early Sunday they'd already gone through some 40,000 badges. There were DSes everywhere, concerts at night, a packed exhibit hall, and benchmark comic strips created by Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins adorned almost every wall. Despite all the people and the noise, somehow the event had a community feel to it that was hard to understand ... and even harder to describe. I'll try, though, along with impressions from games on the show floor and the incredible music of folks like Jonathan Coulton and the Minibosses. Read on, and All Hail Ball.The Early Weekend
The first Penny Arcade Panel featured a lot of middlin' questions, highlighted by the incredible singing power of Jerry Holkins. A description of his performance is in my weekend update, but the real surprise didn't come until after the questions were done. The end of the panel turned ugly when the PA gents left the stage for Uwe Boll to have a chance at the mike. Gabe said later that weekend that he was surprised by the crowd reaction. "You can tell when a crowd is angry, and this was the first time I've felt that at at PAX." The unapologetic Boll was screamed at fairly mercilessly by the attendees.
Other events from the early weekend included a discussion of modern storytelling in videogames. Luminaries Ron Gilbert (Monkey Island), Dave Grossman (Sam and Max) and Nate Fox (Sly Cooper) came together to jaw on a topic near to their hearts. The group discussed linear stories vs. sandbox-style gameplay, user-created content, kids games, and the importance of theme even if your core story isn't all that great: "Grossman [said], 'Well, story isn't just about dialogue and narrative, right - I mean really you want to learn something about the human experience. I think that if I weren't doing adventure games I wouldn't think of myself as a narrator, but rather as the hand of fate. I'm going to kind of let you run around and do what you want and everything. Just to let the player go around and do what they want - they can feel like it's the good hand of fate or the bad hand of fate, but not that they're completely being controlled.'"
The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, the Penny Arcade videogame currently in development, was a visible presence at the show all weekend. The Friday unveiling of a new game demo to the media at a special Q&A event was followed by a weekend's worth of running through the game for attendees on the show floor. Most everyone got to see the title, and hear the news that it will be coming to Xbox Live alongside its PC distribution avenues. The opening, grim, text still makes me smile: "Four gods wait on the windowsill / Where once eight gods did war and will / And if the gods themselves may die / What does that say for you and I?"
PA Panel II
While the first PA Q&A panel was entertaining just to hear Holkins and Krahulik talk, the second panel actually had a number of insightful questions, touching statements, and funny moments. And, thankfully, there were no stoned guys rambling about their paranoid fantasies at the microphone; always a plus. Long queues formed at the two microphones to question the gents, and here are some highlights:
- Paul Barnett, Design Manager for the Warhammer Online Massively Multiplayer game, drew applause for his short advertisement during a trailers reel before the event started. He used his clipped British wit to compare Warhammer to World of Warcraft like so: If you're going up against the Beatles, don't try to be the Beatles. You'll end up looking like the Monkees. Instead, we're going to be Led Zeppelin.
- A question about the changes to the primary characters over the year led Mike Krahulik to discuss his influences, such as Stan Sakai. He's essentially 'never finished' with the characters, and we can expect to see further changes to his art style in the coming years.
- Drawings of Gabe and Tycho in ping pong outfits prompted readers to ask if we would ever see that as a project down the road. They're enthusiastic about it and would love to do it, as up until now readers have just seen a few simple images. To further tease us, they described the backstory to the piece: Set in the 80s, a cold war US is still facing down Russia. A little-known clause in the UN charter states that table tennis can be used to decide grudges; the loser forfeits their country. The US table tennis team is slain, and so a group of four people at ping pong camp (including our protagonists) are drawn into international excitement.
- A question about the appeal of the Halo franchise has the gents noting that the series has grown on them considerably.
- In negotiating the price for the XBLA version of the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, they feel they'll have a good deal of leverage as regards pricing (and content as well).
- Several great ideas for projects and future PAX ideas are mentioned, including support of a nerdcore show currently touring the area and an Indie Games FreePlay area.
- When asked about origins of the hobos in Precipice of Darkness, Tycho notes that the game is a 'hobage' of different sources. The Achievement for 100 hobo kills? Hobicide.
- A reader challenges the two to a thumb war, which Jerry wins quite promptly by kicking Gabe in the nuts. He declines to continue, saying he 'values his beanbag.'
- When asked to endorse some games on the exhibit show floor, both gentlemen put their weight behind Eye of Judgement and Sega Rally.
- Someone notes that the current in-the-works game is very much a 'Tycho' game ... lots of words. He wonders what kind of 'Gabe' game they'd like to make. Mike ponders the concept of a brawler, or perhaps something not unlike Turtles in Time.
- The idea of making sure the ball comes back to PAX every year, 'to recharge' is brought up. It could then be sold on eBay to help fund the annual Child's Play charity. They both really like this idea.
- A reader asks what the 'worst thing' either of them have ever done is. Mike tells the story of a time when he set a trap for his family's cat in the backyard, and ended up stringing up the pet by the neck into a tree. It survived, but he has always felt terribly. Jerry, on the other hand, equivocates. When Mike gets tired of it, he tells a story of Jerry drinking a glass of Chai and finding a bug near the bottom of his glass ... which he then upended and finished after fishing out the bug.
Having had a good look at the game at Gen Con, I used my PAX chance to talk to the folks at EA Mythic to dig a little bit deeper on one of the game's claims to fame: Realm vs. Realm combat. Just hours before I spoke to the folks at EA, a team from their company had announced professions from the High Elf and Dark Elf factions for the very first time. I tried to glean just a little bit more PvP-specific information about these races for you, but it was not to be.
Just the same Ryan Barnard (game designer) and Eric Correll (producer on the game) were very forthcoming. The pair was happy to discuss different elements of their signature game feature. For example, new players will have the PvP-focused game introduced to them gradually at low levels. There's a soft introduction, beginning that portion of the title's seamless integration into the overall gameplay. Open-world PvP in specific parts of the starting zones will most likely be their first exposure. Quests will lead them to RvR areas, and eventually will direct them to the instanced 'Scenario'-style missions. Throughout the game, the portion of land that is focused on these activities starts small, but eventually dominates gameplay; the RvR 'city capture' system is Warhammer's 'end game'.
Warhammer Online's unique systems, like the Tome of Knowledge and the Public Quest, also touch on RvR. The Tome will explain elements of Player vs. Player combat, and will record your successes in battle. RvR Public Quests, meanwhile, are currently undergoing retooling. They want them 'right', and currently have taken them all out of the game to make sure they're just so; they hope to have them back into the game by launch.
This feel of 'rightness' is something they're aiming for in their scenarios as well, with the goal of integrating these instances not only into PvP progression, but the ongoing story of the game as well. Each is themed to the area they're in, and tells the tale of a specific conflict between the Order and Chaos armies.
Introducing players who might not otherwise participate in RvR into the fundamentals of that gameplay style is also something the team is focusing on. While they acknowledge that some people just don't want to play against other players, they see folks who are hard and fast about that rule as the minority. They're looking to make PvP a core part of the game, and as such they'll be approaching it differently than a primarily PvE focused game might. This affects multiple game design elements, all the way down to the 'hook' of Public Quests, which gets folks who might not even ever group thinking more favorably about gaming with others. Racial pride is also a factor; by priming characters from low levels to be 'pro-Dwarf', or whatever, players will be more likely to come to their society's aid. They're all steps in a chain, the team hopes, to changing outlooks soured by less focused titles.
On the other side of the equation, the end-game city capture system sees factions sacking the racial homes of their opponents. Though reluctant to use the term 'end game' specifically, the team members were happy to admit that it will be the focus at max-levels. RvR combat will funnel players towards the opposing side, hoping to push the 'antagonists' back to their city walls. They also pointed out, however, that there are other elements in play at that high level. PvE content and public quests are still around, though diminished, and they have plans to further expand both sides of the max-level content once the game is released.
Organized Play, as featured in Guild Wars and now World of Warcraft, is not something they're currently planning for. They'd love to eventually do tournaments for RvR teams at some point, but they're so focused on getting it out the door in a timely fashion that it's not particularly on their radar. As they put it, "we hope we have that problem".
The cutting edge of their work is, obviously, on the Elves at the moment. They're still working to tune the scenarios and open-world play for the Elven areas, and are always working to ensure that classes are balanced and the 'fun' is present.
This cutting edge blends well with some of the surprises that the team had in store for them when masses of people finally entered the Beta. Probably the most surprising for the RvR team: their carefully crafted points of control battlefield objective system, which requires holding targets in open-world PvP, are almost completely being ignored. While they worked hard on this mechanic, the players are more interested in the actual act of combat when in an open-world environment. Scenario tactics are welcomed, but outside of those instances the two sides really just want to enter the fray. The team hopes to have them in the game in some capacity, but they're going to undergo heavy retooling before that happens.
As we wrapped things up, we discussed the reflection this decision has on their overall attitude towards the game: if it's not working, it needs to go/be fixed/tuned/rehashed/whatever. Killing what you thought was going to be the end-all be-all is not outside the realm of possibility, even this late in the game. RvR, and the game in general, has to be fun. No exceptions.
I'll be honest: Fury came at me from nowhere. I'd read about it before coming to the show, knew that it was approaching an Open Beta, and that it was a free-to-play PvP title. That was just about all I knew when I sat down to play and chat with Fury's lead designer Adam Carpenter.
When you're trying to quantify Fury's gameplay type, it's better to think less about online RPGs and more about first-person shooters. Fury has essentially taken the swords and sorcery milieu and dropped that whole cloth into an FPS schema. In each match, players spawn in, rush out, and slam into each other in extremely fast altercations. Everything is fast; from character creation to combat can be just a few minutes.
This is the underpinning of developer Auran's outlook: fun, fast, and free. Instead of grinding through a PvE component, Fury characters are built entirely around a series of abilities and equipment available at character creation. Each character can play whatever role you want them to in a given match, and their role can be changed freely between altercations. Want to act as a support class in one match? You put on your gear that aids healing type abilities, load those healing abilities into your hotbar , and go. Want to act as a ranged DPS class? Swap those healing bits out for the appropriate gear and powers. Players will never have to whine about not having the right class for a fight, as everyone has flexibility.
Gameplay itself, character abilities, focuses on colors. Your ability bar is full of various attacks, and they are themed around different colors. Each player has a small gauge on their screen to help ascertain how many color points they have built up. These points are gained by using 'low level' colored abilities. A basic blue attack, for example, might give you one blue point. As you move through combat, your gauge will fill with colored points. Higher points unlock the use of more powerful abilities on your hotbar, which in turn use up your points. Fascinatingly, each ability color has a diametric opposite; red points counter blue points and players with red points in their bar will actually be less effective with blue abilities. This led the designers to create special point-manipulating abilities; in the middle of the fight you can switch a player's point colors. You can also steal points, leading to the 'change-their-color-steal-their-points' combo move, leaving your opponent defenseless and cold in the world.
Each color has a sort of 'theme', with green abilities having a sort of nature-y feel to it, while blue abilities being sort of icey. There are ranged and melee abilities in all colors, so there won't be any particular demanded role for a color ability. For most players the only real constraint will be up to what abilities you have on hand as a result of previous accomplishments. While most common abilities will be available by default when you purchase the game, new powers will be unlocked via achievements as you succeed in combat. Achievements include everything from taking the most objectives during a match, to killing the most people, to healing the most ... and your rewards are appropriate for what you accomplish.
Rewards on the equipment side are a bit more random. After completing a match, random loot is generated for the party, and people /roll for it. That's pretty much 'the way it is', going right around the usual sort of arguments at pick up group might have when dealing with looted gear. Gold is equally distributed, of course, and both items and gold are commensurate with your success in the just-completed mission.
It's worth noting here that Fury will have a for-pay option, allowing you to slap down a subscription fee if you want ... but it will have nothing to do with the quality of your in-game items. Money is only given to the Auran folks for the addition of convenience and depth. I should say there is some overlap with items: one of the for-pay conveniences is the ability to roll on three items instead of two. A for-pay player has a bit more in the way of item space, some options for purchasing things from vendors, and other simple things that makes the game just a little bit easier for having forked over your cash. Depth, in this case, is all about in-game ladders. While free players will compete on ladders of various types, paying players will have a long list of different ladder types to participate in. Server, guild, and individual progress will all be tracked for various rewards and bragging rights.
Those bragging rights will come in the form of an online representation of your character's escapades. Kill counts, 'flag' steals, and other metrics will be tracked on an official page for your character, and viewable by anyone. Guilds with an interest in going deeper into min-maxing can make use of the human-readable stats that will be generated locally by the client in a text file. Officers can collect these document to see which builds are working, which aren't, and where the group as a whole needs to focus.
The game build playable on the PAX show floor was already five months old, and showed it. There were server problems a few times, and the game looked more than a little bit jaggy. Even through the cruft, though, there was a lot of promise showing through. The settings were gorgeous despite the outdated rendering model, and the fun factor of actual play was very high. Fury is a simple, brutal combat game, and it makes no pretensions about it. With the promise of free online play for the price of a PC game title, this seems like a pretty nice package. It's definitely not going to be for everyone; there's none of the painstaking polish of Guild Wars, or the deep PvE experience of World of Warcraft. For folks looking for a quick, focused good time Fury may just be what you're looking for.
Jonathan Coulton, Frontalot, Minibosses Concert
I'm sure many of you could have told me how transcendent Jonathan Coulton's music is, but when I entered the theatre on Saturday night for the triple-headed mega-show I was something of a Coulton newb. I'd heard Code Monkey, of course, but I'd never made much of an effort to seek out his music. Whether it was his intent to really reach the audience that night or not, he made a convert out of me. His haunting lyrics about superficiality, squid, cybernetics, robotics, technology, programming, and zombies were funny, touching, and thought provoking. I asked a friend who followed his music to confirm for me that he usually doesn't play terribly large venues. I had to ask because it was only really apparent during the few moments when he paused to take in the size of the audience. He was really, very good. Coulton had easily the largest crowd of the night, with his mass dwarfing even the groups on hand later for MC Frontalot and the Minibosses. His final song for the night, re: Your Brains was tremendous to experience in the midst of thousands of hand-waving flesh-craving growl/singing faux undead. Both Frontalot and the Minibosses put on amazing shows as well, of course, showing off their polished shows and firm grasp of their material. Frontalot was in rare form, with several new songs of his most recent album. Just the same ... Coulton was the show of the night for me, and it was a privilege to be able to see such a great act in person.
The Games And Panels of PAX
There were so many events and games, demos and panels, at the event that I couldn't make it to every interesting experience. Thankfully, other sites can pick up the slack.
The panel on licensed games explored the pros and cons of using someone else's IP to make a title. "Too many cooks in the kitchen" was seen as the primary problem, with the high cost associated with such a deal a close second.
"Pitch Your Game Idea" is always a very well-attended panel, and this year was no exception. Dozens and dozens of people lined up to present their game ideas to a panel of industry veterans. They were then 'cut', American Idol style, working through less solid game ideas towards the pearly center. There were apparently a surprising number of women there, and the contestant that won was one of them. Her simple, Pong-like concept had a graphical background that became more complicated as the game went on.
That showing would have been a relief to the folks at the very well attended "Women in Games" panel. The event focused around the challenges of entering the industry, and the issues associated with working the day to day grind once you're in.
A number of folks had hands-on time with titles I didn't get to, including Haze, Tabula Rasa, Phantom Hourglass, FarCry 2, Guild Wars: Eye of the North, and Eye of Judgement.
The Japanese Gaming Culture 101 panel sounds infinitely interesting, and is yet another event I wish I'd made. Debated by experts in the field of Japanese gaming, the group discussed the still-thriving arcade influence on Japanese gamers, the beauty of Den Den town games stores, and the 'spectacle approach' to Japanese gaming ads.
Though it may be similar to what you've seen before, the public demo of Assassin's Creed drew a large and enthusiastic crowd. There were a few new tidbits hinted in the demo including throwing stars an just a bit of information on Altair's background. The futuristic sci-fi elements remain in the game, to the confusion and frustration of anticipatory fans. They like the idea of a medieval game with an SF twist ... but what does it mean?
The final event of the show, just before they cleared the theatre to setup for the Omegathon finale, was the Penny Arcade Family Feud. Teams of audience members came together in an attempt to answer questions that had been put to other attendees. The game ended with Gabe and Tycho in a face-off, trying to win it for the people who had been playing. Poor choices on Jerry's part resulted in (as much as you can at your own event) failure.
Hundreds of people packed into the Main Theatre on Sunday afternoon to see the climax to PAX, the completion of the Omegathon, and the announcement of the secret final game. That announcement was made in a dramatic way, as a spliced version of the Halo 3 trailer played on the monitors while guitars picked out elements of the iconic theme from behind the black stage curtains. With Cortana's final words "This is the way the world ends", they were drawn aside to reveal the Minibosses at their instruments. They jammed through a rendition of the Halo theme that had the crowd cheering at the top of their lungs.
With the stage set the two remaining Omeganauts, handles Accalon and MNC Dover, entered into a previously unrevealed stage of the Halo 3 multiplayer game. Clad in skins very different looking than the usual Mjolnir armor and wielding weapons never before seen in public, the match was as much a press event for Microsoft as a finale. Not a single person seemed to mind as their best of three matches competition got underway. The first match had the two opponents in a somewhat large arena, with a kill count of 15. While Accalon made it clear early on that he had superior skills, MNC Dover quickly got into the rhythm of the match, and matched the other Omeganaut frag for frag. It was only at the end, as Accalon pulled ahead 13 to 11, that Dover seemed to grow a bit weary. Accalon's last two kills came quickly, and the second match on 'Narrows' (a much smaller arena with a kill count of 5) was quickly over. Accalon was triumphant as the 2007 Omeganaut, and both competitors showed great sportsmanship after the match was completed.
What was amazing about the spectacle was the enthusiasm that the crowd showed throughout the event. As new weapons showed up, or an opponent made a particularly daring move, the crowd would 'oo' and 'ahh' with excitement. In the YouTube and GameTrailer recordings, it probably sounds staged, or even corny; I can assure you that in the moment it was very real. If you've ever seen the Fred Savage classic film 'The Wizard', you'll recall the final scene introducing Super Mario Bros. 3. This experience was exactly like that ... only not annoying, and real. It may be strange to say that you feel privileged to have been a witness to a match of multiplayer Halo, but this event felt special in some way that's hard to quantify. And, of course, once all was said and done Gabe and Tycho picked up the controllers to tempt fate and rekindle their rivalry. It's great to be able to say that Gabe won is first post-Omegathon match against Tycho, setting the score at 2-1. The crowd was definitely on his side, and it was a fitting way to end the convention.
Overall Thoughts on PAX
I've been to many conventions, but PAX felt different from all the others in a number of ways. There was a definite sense of community among the attendees; a reluctance to be an out-and-out jerk. The volunteer security detail (The Enforcers) may have had quite a bit to do with that; instead of underpaid wanna-be cops the folks keeping the peace were black t-shirt wearing nerds. In other words, they were just like the attendees. This focus on community, and the fact that the event flowed from the whims of Jerry and Mike instead of a corporation's pocketbook, made the 'tone' of the event substantially different than your GenCon, your E3, or even Comic-Con. There were jerks, of course, and problems were had. 40,000 people packed into a few blocks will have that result every time. On the whole, it was amazing to see firsthand what can happen when a couple of guys say "why not?", and invite a few thousand of their closest friends over.