They came in droves. By plane, train, and automobile, they made their way across the great American highways. They dressed as pirates, as ninja, even as Jedi. They journeyed from as far south as Arizona, as far east as Maine. They arrived by the busload, DS in one hand, digital camera in the other, their wallets and purses filled with ones for the Bawls stand and their minds prepped and centered on one goal: spending the weekend playing games.
It was a party thrown in the name of Penny Arcade.
The Penny Arcade Expo, held once again at the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue, Washington, is the kind of event that no mere mortal can conceive of without touching the heavens themselves for inspiration. It's catagorized as a convention, compared to industry events like E3 or ComiCon, but it's head and shoulders above such labels. Is its greatness in the sheer number of events it crams into three days? Not really. Does the secret to the success of PAX lie in the growing industry clout it's forming? Try again. There's one simple reason that PAX has become a metric ton of fun: because it's all about the fans.
Jerry, Mike, and Robert were kind enough to let me inside the convention this year with media credentials, so I combed my hair, put on my most professional tee shirt, and prepared to wield the power of the press for the good of GWJ. What follows is part one of my experiences talking to developers at the exhibit hall, attending panels and events, and generally wandering around in a sea of our often-unwashed brotherhood.
The Keynote – Alex St. John
First off, lighting a cigar on stage is against Washington State law.
This is the first year PAX has had a keynote speaker, and it was obvious from the moment St. John finally took the stage that this wasn't going to be a typical speech. I've watched the Steve Jobs keynotes since first owning a Powerbook (I'd heard rumors that it's required for the hardware to work, and I don't want to take my chances) so I thought I knew what was in store. But when Alex had his daughters throw out inflated yoga balls and Frisbees into the crowd, the expectations were thrown out as well.
Beach balls can be fun in certain situations. If this were a Grateful Dead concert, if I were listening to Jerry Garcia singing about granola and long, strange trips, I would have understood. But when you mix giant rubber balls and anxious gamers, you end up with a lot of people being smacked in the back of the head. Adding thousands of ping-pong balls only made things worse.
You might be aware of St. John's status as the father of DirectX. You might also be aware of his magazine columns, or his latest game company, WildTangent. But what became evident during his speech was St. John's unbridled passion for bashing Microsoft. In a town where picking on the house that Gates built has become a spectator sport, St. John took Bill-bashing to new heights. Maybe he was playing to his crowd, or maybe Alex has an axe he still wants to grind, I don't know. What I do know is that when he decided to light a cigar on stage 15 minutes into his speech only to contemplate lighting another after PAX officials took the first stogie, he lost my attention.
I left about the time St. John started running video clips of Bill Gates presentations that featured the CEO green screened into Doom. To his credit, he gave a tricked-out Gateway gaming PC to a lucky audience member, but I didn't stick around for that.
Sam & Max – Season 1
I had a chance to sit down (literally, as in on the floor) with Dan Connors, CEO of Telltale Games, and take a look at their upcoming Sam & Max – Season 1. The first part of their episodic extravaganza (what they're calling their pilot) looks an awful lot like the Lucasarts classic we've all missed. Using the same engine that powered Telltale's Bone series has given a bright, cartoony, and easy-to-navigate interface to the twisted world that Sam and Max inhabit. This is a point-and-click adventure through and through, with a host of zany characters brought to life by fantastic voice work. Dan told me that his team has been approaching the project like a television season, with standalone plots but an overarching plot. He estimates the first episode to be around 3 hours in length, with 5 additional installments rounding out the story.
The first episode should be coming out in October, initially through the GameTap subscription service but eventually available from Telltale's website. Future episodes will be available starting in December, with a new episode every month afterward. Standalone pricing is still being worked out, but GameTap is $9.95 a month. Expect to hear more once the first episode hits.
Screening – The Wizard
I did not go see The Wizard on Friday night. I don't really want anything to do with Fred Savage if there's no Winnie to be seen, and I'm still not over fact that the quiet kid got to play Super Mario Bros. 3 before me. It's a sore subject; let's just drop it.
Neverwinter Nights 2
Obsidian Entertainment is pretty proud of their sequel to Bioware's multiplayer-focused Dungeons & Dragons title. So proud, in fact, that they challenged me to think of a scenario they couldn't show.
"Well, can you make that druid a really big bear?"
Next thing I know, a giant dire bear is tearing mephits in half. Most impressive.
The graphical engine has been overhauled, of course, keeping the atmosphere of the original while looking sharper, brighter, and more original. Environments don't feel stale this time around, thanks to the expanded and improved content creation tools that will ship with the game. Expect to see lots of lighting effects, particularly on the spells. The interface has been improved too, ditching the radial menus in favor of ability lists at the touch of a hotkey. Oh yeah, you can also have a party of four. It's about damn time.
Anyone who's played Knights of the Old Republic 2 will recognize the influence system Obsidian is using in its party system, but you'll be happy to know that it works in a subtler, more intricate way. Party members won't suffer the same mood swings present in the Star Wars sequel, and the influence you build up with NPCs will affect the gameplay and storyline in more varied ways. My guide from Obsidian told me their play testers, using godlike weapons and abilities, were taking around 40 hours to finish the single player campaign, so there's plenty of game to be played. The addition of player-made content using the expanded and refined mod tools could push this title's replay value through the roof. Expect to see NWN2 sometime in October.
Panel – I'm Getting Old: When Life Cuts Into Gaming
I wanted to like this panel. Andrew Bub from Gamerdad had a lot of insightful things to say about being a parent and a gamer, and the entire panel tackled the balancing act between having a life and being a hardcore gamer well, but we've been here before. Sitting through the discussion and listening to audience questions about the best time to introduce your children to gaming only left me with one conclusion: next year, this panel needs Gamers With Jobs presence.
Wizards of the Coast and "The Goblin Game"
I thought all Wizards had in store for me was their upcoming revision of Magic: The Gathering Online, and it was hard to be excited. Sure, version 3 of the online version of the most popular collectable card game in the world is a big thing, and the features they showed off made me consider how much fun I could have learning how to play. The UI has been redesigned from the ground up with the express purpose of making it the all-in-one Magic package. Their store is now integrated into the client (no more outside web pages required) and the card zoom feature showcased every card's fantastic artwork. It's an exciting revamp of the client, and they're hoping to have it ready sometime in 2007, but it's Magic, and I've always been the D&D nerd who thumbs his nose at that side of the aisle.
So when Randy Buehler took me behind closed doors to show me their secret project, I was caught off guard. They're referring to the project as the Goblin Game, and it's essentially NationStates through the fantasy-filled eyes of WotC. Join one of eight factions, level your character, and help your teammates complete goals to lead your team to victory, while only spending 10 minutes a day with a web-based Flash interface. Buehler likened the concept to that of fantasy sports leagues. One faction they showed me involved crazed goblins whose ultimate goal is to build and set off a giant bomb without blowing themselves up in the process.
What Wizards has so far is early alpha quality, with a rough interface and placeholder art, but they're hoping to have the game in open beta by the end of this year. The pricing model they have in mind is pretty far from the micopayment style of Magic Online; they're aiming for players to pay one flat fee each game, with the campaigns taking roughly three months to complete. When you're done, you can pay for another game. Once they're ready for beta testing, expect to hear more.
Check back tomorrow for more coverage, including panels on Online Gaming and New Media, RedOctane speaking candidly about Guitar Hero II while still not releasing any new information, and the Frag Dolls becoming less booth babe and more butt-kicking.