My adventures at PAX East 2011
Last weekend I went to a most amazing thing in a strange and terrifying country known as PAX East. Penny Arcade Expo is a convention created by Jerry and Mike of Penny Arcade for people like my friends and I who like video games too much.
Having never been to any sort of convention before (not even a Star Trek convention (!)) I didn't really know what to expect. I took a look at the panel schedule to get a feel for what kinds of things would be going on. I saw a lot of panels on video game design and panels directed at people who want to pursue careers in the video game industry.
Not having any desire (anymore) to enter the video game industry, of course I thought wow! So many panels about the design of things I love to use. This is going to be a really great place to learn about the psychology of gamers and the universal laws of human-computer interaction design as applied specifically to games. So not only would I be able to see Robert Khoo in person (which, let's face it, is the only reason anyone goes to PAX) but I'd also have the opportunity to learn more about the things I love.
The first thing I learned is that the lines at PAX are very, very, very, very long. If you don't make it to a line for a panel more than hour before the panel is scheduled to start (which is about 70 minutes before the panel actually starts) then you're probably not going to be able to make it into the theatre. So my hopes of being able to see many panels were quickly squashed and I was forced to re-evaluate which panels were worth waiting an hour and a half in a line to see.
Waiting in long lines isn't so bad. At PAX, everyone is there because they love games. In lines, not only are the people there just like you in their love of video games, but they're even more similar in their specific tastes for the panel you're all lining up to see. The kind of person who would line up that early to see Mike and Jerry talk (for example) is the kind of person that's easy to get along with. (It's also the kind of person who likes My Little Pony apparently.) So I met a whole bunch of people in lines from all over the world and taught them all the game that I invented to pass time in lines: punching Nick.
But enough about that; I want to write about the things that I was able to learn from my time wandering the nerdly masses. Thanks to several panels, I learned more about what makes table-top role-playing games last longer. I also learned that a lot of the stuff I had figured out on my own was pretty good. The panels re-enforced something that I have known but have been reluctant to follow through on, which is that sometimes I need to step back from the stories that I want to tell to allow my players to tell their own stories.
It's that kind of involvement that helps them get into character and makes them proud of the character design they've made. I know that when I am playing a character (as opposed to running the game) I'm having the most fun when my character has the opportunity to rise above a challenge. The problem I've been having with this as a game master is the difficulty in fitting the players' ideas into the story of the game. But now I realize that it's worth the effort and honestly my story shouldn't be so rigid that it can't withstand a few external ideas.
Another thing I learned at PAX is the value of a good name. While Nick and I were waiting in the Portal 2 line (at the end of which we got free t-shirts!) we saw a sign hanging from the ceiling with the words "Shoot many robots" printed on it. We were intrigued by the prospect of being able to shoot many robots and we decided that after our journey through the Portal 2 exhibit we would examine just how many robots are available to shoot.
Shoot many robots is exactly what its name implies: you play a man with a gun who must face off against an unending swarm of robots. I personally enjoyed playing the game (not only because I was able to do better than Nick — nor because my character had fairy wings) because of its assurance of mindless entertainment. These many robots have wronged me and I will shoot them or die trying. I'm not sure if I had fun playing it because of its name and premise or because the gameplay itself was actually worthwhile. The novelty of the title didn't have a chance to wear off in the few minutes I was able to play it, so it's hard to say if the game would have grown on me or not.
Another game that looked interesting that I got to play was Firefall. While it was dangerously close to the contemplative giant Pikachu floating over the Nintendo booth, I managed to pay enough attention to Firefall to enjoy it. It's a game made by the creator of the Tribes series (which I personally never got into) and shares a few gameplay mechanics with its ancestor such as jetpacks and large, open maps.
Red 5 was demonstrating the team deathmatch mode of play. It felt like pretty much any first- or third-person shooter: players can choose classes which each have advantages and disavantages and all of the other usual stuff. Firefall managed to interest me enough in its gameplay once I figured out what I was doing that I was willing to sign up for its beta. Firefall is a very pretty game and though what I played was buggy I hope the final product's gameplay is as polished as its gaphics.
The very last thing that I learned at PAX is that I'm afraid of what Robert Khoo is capable of. I'm much too terrified to go over the details, but let's just say I'm glad he's on our side. Very glad.