My PAX East 2016 Panel Highlights

Two weeks later, I’m still trying to decide if my favorite part of my first trip to PAX this year was the expo floor or the panels. Disappointingly, just like the expo floor, there weren’t a ton of MMO related panels other than Final Fantasy XIV, which I’m not really interested in. One of the very first things I wanted to see on the first day was a panel on indie MMOs, but sadly I missed most of that while playing BMV Simulator 2016 (aka the giant line to get in the front door). Props to the PAX and venue staff for opening additional side entrances for Saturday and Sunday, by the way; it helped a lot, and it meant that one entrance was located conveniently right across the street from the hotel we were staying in. The only other MMO panel that I caught was one on free to play vs. pay to win, which was interesting, but nothing I haven’t seen debated endlessly since free to play became a thing. Surprisingly, the panelists completely failed to point out the fact that we’re talking about paying to win in possibly the only genre of video games designed with literally no win condition. It was good to know, at least, that people in the industry play games other than just their own, and that they have the same conversations about this stuff we do (for instance, there was universal agreement on the panel that they hated putting lockboxes in their games, but make them a crapton of money, so they kind of had to to keep the game going). There were a lot of non-MMO-related panels that I really enjoyed, though. Here are my highlights.

Most Entertaining: Master of Orion Voice Actors
Master of OrionFunny story, I almost didn’t go to this panel, and it ended up being one of my favorites of the whole weekend. My wife was talking to some of her friends about their PAX free pin collection, and Orion was one of the panels giving them out this year. This got me to read the description (marketing works!), which is when I realized that they were going to have Alan Tudyk, Dwight Schultz, and Nolan North there. That’s right, the actors for Hoban Washburne, Reg Broccoli Barclay, and… well, some voice or other in just about every game with a decent voice acting budget that you can think of. It was really interesting getting to hear them talk about how they transitioned from TV acting into doing voice work for games, and how much more they’ve enjoyed voice acting. One memorable moment was when Tudyk was talking about how he got his game voice acting start in Halo 3 through some connections (apparently his friend and Firefly costar Nathan Fillion knew some people at Bungie), when Nolan North put on a forced smile and interjected “I had to audition for my part.” It’s spontaneous banter like that that makes these kind of panels fun.
Sadly, while the panel was extremely entertaining, I really don’t know anything more about the game now than I did when I went in. The extent of what they said about the game itself is that it’s like the originals but prettier and “better” (whatever that actually means). The Steam trailer isn’t much more informative. As someone who never played the originals, that doesn’t tell me anything. The producer and loremaster were there as well, but sadly they weren’t given the chance to talk much at all. That kind of marketing usually signals to me that the developers spent most of their budget on voice acting and graphics at the cost of gameplay, but Wargaming, a company that got their start making strategy games, but are now known as the makers of World of Tanks and its various spinoffs, seems to have a lot of money to throw at games at the moment, so maybe they’ll pull it off. The game is currently $50 in early access, so I’m going to hold off on buying it until it’s either out of early access or cheaper (preferably both), but I’m cautiously optimistic.

Most Informative: Atari Game Design
This panel was from a couple of guys from a podcast called Geeknights. The general premise was that, in order to design good games, you need to understand what you’re designing at its most basic level. What better way to do that than to go back to a time when games were crammed onto such tiny cartridges that, as they said, the design and programming were the same thing? Good design is good design at any level, regardless of how simple or complex the game is. It was a really insightful discussion of what makes a good game, especially a good multiplayer game, and how tweaking rulesets can completely change the way the game is played, as well as how they can create potential for unintended aberrant behavior.

Biggest Disappointment: The Cutting Edge of PC Gaming with Newegg
I’m not sure what I really expected from this panel, but what I got was a bunch of hardware manufacturers from companies like Samsung, AMD, NVIDIA, and Logitech sitting around agreeing with each other that VR is absolutely the future of entertainment, gaming, and eSports. Entertainment? Sure, whatever. Gaming? Maybe, for a select audience. But eSports? No way. Maybe five or ten years from now someone will stumble upon this post and laugh at how shortsighted and unimaginative I was today, but I really don’t foresee a day when pro gamers will strap on an Oculus Rift and grab a motion controller to play their MOBAs, RTSes, and FPSes. We’re talking about people who count frames and actions per second. You really think they’re going to switch to aiming, or even just moving the camera around, with motion-controlled headsets? I left about half way through, and I don’t regret it. The people up there were salesmen for companies that make hardware for gaming computers, so of course they’re going to say that the future of gaming is something that will make you want to upgrade your computer to the cutting edge every couple of years. I guess I can’t blame them for that–it’s their job–but I just wish there had been some dissenting opinion on the panel. Someone to at least say that VR isn’t for hardcore eSports Pros, it’s for people who are interested in an immersive graphical experience. I also wish they would have actually talked about, I don’t know, some existing PC hardware that isn’t an unproven overengineered monitor, but it was only an hour, I guess they can only do so much.

Warcraft
Warcraft Movie
I’ve never been that interested in Warcraft lore; I never played WoW and didn’t play much of the campaign in the RTSes. I wasn’t that impressed by the early trailers, probably because they were designed to build hype for WoW players with a bunch of “I’ve been there!” moments and nostalgia feels. That’s fine; I’m not the real target audience here. But as we get closer to the movie’s release and get to see more in each trailer (including the one they premiered at PAX), I’m starting to think there’s a chance that the movie won’t be as bland and generic as I thought from the early teasers. From the first time I heard about it, I questioned the wisdom of the idea of doing a movie involving Warcraft’s horribly proportioned Orcs with live action actors, but it seems like they’ve really done a good job making it look good (in my defense, the Hulk movies were still fresh in our minds when they first announced plans to do a Warcraft movie, so naturally that train wreck is what came to mind when talking about making actors green and overly muscular).
The panel itself, which featured director/cowriter Duncan Jones and Orgrim actor Robert Kazinsky, was interesting if only to hear how many people involved in the film were actually big fans of the franchise, from Kazinski himself, to several of the actors (including Jones, who has apparently been raiding as an Orc Death Knight since WotLK), to the people at ILM who made the props. The Warcraft movie has been in and out of production for over ten years with a variety of directors and scripts, and I think Blizzard waited so long because it took them that long to find someone who truly cared about their IP. Or maybe they just finally desperate enough to get people back into WoW that they were willing to settle, we’ll have to wait until the movie comes out.

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My PAX East 2016 Highlights: The Expo Floor

I know I’m a little late on writing this up–the days following the expo were a little crazy–but I wanted to share my experiences at my first gaming convention, PAX East. I’ve been watching shows like E3 and PAX from the outside for years, and I’ve always wanted to go, but have never had the opportunity. Then some friends, veteran PAXgoers, offered us a couple of their tickets, and I knew I had to go. To me, PAX was two distinct experiences: The claustrophobic-yet-exciting expo floor with all of its developers and vendors vying for your attention, and the more passive and interesting panels. Today I’d like to highlight a few of my personal favorite things from the expo floor. I’ll talk about my favorite panels in the coming days. I feel a little bit bad about my choices (only a little bit), because the show was really stolen by shooters like Overwatch and MOBAs like League of Legends, but those aren’t really my thing. But hey, this is my blog; I can write about whatever I want, right? Without further ado, here is my list.

Favorite Upcoming Game: Hob
Hob LogoIf you haven’t played Runic Games’ excellent Diablo-like Torchlight II, stop what you’re doing and go grab it. It’s probably my post played game on Steam, and the community has come up with some very well done mods. So when I heard that Runic was working on a new game called Hob, and that it was going to be at PAX, I had to check it out. I got to play a demo at their booth, and, while it had a uniquely Runic feel to it, the gameplay was much different from Torchlight, in all the right ways. From what I can tell, it’s more like Zelda than Diablo, with a bit of Metroid thrown in. It sports linear (presumably non-random) maps with a lot of smooth platforming, and item upgrades as you go rather than the levels, skills points, gear drops, and totally flat maps you’d associate with Diablo-likes. One such upgrade was the grappling hook, which had a very Metroid look and feel to it. They did a good job of using the grappler in creative and interesting ways, both as a means of puzzle solving and as a part of boss fights. Overall it had a great atmosphere and the quality gameplay I’d expect from Runic, and I’m excited to get to play more of it when it launches. Sadly, the guys at the booth didn’t have a launch target date.
Incidentally, I inquired about the promised Torchlight Mobile, and they said it’s still in development, also without a launch date. To me, the fact that this indie studio is supposedly working on two different games at once means that Torchlight Mobile is either nearly finished or nearly abandoned. Hopefully it’s the former, because, while the Play Store has a variety of action RPG titles, none of them compare to the quality of the Torchlight series.

Favorite Early Access: 20XX
20XXIf you’re a Mega Man fan, you can already guess what this game is. For those not in the know, 20XX is the ambiguous year(s) in which the Mega Man and Mega Man X games take place. Basically, 20XX is a faithful recreation of the best thing about the Mega Man X games, with a uniquely indie spin, even down to the choice of two playable characters, who play like X and Zero, respectively. The levels are randomized, so things are a little different every playthrough. Rather than the “Eight bosses in any order” model of the Mega Man games, 20XX takes an arcade approach–think Rogue Legacy or some of the other roguelite games we’ve seen in recent years–with the player trying to get through as many levels as they can before running out of health. Constant references to geek, gaming, and popular culture make the game extra entertaining. I got a chance to talk with both the programmer and the artist (who, as far as I can tell, comprise the entire team, which, as a member of a two man game dev team myself, is very encouraging), and they were both cool guys who seemed passionate about their game. They told me they are trying to learn from the mistakes and disappointments of certain other Mega Man-like games (I can’t imagine what they were talking about) who overpromised on their feature set and didn’t listen to their community early enough in the development process. As far as I can tell, they’re doing a great job so far.
The graphics in 20XX aren’t going to win any awards, but they’re far from painful to look at (which, to be honest, is all I’m really looking for when I play a 2D platformer, especially an indie one), and the music is perfect for an indie Mega Man-ish game. I’ve already spent several hours in the game, and it’s exactly what I was hoping it would be.
You can get it now on Steam Early Access. The devs tell me that the price will only continue to go up as the game develops, with a final cost around $15, so picking it up sooner rather than later seems like a good idea.

Favorite Cosplay: Mega Man, Proto Man, and Metal Man

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I didn’t get these cosplayers’ names, but if you know them I’d be happy to attribute if you leave a comment

Speaking of Mega Man, I couldn’t help but share this awesome Mega Man group cosplay, which was by far my favorite cosplay at PAX. I didn’t get it in this picture, but their buster guns even lit up!
From what I saw, Pokemon trainers were by far the most popular cosplay this year, outnumbering the ever-present Links and Vault Dwellers. I also saw a really impressive Sith Twi’lek couple, but sadly didn’t get a picture. I was surprised to see a number of oldschool RuneScape cosplayers, though I guess a paper crown and a cardboard anti-dragon shield isn’t exactly the most involved or expensive cosplay out there.

Sadly there wasn’t much MMO presence on the floor this year, and the ones that were there were games I’m not as interested in (like Final Fantasy XIV), but that’s likely due to the fact that there aren’t many new MMOs on the horizon right now. There was still a lot to see and do, and plenty I never got to. PAX East 2016 was my first gaming convention, and if it’s the only one I ever get to go to, I’ll be satisfied. I’d love to make it an annual thing, but realistically it may not be possible for a while, and that’s ok.
Be sure to check back soon for part two, where I’ll talk about some of my favorite panels!