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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How To Sell Me On VR

Not to be left out, Valve manages to find a way to make VR look almost as dorky as Time Magazine.

Not to be left out, Valve manages to find a way to make VR look almost as dorky as Time Magazine.

Call me a VR skeptic. Granted, I’ve never personally played with one (the free Galaxy Gear that came with my wife’s Galaxy S7 is supposed to be on its way, so I guess that will change soon), but I see it ending up like 3D movies, games, and TV; something people with a little extra cash might get and use every once in a while, but not something that becomes a household necessity and revolutionizes the way we view entertainment the way its proponents seem to think. It just has too many barriers. Too many people report motion sickness, even with proper calibration. Most average gaming PCs like mine that run high-end games just fine aren’t up to spec for rendering those games in stereo vision at 90 fps. Also, a substantial sector of the population that won’t be able to use the headset due to vision problems. And then there’s the fact that you’re completely cutting yourself off from the real world, which many people already feel they are doing too much of already when playing with headphones. And let’s be honest, the fact that they’re making an actual Sword Art Online game for VR probably doesn’t help anyone feel more comfortable.
As for me, there are a few things that would have to happen before I would seriously consider giving VR a shot.

Make It Cheaper
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t actually think the Rift and the Vive are too expensive for what they are. There’s an impressive amount of technology in those goggles, and R&D on a completely new technology like this isn’t cheap either. They’re just too expensive for me. Like any technology, it’ll come down in price eventually, when the inevitable next model comes out, if not before. But until that day comes, there’s no way I’m going to pay $600-$800 for a VR headset that I’m not actually convinced I will use.

Augmented Reality
I’m much more interested in the Microsoft Holo Lens than the Oculus Rift, because it means I don’t have to cut myself off from those around me to play interactively with things in virtual space. I’ll be really excited when they can package it into something you can wear all of the time–like Google Glass, for instance–but we’re still a ways off from that being possible, let alone commercially viable. The Vive’s room scaling feature is intriguing–at least you can see your friends making fun of how dumb you look with a box on your face waving your wiimotes wildly around in the air–but I’m skeptical as to how well it works (even the SteamVR page demo videos show some flickering and artifacts).

Fewer “Experiences,” More Games
Elite Dangerous was the first, and, as far as I can remember, the only, game that has ever made me say “Ok, this would be amazing in VR.” There have been a few immersive games–Portal 2 and Skyrim spring to mind–that I’ve wondered what they’d feel like in VR, but not enough to empty my wallet to find out. I’m not interested in sitting in a virtual theater to watch YouTube (with or without Snoop Dogg) or riding a virtual rollercoaster, and I’m certainly not interested in gore and jump scare horror experiences. If you can convince me that there are a number of games that I’m interested in playing that would be really improved by VR, I would be a lot more interested.

Convince Me It Works
The gaming industry loves its gimmicks, and none of them have ended up improving much on the standard keyboard-and-mouse or gamepads that we’ve been using without much change since the 80s. We’ve seen a lot of motion control gimmicks lately–the Wii Remote, the PlayStation Move, and the Kinect–and none of them have been useful for much beyond party games. No one plays Call of Duty with finger guns on their Kinect because it simply wouldn’t be accurate enough to be competitive with people playing with controllers. VR evangelists keep telling me this time is different, but I’m simply not convinced yet. And it’s even more essential that the head tracking on a VR headset works than the motion tracking on, say, hand tracking in a Kinect game, because now we’re talking about messing with my brain and not just frustrating me into ragequitting a dance game.

Realistically, even if all of these things happened, I probably don’t have enough interest in VR to spend money on it. I’d rather spend the money on a really nice monitor or set of speakers. I’d get a satisfactory amount of immersion from either, and I could use it for non-gaming tasks (like working or listening to music, respectively). But hey, I’m getting a Galaxy Gear soon, and I do know one or two people planning on getting the Rift, so maybe some day I’ll try it and be floored by the experience. If that happens, I’ll be sure to let you know.