For my birthday weekend, Jen bought me tickets to the inaugural Penny Arcade Expo in Australia which ran for 3 days in Melbourne. It was the brainchild of Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, co-creators of the hugely popular online comic strip Penny Arcade, who wanted to create a version of E3 that was always accessible to the general public (E3 goes through years of being limited to journalists). It’s become a huge bi-annual event in America and has since taken on a life of its own, stretching far beyond existing merely as an outlet for playing new games. It’s now become an event for celebrating gaming as a whole. Classic games, board games, game tournaments, card games, you name it. There are panels where gaming industry personalities exchange ideas and hold Q&As with fans. There are giant booths on the exhibition show floor where people can get their hands of the wares of various game companies that range from publishing giants to online minnows. Massive companies such as Nintendo, Microsoft and Ubisoft co-exist and share floor space with tiny local devs who make smart phone games. And nowadays, free-to-play games such as League of Legends and World of Tanks also command a huge presence on the show floor.
I had an awesome time at PAX. Some of the highlights for me were trying out the virtual reality headset Oculus Rift, playing Nintendo’s upcoming releases at their booth and spending half a day in Tabletop Land learning and playing a bunch of board games, old and new. I also enjoyed chilling out on the beanbags in the handheld lounge, racking up StreetPass hits on my 3DS and playing the social games in Nintendo’s Mii Plaza. It was especially relaxing to do this when it was freezing cold outside and I had a hot chocolate and a bag of warm jam donuts. So good.
For a brand new event, there were some teething problems at PAX. It was really difficult to make it to all the panels as each one typically had a waiting time that ranged from 30 minutes to an hour. So in a given day, you’d have to cut your losses and pick your top two and hope for the best. Jen and I made it to Microsoft’s presentation on the Xbox One and a panel about ‘Geek Parenting’.
On the plus side, everyone was in good spirits despite the freezing cold weather and long queues. About a third of the attendees were women and the hygiene of the typical attendee was shockingly decent (compared to the smelly sausagefest that SupaNova is in Brisbane…*shudder*).
The main exhibition hall had all the spectacle that I want and expect from a game expo. There were giant tanks, ceiling high screens, crazy costumes and enthusiastic spruikers trying to get you to visit their booth. A random thing happened at the Nintendo booth – Jen was pulled aside by a camera crew and interviewed for the Nintendo Channel. We’ll see if she makes an appearance on Nintendo.com.au soon.
Stray Thoughts and Observations
- The Nintendo 3DS is the perfect companion for game shows. There is a mode called StreetPass that automatically identifies anyone in your immediate vicinity carrying a 3DS and adds a representation of them in your Mii Plaza. This was a cool way for me to learn about the people attending PAX. I got over 400 hits from other people carrying a 3DS including people from every state and territory in Australia as well as attendees from Northern Ireland, Scotland, England, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and America. The American and Japanese hits are even more detailed and list which state or prefecture the 3DS owner is from. Not only do you get to learn about these people, you can then incorporate them into ‘microgames’ that Nintendo have built into the 3DS which typically take about 30 seconds to 2 minutes to play. Perfect for killing time.
- I thought the Oculus Rift was amazing. I played an alpha build of a game called Wonder made by a Melbourne indy developer. The graphics were really rough but the effect of the massively wide field of view and the head-tracking technology is so crucial to the virtual reality experience that it didn’t matter that the graphics were terrible. I came away convinced that this could well be the next big thing. How big it will be is dependent on the software it launches with. If it comes out with something as accessible and user-friendly as Wii Sports then this thing will sell millions. I think at least initially, developers should look to make game experiences that are very short (5 minutes at most) and encourage sharing of the device so lots of people ‘get a go’ and it becomes a communal activity. The sense of immersion is incredible though. In a positive sense, I think it could create an unforgettable experience for a large scale fantasy game or if it placed you in the middle of a stadium for a football game. I think it will be hugely controversial the first time someone applies it to something like Grand Theft Auto or uses it as a sex simulator (which will surely happen).
- The auditorium dedicated to board games was probably one of my favourite areas. It was literally a stall that had about a thousand games that you could loan for free and then there was about two hundred tables where you could sit with friends and strangers to play your favourite games or learn a new one. There were volunteers onhand to help teach you how to play some of the more complicated games. It rekindled my love of board games and Jen and I came home with a shopping list of games we’d like to get our hands on in the next few months. For those curious, we’re looking to get into Pandemic, Power Grid, Formula D and 7 Wonders.
- The Xbox One presentation was impressive from a technical perspective but I can’t say I’m terribly excited by the games. They seem to be targeting testosterone-pumped adolescent males pretty hard. So much focus on shooting, driving, fighting, punching and shooting while driving and punching something in the face.
- It’s nice that these conventions have come a long way since the Nineties and women are actually treated respectfully. There was the odd woman who was brave enough to wear a skimpy cosplay costume in the freezing cold but the actually game companies themselves refrained from using booth babes or exploitative imagery to plug their games. We’re slowly getting there, man.
- Melbourne is so cold. So, so cold.