Monday, March 29, 2010

PAX East 2010

The big thing going on last weekend was the Penny Arcade Expo, being held for the first time in Boston. Apparently PAX has gotten so huge it's now branching out.


Things actually kicked off for me on Thursday night, with a "Made in MA" party held at the Microsoft offices in Cambridge - the New England Research and Development center, or as some call it, NERD. Most of the Boston area game companies had set up tables and showing off their latest and greatest (or in the case of 38 Studios, just kinda standing around ;) ) Even we at Quick Hit had a table...unfortunately paling in comparison to the Harmonix Rock Band setup next to it.

The event took place on the 1st and 10th floor of the building (which I thought was a little weird...but then, I don't know what's on the 2nd-9th floors). On the first floor was some smaller setups, including WPI, Macguffin Games' All Heroes Die and Fire Hose Games' Slam Bolt Scrappers. The last one I gave a try, and it's pretty fun once you figure out what's going on. It's come a long way since I saw its prototype, and I think it's got a lot of potential - I hope it does well.

PAX: Day 1

I showed up to the Hynes Convention Center at around 11:30am on Friday, and since I didn't really have anything better to do until the doors "opened" at 2, I waited in line. I'm not sure who's diabolical idea this was, but it really set the tone for the rest of the weekend. The main exhibition hall on the first floor had a small area where you could pick up tickets, but the rest of the hall was roped off into one gigantic queue. So there we were, sitting on the floor, some playing with the free pack of Magic cards that came in the swag bags (okay, bonus points to PAX there), plenty with their DSes out. The room had two huge projection screens which interacted with the crowd. To be honest, it was the most entertained I've been waiting in line since Disney World.

Eventually we were let in for the keynote speech, presented by Wil Wheaton. I wish I had taken some notes, but the basic theme of his speech was: welcome home. We are geeks and we are gamers and PAX is a celebration of both. He shared his thoughts about his own childhood and what gaming meant to him. I thought it was a good speech.

Afterwards, I wandered around seeing as much as possible, one sardine in the expo hall can. Partly because it was the first day, but mostly because they probably oversold the convention, but there were a TON of people there. And there were lines for EVERYTHING. To groups gathered around every booth, to the interminable lines to get into the panels, to the wall of bean-bags for people to chill and play more DS.

The main expo hall on the second floor was where most of the action was. I'm not a hardcore gamer, so I didn't find a lot of interest in all of the hardware-related booths, nor the games coming out in a few months on systems I don't own. But, it was still fun to walk around amid all the loud noises and shiny things. Oh, and free swag. Though not as much as I could have gotten, were I more patient.

Friday evening was spend in the tabletop gaming area. There were a couple vendors of game start-ups showing off their games, so I gave them a try. One was Summoner Wars by Plaid Hat Games, which I found quite enjoyable. You get a deck of cards of your summoner and troops, and you place them in a specific way on the playmat. You then take turns moving, attacking and summoning more troops to destroy your opponent's walls and summoner. Added bonus is that expansion packs are more decks of cards - there's no blind purchasing - which excited my frugal side but didn't quite sit well with my collector's side. But still, recommended. I might've bought a set if I had someone to play with (with the groups of people I play with, a multiplayer game would work better). The other one I tried was Battleground:Fantasy Warfare from Your Move Games. Basically, it's a miniatures war game without the miniatures. Instead, you use cards representing units of troops, which can be drawn on with dry-erase markers to issue commands. That's an interesting mechanic, as well as the fact that the stats are kept track on the cards - you don't have to do constant checking with tables in books. My problem was that this is still a wargame, which isn't my particular strong suit, so the other guy I was learning the game with and I were having some difficulty remembering all of the different modifiers in certain game situations - and we didn't even get into flanking or pinching or any other more complicated maneuvers. Plus, any special abilities that the troops have are written on the backs of the cards, against the table - so you tend to forget them anyway. So as nice as it was to walk away with some free stuff, I wasn't particularly impressed by the game.

Friday night was also when I caught my first infection. My aforementioned wargame opponent infected me with LARPcolepsy. This was part of a social game, PAX Pox, by the MIT GAMBIT Game Lab people, as a parody of the fact that many people came down with the H1N1 flu at the last PAX in Seattle. So Carriers went around giving willing participants stickers representing these silly diseases. Saturday I was infected with Wii-coli, and there was also MMORPGingivitis and DDRLS (Dance Dance Restless Leg Syndrome). Sunday the Cüre was released. And reporting to the GAMBIT booth, I got a +1 HP bandage holder for my trouble.

PAX: Day 2

When I arrived Saturday morning, I didn't bother waiting in the mega-line. I'm just minding my own business hanging out in the hallway, and I turn around to see I'm standing by G4TV's Adam Sessler. I am kicking myself now for not getting the nerve to introduce myself or get a picture or something. The weird part was, there were a few times I noticed Sessler when navigating the escalators...I was an accidental stalker. And speaking of random encounters, I managed to, at random intervals throughout the whole weekend, bump into what seemed like almost everybody I've met over the last three years, between WPI classmates, former and current coworkers, and other game industry people.

One of the other items in the swag bag was a coupon for reduced entry fees into Magic: The Gathering tournaments, including something called the Intro Pack League. For $15 ($10 after the coupon), I received a starter theme deck and a booster from (I think) the latest set, and I could play as much Magic as I wanted against others who signed up for the league. Every 3 games you played you could pull 3 random cards from a box they had - I managed to pull a couple rare cards. So, I ended up playing more Magic on Saturday than I think I've played my entire life so far...which isn't saying much. But it's especially weird since I'm barely even a causal Magic player, and I certainly didn't attend PAX with the intention of playing Magic.

Throughout the con, because I was playing games, I managed to miss out on some panels I was somewhat interested in attending. But I wasn't too sad since none of the panels really inspired me, that I had to be, the aforementioned stupid queues. Besides, I was doing what I really wanted...playing games.

Saturday I also found what I had missed on Friday - the arcade and classic console rooms. It was a nice nostalgic trip to look at the old school pinball machines and Ms. Pac Man and Dragon's Lair and Atari and Colecovision and all the old Nintendo and Sega consoles. There was also some quasi-nostalgia as I peeked in the modern console gaming area and watched quite a bit of Street Fighter 4.

As much as I would have liked to have gone to the concert on Saturday night (featuring the Video Game Orchestra, Paul and Storm, and Johnathan Coulton), I didn't for two reasons: (1) the inevitable line, and (2) the concert would go very late, and I had to make sure to leave early enough to get the T back to where I was staying. I did go to the LoadingReadyRun panel, and there's a chance I might show up in a future video, so I'll keep an eye out for that.

PAX: Day 3

I signed up for a Dominion tournament, and ended up playing that for most of Sunday morning (missing out on yet another panel - the XPlay Live panel). But again, playing an awesome game trumps that. The tournament had a weird format - basically it was an accumulation of victory points, instead of any brackets or total wins or something. So when the second game started, we had a gentleman's agreement to try to amass the most points possible for everyone before causing the game to end. Thanks to that second game, where the Gardens was in play (1 victory point for every 10 cards in your deck), someone earned like 80 points and shot up from the like the 5th place table to the first, and ended up winning the silver medal. It was also neat that, since everyone at the table knows how to play the game, turns were just flying by.

After another afternoon of pointless wandering, having already seen what there was to be seen, and sitting in half-heartedly in one last panel, I got into line for the closing ceremony. Not the super-line downstairs, but the one to get into the balcony seats, since I was up on that floor anyway. So, no entertaining video boards, which sucked because whatever they were doing beforehand went over and we waited in line an extra hour than was necessary. Now, I opted to attend the closing ceremony because I wanted to see the entire con from start to finish; plus, I have never been to a con's closing ceremony before, so I wanted to see what it was all about. Well, at PAX, it turned out to be the final round of the Omegathon (their weekend-long videogame competition). Which was cool and entertaining and all, but when it was over, Gabe and Tycho said, "See you next year!". And that was it. Not exactly what I had pictured it to be.

While waiting to board the T to get back home, an little old Indian woman passed me and noticed my lime green swag bag. She asked me, in a tiny little voice, "You were at expo? Penny...Penny..." "Yes, Penny Arcade", I replied. She then wanted to see the free stuff I had gotten. So I tried my best to rummage through the bag for interesting things (I didn't end up with much cool swag), but I showed my Magic deck, which she seemed to recognize. "Oh, it's dat game." One last looksee and she walks off saying, "Dey give too much stuff." It made my day.

tl; dr

Overall, I had a great time. PAX is awesome, except for long pointless lines and too-high people density.