Saturday, 22 September 2012

From Inside the PAX10 - Part 2/2

This is the second half of my post-PAX report. You can find the first half here.

Saturday - PAX Day 2
Saturday is the big day. That's the word going around the stands. The word is not wrong. Everyone is here. Surreal experience of the day goes to a certain gaming website that conducts a video interview. The interview is with their dolled up female presenter, who has the questions fed to her by the sweaty chap behind her. Perhaps she knows loads about games, perhaps the PAX10 is just not her area of expertise - but I worry the real reason she's being fed the lines is that the website thinks gamers are really here for the T&A. They won't be satisfied by thorough journalism! No, they want boobs!

Aside from this, I have a chance to check out some of the other games in detail, and am consistently thrilled to be sharing our part of the room with some of the most cutting-edge indies on the planet. A few stand out for me.

Octodad is a charming adventure game where you manipulate objects in 3D space not unlike (though rather better than) the interaction system in Penumbra. The physics gameplay is different and engaging, but it's the character and the potential of the adventure that excites me.

The Bridge I only play for ten minutes at the start of the day, but being set up nextdoor to us I'm watching it out the corner of my eye all day. If anything it gets slightly more 'Wow, that game is beautiful' comments than we do. We hang out with the game's developer, Ty Taylor, for most of the rest of the show and try to learn his secrets.

I'm also looking forward to playing Monaco, but that dream is quickly replaced by another - to play Brendon Chung's surreal, first-person stealth hack-em-up, Quadrilateral Cowboy. I've long been a fan of Blendo's games (Flotilla in particular) and Cowboy is by far my Most Must Have of the Show. It looks like Gravity Bone or 30 Flights of Loving, and plays like a surreal cross between Hitman and Uplink. Look at your map, find the infiltration points, complete your mission and get out. The twist is that every element in the game aside from movement is controlled via a command prompt on your in-game laptop, and success requires crafty coding and perfect timing. The game, for me, seems to be about establishing a limited but consistent set of rules, and then letting the player work everything else out. It's gorgeous, it's engaging, it's smart and it's fresh. Highlight? Pushing my beetle-like robot through a small hatch, testing the robot controls until I find the one for 'Jump', then watching through the glass window as the thing hops comically across the room and lands on the documents I need.

I had a chance to talk to Brendon later in the show, and I'll have the interview up in the coming weeks.

By the time the expo floor closes I'm doing my best to rally the indies to a single pub. This turns out to be far more than I can chew, and we end up going with Cypher Prime (Splice), Ty (The Bridge), Mango Down (Catch-22) and some others to a beer house round the corner, and then to the sitting-room-only pub where my bouncer story goes down. We bump into the Gearbox team, I get a bit drunk and rant-y about war games and bringing in writers who know nothing about games, and then we all get a bit more drunk and go to a club that closes at 1:30am because Seattle has backwards drinking laws (Olli, my boss, has already had to go home because he's 20).

Sunday - PAX Day 3
By midday on the last day I'm chest-deep in PAX-Pox - the generic flu thing that 80,000 gamers from all over the country import to Seattle each year - but I'm still finding new bits of the show, like the entire floor of PCs, or the competitive gaming. I head to the Penny Arcade Q&A and feel like what I'd guess a non-gamer must feel like walking into PAX - all the talk is around PA in-jokes and tabletop gaming, and it becomes clear to me just how vast Penny Arcade now is.

Otto and I also go to the Eric Wolpaw and Tim Schafer writing talk. They are excellent and funny, but something stands out. When asked how he'd deliver an engaging experience through mechanics alone, without the use of pre-authored narrative, Tim was nonplussed - if there's no author's hand at work, he says, how can we connect and communicate anything? I don't think I was the only person in the crowd who disagreed, and I'm sure on consideration he might redress that view, but the point was made - small studios are still where it's at if you want to do new things.

Once the show clears up I hook up with Brendon, Zach et al and head out for dinner. It's an absolute thrill to spend time with some of the devs I've most respected over the years, and it's over all too quickly. Once they shoot off I join Olli and Otto at the Indie Megabooth after-party at an Irish pub downtown. I meet a crazy man who works on a submarine, talk efficient cut scene narrative with Olli and Ty, and generally wind down. The boys have to shoot off to the airport around 1am, and I'm due to fly home tomorrow afternoon.

Monday / Tuesday - The Biggest mall in America
My flight out of Seattle, of course, is delayed by a couple of hours, meaning I miss my connection and spend 24 hours in Minneapolis. Everyone at the airline keeps apologising, but while I would have liked to get home it does mean I get at least one day of sight-seeing in the US - and on the airline's money too. I arrive at the rather nice hotel, order two pints of beer in plastic cups because it's 11pm and the bar's closing, hook up with a couple I meet outside who happen to have come from a tabletop convention, and we drive to TGI Fridays, which we're told is the only local bar still open.

The next day I go to the only tourist attraction within walking distance (and it takes quite some convincing for the hotel staff to let me turn down their free shuttle) - the biggest mall in America. The advertising is not inaccurate  There is an entire indoor theme park in the middle of the thing. I eat the local speciality (beef burger stuffed with American cheese), having failed to convince them to serve it anything other than well-done. I sample about 20 chilli sauces. I get on Facebook and complete dares set by my flatmates. Then I head to the airport, spend my $12 airline meal vouchers on the largest McDonalds meal money can buy (only $7, but HUGE) and settle in for the long flight home.

PAX was eye-opening for me. Sitting at home most days turning out script I'm somewhat cut off from video game culture. I don't know who plays my games, or why they like them, if they do. I aimed to spend PAX networking with the big boys, but instead I was drawn, at every moment, towards the indies. I've no great passion for cosplay or the latest wargame or having a mohawk shaved into my head so I can skip the Far Cry 3 queue. This, quite obviously in retrospect, puts me in a rather small minority at PAX.

What was great about the show was that I never felt that way. Hanging out with the indies, learning what people think of our game, and being re-enthused to develop ground-breaking product was what PAX was about for me - and it delivered in spades.

Friday, 14 September 2012

New Release - FTL: Faster Than Light

As of today (and until 21st September) you can buy FTL direct from the developer for the low, low price of about £6.50. I strongly urge you to do so.

With the cash they raised from kickstarter, the chaps at Subset have dramatically increased the scope of the game. I've helped them to develop a galaxy full of alien rogues, fast talking Slugmen and drunken pirates. They've added a host of new player ships, weapons and gadgets, and have been honing the product to perfection over the past 6 months.

I think it really is quite a game, and I hope you do to.

You can also pick up the game on Steam.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

From Inside the PAX10 - Part 1/2

A bouncer outside a sitting-room-only Seattle cocktail bar tells me politely that he's going to tell me what he thinks of my country. He shows me the letters 'SW17 9BB' tattooed on the inside of his index and middle fingers. He raises both fingers at me and says, "That's what I think of your country."

It turns out the bouncer has had some bad experiences at a certain London Art college and likes the idea of permanently swearing at its postcode. This has nothing to do with PAX, except to say that the exhibition was as much about learning about the culture that keeps all of us in business as it was showing off The Swapper.

PAX is long, so I will do my best to be brief.

Tuesday - Arrival
On arriving at airport I learn 2 things: check-in now closes 60 minutes before departure, and English people need a visa waiver to go to America. The flight leaves in 65 minutes, and I don't have a waiver. I ask the attendant if I'm going to make it. He says it's 50:50. I do the form on my iPhone, get bundled through customs, then wait 45 minutes to board the plane.

16 hours later I arrive at our team's lodgings. We have a three bed room in a hostel in Chinatown. We are doing this thing indie. I go to bed.

Wednesday - PAXDev Day 1
My first face-to-face meeting with Olli (Team Lead, Art, Code) and Otto (Level Design) is when they wake me up at 1am, just off their flight. I mutter something and go back to sleep.

8:30am we get up, get breakfast, do some work, then head to PAXDev. We see much what you'd expect, on a smaller scale than we expect, and I'm almost thrown out for not wearing my badge. We do some food and drinks and head to bed.

Thursday - PAXDev Day 2
We wake up and discuss what sessions we fancy today. We pick a few out, and then spend the entirety of the rest of the day working. We make a few fixes to the text for the PAX build, then the guys set about getting it stable for the show tomorrow. On the other side of the table, I'm frantically working on integrating art into the Greenlight build of Ir/rational Investigator for its announcement the same day.

By 7pm I've got the page live, and the boys are still ironing out bugs. After this they have to go to Target to buy a PC case (it's too much hassle to bring the PC from Finland - and the guys are too hardcore - so they've brought the components and are building onsite), and get to the convention centre to check out the setup for tomorrow.

I head to Indie Drinks at the Ray Gun Lounge - what looks like it will be a nice little bar attached to a game store once it's finished. The night's hosted by the excellent Bootsnake Games, who will go on to look after me / get me into parties / light my cigarettes for the rest of the show.

Here I also meet Zach Bath of SpaceChem fame. He is louder than you might expect, and a very decent chap indeed. His new real-time card game, Ironclad, looks like a great core concept and has a charming civil war style. More importantly, he later gets me in to a huge Popcap party in a Mercedes garage.

Friday - PAX Day 1
PAX begins. We sit in the hostel breakfast room, Olli still finishing bits and bobs, my eye on the clock. It's a 25 minute walk to the convention centre, and the show opens in half an hour. We resolve to get a cab, then walk the best part of halfway just looking for one. We arrive (it's HUGE), dash through the crowds, and are messed around on the door for five minutes trying to get our passes. It turns out Enforcers (volunteers here are called Enforcers) are all-powerful, and of varying competencies.

The PAX10 have a rectangular booth of ten widescreen TVs, right at the front of the indie staging area, and at the heart of the expo floor. It's awesome. 9am ticks by, marking the start of the press hour, when the journos can play the games in peace and quiet. No one shows up.

10am marks the incoming tsunami. At first the gamers trickle in. It looks manageable. You wonder if that's it. Then, before you even realise, there are 30,000 people in the room and a queue's forming. I drag myself off to the HAWP panel - one of the few I absolutely have to see - and queue half an hour to sit in a half full theatre. It's worth it.

The rest of the day is a blur of demoing the game, working on our spiel, getting to know the guys, giving interviews and attending talks. I expect to have my eyes opened somewhat, and I'm not disappointed. Some of the things that surprised me:

- People queue up 3 hours to play things like Halo 4. I get why people like Halo 4 - but I really don't understand why they'd be so excited to play the new one. Aside from Fireaxis' Xcom (which I never did play) all the exciting stuff for me was in the Indie Megabooth.

- In America, jaywalking is a real thing, there are a lot of stupid rules, and no one rolls their own cigarettes.

- Competitive gaming is quite big in America, it turns out.  There one massive room at PAX that's just full of thousands of people watching a handful of people play League of Legends, while a couple of commentators go at it. I am finally out of sync with what's cool with the kids.

- I am not as good at Smash Bros as I used to be.

- I have never seen so many so fat people in all my life.

The day goes well. We give a bunch of interviews, the game is never without punters in line, and almost everyone says it looks beautiful, which makes my job rather easier. We're also getting some useful criticism. At 6pm there is one free drink and two massive turkeys for exhibitors, followed by extortionate hotel prices. I'm lucky enough to bump into a couple of Sega US marketing types - let's be honest, probably the same guys who were shooting down any risky ideas on my ill-fated Sega project - but they were very friendly and gave me free drinks tokens, so any ill-will was wholly repaired.

Olli gives a PAX10-themed talk at 7pm, and then we hit the pub with the Bootsnake guys. We go to the Elephant & Castle, which amuses me because not only is it an English-themed pub named after the part of London I teach in, but because that part of London is something even the university tries to distance itself from (despite obvious geographical limitations). I also get told off, for the first time, for smoking my e-cig inside, which surely spells the beginning of the end. After the pub we hit a magazine party upstairs, it is horrible, but somehow we score VIP passes, skip the half hour queue at the bar, down our bottles of beer, and leave. Tomorrow is the busiest day of the show.

Watch this space for part 2, coming soon.