Penny Arcade Expo 2010 Day 1

I am becoming more aware of a sad truth of all big parties. When you have a weekend to spend with around 75000 people, it’s impossible to do everything, or be a part of every interesting moment. This has never made more obvious to me than whenever I go to PAX. While  I did a lot of fun stuff, met a lot of really cool people, and heard pearls of wisdom impossible to collect anywhere else, there was a lot of stuff I missed. However, I will endeavor to recount my experiences of this weekend with the hope that the overall feel of PAX will not be lost on anyone.

Also! Be warned that I will use some explicit language in this post, when I feel it’s true to the moment I’m writing about.

It all began Friday morning when I raced out the door to beat those 75000 other people for a respectable spot in line. I knew from last year that getting to the convention center where PAX was held a few minutes early would leave me last in line and behind everyone who wanted to get to the really interesting stuff. The doors would open at 10:00 AM. I’d get there at 7:30. I’d outrun, outwit, and outlast any fucker trying to get what I wanted before me.

I play video games- I’m competitive like that.

I got up early, showered, ran out the door to the Seattle LINK light rail and got to the queuing area  at 7:52. A little later than expected, but I was sure I’d still have a very respectable spot in line. This was not the case. I walked into a large grey hall where I saw thousands of people already there, reading books, playing games, digging through their swag bags, or just waiting quietly. I settled into my place in line, accepting my spot with as much optimism as I could muster. During this time I made my schedule for the day, and bought a really terrible tasting cookie for charity. I tried sharing with a friend I’d made in line. He wasn’t interested.

After an hour or so of waiting later I’d learn that Intel (computer hardware manufacturer and exhibitor at PAX) awarded the person first in line with one of their top-of-the-line quad core processors. For all my griping, I could only admit he deserved his coveted position. We were told he showed up at 2:00 AM to wait for an event starting eight hours later.

Gamers. They’re competitive like that.

When the doors opened I got in to the Expo Hall, I was assaulted by music and color. Familiar brands and until then only whispered rumors were made glaringly tangible. Every exhibitor was jockeying for my attention, but I was on a mission. I knew Valve was demoing their game Portal 2 down the way, and I knew I had to get in line. I owed it to both myself and my twelve year old brother, both being big Portal fans, to see the newly announced cooperative mode and collect the free t-shirt.

I got to the booth and experienced a profound sense of deja vu as I saw a line not too unlike the one I just left. People lined up around the booth, forming a wall of people many rows deep that would take hours to process through. Unlike the previous line, though, there were many other events that would pass me by if I spent two hours doing nothing.  I resigned to try again another day.

I traveled through the Expo hall briefly but soon stopped at Uber Entertainment’s booth where they were about to hold tournament for their new game, Monday Night Combat. I had recently purchased Monday Night Combat and loved it. While it was decried as taking many ideas from a similar game, Team Fortress 2, I didn’t care. I loved this game, and everything about it.

I want to talk about this game for a little while before I get to the events of the tournament, in order to give context to successes and failures I experienced then.

Monday Night Combat is a class-based shooter, where players pick from a list of six characters with their own unique strengths and weaknesses and fight against an opposing team in a game much like capture the flag. I find this a great counterpoint to games like Halo and Modern Warfare, because having an objective and classes that can only do well in certain situations force players to stop thinking about personal glory and focus on what benefits their team. Otherwise, they lose. They lose HARD. For example, I love playing the Assassin, a class all about sneakiness and getting the stealth kill, but sometimes my team needs a stronger defense, so I switch to the Gunner, or my team needs healing, so I have to switch to the Support. Being aware of the needs of your fellow players I think is a good step to improving empathy in online games where there’s normally so much hostility.

I also really love the overall theme of the game. While it lacks a conventional plot, lots of little things give the player a good sense of the world they’re playing in. Set in the future, major league sports now have guns and robots instead of balls and flags. And with the serious advancements in risky performance enhancers and mass acceptance of them, steroids are a serious part of a team’s game plan. All of this is played for laughs though, as the characters all have larger than life personalities, the game’s announcer is a futuristic John Madden with heavy dose of black humor, and the steroids have ridiculous names like “Grandma Betty’s Old Fashioned Organ Highlighter”. Where plenty of other shooters go for darker and edgier with each incarnation, Monday Night Combat chooses to be silly. It transforms a normally very intense and child-inappropriate genre into slapstick. Some people don’t like that, but I can’t get enough.

With that in mind, I was quick to sign up. I met my team a short-time later, shook their hands and we hashed out a game plan before we started. We decided we’d play defensively for the first half of the game, then give a huge push. One guy on my team said the only class he was any good with was the Assassin. I grumbled quietly, but decided to go with a Support. Along with another guy playing Support as well, our defenses were going to be crazy. But would they be crazy enough to hold on at PAX? We started quickly, building up our robotic defenses while two of our teammates scouted ahead to take a look at what the other team was building. I set up some laser cannons for mid-range defense then set some turrets for long-range offense. Meanwhile, my fellow Support was doing his best to keep our teammates healed as they pushed against the other team’s offense. My defenses were as good as they were going to get a few minutes into the game, so I moved forward hoping to help my team gain some ground. I was going to go for the center where all the action was, but I realized that since I had been so far in the back this whole time, the other team probably hadn’t even seen me yet. So I sneaked around the side and ever-so-quietly built a turret on the right side. Then when the other team tried to move in to flank, they were torn apart by my turret and my shotgun. But it was still close, they found ways to destroy my turrets and force me to build them elsewhere, and even with the additional healing my teammates were getting, they were still gunning us down. The whole game went like that until we were forced into overtime. Both teams lost their defenses, and it became a mad rush to see who could ruin who the quickest. Our Gunner and Support were totally ready for this, rushing into the other team’s base and forcing them into a totally unprepared defense. I did what I could to help, but by then we had already won.

After getting the t-shirt for winning and I getting looked at funny for requesting a small (What can I say, I’m a skinny guy), I was asked to show up again at five for the finals. In the meantime, I decided to go to a panel called Game Design 101. It was described as not solely about designing video games, but also online games, card games, and running more effective D&D campaigns. While I was unfamiliar with the people leading it, I was intrigued by the idea of exploring the mechanics behind games a little more.

They talked about their respective games, what they learned worked and didn’t work, and answered some questions, but what I found most interesting was a slide they brought up that they called the “Iron Clover” four points that any successful game needed at least three of. Those points, they said, were: Serious Fun, Easy Fun, Hard Fun, and People Fun. Serious fun was things like making strategies, finding the 100th coin, or getting the secret ending. Hard fun was more about being able to do something exceptionally skillful or lucky, like rolling doubles in monopoly or getting a headshot in Halo. Easy fun was just that, having fun without needing too much practice. And People Fun was self-explanatory- being able to chat, trash talk or working together or competitively. It ended up being really fun because the folks there knew what they were talking about and plenty of people had some really great questions. Q: “I’m the Dungeon Master for a group of guys who hate me only slightly less than they hate each other… how can I beat them into cooperation?” and so on and so on.

I explored the expo hall a while longer, deciding to miss the Red vs Blue panel in lieu of making it to the final round of the MNC tournament. I’d have to apologize to my sister later. One of her favorite shirts was from that group. When it was finally time to get to start the final round we decided to stick with more of the same. Early game defense worked for us before so we stuck with it. The finals ended up being a bit of an anticlimax, though, as we found steamrolling them worked out just fine and we won easily. I’ve got a picture of my glorious success, which is also going to be on Uber Entertainment’s own website. Matt Heston is becoming a name to be feared in the MNC community

Afterwards, to ensure my ego did not get too big from dominating such an inferior breed of gamer, I went over to the Microsoft and demoed Kinect with a game called Dance Central. To ensure maximum ego destruction, I played the game on Normal. I breakdanced like an idiot and got no points. People laughed. Took pictures. However, the unusual thing was the mechanics of the game were so solid that I was tempted to try again. With no one foolish enough to wait in line, I tried again, this time surreptitiously switching the game to Easy. This time, it was different. I discoed my way to fame, success, and a free sweat towel provided by the Dance Central exhibitors. People still laughed, still took pictures. But when I left, there was a line behind me. People wanted to beat my score. They knew that whatever I accomplished there, they could accomplish it twice as well.

Dancers- I guess they’re competitive like that.

Friday was wrapping up by then, and I had little left to do but update my facebook friends on the days events then take the Seattle LINK light rail back to where I was staying. I had a lot of stuff to get ready for the next day. Wil Wheaton was going to be hosting a panel, there was going to be things on social networking, and Portal 2 had yet to be seen. Saturday I would also meet some really cool people along the way and trick a cute girl into getting coffee with me. It was going to be an amazing day, though I didn’t know it at the time. All I knew was those SOBs who got ahead of me in line wouldn’t be so damn lucky.

I was gunning for them.

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