Postmortem: PAX 2008

Welcome to the largest gaming festival in the nation.

58,500 people crowded into the Washington State Convention & Trade Center on Labor Day weekend to feast their eyes on unreleased games at the 2008 vintage of the Penny Arcade Expo instead of doing the wise thing and paying unspeakable prices to go chill at Bumbershoot. I hear Bumbershoot was a good time, but I went to PAX instead, and so here are my thoughts.

On the conference

This was my first PAX experience, having never previously worked up enough motivation or anticipation to clear my schedule for the event. However, I caught wind of the fact that the fine folks of Giant Bomb would be there –– Jeff Gerstmann, Ryan Davis, Brad Shoemaker, and Vinny Caravella –– along with former GameSpot alumni Rich Gallup, the Internet’s Alex Navarro, and Matt Rorie. As it would turn out, Bob Colayco and Jason Ocampo were also seen at the panel as audience contributors of sorts, Brendan Sinclair was in the audience and got a shout out from the panelists, and I’m pretty certain I saw Ricardo Torres leaving the Walrus “Theater” after the panel, as well as around the show floor earlier. Anyway, as a moderator at Giant Bomb, as well as a huge fan of the crew there, I took it upon myself to actually go this year. And I’m fairly glad I did.

Overall, the expo was an extremely good time. All the big publishers were there showing off games coming this holiday season, there were extremely good panels, and the people were all very nice. My only complaints are that the show was a bit more of a nerdfest than I would have liked –– but that comes with the territory, so I don’t mind much –– some of the teenaged attendees didn’t know when to stop monopolizing the demo stations and give others a chance, and on a similar note the space was generally a smidge too small to accommodate the number of demo booths required to properly service the number of people in attendance. Perhaps spreading to the whole convention center next year will help.

Also there was Felicia Day of Dr. Horrible and The Guild fame, which set up this amazing scene, which I’m sad I didn’t happen to see:

The Games

There were a whole ton of games on display, most of which weren’t exactly my cup of tea but looked fairly good –– in this vein, I tried out the Iron Chef video game, which plays like what I would imagine Cooking Mama does, but with creepy Alton Brown head giving you instructions, and the upcoming Naruto fighting game, which plays much like what I imagine the Dragonball Z fighting games do, but crazier.

However, a lot of games that I’m really looking forward to were there in some form or another. Mirror’s Edge was there, though it was the same level that’s been shown off since E3, so it was a fairly known quantity. Controls are pretty intuitive, and Faith feels as strangely momentous as she looks in the gameplay videos. Motion sickness still hasn’t been a problem yet, but I have yet to watch or play anything related to the game for more than 4 minutes at a time at this point, so we’ll see when it comes out. Prince of Persia had a demo there that I couldn’t get to due to scheduling, but I did catch the Far Cry 2 demo, which was very impressive. I didn’t really expect this, but the game actually plays like Far Cry –– they’re really validating the use of the name. The engine is also fairly impressive, rendering about the best looking grassy plains I’ve yet seen in a game, and the fire propagation is glorious. Cathartic, even. The engine really shone, however, when they demoed the map editor: this thing really validates procedurally generated content. Entire forests can be placed with a sweep of a brush, and with equally little effort replaced with savannah, jungle, plains, or just about any other African terrain you could imagine. In addition, the ability to determine in real time the time of day and storminess of the map really showed the versatility of the engine, as well as the realism of the effects. Very cool.

Also there was Left 4 Dead, which plays about as amazingly as it looks. I don’t really have much to say about the experience (the videos pretty handily sum it up), except that I really want to see how it plays with real, human-controlled zombie opponents as opposed to the AI, as well as how it plays from the zombie side of things.

There were several games on display that I didn’t really want to wait through long lines for, but which I observed for a while. StarCraft II was among these –– I was never an enormous fan of the original StarCraft, but I really excited for StarCraft II because I’m really hoping that it will hook me in some way that the original didn’t. The gameplay looks unexpectedly smooth. Perhaps it’s that my favorite RTS is the years-old Rise of Nations, and before that the original Age of Empires, but I’ve never seen an RTS look and feel as smooth as StarCraft II does.

Bethesda is Winner

However, no one could match Bethesda’s showing at PAX. They really devoted themselves to the expo and the people at it, and they will definitely reap the reward. Their booth was completely amazing, featuring properly themed 50’s neon flickering signs above the booth proclaiming that Fallout 3 was there, as well as an authentic 50’s Airstream trailer which they’re giving away to the Penny Arcade-created Child’s Play charity. They had kiosks aplenty for people to try out the game, and they were very well staffed. More than this, though, their live demo at the main stage was completely amazing. It certainly helped that the theater was also used for the musical performance, and so was decked out with quite serious subwoofers, making every blast a monumental event. The one hour demo was perfectly scripted and executed, impressing even a Fallout newcomer such as myself. But more than that, they had on had thousands of cards to give out to the audience which could be deperforated and turned into little desk ornaments, but also presented to the staff at the booth to reclaim a prize. These included copies of the game, posters, autographed posters, and one ridiculous package featuring the most decadent version of the game with all the extras, plus 10 years of Xbox Live, an Xbox 360, and 16000 Microsoft Points. The prize I got, which I have enjoyed very much, was a Vault Boy puppet, many of which can be found in the following video shot at a concert that night, which in fact very much sums up PAX as a whole:

So here’s to PAX 2009 –– you’ll definitely find me there.

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