Sunday, September 12, 2010

PAX 2010 - Adventures in Everything


Highlights from this year's Penny Arcade Expo-
  • Sylvain (Trabut?) of Ankama Games doing sketches for the fans
  • ArenaNet's Guild Wars 2 Party
  • Attending ArenaNet's Designing Dynamic Events Session
  • Guild Wars 2 Demo
  • Wakfu and Islands of Wakfu Demo
  • The other awesome PAX attendees
  • Darkspore Demo
  • Lord of the Rings Online Booth
  • LotR: War in the North Demo
  • Tron Demo
  • Kung Fu Game Live Demo
Last year at PAX, I had just crawled out from my proverbial rock for the first time in ages and I had no idea what was going on in the gaming community. What was this post-apocalyptic bunker in the back corner of the expo hall called 'Borderlands'? Why were heaps of people crowded around the ArenaNet booth at all hours of the show, and what the hell was that giant horse promoting some game called 'Darksiders'!?

This year, I went to the show excited about several games, with a clearer idea of what I wanted to see and do. I've been rabidly following ArenaNet's Guild Wars 2 updates since serendipitously receiving a copy of their GW2 art book last year. I saw the Tron trailer, and excited murmurs about Dark Spore. I've been playing LotRO for the last year and started reading the trilogy that continues to spawn media of all forms.

Day 1 - Friday

Score!
Fridays at work are hard enough to get through without the promise of PAX dangling just out of reach. Charr and cave trolls dance through my head as I curse the knowledge that just a mile or so away, a gamer's paradise has descended on the convention center. I reach the expo floor with just enough time to score tickets to the Guild Wars 2 panel and party, by way of an awesome friend and fellow volunteer from Game Developer's Conference. With a few minutes left, I make my way over to the LotRO booth and discover that being a lifetime subscriber really does have its perks.

The folks at Turbine are thrilled to see a lifetime subscriber, much to my surprise, and give me a one ring pin, a replica one ring - complete with pouch, a dev-signed map of Middle-Earth, and a coupon for some Turbine points: Pretty much every piece of swag at their disposal. The excitement is mutual, as I've thoroughly enjoyed my time on LotRO and can't wait for the next expansion.

Day 2 - Saturday

GW2 Panel Goodness
I take a seat outside room 304 an hour or so before the Guild Wars 2 panel is set to start, and sketch what I will later realize is the most inaccurate drawing of a charr on the face of the planet. I've never played GW1, reference material is not at hand, and it shows. Badly. Shortly before the panel begins, they direct us into a standing line and I meet a writer from Kentucky who is working on a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel. She's looking for an illustrator and says I might fit the bill. I'll be sure to post more on this if it pans out.

We take our seats in the medium sized room, forty or so excited gamers. Many of us aren't sure what to expect and are thrilled to discover that we're actually going to have our hand in designing content for the upcoming game. How do forty people design content for an upcoming MMO in a bit over an hour? Fortunately, the talented ArenaNet staff have a system for this. First off, we narrow down a location- the devs show us maps and concept art, tell us back story, hold a vote, then narrow down the location further, and so on. Once we have a location- the southeast corner of a mountainous river basin, they give us a bit more detail on what's going on in the area.

The krait, a race of reprehensible slavers have emerged from below a large lake. They look roughly humanoid from the torso up, with a serpentine lower half, resembling a very dark take on the naga. In the center of their lake, the krait have constructed large spires where they keep their captives. South of the krait dwell the quaggan, an essentially pacifistic race with a physical build similar to a gorilla and skin and face like a dolphin. While peaceful, we are informed that they are extremely powerful and brutal when enraged, though it also sounds like they lose control of themselves in this state. North of the krait live the Hylek, a slightly more primitive race that resemble bipedal frogs.

As a group, we decided to build an event chain focused on one existing chain in the area- The krait capture quaggan from the south. If the players do not prevent this capture, the quaggan are sacrificed by a krait sea-witch, summoning a large maelstrom that devastates the surrounding area. This hurts the hylek to the north the most, as they have relatively simple and exposed huts.

After some brainstorming, we came up with the following events- If the sea-witch successfully sacrifices the quaggan, a 'mega-shark' is summoned in addition to the maelstrom. This boss is extremely powerful, but can be weakened by completing some supporting events in the area.
South- Equip quaggan to mount a counter-attack on the krait
North- Help the hylek alchemist create potions that strengthen the quaggan offensive
West- Establish a Vigil outpost where reinforcements can come from

It seemed like everyone in attendance had a good time at the panel and left even more excited about the upcoming game. Once it was over, I headed down to the expo hall to get my hands on the GW2 demo- in THREE-D!

GW2 Demo
I made my way over to Nvidia's stall, where lines were a bit shorter and the game was being showcased in 3D on a triple monitor display. Though shorter, the half hour demo meant that being third in line was still an hour wait. Fortunately, I was waiting with a cool dude named Brian and we spent the half our 'til his demo chatting about games.

I demo'd a level one human elementalist born to the common folk, blessed by Balthazar, and reliant on ferocity. Brian demo'd a level one human hunter born on the streets with a hound as his pet. He spent most of his demo time on the personal story aspect of the game, which is very promising. During his half hour, he helped save an old friend from getting tangled up with the wrong crowd- a group of lowlifes who caught the attention of local law enforcement- a very direct tie-in with Brian's choice of character background. I chose to spend my demo time doing what I tend to do in MMO's: Getting in WAY over my head. I wanted to see as many monsters and areas as I could in the limited time I had, so I ran around and had a blast getting killed by River Drakes, Bears, Spiders, and a few other very cool monsters that I can't remember the names of. The combat was enjoyable and challenging. I especially enjoyed the revival mechanic and their event system. It really is fun to feel like you're encouraged to help out all the other players with whatever they might be doing.

While I really enjoyed the demo, the wrap-around 3D display was more distracting than anything. Text prompts and inventory would pop up on the far edges where they were practically out of sight, and the glasses were more annoying than anything- partially because I had to wear them on top of my existing glasses.

Darkspore Demo
After having a blast with the GW2 demo, I wandered over to the folks at Maxis and tried out Darkspore, which looks like it's going to be dungeon crawling at its finest. The part of the game I tried out had a preset party of three members with one active at a time. You could swap characters at any time. The combat and UI was simple and intuitive, and the game was very pretty. I didn't get to try out the character customization, which is the part that is most exciting to me, but I left with the impression that this game has a LOT of promise. I'm definitely looking forward to giving it a whirl.

Ankama Booth - Wakfu, Islands of Wakfu, and Dofus
I love Ankama- Their games are fun and funny, their art is gorgeous, and their people are awesome. I haven't played Dofus in a few years, but visiting their booth is going to get me back to it, I'm sure. For the many who are unfamiliar, Dofus (and upcoming sequel Wakfu) is a turn-based combat MMORPG- think Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaia with an MMO setting. The studio is based out of France and their artwork and design is fantastic.

I played the demo of Wakfu, with the promise of a spin on the prize wheel, and Ankama is definitely still on track with their games. From the looks of it, they are preserving the original classes from Dofus and updating the art and world. The UI and gameplay felt more streamlined and polished. I took a spin at the wheel and won a shirt (to go with the artbooks and tofu plushy I bought from their booth). I also discovered that just around the corner, their creative director Sylvain was doing watercolor sketches for fans. So I trotted around and waited and watched in awe as Sylvain produced wonderful sketches for a line of fans and random people who discovered there was free art. I was in line with a girl named Jessica, and we were the first two people not to get a sketch, as we had shown up too late. Fortunately, Sylvain would be back at it again tomorrow.

GW2 Party
Six-thirty rolled around, and I made my way down to the Hardrock Cafe, where ArenaNet was hosting their Guild Wars 2 party. My extra ticket went to a coworker whom I had promised any sweet GW swag too, so we went in and the adventure began.

I'm not much of a party person. Fortunately, everyone at ArenaNet was very friendly and approachable. I spent the night visiting with the amazing and exhausted party planner, as well as a host of programmers and artists. I had a wonderful night with highlights including art tips from the girls responsible for the charr designs, hearing about Gamescom hijinks, and meeting the man who drew a piece of concept art that dragged me right into following Guild Wars in the first place. I also learned why the charr have four ears, but that's a secret :P

Day 3 - Sunday

Tron Demo
After waiting in the Queue Line to be one of the first ones on the Expo Floor, I headed over to take a gander at the Tron demo. With a sexy lightcycle out front, how could I refuse? Unfortunately, I'm probably the worst person ever at racing games. Seriously. Mario Kart is a challenge for me. After about 15 'rezes' where I was mostly gawking at how beautiful the game was, I swapped over to the platforming side and proceeded to jump off a cliff repeatedly. Fortunately, a booth attendant came over and gave me a few pointers. It looks like a fun game, once you get the controls down. Though from my first impression, I'm guessing the game will be a bit more combat intensive than I care for. Personally, I'd rather spend more time running, jumping, and discing over chasms.

Kung Fu Live Game Demo
If you were at PAX, you may have seen a booth with no controllers, beat-em-up gameplay, and a little backdrop for the player to stand in front of. This was the Kung Fu Live game demo booth, and it was a blast. You could get into it as much as you wanted, jump, punch, kick, lunge, etc, and proceed to lay a beating down on your digital opponent. I gave it a whirl and came out of it full of adrenaline and with a bruise on my knuckle from punching the ground a bit too hard on the earth shatter move. I was well into the third round when the attendant told me to hold my arms up in a Y to give me more time. At which point my opponent kicked me in the face and killed me. Oops.

Ankama Returns!
After my brutal Kung Fu battle, I headed back over to the Ankama booth to stalk Sylvain some more. It turns out that Jess from the day before had the same idea and we chatted while a crowd of Final Fantasy 14 fans packed around us for the t-shirt giveaway and presentation. Eventually Sylvain showed up with his watercolors and the magic began all over again. I requested a male Xelor's Hourglass obliterating a Tofu. I actually should have required a Dofus 1.0 female, but I only had the 2.0 artbook as reference and the new female Xelor design was so different that I didn't recognize it. The scan doesn't do it justice, but I'm getting it framed when I get the chance.


LotR: War in the North
With the sketch safely tucked in my art book, I strolled over to Snowblind's demo of War in the North. It looks like the Gauntlet Legends of my dreams! Intense graphic action with beautiful cutscenes and a previously untold story. We watched a team of three players demo a battle with a troll. The dwarf spent most of the battle getting thrown and beaten around, but came out of it alive and with his head intact after a close call. I'll definitely be watching this one, as I'm curious how much you can customize each of the three characters.

PAX 2010
I had a great PAX. Thanks go out to all the wonderful people who make this happen- the folks at Penny Arcade, the developers, and the attendees!

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