Friday, August 31, 2007

Why PAX matters: it's about the community

PAX this year reminded me of the power of a community with shared experiences. The only other gaming conference I've attended is PAX 2005, so I can't say from direct knowledge that other gaming conferences don't generate the same feelings within their respective attendees, but I was truly moved during this conference at the open displays of passion for gaming and the refusal of those expressing such passion to be ashamed of gaming and of being gamers.

I missed Wil Wheaton's keynote address on Friday, but I listened to it later (nice written summary in addition to audio - occasional profanity, so be careful at work) and was pleasantly surprised at how similar his gaming history is to mine and by how well the audience responded to him. I wasn't aware Wil was such a gamer and I wasn't sure what he was going to talk about. As others have stated, Wil's speech set the tone for the entire event -- no matter what different types of games we play, we share the same passion and we are all gamers. Wil also stated the desire of most gamers and another theme of the convention, to thunderous applause, that people not be d!@ks (some profanity in linked comic) when playing online, despite the fact that you're not face-to-face with the recipient of your verbal comments.

I missed the keynote for a good reason -- I was gaming. One of my friends who also traveled to Seattle for PAX brought his Nintendo Wii along with Wii Sports and we played Thursday night and most of the day Friday. I had not yet played anything on the Wii and it was so intuitive, so much fun, and so great with four people in the room, that we couldn't get enough of it. Eventually several of us, me included, had to stop because we were sore. The rest of the weekend my entire arm, from shoulder to hand, ached as if I hadn't played sports in ... oh, right, I haven't. I doubt I'm coining a new phrase here, coming so late as I am to the Wii party, but I considered myself temporarily on the "Wii-njured" reserve list after the Wii marathon.Discussion Panels

In addition to what one might expect at a gaming conference like console tournaments, PC tournaments and an exhibition hall, the variety of discussion panels was staggering this year. Topics ranged from storytelling in games, to women in gaming, to how public relations teams approach the hardcore community, to what to do as an adult when life cuts into your gaming time, to politics in gaming and music in gaming. And that's just some of the over 40 separate discussion panels that were available. All of the panel members were people from the industry or people who were experts in whatever topic was being discussed, making the interaction that much more interesting and relevant. In addition to the panels, the founders and creators of Penny Arcade, Gabe and Tycho, did three separate Q&A sessions over the course of the weekend, one of which also included them creating the artwork for an actual strip that was published on Monday.

Music and Movies

Friday and Saturday nights also included musical performances by gaming-oriented bands. I did not attend these, but they are always packed. Most of the bands either recreate videogame music or sing about gaming and its culture, but a couple of the artists, notably the band Freezepop and singer Jonathan Coulton were less directly gaming-themed, but still appealed to the audience. Freezepop made appearances in both Guitar Hero I and II with a bonus song on each, and Coulton sings mostly about coding and geek-related themes.

Classic gaming- and geek-related movies also played in the evenings if you weren't into the musical acts. True classics like "The Wizard!," "The Last Starfighter," and "Tron" were among the offerings.

Tournament and Free Play

Countless tournaments were available to meet just about anyone's interest, whether it be tabletop games, handheld games, card games, PC games or console games. Additionally, there were all manner of "free play" opportunities where you check out a game and controllers with your friends and just go play.

One cool thing for handheld players was the handheld lounge. This was a large area covered with beanbags where people could just hang out and play their DSes or PSPs or whatever. There was also a distributed tournament system for handhelds created just for PAX that let people compete against each other for prizes without the need of a formalized tournament structure. This is one of those "extra-awesome" things that takes PAX beyond just being a regular gaming conference.

Even More

There was so much going on that made PAX just feel right it's difficult to convey it in writing. The Washington State Convention and Trade Center was just the right size, as many areas were often crowded, but the way things were laid out and organized one never felt "stuck" anywhere. All of the events and the overall structure of the event were oriented toward encouraging a community experience.

There was some sort of matching game going on that I never quite figured out, where PAX3rs (intentionally left that typo -- seemed appropriate) carried, hung, pinned or otherwise displayed a series of numbers that I assume they were trying to match with someone else's numbers for some sort of game or exchange [ahh... found some info on it at Wired - other great PAX pics there too]. The Sony booth was running a contest where one had to accomplish certain tasks within the convention center in the morning to obtain keys which you could then use in the afternoon to try to open a treasure chest with prizes inside.

All Together Now

All of these things encouraged a community experience, but what all of us already shared was a love of gaming. I don't think anyone would've taken the trouble to travel or even take the bus downtown, let alone fly from across the country, and pay for an entry pass if they didn't.

The full community experience hit home for me during the Omegathon finals. Most of the people in that auditorium had likely never met each other, yet each side of the auditorium cheered in unison when the player whose point of view was projected on the large screen to each respective side of the stage picked up a particularly deadly-looking weapon or when that weapon was used to cause the spectacular death of the other Omeganaut. There's something about the swell of a cheering crowd in response to the recognition of a shared belief or experience that is very moving. It was similar to the experience of watching a popular cult movie like Star Wars in a theater crowded with fans on opening night.

The twist to the Omegathon competition is that no one knows what the final game will be that will determine that year's overall winner until it begins. In past years it has been Pong, Combat or Tetris, classic retro games that anyone is sure to have had an experience with but which likely no one has recently played or practiced. When the Minibosses exploded from behind the stage curtains playing an electrified and distorted version of the Halo theme, it was incredible, and I wasn't quite sure whether this was an intro to some official announcement or just a great song before the introduction of the final game.This year Bungie had a hand in providing the final game: Halo 3 multiplayer. Bungie had said in a weekly update just prior to PAX that there would be an announcement about the Forge portion of Halo 3, which will allow players to customize maps with the placement of weapons, items and vehicles. Turns out the "announcement" was more of an exhibition of this new customization feature, as Tycho stated on Penny Arcade the Monday after the event:
This year, when Frankie offered up Bungie's full support of the event, we realized fairly quickly that we had a startling opportunity here ... Neither MNC Dover or Accolon were especially familiar with Halo, another statistical impossibility, but this might have been for the best - they were doing battle on never seen before maps, each of them tuned in Forge to have piles of big guns jammed into every crevice. To quote Bungie's Lukems, this was Halo: Hyper Fighting Edition. Accolon eventually took it, but our competitors definitely delivered the required spectacle.
So we watched as these warriors, MNC Dover and Accolon, battled on two new multiplayer maps nobody had seen with some new weapons never before seen in action -- the flamethrower, some sort of napalm-ish fire grenades, and a blinding flash-bomb grenade that seemed to blind and throw an opponent away, were among them.

Now Carry it Forward

Everyone who was in that room has an additional shared experience that reinforces the gaming community. Our social nature as human beings seems to me most strongly reinforced with physical, face-to-face gatherings, so the longer PAX continues and the more people who attend, the stronger the community will become.

The more unified gamers feel and actually are, the stronger we will be as a community in relation to other other non-gamer communities, like say, senators and representatives. This year PAX reportedly gathered 40,000 gamers over the course of the 3-day weekend. An event of that size that is peaceful, promotes gaming in a positive way, and deals with real and serious issues about the effects of gaming on society begins to be something that can't be ignored. PAX's participants and supporters begin to be a group worth listening to with valid issues that are worthy of being addressed outside of gaming's inner circle.

So let's continue to reach out beyond our Xbox Live headsets and PC keyboards every once in awhile to meet face-to-face and see and reinforce our common passion of gaming.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

PAX 2007 info coming soon

I hope to have my summary up this week.

It was a blast to be there, an incredible variety of discussion panels and things to do and see. I have my pics up on my flickr page. Gamerscoreblog has tons of great pics too. Monday's Penny Arcade has some videos up of the final Omegathon event, including the live performance of the Halo theme by the Minibosses -- gives me chills just watching it!

Sad beer and whisky news

As you may or may not have heard, Michael Jackson, famed beer and scotch whisky reviewer, died today. I have his books Ultimate Beer and Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch.

Great reference works from a knowledgeable man. He will be missed.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Archival post -- Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) 2005

In anticipation of this week's glorious beginning of PAX 2007, I am reposting the full report of my visit to PAX 2005. The current host of my PAX 2005 article is going through a portal upgrade and the articles are currently down, so I thought I'd put the full text and pictures here.

From August 2005:

Penny Arcade Expo: The New Videogaming Mecca

I flew up to Seattle, WA last Thursday night to attend the Penny
Arcade Expo (PAX) 2005. The expo was actually in Bellevue, WA, took
place Friday afternoon through Sunday evening, and turned out to be
quite an event. I didn't know what to expect, yet somehow I was not
surprised by what was there. In short: tons o'geeks, consoles, PCs,
board games, arcade games, and plenty of good-spirited gameplay. The
focus was obviously on bringing people together to play games.

The full spectrum of gamers were present, from the casual puzzle game
player to the person who was in full character costume and had brought
his 4' x 4' custom-built and intricately detailed tabletop game board
with full complement of pewter characters to populate it. I don't mean
literally a board that just folds out, I mean a fully-realized 3D
landscape with trees, stone walls, altars, mountains and whatever else
was necessary for full immersion in the game. The cool thing was, even
with this wide range of different types of people, everyone got along,
was considerate and just plain nice.

It was the type of environment where everyone felt comfortable being
themselves and weren't embarrassed, for example, to cheer out loud
when one of the Omegathon contestants increased his Katamari ball past
another diameter milestone. If you're not familiar with what the
Omegathon is, this year it was a six round tournament, with a
different game each round, to test the stamina and skill of its
participants, or Omeganauts. A videogame sextathlon, if you will, that
took place over the course of the entire expo. The grand prize was a
classic gaming cornucopia consisting of every classic Nintendo NES
game and all of the hardware and accessories ever made for the system.

The layout

One floor was dedicated to "free console" play. Xbox, PS2 and GameCube
consoles were all available for play with nice plasma flatscreens
somewhere in the 40" range. You just checked out the game and
controllers and off you went. We played Mario Party 6 and Mario Kart:
Double Dash on the first day.

On this same floor is the Exhibition Hall, where sponsors set up their
various booths to show things off, and the Theatre, where seminars and
some tournament finals were held. At Nintendo's booth I saw the new
Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess in action, Nintendogs, and Mario
Kart for the DS.

Another floor was dedicated to several different types of gaming. Two
large rooms were used for tabletop gaming. These were places where
people could bring their boards and gear and just play. Some of this
stuff was pretty amazing when you consider the effort involved to
create the boards they used. The boards ranged from about 4' X 4' to
4' X 8' and often looked like a model train layout, but covered with
pewter characters, cards and various other paraphernalia which I did
not understand.

This same floor has another huge room dedicated to PC gaming. Players'
own rigs were welcome, and the neon light from countless case mods
bathed the room in a blue glow. Another large room was where the
console gaming tournaments happened.

This is where we played the Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory tournament on
Xbox, but more on that later.

Worth the price of admission

The best event I attended was the "Make Monday's strip with Gabe &
Tycho" seminar. Not only was it fascinating to have a window into part
of the creative process for the strip, the guys kept an auditorium
full of gamers entertained for an hour and a half. They were both up
on stage, Gabe at his PC with his desktop projected on two screens on
either side of the stage. Tycho did the initial typing of the comic's
dialog and then managed the Q&A session for the rest of the time.

You know a guy is a great writer when he can make an auditorium full
of people laugh out loud just by typing sentences on the screen. We
were then able to watch Gabe as he inked and colored the strip from
initial sketches he had done and scanned in earlier. Gabe uses a large
pressure-sensitive touchpad and pen to create the comic and finished
the final art during this seminar that became Monday's comic.

The competition

Sunday morning my friend Shawn and I played in the Splinter Cell:
Chaos Theory tournament. There were 16 teams of two, and each player
had his own flatscreen TV. That's me below.

The luck of the draw went our way the first round. There were two
teams that consisted of a pair of single walk-ons who had never met or
played with each other before, which left them at a distinct
disadvantage as far as communication and strategy went. We were
matched against one of those teams and pretty handily defeated them.
The second round was against a good team, but we played the map called
"Factory," which a lot of players on Live don't like to play because
of its large size and layout. These guys didn't appear to like it too
much, but it happens to be one of our favorites, so we also won the
second round.

The third round was against the team that eventually won the whole
tournament, so we didn't feel so bad about losing. It was a decisive
loss, by the way. They smeared us all over that "River Mall" level.
All we really wanted to do was make it past the first round, so
everything beyond that was gravy. We came in third place overall and
actually won the equivalent of $25! With our winnings we picked up a
copy of last year's PAX 2004 DVD and a t-shirt.

The best sponsor

One of the sponsors of PAX 2005 was Bawls, an energy drink. They had a
booth and sold individual bottles for $1 a piece. This was great
because these things are loaded with caffeine, and a $1 a pop, you
can't lose. Plus, the name lends itself to endless jokes:

"Dude, you're drinking Bawls!"

"I've never had Bawls this cheap"

"These Bawls are nice and cold"

We never tired of it. There was also a variation the company called
Sno Bawls, which was basically an "icee" version of the drink, and
that just added another variation to our jokes.

"Your Bawls are frozen"

You get the idea.

Oh, and did I mention the bottles are blue? We didn't use that in our
jokes, probably because it would've been too obvious. And the place
was full of guys.

A real-world hack

Late Friday night we were all lagging and looking for some caffeine.
The problem was the Bawls people had packed up and gone home at 10p.
However, the booth was still there. My friend Mish somewhat by
accident found an unprotected opening in the Bawls booth procedures
and architecture, which he fully exploited.

The "Sno Bawls" icee machines were still set up at the booth. An
exploratory pull of the lever on one revealed that they still had
Bawls flowing, though by this time the icee part had melted. At the
other end of the table was an empty pitcher, which seemed to provide a
convenient way to avoid spilling the cold Bawls on the floor. Pull,
pour, zip, zip and you have yourself something to drink. I managed to
catch this hack in action.

The woman on the left is one of the PAX volunteers, all of whom had
"ENFORCER" emblazoned on the backs of their shirts, and all she could
manage to say to him was "That was frightening." It was quite funny.
I'm not sure what they did to "patch" this opening, but this volunteer
may have radioed for assistance because a full pitcher from the Sno
Bawls machine was quickly taken down the escalator and shown to a
waiting group of other volunteers, presumably to show the magnitude of
the potential exploit.

A complete experience

This event had something for everyone. One of the things I didn't see
was the musical concerts held both Friday and Saturday nights. The
music was of course videogame-related, and apparently lots of people
enjoyed it as there was a line halfway around the entire building
outside in order to get into the shows. There were also many seminars
and panels with industry pros discussing online gaming, breaking into
the industry, marketing games, and gaming and controversy (think of
the recent Hot Coffee mod and GTA: San Andreas).

According to one of the organizers of the event there were 7,000
attendees as of the end of Saturday and a total of 8,500 to 9,000 were
expected for total attendance by the end of Sunday. This is a serious
event that I hope the videogame industry continues to support. What
sets PAX apart from others like E3 is that it is not "only open to
industry professionals." Anyone and everyone is welcome, and as an
attendee you are made to feel that way. If you can make it up to
Seattle next year, I highly recommend it.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Do we have a Wii visitor?

Alright, who's using Opera?

For that matter, what's up Camino-using Mac person?

Gotta support the little guys.

Most may ignore you, but I see.

I see and I appreciate.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Xbox 360 new price comparison spreadsheet, clarified

For some reason (embedded Google Doc?) when I go back in to edit my previous post I just see a blank, so here's an addendum.

One particularly astute friend of mine pointed out two things about the Core model of the Xbox 360:
  1. It comes with a wired controller
  2. It comes with basic composite/RCA cables which are incapable of component output
Taking this information into account, and focusing purely on a utilitarian view of being able to enjoy the Xbox 360 experience, my price comparison changes somewhat. My friend suggested some changes to my wording and I don't think I could have said it better myself, so I'll quote his email:
"to equal the Premium model you'd have to buy a Core model
($279) and a 20 GB hard drive ($99). That's $279 + $99 = $388, so you're better off buying the Premium model ($349) and saving $39." To further confuse things, the Core model comes with the standard (Composite/RCA) cable, so if you bought the Core model and wanted to output in Component, you'd actually have to shell out an additional $39 [for a component cable], basically making the Core model cost exactly the same as the Premium model, except you'd have no HDMI and a wired (instead of wireless) controller. It
therefore makes no sense to buy a Core model unless you know for sure you have no plans to upgrade. [I added "RCA" above and moved the last parenthesis from the end of the sentence to the right of "wireless."]
This observation about the controller reveals my bias to have a wireless one, but functionally for gameplay the wired and wireless controllers are identical. The ultimate conclusion is that the Premium model looks like the best deal, particularly if there is any possibility you'll want to play games or watch movies in high definition at some point in the future. The Premium model comes with Microsoft's HD/AV component cables instead of the basic composite/RCA cables included with the Core model. Even if you will only ever use a standard definition TV, however, the Premium is still the best value considering what's included in the package.

Thanks, Shawn.

Xbox 360 new price comparison spreadsheet

I put this together for myself and thought other late adopters might find it useful too. I packed a lot of data in here, so check below the spreadsheet for further info. You'll need to scroll around using the slider bars to see all of the data.

Along the top is each type of console, from the Core model through the new Halo 3 Special Edition. The left-hand margin lists a breakdown of the components included with each console. These are listed cumulatively, from Core to Elite, and the breakpoint for what each console comes with is in the right-hand margin. The only exception in the cumulative component list is the play and charge kit included with the Halo 3 Special Edition because the Elite model does not include that.

Along the bottom I did my best to compare the cost savings of buying one of the more expensive console models versus buying the Core model and then purchasing each component separately to equal that more expensive model. For example, to equal the Premium model you'd have to buy a Core model ($279), a wireless controller ($49) and a 20 GB hard drive ($99). That's $279 + $148 = $427, so you're better off buying the Premium model ($349) and saving $78. These comparisons are not exactly equal because the Core model does not include HDMI and that feature cannot be added separately, but I'm just trying to compare overall relative value.

Interestingly, you save the same amount of money, $78, buying an Elite model versus buying a Core and components individually. The Halo 3 Special Edition turns out to save you the least amount of money as a bundle, even though it includes a play and charge kit for the wireless controller. Now that newly-manufactured Premium models include HDMI output I'm hard-pressed to pay $30 ($78 - $48) for a green color scheme and a Halo 3 picture pack. To make the Halo 3 Special Edition a great value, Microsoft would need to bundle in a copy of Halo 3 at the same price.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Pleased to meet you, my good man

Xymyl ("zai-mull") lives somewhere near Tucson, AZ. He's an artist, a thinker, a brewer, a writer, and some would say (indeed have said), a nonconformist.

I've known him for about 9 years. We worked together in Phoenix at a software and Internet company. I'll leave it at that as at this point he maintains a semi-anonymous blog presence aside from his professional web design, logo, graphics and marketing business which I leave to him to promote as he chooses.

Though he's had an online presence in some form or another since this whole world wide web thing began, he has fairly recently jumped into the world of blogging with two sites, evil nature and nothing, which I have added to my list of friends' blogs over on the right.

Evil nature is the more personal of the two, with no real theme but good stories and thoughtful writings on topics ranging from art, the institution of education (emphasis on institution) to logic, music and blogging.

Xymyl is an accomplished artist and recently began selling some of his work. Check out his online gallery and I think you'll be impressed with the vibrant creativity of his work.

The nothing blog is very much a modern Federalist Papers, except instead of exploring the finer points of Constitutional meaning and interpretation through an exchange of written correspondence, it promotes a fuller understanding of nothing through the wonders of his response to submitted inquiries via email.

Now you must go beyond the plain meaning of nothing and consider its deeper implications. These are no mere tautological, empty pseudo-philosophical ramblings as some others have done. Do a search on nothing and you'll see what I mean. He has thought, and continues to think, deeply about nothing and is happy to clarify any questions you may have.