PAX East 2011 Recap

PAX East was last weekend! Now that I'm finally done typing up my GDC notes and my Game Journal entries from the games I played at PAX's Console Freeplay, I want to do a quick writeup about what I saw at PAX.

- Death of an Indie Studio
Presented by Scott Macmillan (who started and ended the studio), this was the story of the 3 year history of indie studio, MacGuffin Games. Key Points:
  • Art != Business: Before you jump into the world of indie games, you have to ask yourself "do I want to start a company, or do I just want to make my game?" You may find that it's the latter (which is the boat I'm currently in), in which case you might find that it's smarter to keep a normal, paying job, and make the game you want to make if your free time.
  • Learn to code. If you really think making games on your own is something that you want to do, you should probably learn to code (this is also something that I'm currently doing). If you've got a friend to help you and they're not fully invested in what you're doing, you'll probably find that they're going to flake out. It's much easier on you if you figure out how to do it yourself.
  • Find a community. Whether you're making a game on the side, or starting your own company by yourself, it's really important to have as many people as possible playing your games, giving you feedback, and sharing their knowledge with you. Working by yourself in a basement might work for some people, but it probably won't work for most people.
  • Find a place to work. If you've quit your job and you're working at home, see what you can do to separate your work space and your 'at home' space (I've heard this in other talks too). It's confusing and emotionally exhausting to have your work space and play space be the same. (Plus, as I've heard in other talks, you want to be able to have something of a cut off point at the end of the day - which is hard if you're always essentially at the office.)
  • Pay attention to scope & set deadlines - or you will never get anywhere. :)

- From Background to Center Stage: Building Game Worlds as Main Characters
This talk was presented by a panel including Ken Levine about Bioshock Infinite. It was mostly about the art direction concerning their environment:

  • Prototype. "City in the sky" is a cool concept, but there are a lot of challenges when you really dig into it. One of them was the idea of how you get from building to building quickly and easily for more interesting gameplay - to which the solution was the 'sky hook.' A non artist (I think it was a programmer?) made a gameplay demo of the sky hook concept which first showed the player moving from line to line to see if it was even fun - which it was. The artists still weren't really sold until a second prototype was made (I think by an artist this time) which was more cinematic, and added sound effects. In this prototype, they proved out how to make it feel tense and exciting to travel by sky hook, and the artists were able to get more excited about it. 
  • Small details matter. This is one of the things people are most drawn to in the Bioshock series - when you go into someone's office, every small detail - from the magazines, to what's hidden under a pile of objects, says something about the character who worked there. This started back in System Shock when you'd have a box of porn and a bottle of beer hidden behind someone's desk. Small details like this make the world more real, and the player notices. 
  • Take your time. They definitely took awhile to flesh out the overall direction for Columbia - at first it mostly felt the same as Rapture, until after a lot of back and forth they arrived at the idea of American patriotism, and then everyone was able to get on board and feel like they understood what the city was all about.

- The Making of an Announcement - Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
Presented by Naughty Dog's community manager and one of the lead cinematic animators, as well as the 3 guys that make up 2 Player Productions spoke about the making of The Reveal: A Behind-the-Scenes Documentary (there are also 2 more parts).
  • Wanted to give a public face to the studio. Videos like this help build up a fan community even more - fans want to see what goes into the games they love, and when it turns out that the people making the games are really cool, it makes people feel even more excited.
  • 2 Player Productions were great in terms of not disrupting the general studio flow. They were filming people at their desks, talking and working - as opposed to the more standard game dev interviews where you get taken out of your office for and official interview. It seems they also focused on a lot more of the actual devs, in addition to just the higher ups at the studio (which is something else than fans like to see).
- Console Freeplay: NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams
(Click for my Game Journal entry)

- Penny Arcade: The Series, Season 1 Screening
Also made by 2 Player Productions (season one only), PA : The Series is a behind the scenes look at the day-to-day operations of Penny Arcade. I really think the truly interesting thing about Penny Arcade isn't the comic, but Mike and Jerry themselves (in fact, that's how I really got into all of this stuff. Issam and I sort of wandered into the Penny Arcade Q&A panel at the NY Comic Con a couple of years ago, and that's when we realized how cool these guys really are.) It's really fun to see how this company of, basically 15 or so friends, works together daily. I definitely recommend checking it out.

- Just Because You Have an Idea, You Are Not a Game Designer
Presented by Scott Macmillan of (the now defunct) MacGuffin Games, Chris Oltyan of Dire Wolf Digital, Ichiro Lambe of Dejobaan Studios, and Eitan Glinert of Fire Hose Games, this talk was mostly about what steps you should take if you are an aspiring game designer -- but then, they really didn't get into any specific, actual steps for you to take (except for an argument about whether or not you should learn coding). Honestly, I don't feel like it was a very valuable talk - it was too disorganized, and it didn't seem that any of the panelists had any significant experience working as designers in the mainstream industry. They were all founders of indie studios, which I do think is a totally different experience than working with the job title of 'Designer.'

- Console Freeplay: Punch-Out!!
(Click for my Game Journal entry)

- Females on Female Characters
Presented by a group of game journalists and an actress, I thought that this was the worst talk I attended all weekend. It was basically a group of women gamers (no devs included), a folder of .jpgs of girl characters, and a completely free form discussion, which mostly consisted of people trying to make humorous one-liners. Every character mentioned was vastly oversimplified - for example, the discussion about Princess Peach came down to one woman saying "I hate Peach" to much applause, and then all of the typical arguments about how she's basically just a lame plot device (which I think really overlooks fact that there are many victories in how Peach has been treated as a character over the years, considering that at the start she was simply a plot device.) I think the whole hour of conversation could have been boiled down to: "we would like to see better written characters (male and female) in games." 

- Console Freeplay: Marvel vs. Capcom 3
(Click for my Game Journal entry)

- Penny Arcade: The Series Season 2 Q&A
After seeing season one of PATV the night before, as well as a panel with the 2 Player Productions guys, it was really interesting seeing this panel with the creators of season two, Vantage Point Productions. Interesting things:
  • They never discussed why they had decided to go with a different production company, but Issam and I did a lot of speculating after seeing the respective personalities of 2 Player and Vantage Point - the guys from Vantage Point had personalities that really seemed to mesh with everyone at Penny Arcade, and they talked a lot about how they had all become friendly with each other. They said that they felt like part of the team at Penny Arcade
  • Because of this closeness, they were able to get a lot more out of the guys at PA that were more camera shy. Also sometimes they felt that they were breaking the 4th wall a little too much - but the connections have been made, so there's no going back
  • One of the Vantage Point guys has a more serious documentary film background. He had made a documentary about living conditions in Haiti (before the disaster), and was planning on returning to more serious documentary filmmaking after this season. The other guys were planning on staying on.

- The Twisted Pixel Variety Hour
I liked the premise of this "panel" - basically it was a couple of the guys from Twisted Pixel goofing off for an hour. They showed us funny videos that they had made at the studio, told us stories, had the audience do some crowd recordings, had a video chat with the guy that was supposed to be there but had a cancelled flight. They also showed some character designs and talked about their upcoming game, the Gunstringer. I've always had a soft spot for this company since I had a couple of phone conversations/interviews with their Creative Director when I was looking for a job out of college. Having this panel was a cool sort of community building exercise I thought - maybe VV should try something like this next year. :)

- Penny Arcade: The Series, Season 2 Screening
Just more PA TV, but now we got to see some of the differences between the 2 Player Productions and Vantage Point Productions approaches. 

- Game Mechanics and Mechanism Design
Issam and I wandered in here not knowing it was being presented by the GeekNights, who were one of our favorite presenters at NY Comic Con this year, so that was a cool surprise. This talk was mostly about different aspects of game design, but unfortunately I did feel that they were a bit out of their element. Obviously this is something that they think is interesting, and have been studying on their own for fun, and they know some things about game theory - but in the end it was too disorganized, and they didn't do a good job actually explaining the principles they were trying to teach. It might have been cooler to get some actual game designers, or game design professors in there instead. It was still entertaining though. I like those guys. :)

- Console Freeplay: Dragon Age II
(Click for my Game Journal entry)

- Console Freeplay: God of War III
(Click for my Game Journal entry)

- Getting to Know Your Games
This was a really cool talk. It was by Dan Amrich, who runs the Activision Corporate blog One of Swords, the community manager for Irrational games, and a guy and girl that work at a PR firm which works with game companies. It was mostly a free-form Q&A, but it still felt very organized compared to a lot of the other panels I attended.
  • Why was Bioshock Infinite announced so early, considering the fact that they couldn't share anything about the game (since so little of the game was actually decided on)? Because they were about to start building the team up more and hiring a lot of devs. You can pretty much assume that when you've got a giant list of job openings, people will speculate. Also when you get that many people in for interviews, the likelihood of leaks skyrockets. You always want the information to be coming from you instead of speculation, so they figured they'd rather announce it than have someone nonchalantly leak "Oh yeah, it's just set in the sky.."
  • Funny story about NBA 2K11. They got Michael Jordan for the cover, and it was exciting and a big deal. They had this whole plan for how they could reveal it to maximize the impact - and then it got leaked. After this is quickly turned into the "what are we going to do now?" meetings. They decided the best thing to do was to bring the message back to them - they called all of the news sources that leaked it and requested interviews so that they could get the right information out there.
  • Dan Amrich - took the job working as Activision's corporate blogger because he wanted to make sure that people were getting the right information. There are so many rumors out there, so it's nice to have a place where you can go to get Activision's official message to clear up misunderstandings. We spoke to him after the talk and he was really cool. It's nice to have someone in the media who is on your side in terms of providing the truth. :)

- Console Freeplay: Bulletstorm
(Click for my Game Journal entry)

- Start Your Own Damned Company
Presented by the same guys as the "Just Because You Have an Idea, You Are Not a Game Designer" talk, plus Damian Isla (co-founder of Moonshot Games). It was cool to have Damian on the panel because he had actual experience in the mainstream industry - he had worked as an engineer at Bungie for a number of years. Overall, this one was also really disorganized and full of strong personalities.

There were a lot of disagreements about best practices, which was cool - pretty much all of the guys on the panel had different goals, so they had different ideas of how to get there. For example, Eitan mentioned that you had to expect to kiss your money and social life goodbye if you wanted to start a studio, whereas Damian, who has a wife and little girl pointed out that this totally depends on what kind of studio culture you'd like to create.

I don't really have any specific notes from this talk - except that Damian mentioned that really, it's much better to start a company after you've been working in the industry for awhile and know more of the ins and outs about how making games works. If you come at it from straight out of school, you're going to have a much harder time succeeding.

- Omegathon Final Round
Even though we went to PAX East last year, I had no idea what the Omegathon was until we watched PA TV and saw the segment about it. Basically, the Omegathon is like the gaming Olympics. A number of contestants are selected at random from people who had pre-registered for PAX, and compete in 4 or 5 rounds throughout the weekend. I'm not sure what all of the events were this time, but I know they competed in teams of 2 and played Katamari and Jenga. The final, surprise round this year was Ikaruga co-op. It was amazing how dramatic it was. We need to do something like this at work. :)

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