I flew over to Melbourne and attended all three days of the second PAX Australia! This monster post is a collection of random thoughts about the experience.
Thank god they changed the venue. The Melbourne Showgrounds for PAX Aus 2013 was an awful venue in every way. Run down, tiny theatres, tiny venue, over crowded, crappy food, an annoying train and tram ride out of the CBD and with nothing to do around it. If you wanted to get into a popular panel last year, you could expect to queue for an hour or more if you wanted to guarantee a seat. I wouldn’t have attended a second PAX if they hadn’t changed venues.
The Melbourne Convention Centre was the opposite of that in every way. A huge modern venue, in the heart of downtown Melbourne, within easy walking distance of both Southern Cross and Flinders station and sited on the lovely Yarra river. There was average, overpriced food in the venue, but five star restaurants across the road outside the Crown Casino, and a bunch of more affordable, but equally superb restaurants just outside the MEC across the grassy promenade. The MEC was so large not even PAX Aus was using all of it. The five theatres were easily large enough to hold every panel I attended, and I never had to queue for more than 20 minutes to get into any panel, other than the biggies (the keynote and the first Penny Arcade Q&A).
I’ll happily return to the MEC for PAX Aus 2015…!
AAA Games I Played
The Expo floor was filled to the brim with the usual AAA publishers shilling their wares. EA, Ubisoft, Microsoft, Nintendo, World of Tanks (with a nice antique Stuart Honey in their area). Oddly Sony weren’t represented with a specific stand, although there were plenty of PS4’s on the floor in Ubisoft’s demo area for example. There were a few more hardware vendors than I personally would have liked – because I was never going to buy a new set of headphones, or a graphics card or mobo at PAX. I’m there for the games! And as usual there were a couple of super loud, super annoying stands thumping out the deafening bass for three days. League of Legends seemed to be the biggest offender again. The World of Tanks guys had just as big a stand as LoL but managed to demo their stuff without making your ears ring.
I tried out a couple of AAA demo games. Assassin’s Creed Unity and Far Cry 4. I would have liked to have tried Sunset Overdrive at Microsoft’s booth, but the queue was consistently long when I wandered past so didn’t get a chance to.
Unity was a surprise. It felt like an unfinished product to me. You could play an assassination mission in the Notre Dame cathedral. It’s the same area you’ve seen in the game play footage. It generally looked fairly nice, and I enjoyed climbing over the rooftops of Paris. However the combat felt problematic and things felt a little choppy to me when you got down amongst the mob filled streets. Kudos for having that many fairly distinct people on screen at once…but I did notice there was a cost. Fighting a group of guards when surrounded by a horde of people was frankly a pain in the ass. The camera was forever getting obscured for example, and things did not feel particularly fluid… was it dropping frames? Hard to say when you get to play a game for 10 minutes or so but it felt like it. I also noticed more than your usual amount of ‘invisible ledge grabbing’, ‘squatting in midair’ and sticking the character model through terrain issues. Hmmmm. Think I’ll wait and see how Unity reviews before purchasing it.
Far Cry 4 was also a surprise, but in a good way. We got to play the Far Cry 4 demo, again that area you see in the game play footage. A military outpost surrounded by a temple wall, with two large wooden gates. The game was running on PS4’s and looked beautiful, I did notice a visual issue when the level loaded (and load times were quite long), with the ground texture taking a few seconds to pop in. But once you’re playing everything seemed stable and polished. I jumped on the elephant and stormed into the outpost on ‘stompy’, firing guns like a madman. The booth guy commented that they’ve made the ‘AI harder’ and that certainly seemed the case which is nice. They could kill you pretty easily, and actively hunted you down too which makes stealth quite an attractive option. Hard to be stealthy on an elephant though. The level of soldier aggression reminded me a little of Just Cause 2’s rage filled soldiers which was nice. I like a game that actually has a good level of challenge.
I played Far Cry 3 and while I enjoyed the open world shenanigans that game offers with the tropical military outposts I could not give a crap about the main character, or the story where you’re forced to rescue his awful douche bag friends. Vaas was interesting initially, but I think he really overstayed his welcome. Hopefully Far Cry 4 has a considerably less annoying story – and it sounds like it might. If early reviews show that to be the case I might be picking this one up in a few weeks on the PS4.
Indie Games I Played
Oh yeah baby. This is why I love PAX. Their support of the Aussie and NZ indie devs was even better this year. It’s great to get into the large Indie area and actually chat to the solo devs and teams that wrote the games you’re playing. There were a bunch of indies there this year that I can’t wait to play. Stand outs for me were:
- Swordy: A four player couch co-op physical challenge game were you have to pick up and swing weapons to kill each other. Sounds like a simple idea right? Maybe, but I can tell you Swordy executes that core mechanic so brilliantly it is just a blast to play. Looks pretty too, that flat polygonal texturing style works well in the game. Chatting with the dev team there, they were saying their booth was never empty – in fact pre-show they had members of the crew rocking up and wanting to play Swordy before the gates opened. I also heard an interesting story about a Sony rep rocking up during PAX and quizzing them about their game without announcing who he was. He quietly asked them which console they’d prefer to be on for example, and apparently had an superb poker face (as you’d expect). Hopefully Swordy does make it onto PS4 because I’d buy it in a snap (and dammit I’ll have to buy another controller too).
- Crawl: God this game looks brilliant. Unfortunately I never got a chance to play it because like Swordy the booth was always occupied. Crawl’s play time is a bit longer than Swordy’s though and I am not a patient man. It’s another couch co-op game, an asymmetric dungeon crawl with beautifully animated pixel art. Annoyingly enough it’s a Steam game – Crawl needs to be on PS4 NOW! Aw hell, it’s only $9 on Steam for early access…so they just got my money anyway.
- Expand: This was a great minimalist puzzle game by a chap called Chris Johnson who featured on at least one of the panels I attended and was an interesting dev to chat to on the expo floor. Expand is a branching maze game with an interesting clock face style presentation and a great, relaxing sound track. The minimalist use of colour and animation, with a nice piano sound track made the game quite relaxing to play, almost meditative.
- Wave Wave: A fiendish mobile game with one control. Either you touch the screen or you don’t, which controls how you travel through a procedurally generated maze which is constantly rotating. This game was hard, and the graphical presentation and retro 8 bit music contributed to a rather LSD-like experience.
- Quarries of Scred: This game caught my eye on the expo floor mainly because of it’s incredible retro presentation. It looks like a C64 game from the early 80’s. I only got a quick play of the game, and it seems to still be in development (there was no kill screen for instance), but I have to admire the devs for having the balls to go with this style of presentation.
- Satellite Reign: Do you remember the old Bullfrog game Syndicate? This is the spiritual successor to that game, headed by one of the original Syndicate developers. It looks beautiful with an obvious Blade Runner aesthetic, and a lighting model that seems to consists mostly of flickering neon signs and street lights. They funded the game with a successful Kickstarter project mid 2013. I believe they’ll be appearing on Steam before the year ends with Early Access too, which I’ll probably have to spring for.
- Screen Cheat: This is another game that’s available on Steam. This game is a simple FPS on small maps, the hook is that everybody is invisible and you must screen cheat in order to figure out where your opponents are and shoot them. I played a single round of this game and didn’t get a single kill. Having to spread your attention across four quarters of a split screen is inordinately challenging, while you’re trying to run through a FPS as well. Painful, but probably excellent for improving your multi-tasking skills.
- Armello was on the stands to, but I forgot to check out how much progress they’d made since the last PAX Aus, where I first saw this interesting looking game. Trent Kusters from League of Geeks also spoke well on many of the Indie dev panels I attended.
Panels I Saw
Panels were easy to get into this year thanks to the great venue. I spent a fair amount of time attending a variety of excellent panels.
- Pete Hines Keynote: which was an interesting journey into the history of Bethesda and some of the games Mr Hines was involved in the development over the 15 years he’s worked at Bethesda. He was a good speaker and it was great to hear the war stories from games like Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Skyrim. Fortunately the MEC main theatre is large enough to hold University graduation ceremonies in (which a fellow PAXer told me in the queue outside), even so it was absolutely chokka with PAX attendees. Fortunately I only had to queue for 20 minutes or so to get into the keynote. Thanks to the size of all the MEC theatres this was true all three days.
- Penny Arcade Q&A #1: which immediately followed Pete Hines’s keynote. Great to see Mike and Jerry riffing off each other in the flesh.
- Lone Rangers: DIY Games: A panel where solo indie developers that had completed games spoke. Ken Wong, and Chris Johnson were particularly interesting speakers. Alexander Bruce of Antichamber fame was an unusual fellow too. He seemed a little burnt out on the whole indie game dev experience, which is possibly fair enough since he spent seven years creating the game. All the speakers seemed very intelligent and highly focussed on their craft though which was pretty inspirational, they also all had a very entrepreneurial spirit. Networking at dev conferences like GDC etc. was another point that was raised.
- Indie Game Globetrotters: More indie devs talk about their experiences. This time with more of a focus on what it was like to leave Australia and travel the world as indie devs. Some interesting perspectives on how Aussie devs can perform on the world stage.
- You Can Make Games Too! This was probably the weakest panel I attended all PAX, due to rather insipid moderation unfortunately. The panellists were interesting, but with the poor mod questions they didn’t really get a chance to shine. It became pretty clear over the weekend that a good moderator, asking the right questions and bouncing off the panellists can really make a panel jump. An insipid mod reading pre-prepared questions from a list just kills a panel’s vibe. Don’t really think I learned anything here, except perhaps to think a little about taking gaming into spaces with hardware like the Arduino etc.
- From Pixels and Putty to Awesome Tabletop Miniatures: This was a great panel, which I discuss in detail on tabletop-terrain.com, which is my war gaming blog.
- Designing Board Games in an Established Universe: This panel was a lot more interesting than I expected, given the rather dry title. It was moderated by a couple of podcasters from The Dicemen Cometh, and the two very interesting speakers were Mark Morrison and Martin Wallace, both who are experienced game designers in licensed franchises. We heard some funny war stories, and the moderators did a great job discussing games both designers had created in a variety of franchises. Fascinating stuff!
- Hey There, Good Lookin': Another interesting panel, with several big names from notable game companies like thatgamecompany, Media Molecule and Ubisoft. Unfortunately once again the moderation was a little weak, and some rather pointless and obvious questions were asked of the panellists. Fortunately they were generally graceful and intelligent enough to spin the most banal questions into interesting conversations. There was some discussion about beauty vs elegance, and what elegance in a game means in a deeper sense of gameplay and design rather than visuals alone.
- Dice or Byte: The Convergence of Tabletop and Digital: The last panel I attended at PAX Aus and another goodie. The moderator was excellent and things I remember are Trent Kusters from League of Geeks talking about Armello and their nine month paper prototype phase, before any code was typed. There was also an interesting discussion about balancing a digital board or card game, and how the ability to capture all sorts of play statistics and analytics from people playing digital games makes that an easier process for digital board games.
The Sunday panels were a bust for me, which is a shame. I went with an Aussie friend on Sunday who would have liked to have seen a panel, but nothing appealed alas (or we missed a couple that did). Gave us more time to play indie games in the Expo hall though.
What I Learned at the Panels
The amount of motivation and dedication required to complete and release an indie game are daunting. The most interesting speakers on these panels were the indie devs that were driven to finish their games, through sheer hard work and basic stubbornness. The gentleman that created Antechamber for example, took seven years to do so, and frankly seemed slightly mad and possibly manic when he talked about the experience. The flip side of that was there were indie devs that set themselves a hard limit of say one year, and could still produce and finish award winning indie games in that time frame.
Several of the speakers were fascinating to listen to. Ken Wong of UsTwo was an amazing reflective and intelligent speaker, even when thrown trivial or obvious questions by panel moderators. I could listen to him for hours talking about indie game development. Trent Kusters from League of Geeks was also an amazingly focussed and driven gentleman too, who contributed greatly to the panels he was on, that I attended.
There were some amazing cosplayers at PAX Aus, the Escapist has a gallery of many (but not all) of the cosplayers I saw at PAX Aus. The amount of work and the attention to detail some people put into their costumes continues to amaze me at every large convention I attend.
The tabletop area was larger, but less well organised this time around I felt. I spent about a day in the tabletop area PAX Aus 2013. They had a great system where people put large visible signs on their tables that said ‘players wanted’ so you could rock up and join an open game. Unfortunately that wasn’t in evidence this year, so I didn’t actually play any board games in the tabletop area. I did play a few games while queuing for panels though, thanks to friendly PAX enforcers! With prizes even!
Phew! PAX Aus was great, I had a blast on all three days. It’s going to be hard to resist PAX Aus 2015…particularly if it returns to the MEC. I can’t see why it wouldn’t to be honest since tickets sold out days before it started. Roll on 2015!