PAX East 2014: Panels

hisui_icon_4040 In general I will spend most of my time at any convention in the panels. I’m really grateful NYCC having a preview night as it gives me a chance to see their show room floor much more than I ever would without it. So even at an event with all the 1,001 delights like the exhibitor hall at PAX East I still found myself in the panel rooms for most of the weekend. I just enjoy learning and seeing what other people have to say. Also as someone who does panels himself I like to see what other panelist do right that I’m not doing, do wrong to avoid doing myself, and are talking about in general for new ideas of my own. Even a comic book or video game convention can be a wellspring of inspiration.

Apparently PAX panels are infamous for filling up quickly like they were Hall H at SDCC.  I was warned and by several people no less. I was told that you had to be in line for any panels at least a half an hour if you were wanted even a chance of getting in and if a panel was popular you might want to try an hour early. At first I was really worried. I had scheduled a panel every hour for the length on the convention so I assumed it would be much like NYCC: I would probably get locked out of every third panel I went to and have to either camp my next panel or explore the show floor. This was not a terrible plan. I did not really have a major time put aside to explore all the games there anyway so if I was missing panels it was a good time to check out the rest of the con.

That said I easily got into all but one of the panels I wanted to see and I rarely had to show up way in advance. I did not have a press pass so it was not even the power of the fifth estate getting me inside. I’m not sure if it was just that I picked panels no one cared about, if it was a slow panel year, or if it is just the natural tendency for con goers to stand in lines for no reason. All I know is that the only panel I could not get into was Six Months Into the New Console War. Not sure why that was the hottest panel especially since I later went to Console Launches: A Post Mortem which was a fairly similar panel. I admit I BARELY squeaked into Games That Are So Bad, They’re Good but I came to that 2 minutes after it started and panels like that are notoriously popular. So Bad, It’s Good is partially the lifeblood of the Internet. I can’t exactly say what the truth of the matter is but I do think this reinforces my idea that 80% of line culture at conventions is caused by people assuming that they need to line up in advance more than actually needing to line up in advance.

But that is a lot of meta talk. What people really want is to know the good, the bad, and the fugly of the presentations at PAX East.

hisui_icon_4040 I don’t ever go to Gen Con or Dragon Con. I have never skipped out due to a lack of interest but more because my passion has never been enough to justify the cost or travel. (Also it might be possible for Dragon Con to have a more dubious reputation but it would probably require secret Nazis and underground cat fighting rings.) So while I would love to see panels on table top games in general I never really go places were they would be common. So when I went to PAX East I totally indulged in going to several of the table top panels I normally never get to see.

Side Note: If anyone wants to do a panel about Table Top games in Japan at somewhere like Otakon I think it would be well received. I know I would attend it. As we all know my casual whims are what get people to do ambitious panels.

What is Happening to Tabletop Roleplaying Games and Modernizing Fantasy RPGs might seem like two very different panels but they were more alike then you would think. They both look at the history of tabletop RPGs, how they have changed over the years, and then what the evolution of the hobby has done to inform the present state of the industry. Of course the panel looking at fantasy RPGs had a tighter focus where are other panel looked at the hobby as a whole. They both start at the same place with D&D’s roots as a medieval miniature wargame with a story. That made early RPGs really focused on combat as the primary means of storytelling and the main mechanic that colored the rest of the system. As time went on and the hobby grew and so did the diversity of approaches to how to play and construct an RPG.

But also mentioned was how the introduction of video games, CCGs, MMOs, and other hobbies have clashed with tabletop RPGs. The interesting thing is none of those games have had a clear positive or negative effect on tabletop RPGs. They have all done damage in some way to the player base but also like a forest fire they have added to the overall ecosystem after the initial damage was done.

If anything changes in publishing methods have been more of a king-maker than anything else. Small press PC software, web publishing, and Kickstarter have changed who can make tabletop RPGs, what types of RPGs are made, and how the creators could connect and cater to their audiences. Tabletop RPGs have always been a niche hobby but to think that the niche of 1974 is the same niche today is a very poor assumption. I was a little impressed that White Wolf always came up as a ground breaking franchise. As a White Wolf fan I think that gave be a bit of joy.

If nothing else it got me thinking about older series like Pendragon and Traveler. It also reminded me that The World of Synnibarr existed. 

But my favorite panel was probably the Art of the Dungeon Master. It was simply some of senior members of Wizards of the Coast answering questions about how to be an effective DM. You got your standard questions you always get at these types of panels about how to deal with problem players, issues with killing PCs, or how to balance challenge vs. accomplishment. But beyond that it was mostly a good deal of ways to motivate players, make the PC feel like their important, and just have a good time. I did notice the concentration of people asking questions who mindset was DM vs. PCs was a little higher than I thought it would be. Then again it was basically D&D panel so that line of thought was more of me being silly than the crowd being atypical. It would be like being at a Prince of Tennis panel and then being surprised about all the fujoshi in the audience. I never did get to ask my question but the line to ask questions was just huge. Still I felt like a came away with a good deal of little tools and ideas for my game.

One the more standard table top game panels I saw was the Talk Like a Board Game Geek panel. It started off with a simple introduction to the world of board games beyond Candy Land and Trivial Pursuit that gave you and idea of the depth of the hobby and its terms. The panelist quickly realized that almost everyone in the audience was already playing things like Carcassonne, Caylus, and Dominion they quickly stepped up their game and made the panel a more advanced course. Then instead looked at what makes board gaming unique from other forms of gaming and how all the little pieces and genres of game design work to set it apart. Probably the most interesting part was how derogatory terms like Ameritrash and Point Salad actually speak to deeper ideas and an understanding of what people like and don’t like about games (and how that can vary from player to player). It was a great panel to start you thinking about the deeper layers of board games than even the mechanics and genres.

hisui_icon_4040 There were quite a few panels on looking at gaming culture and what can be done to improve it by increasing diversity and understanding. All jokes aside about such panels being a PAX East it was a good sign that at least some people are examining the bigger endemic social problems in the industry and fandom. The average person is still fairly unconcerned with such issues (even if they directly effect them) but at least it is getting some greater thought and attention outside of the Internet.

The very  first panel I went to at the convention was on How Urban Black and Latino Culture Can be the Next Frontier in Games. I have found it inserting that while women in games (both their portrayal in games as well as in the industry) is a fairly popular topic to talk about the same cannot be said for ethnic minorities.  That is not to say no one talks about that. Blacks and Latinos are the biggest consumers of video games so whenever studies show that the topic briefly comes up. But overall other than a few voices you don’t really hear that much about the issue.

Shawn Allen started the panel talking about his own experiences in the industry and how he went from working at Rockstar Games to starting his own independent game studio therefore letting him see pretty much every level of the industry. The second half was a look at the Harlem Renaissance to the growth of Hip Hop as a possible template for the growth of Black and Latino culture in games.

There were not a good deal of “answers” that were spelled out. It was more pointing out that there were a lack of Black and Latino voices in the industry despite being such big consumers of the product. But in a way the panel itself was the answer. Shawn started his own company to partially address the issue but also giving panels like this to raise awareness. Just like women in gaming it is only something that will change if people start talking about it seriously0.

Sex, Sexy, & Sexism was packed. For a morning panel on Sunday that is impressive. The moderator was male but he mostly stood back and let the women on the panel do the talking. Tifa Robles from the Lady Planeswalkers Society was on the panel so it was about table top gaming as well as video gaming.

It tackled pretty much all the points you would expect it to. The representation of women in games, the lack of women in the production of games, the hardship of the women working in games, and the struggles of female fandom to have a voice and safe spaces. Overall the message was fairly inclusive. There was no call for the end of sexy games or things that pander to a male audience. It is just a simple statement that as long as gaming audiences go out of their way to exclude women they will continue to remain a niche or a sad punchline.

The most important take away was that women should not been seen as the other. As long as they are seen as the foreign influence on fandom by a vocal male contingent the industry it will never grow or progress. It is less about the out right  blatant sexual harassment. That exists but it is the the gross extension of the more insidious casual idea that women are mere visitors to games and not a part of the culture.

Why Internet Jerks Aren’t Going to Win was a panel about the toxic nature of internet fandom especially when it comes to games. It was a mixture of personal stories, analysis of what causes such behavior, and what can be done about it. The most interesting part of the panel was probably how it reminded me about the truth of such harsh behavior. The simple fact that YouTube and Facebook comments prove that people will be total monsters even when they are not anonymous. Being  anonymous sometimes just helps. That and not feeding the trolls is not longer a catch all solution.

The biggest takeaways there threefold. The first was simple doing nothing helps no one. In a smaller Internet if you did not feed the trolls they more often might get bored when people did not take their bait. Now there is always someone to take the bait. The second is that fighting fire with fire rarely helps. Most of the time yelling at the troll only spreads the fire. And the third point it we are all susceptible.  From time to time we are all the jerk screaming at someone to hurt them.

The main way people stop realizing people are targets is when they realize they are people. What causes that realization is different for everyone. So there is a simple solution but sadly in is not an easy solution.

hisui_icon_4040 PAX East is of course is a chance for the games industry to do some self reflection in a public space. So I attended some panels where professionals talked about the machine behind games and game criticism itself.

We didn’t Start the DLC Fire was a panel looking out the genie that is DLC now that it is out of the bottle and cannot be put back in. The panel was a mixed bag for me. Overall it was well run. The panelist were eloquent and made a good point for how good DLC helped the development of games and how bad DLC  hurt the overall perception of games. They even had some great stories about horse armour and early Xbone DLC. So in that respect the panel had no fault.

My main problem was that it was also clear that everyone on the panel was clearly drinking the Kool-Aid. It was clear that everyone on the panel had convinced themselves that DLC was an immutable part of game design. Anything other than on disk DLC was actually a boon for the player and the industry in equal measure.  They seemed to have lost sight of the idea that maybe there were major pluses and minuses to such design models.

As Kate mentioned as we discussed the panel that night it seems that they have fallen into the trap in which they believe the fans must support the industry no matter what it does. I’m not saying that DLC should never be used. It can really add to the life of a game and help revenue models but it is also a model that can easy be abused and used to exploit the consumer.

Was I Wrong? Revisiting Controversial Reviews had three professional game reviewers look back on some of those most polarizing reviews and what they learned from them. Did they regret what hey had written? Do they different opinions now that they had some time away from what they wrote? What other people said now that the issue was no longer fresh? Each of the panelist had a very different story which looked at the issue.

The first review was Susan Arendt’s look at Mass Effect 3. The ending of Mass Effect 3 was a shitstorm of controversy to put it lightly. The fact that Sudan praised the game and said “Mass Effect 3 is the ending the series and its fans deserve” was pretty much the equivalent of throwing a hand grande in a room filled with vaporized gasoline. She was accused of everything from not actually playing the game to being a corporate shill.

In the end she stood by her review. While she admits that given 20/20 hindsight she might have phrased one or two things slightly differently the overall core review and score was still correct and she refused to bow to people’s trash talk.

Chris Kohler told a shameful story of his review of Yoshi’s Story. When he reviewed it for Viz back in the day he praised the game to high heaven. (BTW what a flash to the past by talking about when Viz did game reviews in Game On! USA.) The problem was that Yoshi’s Story was a piece of garbage. Unlike the other two reviews he did not get any feedback or flack. But looking back on it he realized what a mistake he had made.

He praised the game because he felt that gamers were beginning to reject bright and colorful games and wanted gritty realism above everything else. In a way his review was more about arguing against that simple prejudice than looking at  Yoshi’s Story. If he were to review the game again he would rightfully tear it apart but still make his valid point at the end.

Lastly Dan Amrich talked about his review of Space Giraffe. It is even mentioned in the Wikipedia entry of the game. He panned it with a 2 out of 10. This quickly lead to him and Jeff Minter getting into a long and bitter online battle with lots of people raising the banner on both of sides. Dan argued that the game was simply not fun and thought it was smarter than it actual was. Jeff accused the Dan of not being smart enough to understand what he was trying to express and for an possibly just wanted to personally hurt him.

In the end Dan does not regret the review and stands by what he said. He did regret his response. By getting down in the mud he did nothing to support this case and just added to the bad vibes that were already present. Jeff clearly saw the review as a personal attack but Dan did the same thing when he was on the opposite end of such vitriol. In the end he learned to let a good review stand for itself.

Considering how much the topic of objective game reviews come up in the anime community I think this panel had a bit of insight for everyone.

Console Launches: A Post Mortem sadly did not have Adam Sessler on the panel like it was scheduled to. That made me a little sad. In an amusing twist Morgan Webb was the Acquisitions Incorporated panel. Such is the oddity of life.

The panel might as well have been called “Microsoft defends its stance on the Xbox One roll out while the game journalists prevent the panel from being a total piece of marketing.” Since the only representative from one of the big three was from Microsoft that part of the conversation was dominant. The neutral parties tried to make a reasoned argument but they were just shut down by the professional marketers. I also got the feeling that since most of them had to work with Microsoft in  the future they went out of their way not to be too outspoken.

Also the Wii U was only really brought up as a punchline. Considering its sales that is not entirely unwarranted but that was worth bringing up.

hisui_icon_4040 Not every topic was serious business at PAXEast. Some of them were simply fun or at least tongue in cheek. Pitch Your Game Idea was exactly that sort of panel. The idea was people lined up, gave a short elevator pitch, the judges proceeded to give their thumbs up or down with some sarcastic quips, and after two rounds of voting three pitches won some prizes. Participants were encouraged for their ideas to be as silly as possible.

There were some legitimate ideas but they were mostly ignored. Some people tried to pitch a silly pun. Oddly enough almost all the people trying to be utterly crazy started with “It is a hybrid dating sim and …” which says tons about how mainstream gamers view visual novels. The three ideas that won were an over the top pitch about The Blackest Jack, a game where the camera tries to kill the player by being useless, and the grand prize went to a mom’s idea for being a mom escorting her kids to a gaming con.

It was a fun panel but the audience did like 90% of the panelists jobs. Nice work if you can get it I suppose.

Games That Are So Bad, They’re Good is one of those titles that pretty much says “This will be packed.” If there is one things people like it is throwing fruit at horrible things. I was literally the second to last person to get in. I only got in because I as a single person looking to get in.

That said the picks seemed half earnest and half picked to be provocative. The first title was the fairly conventional choice of Deadly Premonition. It is famous for having super frustrating game play but the story and mood being so insane in a measured and deliberately Twin Peaks like fashion. Far Cry 3 and Revolution X seemed to be in the same category.

But then there were titles like the entire Metal Gear series and God Hand. You know my twitter feed got heated when I mentioned God Hand was picked. Also trying to say that the Sonic series was a SHOCKINGLY CONTROVERSIAL pick was like trying to do the same thing with movies and Vampire’s Kiss or The Room.

I have seen plenty of “worst or the worst” or “so bad they are good” lists. But this one seemed to trying to be incendiary while not just shouting,  “Your favorite game sucks!” In the audience’s defense they did not really take the bait and argue but I did not stay for the Q&A.

hisui_icon_4040 Then there were the two panels I actually came for. Actually I came for all the panels but these were the two I would have been upset if I missed.

Isshoukenmei: Localizing Japanese Games was a collection of people who worked on bring over Japanese games to an English speaking audience. A lot of the material was familiar to anyone who has gone to a panel about translating anime or manga. They discussed the major differences between Japanese and English that make things difficult, there being no right choice with honorifics when it comes to fans, and puns being the worst things in the universe to try and translate.

The unique challenges mostly come from the code. It adds another layer of complexity to everything. You can have the Japanese and English teams working on things all the time plus most of the time the game is written for the ease of the programmer and not translator. Translation is not even something they factor into it. So that can mean the translation team wading through some serious spaghetti code to find what they need.

They had some good stories like how on one game they were not allowed to change any of the laughs of the characters from their original Japanese versions. Every fufufu, kekeke, or ohohoho had to be left intact. At the same time the line that one of the translators was most proud of was calling a character Napoleon Bonerhard. I also learned that apparently underboob and sideboob is verboten on game covers in the US.

Now no one can say this trip was not relevant to the blog. I went to a Japanese game panel so everything is 100% legit.

The panel I needed to go to the most was the Extra Credits panel. Since I found their videos last year I have loved the upbeat attitude, their casual intellectual break down of how games work, and the simple love of games that permeates their work. They call out bad and lazy practices of the industry and fans but in a way to encourage change and not just to rage while morning the death of a medium. You can tell they feel games have so much potential and they wish to see that potential to be realized.

I actually left the RPG panel I was at during the Q&A to get to this panel a bit early. It paid off as they closed off the line to the room a few minutes before the panel started. So that time was very important.

The panel started with the announcement of a few new segments on their YouTube channel. They are adding a reoccurring segment on video game remixes with a sample of what that would be like. There was also mention of a new fan art segment and one on a detailed analysis of level design. So there is a lot to look forward to.

After that was mostly just Q&A which was fine because it it always a pleasure to hear the Extra Credits crew talk. I especially like them talking about choice in games and their toughest choices to make.  James revisiting and expanding  his thoughts on the Geth from Mass Effect really made you think.

I admit that I was tempted to go to talk to James Portnow after the panel when he was just hanging out in the hallway but my normal sense of shyness kicked in. I am sure people would call that healthy shame but I always feel like I’m missing out on an opportunity whenever anything like that takes over. The truth of the mater is that I’m probably just saving myself from some public embarrassment.

hisui_icon_4040 One causal observation was that I think Otakon has spoiled me. When you go to Otakon you get professional level presentations with video and other fancy pizzazz. Most of the panels at PAX East either just had a few sides with the panelist’s contact information and maybe a random picture or two. They were mainly conversational panels.

Overall the people talking on were professionals that knew their stuff inside and out. I’m not claiming that they were talking out of their behind’s. I guess I just assumed that a big show like PAX East would have the same level of presentation of the equivalent level anime convention.

My main problem with the panels at PAX East was I enjoyed them so much I wonder if I will be able to break myself away from them long enough to explore the expo hall next year. If the line up is this good in 2015 I might just need Kate to be the main spelunker of the big room again.

More PAX East 2014 posts:

PAX East 2014: Tweets
PAX East 2014: General Impressions

The Speakeasy #052: Death of a Virgin, PAX East 2014

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