The makers of Dungeons and Dragons are Seattle locals, and as such it should be no surprise that they have a visible presence at the convention. Not only are they running the tabletop gaming / card gaming areas on lower floors, but they're showing off their online efforts in the exhibit hall. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Magic: the Gathering Online this year is Gleemax, the company's answer to the social networking craze.
While the line between Gleemax and D&D Insider isn't very clear right now, that will quickly be addressed once more a more complete version of the social site goes live. An alpha version will be available to muck around with by the end of September, exposing tabletop gamers to the personal blogs and friend list features video gamers take for granted on a number of different sites. Gleemax is also free, and will remain so; D&D Insider will have that pesky fee once it becomes the fully featured content site Wizards envisions.
WotC representatives were also eager to talk about some of the subsites that will tie into Gleemax. They intend to offer a number of services aimed at giving gamers something to do once they've 'found' each other. The Avalon Hill library of boardgames will be made available via one of these sites, using simple graphics to allow gamers to relive classics like Acquire at any time of the day or night. Another site is going to feature independent games, pointing tabletop players at the newest games that might have otherwise slipped under the radar. A third will feature electronic games from the braintrust of tabletop designers Wizards keeps hidden in their vaults. These original games (like most of the other games on offer) will offer unique strategic experiences aimed at a very niche type of gamer.
As the Wizards folks put it, though, "it may be niche, but it's our niche." The company feels very strongly that they know how best to serve the community of tabletop players that participates in Dungeons and Dragons, and attends events like Gen Con. In their view, these players are undeserved by current online communities and most video game publishers. To some extent, they're even looking to invite 3rd parties into the picture. They hope to offer players the ability to show off characters from non Wizards RPGs, making this a cohesive 'MySpace for gamers'.
The idea of Gleemax aside (and despite having the name explained to me it's still kind of unlovable to outsiders), the gaming portals seem like a good idea. While 'yet another site offering blogs and forums' can only inherently be a certain level of interesting, the online board games / indie games / original content seems to perfectly compliment the D&D Insider game table. With the capability to play strategy games, traditional board games, and RPGs all via the web, Wizards feels like they're trying to set up a sort of perpetual online games convention. Conventions like Gen Con are a great thing, not so much for the swag and the new games, as for the chance to see other gamers. Some folks who go to conventions do so because they're quite literally the only time all year they can 'excuse' gaming. Whether they have busy lives or unapproving spouses, their homes are just not places conducive to gaming. Offerings like Wizard's initiative would seem to be an attempt to bring more games directly into peoples' lives. Barring the appearance of a great many folks falling under John Gabriel's Greater Internet F&($wad Theory, this would seem to have a lot of potential.
This weekend Upper Deck, the makers of the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game, is releasing the second expansion set for the game. Originally released at Gen Con last year, and with the Dark Portal expansion hot on its heels in February, The Fires of Outlands follows on a (now regular) six month cycle. For those who haven't had a chance to play: Each player fields a hero with a race/class combination that will be very familiar to anyone who has played the Massively Multiplayer Online Game. Classes 'theme' your deck's abilities, with Warriors having extremely aggressive attack moves (based on WoW's abilities) and Priests having various healing spells. Shadow Priests can, of course, still melt faces. There are items and equipment to outfit your hero, just as in the MMOG, and special rare cards are available in expensive 'raid decks'. Resources in the game are quests, cards that can be 'completed' during the course of play to draw more cards from the deck. There are also Ally cards, folks you can invite to your party to aid you in taking out the opposing faction opponent. Together these elements combine to form a TCG with some layers, depth, and a very recognizable flow. There's nothing here that won't be familiar to veteran TCG players, but it's done with a level of polish that will (again) be familiar to Blizzard game players.
The Fires of Outlands series, the newest expansion, continues the trends started in the first set (Heroes of Azeroth) and on Through the Dark Portal. Upper Deck is definitely trying to add some overarching themes with this new set of cards, which further add wrinkles to the already nuanced gameplay. One example of their theming is an effort to tie Ally cards further into specific deck Archetypes. Previously the only cards that relied on a hero's class were Abilities. Now certain allies are most helpful if they appear in a certain class's deck, supporting class abilities like totems for Shaman or Combo Points for Rogues. New class abilities are being added as well, adding to the stable of MMOG powers that have added to the game and further tying the two together. Most interesting are a new series of weapons that aim to allow heroes to attack as often as possible, changing the subtext of the game even further.
Writer, blogger, and voice actor Wil Wheaton (clevernickname to us) was the keynote speaker at PAX this year, and kicked off Friday evening with a tremendous roar of applause. Wil's impassioned speech ranged the gamut from thoughtful scene-evoking memories of his childhood, to bitter rants about opportunistic game-bashing politicians. Through it all Wil weaved a few themes that resonated very strongly with the enthusiastic crowd. He spoke often of the social nature of games, reminiscing about time spent in arcades in his youth and hours spend playing the Nintendo Entertainment System with his brother. He spoke of the different 'Generations' of gamers in the audience Friday night, rattling off various game catch-phrases to identify what group of games audience members were familiar with. Taking us back with a story of a fateful trip to a corner liquor store for potato chips, he recounted an experience most gamers can probably related to: their very first time playing a video game.
These shared experiences, the implications of social gaming, were the overall message of Wil's speech. The crowd ate it up, on their feet at several times through the event cheering at the author's words. The biggest reactions came from his accounts of his experiences playing games with his children, and the powerful bond that video games can form between family members. Especially Guitar Hero. One anecdote particularly stuck out. Wil related how he was in Vegas for a poker tournament, and received a call from his son Ryan. Having just turned 17, Ryan was interested in finally having the chance to play Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a game Wil admitted had seen a lot of playtime in his house - after his kids had gone to bed. Seated at a table with a group of other writers, Wil said "Hold on a minute", and turned to the assembled group. He explained the situation, and asked if they thought it was okay. One member of the group spoke up and said, "Does he know that it's not okay to have sex with a hooker, and then kill them to get his money back?" On-stage, Wil paused and put on a thoughtful air. "Hmm," he said. "That's a good question." He mimed putting the phone back to his ear. "Ryan, do you know that if you get a hooker in real life, it's not okay to kill her after she gets out of the car to get your money back?" He paused. The response came: "Well, since hookers are empty shells and not real people ... " The crowd went nuts as Wil beamed proudly across the stage.
Wil closed by coming back to the point that everyone assembled there was, indeed, a gamer. That with every large group there's always some that will make the rest look bad, be they lawyers, doctors, or sports enthusiasts. His message on that point: "Have fun playing games online - but please don't be a dick." His last statements railed against politicians like Hillary Clinton and ambulance-chasers like Jack Thompson that seek to turn the gaming hobby into an opportunity to score political points. His passion was obvious, and at one point someone in the crowd shouted 'Testify!' as Wil paused to draw a breath. It didn't seem entirely out of place. His conclusion was met with thundering applause and a theatre-wide standing ovation. He paused for a long moment to enjoy the applause before departing backstage, obviously pleased that a speech he was sweating fairly hard just a week ago had gone so well.
This was my first opportunity to see Wil speak publicly, and it was immediately obvious why Mike and Jerry had chosen him for the role. He's may not have 'hardcore' geek cred nowadays (time in a Starfleet uniform aside), but then he's also a parent. Parents who game at all get a lot of slack in my eyes. No, Wil was here to speak to us on Friday because he's exactly the kind of gamer that this industry needs more of: well-spoken, confident people who are not only passionate about games but can eloquently get across why games are so very important. It was an amazing experience, and I've heard quite a few people speaking highly of the event in the hallways since.
PA Q&A 1
The keynote was only minutes over when fog began to billow from backstage. The thumping bassline of "Every Day of Hustlin" reverberated through the audience as Mike 'Gabe' Krahulik and Jerry 'Tycho' Holkins strode onstage to huge applause. Their first comment: "If you can arrange it, I recommend you do that at least once in your life." The queue lines formed on both sides of the stage for questions that ranged from the surreal to the hilarious.
- A hopeful pinball player was a bit taken aback by Jerry's gameface and smack-talk. The Digipen student was obviously unprepared for the statement "Bring a coffin. Bring one per person."
- Between the tracklists of Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero 2, they tend to feel that the first game is more enduring.
- Jerry will likely never write a stand-alone artless novel as he's 'too lazy'.
- There will never be a PAX 2006 DVD, as most of the footage has been lost.
- When asked how they 'deal with' the popularity of the comic and their success in life, both stated that they essentially don't. Said Jerry, "I don't think we're equipped to handle it."
- The question, "In Bioshock are you saving the Little Sisters or killing them" elicited big smiles. Gabe is doing the right thing, while Jerry has no regrets about his actions.
- They reiterated that the "Rain-slick Precipice" series is very much their version of an animated series.
- The highlight of the event: Jerry was talked into singing the ballad "My Belruel" (which you can hear on Wired's massive piece about the duo). Through the course of the song, which was surprisingly beautiful, engineers behind the scenes added some after-effects. The slight reverb added an otherworldly quality to the melody, which echoed across a dead-silent crowd. Near the end of the performance the crowd took matters into their own hands, and soon the place was full of raised hands filled with glowing DSes, PSPs, and cell phones. Jerry initially didn't notice, as he was primarily singing with his eyes closed. When he finally did register the outpouring of affection he was momentarily taken aback, but didn't allow it to slow his singing. When the song of loss and elf roleplaying ended, he was met with yet another round of huge applause. Obviously moved, he took a moment to wipe some moisture from his eyes as he returned to his cohort at the center of the stage.
- Comics (webcomics in specific) may be a more important component to PAX in the future. Now that they have the space, it's something they want to look into.
- To the question, "Which games would you shove inside Roger Ebert to convince him of gaming's artistic merit", they responded with Bioshock,, Ico, and Shadow of the Colossus.
- Apparently recreating a moment from last year's PAX, an attendee asks for the chance to come onstage with the entrance Gabe and Tycho were allowed. They're amiable, and the man is escorted backstage. After a long moment getting things ready, he returns to thumping bass and smoke; the applause equal the laughter from the audience.
- They discuss criticism from their first trailer, which many viewed as poor looking. Essentially they learned why developers so often fall prey to releasing assets early; they're incredibly excited about what they've done. As Gabe put it, "We remember when it was just grey blocks. It looks way better than grey blocks now."
- The event ended with the announcement of a special guess, Uwe Boll, who would take some time to answer questions from the audience. Gamasutra has a detailed writeup of that exchange.
Hothead Games Q&A
A media-only demo and question session with Hothead Games closed out the first day of the Penny Arcade Expo. The developers behind The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One, they were onhand to show even more gameplay, story elements, and some excellent 2D animations.
An eerie voice began the event, and set the tone for the Cthulu-noir setting : ""Four gods wait on the windowsill / Where once eight gods did war and will / And if the gods themselves may die / What does that say for you and I?"
The demo showed off the character creation engine, which was available on the show floor yesterday for attendees to play with. These 3D Krahulik-esque avatars will be the player's representation in the game. They're endlessly customizable and, surprisingly, will show up fully realized in the 2D animations along with Gabe and Tycho. The main character's home smashed by FF Prime, your rake-weilding persona takes off after the giant robot with the intent of exacting revenge ... or finding a new place to live. Either way. Gameplay itself consisted of a stretch fighting through hobos on some dirty city streets, a humor-rich discussion of a roach-infested apartment complex, and a boss battle with a golden-maned Slum Lord and his bag o' hobos.
Combat is turn-based strategy, with each character having a distinct fighting style. Tycho wields a mini-gun, while you swing with a rake and Gabe leads with his fists. There are many roleplaying elements to the game, with characters gaining experience after every fight as well as new abilities at various levels. Special attacks allow for an impressive amount of damage and over-the-top violent destruction of opponents. These attacks are mini-games unto themselves, requiring you to variously button-mash, time your keypresses, or pattern-match your way to victory. There's also a team-up option that has the characters combining forces to do even larger amounts of damage. There's humor throughout the game, even within the fighting portion of the game. NPC attacks include holding up a sign begging for money, and the disturbing FF robots are your opponents throughout the game.
The Penny Arcade style of comedy is most evident, though, in the dialogue-heavy sections of the game. The example given had the characters exploring a disgusting slum, variously opening doors into disturbing apartments. Much like the Sam and Max games, the fun comes in the excellent commentary by the PA characters, as well as their polished interchanges. It was obvious even from the short demo, though, that the player is going to feel much more a part of the experience in the Precipice series; being represented by an avatar onscreen changes the dynamic from a buddy flick to a party-based road show. Gloriously, your avatar even gets to have a few funny lines as well. They're not all reserved for the comic's creators. The final boss battle outlined a few more elements of combat, showing us again the team-ups and special attacks, but overall it did not go well for the heroes. They were slain by the Slum Lord's vicious 'Sack Attack', and left to the tender ministrations of the hordes of tiny FF robots scuttling around the apartment complex.
With the demo complete, they opened up the floor to questions:
- The PA gents have been involved in every step of the process, with Jerry providing almost every single line of dialogue and Mike assisting heavily with the art assets.
- The game will be available on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux at launch. They're really hoping to get more platforms out there as well, such as Xbox Live and the PlayStation Store. They're going to be offering it themselves from their website, but are also considering other digital distribution methods like Steam.
- They're very much not interested in heavy DRM, and their attitude was that if people pirate their game heavily ... then that's the way of things. They're more interested in making sure their paying customers have a good experience.
- Rob Gilbert, the mind behind classics like the Monkey Island series of games, was in attendance at the panel and has been involved heavily in the title's development. He's been working with them on puzzle creation, dialogue tree tweaking, and other core aspects of gameplay. He viewed the highly collaborative nature of the game as not only a good working experience, but comparable to other successful projects he has worked on.
- Future episodes are already in the planning stages, with Episode Two already in development now that Episode One is near completion.
- They're aiming for something in between TellTale games' extremely rapid release schedule, and the epicly long pauses between chapters in Valve's 'episodic' series of Half-Life titles.