PAX Aus 2015 debrief

Story time with Warren Spector

Intro (skip to day one if you don’t want to read some mildly uncomfortable personal shit)

This weekend past I attended PAX Aus in Melbourne for the third year running. I decided not to cosplay this year and it was actually a relief, and I didn’t regret it at all, so I think I’ll probably stick with that strategy next year too. Besides the usual awesomeness of catching up with friends from near and far, PAX provides a welcome distraction from “real life”, which has been a bit rubbish this year (to put it mildly). I went into this year’s PAX with a mind to put less pressure on myself and not go to any events that would make me sad. You see, last year I went to a panel and struck up the courage to ask a question – to summarise, I wanted to know if there was any chance of getting into the games industry as a 38 year old woman with no prior experience besides a love of gaming, who has a life and responsibilities in Tasmania (which, whilst a gorgeous and inexpensive place to live, is pretty much the arse end of the world in terms of getting anywhere easily to do anything at all exciting).  With the exception of one panelist, who I feel was really just trying to placate me (and I did appreciate that), everyone said “move.” Now that’s pretty depressing, given what an online, connected world we apparently live in.  I resolved to get into the industry, and I decided to cast a wide net and try my hand at freelance games journalism beyond what I blog here, as well as learning how to make an actual game.  I did okay with the former, but the latter, not so much.

The week returning from PAX last year, I volunteered at n3rdabl3.co.uk as a writer and was accepted. I wrote news posts and reviewed some Steam games for a few months, before being offered an editorship. My time at n3 was really good for me: it gave me something productive to do, increased my writing portfolio, and taught me a lot about things I hadn’t planned to learn about, like search engine optimisation and the way Google page ranking and penalties work.  I did, however, also learn that games journalism isn’t all that fun – you tend to develop a critical eye about any game you play, and it can really take from the enjoyment of the experience – but to be honest, I didn’t go into it with my eyes closed.  I do have a lesson for you though, if you are planning on freelancing. If you want to get some of the perks – such as attending events to cover, or getting physical copies of games – it helps to be located in the same geographical location as the site you are working for.  Anyway, after taking up some extra “real life” work, I just couldn’t maintain the momentum and I laid down my arms.  In terms of making actual games, I only got as far as signing up for a few courses offered by Laughing Squid, and downloading Stencyl – before realising I was quite far out of my depth.  Struggling also with an almost rabid desire for something more out of life – which, quite honestly, I envisaged involving the love and adoration of the masses – I spent a lot of the past year in a secret funk (well, not that secret to those in the know).  You see, I have many things I want to do and create and be, but I find myself crippled with indecision, insecurity, and inability.  I can’t decide which one thing out of so many I should actually focus on; I suffer from imposter syndrome like nobody’s business (that’s where you are actually good at stuff, but think you are rubbish and that any minute someone will realise you are as rubbish as you think you are and the world will fall to pieces); and finally, my actual technical ability is not often up to par with my creative brain (lots of ideas, but not enough skills).

I still feel this way, but the past year has taught me it’s okay to want to try to do a lot of things – just do them and see what you are good enough at to do more seriously.  For me, I think that’s writing. So I’ve been writing down ideas all year – in my planner (which I bought for that very purpose), on a bunch of files on Google Docs, and even in my phone.  Last month, I read Sir Terry Pratchett’s last novel, which effected me fiercely, knowing there will be no more Discworld. However, there was an Afterword by his family and it was this that gave me the epiphany I needed.  In it they talked about Sir Terry’s process – he never just wrote a book from start to finish.  Instead, he put together snippets of ideas, and then grew them, and then finally put them together into the proper order.  This spoke to me.  This told me that all the little ideas I’ve been jotting down all year could actually be something.  And this year’s PAX – particularly a little panel about story and narrative that I attended on the final day – was the impetus I needed to push forward with realising my creative self. And to anyone reading this who feels even slightly like I’ve been feeling – you can try. You don’t have to move to another country, or quit your job, or leave your life.  Just spend some time thinking and feeling, and after a year consolidate that into just one thing you can work on for the next year. That could be the launchpad for all the other things you want to do.  Just try.

Now that was probably more insight into the tumult that is my mental state than you actually planned on getting so I apologise for the tangent. Let’s get on to what you really came here for: my debrief of PAX Aus 2015!  As usual, there were heaps of panels and many clashes, so I had to just pick the ones I most wanted to go to and miss out on the rest. This is the sad reality of such a large event – you can’t be everywhere at once!

Day one:

My husband and I got to the venue about 9am, having stayed at the same hotel as last year (Great Southern) which was only a few minutes walk away.  We went into the queue room and got our Fallout masks and joined the mass of people in the queue.  We spent some time excitedly clearing out our Streetpass Plazas, hoping to complete our birthday calendar in one fell swoop (as it turned out we only got around 260 birthdays, but it was not a bad effort for the entire weekend). We also hoped to get some of the mystery fish from Streetpass Fishing that we’d been missing, but alas that was not to be either.  By the end of the weekend, we agreed we’ll be giving up on Streetpass Zombies though… that game is so hard to get all the achievements!! Anyway, the highlight for the queue room for me was meeting a couple of people who were standing near us. Normally I’m the person who engages with strangers randomly, but for once it was someone else engaging with me!  We never saw Dave and Sarah again that weekend, but they seemed really cool, and I enjoyed chatting to them while we waited to get in (despite the mistake of standing underneath one of the score signs, and being hit by beachballs at least seven times).  After a quick look through the Expo Hall, we made our way to the keynote at the Main Theatre. This year was Warren Spector, and he focused his talk on player expression, and how he hopes to see many more games that give players a less linear experience.  I though he made a good point about not just making yet another game in the same franchise, but I think he neglected to acknowledge that often that is what players want. Sometimes we like a game that is like an interactive movie – there’s no harm in that as long as there is variety.  After the keynote we stayed for the first Penny Arcade Q&A of the weekend.  As you may know, Mike was sick and missed his first ever PAX, so Robert Khoo stood in for him.  As usual, the Q&As are really interesting, and I find a lot of comfort hearing about Jerry’s mental health journey – it really normalises mental illness, and reminds you that it can affect anyone at any time.  I don’t follow much of the Penny Arcade stuff, beyond seeing a few comics, and going to PAX, but hearing about the history of the company, and Robert’s place in it, was fascinating stuff.  I enjoyed knowing that Jerry also believes in double spacing before a new sentence.  Double spacing forever!

For most of the rest of day one, I hung out with friends and took in the Expo Hall – we worked out way round the outer perimeter and picked up some loot, but spent most of our time in the Indie Showcase, which was absolutely amazing.  I’d only given it a cursory glance in other years, and this year committed to actually getting a good look in. The calibre of games on show was outstanding and I collected lots of business cards for downloading games later on.  Some standouts for me were Torus Games‘ Crystal Crusade and a hidden object game I didn’t catch the name of (but which isn’t out yet).  I was also really keen on Tiny Titans by Terran Studios, but it doesn’t run on my old phone (boo!).  Evergreen looked gorgeous, as did Armello, and I grabbed a demo CD for Hive.  You should definitely follow the links to those games if you want to support the local indie scene.  I also was looking at a game that felt eerily familiar and I mentioned to my friends that if it wasn’t by the same developer, it must be a rip off and that was bad.  A guy turned around and said “it’s the same developer” and I’m pretty sure my blush escaped my face and filled up the whole Expo Hall!  We got to chatting, and it turns out the game, Build A.R.V.I., was a reskin and redesign of Keebles, which I reviewed earlier in the year for n3!  He remembered my review and said that in part because of my experience, he’d changed the levels around so that players wouldn’t get stuck so early on, like I had.  We talked about the indie scene for a bit, and he said how competitive it is, that given the quality of games nowadays, it’s really hard to be successful, even with publisher backing.  So I’ll do my bit here – please check out the game and support it if you are into physics games.  A lot of heart and soul went into this (and all the other games).  It’s wonderful that the Australian gaming industry is so prolific – I can’t wait to see what next year’s showcase holds!

After being wowwed by all on offer at the Indie Showcase, we decided we should get our merch on the first day, and I finally bought a couple of t-shirts, though geez it was hard to find a consistent size. Not sure what the deal was but “ladies t-shirts” came in all sorts of cuts and sizes.  I ended up just trying them on randomly until I got ones that fit.  I also popped by the Nintendo booth which had all the Animal Crossing Amiibo Cards and Amiibos on display – eeee! The Amiibos look so cute, I can’t wait to have them in my collection!  Nintendo was also doing trading for amiibo cards, so I swapped out one of my spares for #98 Roald, who I needed to finish my series one collection. Success!   After dinner, we popped along to the Insert Coin & Big Head Mode show, but sadly it was not doing it for us at all, so we left partway through and instead checked out the tabletop area, and I bought a new card game called Tavern Fame.  I didn’t know anything about it, but it looked good, and I figured why not!  Turns out it was a successful Kickstarter recently, so I’m confident it should be fun. We then went looking for the Cards Against Humanity event, but on the way was waylaid by a guy trying to get people to play his game, Fuck the Game.  We were a bit dubious but thought we may as well to kill some time.  He explained it to us: there were a few additional rules, but the premise was essentially based on the Stroop Test, where you must say the colour of the word, not the actual word. When a swear word was turned over, you had to say that, unless the word was “fuck”, in which case you had to say the colour of the word.  My husband, sister in law, and I were thrown into a group with three other strangers, and a hilarious game ensued.  We ended up playing for half an hour, and afterwards just about everyone bought a copy of the game.  Can’t wait to play it with some other people!  The nights are blurring into each other, but I think afterwards we played Zombies! with our gaming crew, which was quite a fun game, albeit a bit hard for me to concentrate on after a long day!

Day two:

On the second day, we skipped the queue room and went straight to the Main Theatre for Penny Arcade Make a Strip.  We’d never been to a Make a Strip panel before, and were keen to check it out, even without Mike there. Kris Straub was the artistic stand in, and to our delight, Jerry continued the Q&A from yesterday’s panel, while Kris drew.  It was fascinating to watch how much time and effort went into a simple three panel comic, and I can hardly believe the guys have done this every day for so many years!  It made me want to take out my new Wacom tablet and actually learn to draw.  So I want to do that some more this year, besides my writing stuff.  After a bit more of a look through the Expo Hall, and a spot of lunch, my sister in law and I headed to a story panel.  It featured a panelist who was a quest designer for the Witcher 3, so we thought it held great promise, but after 20 minutes of self-promotion by the other panelists, far too much aimless chatter about their Twitter accounts, and far too little talk about story, we got the hell out of there just in time for 28 Plays Later with Kris Straub and Paul Verhoeven.  What a relief that was!  This was a fantastic panel, despite me never having listened to these guys before.  They also had Tripod come and play a couple of songs which was wonderful.  Tripod got to write a tavern song for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate and told the audience how they played the game just by going on an epic London pub crawl to find the song in game. So great!

Later that night we played some games in the tabletop area – Say Anything! which was lots of fun, and another one which we all tired of pretty quickly.  After a final look around the tabletop area for new board games to buy later, we headed back to the hotel for sleep.

Day three:

We arranged to meet up with my sister in law at the hotel so we could get to the Uncharted 4 panel first thing.  We got seated near the front and were really looking forward to some big reveals, but much to our disappointment we got a total of 30 seconds (over the course of six or seven videos) of multiplayer gameplay.  This did at least make for some great discussion throughout the day about the evils of multiplayer focus on an originally single player (which I’ve ranted about before here).  We were going to go to the Witcher 3 panel at 1.30 but instead, mostly because I haven’t played the games and didn’t want any spoilers, opted for one entitled “The Anatomy of Story: Making Meaning & Interactive Narrative” in the hopes it would give us what we had hoped from the previous day’s story panel.  My gods, I’m so glad we did.  This panel was an absolute standout for me – not only was it inspiring and interesting, it was made up solely of amazing women who I immediately followed on Twitter.  They talked about a lot of different games and how some are not meant to make you have fun, but nevertheless tell intriguing stories.  The take home point was that it’s important for there to be variety and diversity in gaming, which was a lovely parallel with Warren Spector’s opening keynote.  I left that panel with a renewed sense of inspiration about my creative process, and also picked up some tips about tools to use (namely, Twine).  I’m just so, so glad I went to that!  What a completely opposite experience to last year!

We then headed to Dragon and Friends which was the BEST way to finish off the day – it made me so excited about D&D again, and I am really eager to get a troupe together and play something new.  Definitely need to add these guys to my podcast listening list too.  What a fun experience – I can’t even describe what it was like being there!  Senator Scott Ludlam was the epitome of cool as the ranger, Twiggy of the Green – what a rockstar!  Can he be PM now please?

Finally, we rushed off to the final round of the Omegathon, which again proved to be tense and action-packed, and came down to the wire.  It really made me want to play Tetris and Dr Mario!  And with a perfect mic drop by Jerry (and a tenative mic floor placement by Kris), that’s PAX over for another year.  See you in 2016!

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