Too Many Panels at PAX

By Erica C. Barnett September 7, 2009


This post is by Sam Machkovech, with additional reporting by freelance games writer Joh Alwood.

I need four Sams at PAX. Multiplicity would help me win gaming tournaments, I guess, but I'm more invested in keeping up with more than 80 hours of panels. Apparently, we gamers have no shortage of things to say about this hobby, yet somehow, the deluge of content honed in on a central theme.

If PAX'09 is about anything, it's about core gamers taking their hobby back. PAX is driven by creators and fans, not marketers and managers, and the panels drive that point home by championing everything outside of the better-known Maddens and Calls of Duty. Tabletop and D&D-style games got the spotlight as expected, but this year's dice-and-cards posse stormed their panels with the confidence of a sales and reputation comeback. "It's now clear that digital games are not going to chew up table games and spit 'em out for good," tabletop vet Steve Jackson asserted, pointing out that more people are pulling away from their TVs to roll dice and play cards again.

In a similar vein, the indie gaming movement was on everyone's lips. The handpicked PAX10 selection of games had its own panel, and others talked nuts-and-bolts of how to thrive as a small fry. The "Make a Game In Seven Days" panel proved more creative, encouraging programmers to try one-man, week-long projects instead of focusing on the Next Big Thing. Even Jackson's tabletop panel insisted that their industry was ripe with indie game makers; many bypass normal stores and distributors by selling PDF games online.

In another panel, developers with families called "asymmetrical gaming" the trend to look for. Cooperative games, played together with two or more people, are already starting to adjust the experience for each separate player, so a "core" gamer can feel challenged while a child or novice will have their part of the game adjusted for ease and enjoyment. They expect more games to apply this asymmetrical trick as more outsiders come to gaming via things like the Wii. And in a "games storytelling" panel, Bungie's Joseph Staten talked about making his shooting franchise Halo an experience that, while full of guns and action, would still be okay for a dad to share with his son if he wanted to.

In decidedly PAXian fashion, the panels were much lighter than those descriptions may sound. Developers routinely talked off the cuff about games—or corporations—they thought sucked. Xbox Live moderator Stephen Toulouse talked trash about rude online gamers in an ode to a fictional trash-talker named "Poonhunter." Jared Sorenson, an indie board-game maker (above), hosted a "live text adventure" game called Action Castle. Original text adventures had players type their actions and read the resulting story; Sorenson acted as the computer, taking players' "actions" and saying out loud how his "game" reacted, telling the story on the fly and making geek jokes when players messed up. "You seem confused. Welcome to the help menu!"

At the "Pitch Your Own Game" panel, fans pitched their (sometimes) best and (mostly) worst game concepts to a panel headlined by geek icon Wil Wheaton. Unlike American Idol, this judge panel wasn't afraid to ask the tough questions. A gamer's snide pitch for a "2008 Beijing Special Olympics" game was met with "What the fuck is wrong with you?" (The winner, if you're keeping track, was "Zombie Car Wash." My submission, "Recession: The Revenge," didn't quite make the cut.)
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