PAX 2008: Community

The whole reason I went to PAX, and my favorite thing there, was the community.

PAX was started a few years ago by the guys at Penny Arcade, who basically viewed it as an excuse to throw a 3 day party for thousands of their closest friends. It has become a shining beacon of gaming culture, a place where everyone can just hang out and geek out all weekend. Everyone is extremely helpful and extremely welcoming and extremely open to meeting new people.

Many of the weekend’s events are entirely organized by attendees. I participated in a convention-wide game of Assassins, and bought delicious snacks from the self-appointed ‘cookie brigade’ – all their proceeds went to the Child’s Play charity, and they raised $5000 in those three days! But that’s barely scratching the surface. Something attendee-organized was constantly in the offerings.

The first night I was in Seattle, a bunch of us went out for dinner. We debated things like the merits of different incarnations of Star Trek for a solid hour, completely unselfconsciously and without rebuke. At one point silence fell over the table, we all realized what the conversation was, and someone intoned (without hint of sarcasm) “this is gonna be a great weekend.” And it was. I had originally intended that PAX would be a one time event for me – something to check off my list before moving on to other vacation destinations. But now I can’t wait to return. It really exceeded all my expectations!

Now that the annual E3 gaming trade show is a shadow of its former self, the industry is scrambling and trying to figure out how to replace or rebuild it. I saw a few shades of that influence at PAX this year. There were separate press demo lines for some games, for example. And then there’s posts like Kotaku’s “The Problem with PAX”, which seems to think PAX is trying to become the new E3 but failing at it. But, see, we don’t want PAX to be a trade show. It was never supposed to be one. What the author doesn’t understand is that PAX isn’t for the gaming industry. It is for the players, for the fans, for us.

PAX 2008: Harmonix Panel

I’ll be posting more about my trip to PAX in the near future, but for now let me just say that it was an amazing experience! Some of the most fun I’ve ever had on a vacation, and a powerful example of what a community can do when it comes together.

The one major panel that I got to was Harmonix’s (The studio behind Rock Band). They had four of their producers there to talk. It was in a giant room with horrible acoustics, but I was there plenty early so sat close up and didn’t mind.

Mostly the panel was them running through a history of the company. Fun facts:

-One producer on the panel was the lead singer of Honest Bob and the Factory to Dealer Incentives. Self-described as “probably the most hated band in Rock Band”.

-Their first project was an installation for EPCOT, which is still there. ‘Music in the Air’, or something like that, I missed the exact title. You wave your arms around and it generates music based on the motion.

-Later they made a PC music creation game called ‘The Axe’ which they are “…pretty sure sold in the double digits”.

-Some of the songs in Frequency and Amplitude (PS2 games) were Freezepop recording under different band names, to fill out the track list

-Nine Inch Nails was the first band that came to them and said ‘please put us in Rock Band’

-One of the producers on the panel was a former librarian!

-The transparent note tracks in Rock Band were the result of a bug – they liked it and kept it.

-Multiplayer was almost dropped entirely from Guitar Hero 1 before release. The developers didn’t think that the odds of two people knowing each other who each had a guitar controller was high enough to even warrant thinking about. They barely even expected two people in the same city to have them! This explains why the multiplayer in GH1 was a bit sub-par.

-They will listen to a demo CD by any band who wants to be in Rock Band. I feel bad for whoever has that job 🙂

-They love to employ musicians, and recently hired the dancer from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones in some unknown capacity. (The panel seemed more impressed by this than the audience was, admittedly).

-Harmonix is now the largest manufacturer of drum sticks in the world – they make more than the next three largest combined!

-Lots of other fun stuff, I wish I’d taken better notes.

The Q&A section was pretty much wasted with obvious questions and statements that weren’t questions at all. Examples:

-“Do you guys think you could get your foot up the ass of Guitar Hero any farther? Cause you’re totally kicking their ass all over the place right now.”
The panel stared uncomfortably at each other for a bit, then responded that they’re just genuinely happy that the music game genre can support multiple products; they’re ecstatic that the market is that big. 90% of the audience applauded, and the question asker sat down in a bit of shame.

-The last question asked was a guy who wanted the panel to troubleshoot his licensing issues with downloadable rock band tracks on his xbox. The panel very nicely told him to talk to microsoft, that there was obviously nothing they could do for him there at PAX. But he wouldn’t let the issue drop. This was despite the panel being past the end time, and the panelists having announcements to make at the end that we were all anxious to hear! If there was a giant hook, it would have been employed to remove him from the premises 🙂

The final announcements were:
-The existence of this week’s downloadable songs, the ‘PAX Pack’, and that fact the proceeds from now until Christmas will all go to the Penny Arcade Child’s Play charity.
-There is an achievement in Rock Band 2 called ‘Bladder of Stee’ – you must play the endless setlist without failing or pausing at all. This was added after they saw that over 100k people have completed the endless setlist in RB1, something they never expected very many people to finish.

The panel all seemed like awesome people, who genuinely love what they do.