A Sunday Spent at PAX East 2014

Yesterday I found myself, unexpectedly, at the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) East: one of the largest gaming industry conventions on the east coast. To say that it was a pleasant surprise to be there would be an understatement. I am always thrilled to attend and am already looking forward to (hopefully attending) next year. At this convention, a majority of major western game developers tout their new products. Recent releases and upcoming titles are always heavily featured. While new game unveilings are still saved for E3, PAX East is definitely a growing convention. This year saw the announcement of Civilization: Beyond Earth, marking one of the first times that a major title has been announced at PAX East. Did I see any announcements yesterday: no. Did I hear some information on upcoming games that I cannot put on my website: yes. That said, there are still plenty of highlights to mention.

1. The Oculus Rift and Virtusphere

The future of interactive entertainment might very well be just around the corner. I could (and plan to) spend a whole article on the wonder that is the Oculus Rift. While the technology has only been mentioned recently for nefarious reasons (looking at you, Facebook), it still is a wonder to behold. Sadly, I did not get to try this piece of technology firsthand, but I watched the reactions as many players, for the first time, experienced virtual reality. They looked amazed, they looked stunned, they looked… well kinda silly with that thing strapped to their heads. Also present was the virtusphere, a ball-shaped apparatus designed to enhance the virtual reality interface. Again, I did not get to try this tech firsthand but it is amazing to me, truly amazing, that the stuff of science fiction will be hitting retail markets later this year. Pieces of technology like this may be a sign that the world could like very different in just a couple of years.

The Oculus Rift on the left and the Virtusphere on the right.
The Oculus Rift on the left and the Virtusphere on the right.

2. Project Spark

Xbox One’s (also available on PC) most intriguing project was front and center in the PAX East exhibition hall. Project Spark may be a game creator without parallel. How crazy is this game? People have already created Minecraft within it. Let that sink in for a minute… yep. In the demo I saw, the player was creating a castle adventure game, all in a matter of minutes. The Xbox One controls appeared to be functioning well and there weren’t any apparent technical glitches. This amazing product keeps right on rolling.

It really is amazing to watch how quickly the creation takes place.
It really is amazing to watch how quickly the creation takes place.

3. the Bioware Panels

Ultimately, these were the only panels I had the good fortune of attending yesterday. Luckily for me, all three that I attended were wonderful. The highlight was a designer signing where I got to have lengthy conversations with Dragon Age: Inquisition designers, including Andrew Farrell, Dean Roskell, Jason Barlow, Jessica Merizan, and Mike Laidlaw. All of these people were amazingly friendly and highly informative about the game creation process. I learned several new insights regarding Dragon Age II (which I’ll save for a later article) and some information regarding Dragon Age: Inquisition.  Unfortunately, that is one of the things I can’t really talk about but let’s just say… I’m excited for the game.

Dragon Age: Inquisition sounds like a best of both worlds combination of the first two titles.
Dragon Age: Inquisition sounds like a best-of-both-worlds combination of the first two titles.

4. Slash

I could go on and on, but I feel like there is coverage enough out there for most of the products I observed. I will instead spend my last point mentioning a card game called Slash. PAX East has a large section devoted entirely to board games, and one of the highlights of this is that it allows local developers a chance to show off their product. Slash: Romance Without Boundaries (full title) comes from a small developer located in New Hampshire. Slash is reminiscent of Cards Against Humanity (in the sense that you may focus on subjects that make you sound like a horrible person – in the best way). In Slash, players pair famous fictitious characters together in romantic bliss, and the player with the most amusing pair wins each round. Unlike Cards Against Humanity, however, this game allows interjection. If a player feels that the couple chosen isn’t the most ideal, he/she can name a substitute pairing and defend it with a wild story of how the two hooked up. I know, to most (normal) people, this might not be your thing. For creative weirdos like myself, however…

I am always proud to support a local developer, and I was happy that Slash gave me that opportunity.

I am already looking forward to many evenings with this game.
I am already looking forward to many evenings with this game.

PAX East represents a great opportunity for people, with a passion for gaming, to stay current with the state of the industry. The Expo Hall is widely entertaining and the provided panels are always supremely educational. This event is a must for any creative soul looking for ways to express themselves. Nerds and geeks can have a lot of fun too.

As evidenced by this geek.
As evidenced by this geek.

Irrational Games is Closing: What it Means for Gaming, BioShock, and Ken Levine

On February 18th of this year, the video game world received shocking news: Irrational Games is closing. To anyone out there familiar with the industry, this was an unexpected announcement. Irrational Games was a developer responsible for hits like System Shock 2, BioShock, and most recently, BioShock Infinite. Everyone out there today with a console has at least heard of two of those games. In a statement to the press, Irrational Games co-founder, (and lead writer for BioShock Infinite) Ken Levine stated that while Irrational Games would be closing, he and fifteen other former employees would be creating a new studio to create smaller, more narrative-driven games.

Irrational Games was also responsible for Tribes: Vengeance.
Irrational Games was also responsible for Tribes: Vengeance.

Levine was one of (if not the most) driving forces at Irrational Games. In a market dominated by uninspired, unremarkable, triple-A gaming titles, Ken Levine’s writing shown as the most intelligent presence out there. Sure, there is debate on the ending of BioShock Infinite but at least people are still talking about it. I have yet to hear anyone declare: “Bro, that ending to Call of Duty: Black Ops II really blew my mind!” If anything, the triple-A market has been dealt a critical blow by Levine’s departure. It seems like more and more true that the upcoming exciting games of tomorrow are less graphics driven and more story compelled. There are already many people looking forward to the smaller experience that Ken Levine will deliver next. True, no one person makes games but one person can sell them.

Personally I thought BioShock Infinite could have done with one more rewrite to give the ending real emotional impact.
Personally I thought BioShock Infinite could have done with one more rewrite to give the ending real emotional impact.

That being said, Levine’s artistic desires are all very well and good but what about everyone else who lost their job? Did Ken Levine really just lay off nearly everyone who worked for him just so that he could “express himself”? Answer: no, while Levine’s public statement indicates his desire for growth, it does not reflect the reality for Irrational Games. The truth has already started leaking out: this closure surprised no one at the company.

The plot of BioShock might be the most intelligent of any modern game.
The plot of BioShock might be the most intelligent of any modern game.

Few people understand just how cutthroat the video game industry is. It isn’t just companies that make poor product that go out of business. Irrational Games isn’t even the first to fall prey to this hard truth. Anyone remember Team Bondi, the developer who made the hit game, L.A. Noire? That studio closed the same year as their most successful game’s release. But wait, you say: aren’t they developing Whore of the Orient (great title), a game that will be released next year? That is Team Bondi in name only. The company name was bought up in an effort to increase excitement (also not an uncommon practice in the video game industry).

Ground-breaking facial animation wasn't enough to keep Team Bondi afloat. In fact its cost probably was a leading factor in bankrupting the company.
Ground-breaking facial animation wasn’t enough to keep Team Bondi afloat. In fact its cost probably was a leading factor in bankrupting the company.

So what does Irrational Games closing really mean for anyone outside of Irrational Games? Nothing. Ken Levine will get the opportunity to make the games he wants so the industry isn’t losing him. As for BioShock; it will go on… at least for another game. Again, this wouldn’t even be the first time someone else made a BioShock game. Remember BioShock 2? That was… it was…. a mechanically sound game.

While I can't criticize this game as horrible, the compelling story of the series was definitely absent.
While I can’t criticize this game as horrible, the compelling story of the series was definitely absent.