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I spent a few hours at the Penny Arcade Expo yesterday afternoon. This is the first full-blown gaming convention I've been to since the 1980 Origins. They're a lot louder than they used to be. Even 27 years ago, there probably were some computer games to compete with the board games, but TRS-80s didn't have speakers, much less surround sound.

Despite the technological changes, I immediately felt at home. As I waited in line to buy my day pass, the guys behind me started up a classic geek discussion. One guy had a friend who was trying get a World of Warcraft character to level 70 without using weapons or armor. The other guy was initially puzzled by this idea -- "Why the hell would you do that?" -- but then got caught up in the challenge: "That would be pretty cool to brag about if you could pull it off... What character class is he?" Meanwhile the two guys in front of me were using some sort of wireless sketch pads to email drawings of penises back and forth to each other -- I know this because when a news crew came by to film us standing in line, they held up the penis drawings to the camera.

Speaking of World of Warcraft, I saw nearly a dozen MMORPG demos in the exhibition hall, and almost all of them looked like WoW clones (the two exceptions were Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa, which has an SF rather than a fantasy setting -- whether the addition of blasters to the standard MMORPG model constitutes true innovation remains to be seen -- and Pirates of the Burning Sea, in which you control a whole ship and its crew). I was reminded of the explosion of collectible card games that followed the success of Magic: the Gathering. Most of those Magic wannabees failed, for the simple reason that most CCGs are very expensive to get into, so that a typical player can only afford to play one or two seriously. I see a similar problem with the WoW clones, although the "expense" here is more time than money.

The most interesting demo I saw was for a game called Eye of Judgment, which has you playing (real) cards representing combat units onto a playing mat. A special camera peripheral attached to a Sony PlayStation 3 then reads the bar codes on the cards and brings the units to life on your TV screen. This was clever and cool, although without trying the game myself (the lines were very long) I couldn't say whether it's actually worth the bother of buying the special camera add-on for your PS3.

Among the many virtual offerings there were a few booths offering actual physical board and card games. My friend Chris Bodan's company, Privateer Press, had a booth. Their latest release is called Infernal Contraption, and I almost bought it, but it wasn't discounted and I figured if I was going to pay full price, I might as well get it from Blue Highway Games, the new Queen Anne game store that I'd like to see avoid bankruptcy for a few months at least.

The most head-scratching moment of the con came when I went into ArenaNet's Guild Wars booth. This was a fairly large space with at least thirty computer stations running the game. When I sat down at an empty station to give it a try, though, the machine asked for my username and password. I asked an ArenaNet rep what was up, and he said: "Oh, you're looking for a demo? Sorry, these machines are for people who already have accounts." Um, right, because that's why you come to an exposition, so you can show off your game to folks who already own it... (To be fair, the guy claimed that there was a demo area, as well, but damned if I could find it.)

Finally, to cause a little head-scratching of my own, I brought along some stacks of Bad Monkeys drop cards and left them on the various giveaway tables. Later I saw a couple different people picking the cards up and turning them over, trying to work out what they were for (MMORPG? Web comic? Fast-food discount?). I'll be curious to see if I get any web traffic from it.


Aug. 27th, 2007 03:11 pm (UTC)
you probably shouldn't be game shopping this close to your birthday.
Aug. 27th, 2007 06:49 pm (UTC)
Oh, OK.
Aug. 27th, 2007 06:50 pm (UTC)
By the way, was Chris at PAX? I swung by the Privateer booth several times hoping to see him.
Aug. 27th, 2007 06:56 pm (UTC)
he only worked Friday. they wouldn't give him comp time for working the weekend, so he didn't.
Aug. 27th, 2007 04:26 pm (UTC)
I have to admit that I'm pretty disappointed by how the CCG thing panned out over time. I really didn't think that Magic was in any way the most interesting of the CCGs. I still have probably half a dozen of them from way back in the beginning, and I find myself often wishing that some of the ones I enjoyed more (On the Edge is probably the best example) had succeeded in Magic's place. :/
Aug. 27th, 2007 06:49 pm (UTC)
The collectible nature of the cards really was a problem, even for those games that offered fixed starter sets. Because half the fun was messing around with your own combos, and because the coolest cards often tended to be rare, you had to be willing to invest a fair amount just to find out whether you liked a game. Plus, a lot of them sucked.
Aug. 27th, 2007 07:14 pm (UTC)
It's very true that many of them sucked. One thing that we've tried to do was to buy out huge amounts of the ones that didn't suck as they went out of production, so that for very little money we built up giant libraries of cards. Then we distributed the cards to everyone.

But ultimately, the problem with that was that we didn't keep them in their sealed packs, and most of us had seen all the cards, so there was no sense of discovery. And it's impossible to keep that up if they aren't around putting out new sets anymore. You totally lost the sort of event where someone played some really crazy new card that you had never seen before, because after a short while, you'd seen them all.
Aug. 28th, 2007 04:03 am (UTC)
I had a fairly complete OtE collection. That and INWO made me (and my local games dealer) a happy camper for a while.
Aug. 28th, 2007 12:39 pm (UTC)
INWO tripped my "too much math" meter, unfortunately. I've heard from a lot of people who didn't have that issue that it was a really fun game. I do have a couple of decks of it plus the box they came out with that has one of every card. They're fun to read through. :)

I think what did it for me with OtE was that there were so many possibilities for how the game would play out, and so many of them were unexpected and strange. We never really "played to win" in the hardcore, two-minute trick tournament deck sense. We'd play games with four or five people that would last three hours with gigantic decks and the real goal would be to make really unusual stuff occur.
Aug. 27th, 2007 05:18 pm (UTC)
Good idea with the cards. Most of mine ended up in book/record stores and metro cars (after an initial 'trial drop' I noticed that people picked it up and read it).

A "friend" of mine was playing the Tabula Rasa beta. He says that it has a lot of potential and could be a good game if it's fleshed out enough. However, he has been having computer problems, so 3-4 betas for various games remain untested.
Aug. 28th, 2007 04:51 pm (UTC)
You know, Bad Monkeys could make a pretty rocking MMORPG, actually....
Aug. 29th, 2007 09:17 pm (UTC)
Yeah, Bad Monkey game
Maybe a collectible card game. Make the game mechanics like that old RPG Paranoia.

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