Gaming Away the Holiday Weekend at the Penny Arcade Expo (Part 2)

There’s nothing like three straight days of a massive video-game expo to get your mind off work. OK, I didn’t go to the whole thing, but I got a decent sample of the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) at the convention center in downtown Seattle—North America’s biggest trade show for computer and video games and a self-described festival of gaming, which I previewed last week.

Once I made it past the huge lines and the PAX “enforcer” who made me print out my gaming industry-related clips in order to get a media badge—ironic for the digital-media industry, isn’t it?—there was a lot on offer. Loud, flashy shoot-em-ups, all kinds of game-playing tournaments, and booths galore. Most of the people, gamers and industry insiders alike, seemed to be there to try out weird new games, see what the competition was up to, and generally hang out with like-minded folks.

My main take-away—other than that gamers tend to wear black T-shirts, play handheld games at any time, and dress up in all manner of futuristic robot and warrior attire (see photo below)—is that small game developers have a real chance now to cash in on the fast-evolving market. That wasn’t always the case, and I wondered whether gaming is following the trend of small Web-based software startups. “A few years ago, the only way to get your game out was via PC or console games,” says my friend Dan Schmidt, senior software developer (and employee #3) at Cambridge, MA-based Harmonix Music Systems, maker of Guitar Hero and Rock Band. “Now with casual gaming and Web-based tools, there are more and more ways to get your game out.”

Robot at PAXWhat’s more, the big gaming companies are looking to small developers for new ideas and talent. Take Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade, which offers cheap, downloadable games for the Xbox console, typically made by indie developers or small groups who might work for a year to build a polished but small-scale game. A recent example that went big: Braid, an interesting time-manipulation game built by indie developer Jonathan Blow, which has become a huge hit on Xbox 360 in the last few weeks.

On Saturday, I caught a particularly telling panel entitled “Democratizing Game Development,” which included Michael John, senior creative director at Electronic Arts, Mark DeLoura, VP of technology at GreenScreen Interactive, and Will Kerslake, creative director at Radar Group. Kerslake showed a rough demo of a foosball video game he said he made in about 15 hours over a weekend, using Microsoft XNA game-development tools. “You can build something simple and small on your own, and now you’re starting to see distribution channels,” Kerslake said. “So give it a shot!”

But the panel cautioned that it’s important not to take a demo like that too far. “You build a prototype to see if it’s going to work. Then you throw it away and start again,” said DeLoura. “Don’t let it grow.” (Too often, apparently, game developers Ponggrow attached to their initial demos and try to build whole games around them, when they contain fatal shortcomings.) As for advice in what to show in a game demo, the panel agreed it was most important to convey the emotional experience of the game. Later, EA’s John added that in general, “Usability isn’t what matters, it’s how it makes people feel.”

The strongest feeling I got all weekend was one of nostalgia, when I found a room in the convention hall dedicated to classic, old-school video games like Pacman, Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt, and, of course, Pong (see photo, left, courtesy of Mara E. Vatz). After all, who needs flashy visuals and storylines—isn’t that what real life is for?

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