2019 PAX South Sunday
Warning: This gonna be a long post. I considered splitting it up, but I'd rather the main content of my blog be my game development. So, consider these con reports a rare special feature.
I was sick with a cold the entirety of last week. I'm still not completely over it. However, much to my relief, I was well enough by Sunday to drive the almost 2 hour journey down to PAX South.
I never had any intention of doing the full weekend. The last time I visited PAX South I was with someone else, and chasing after them had me done in about 4 hours. Additionally, in terms of size I'm more familiar with a con like SXSW, where the games portion is actually kinda small. I was not fully prepared for how big PAX actually is, and consequently (and to my great dismay) there's alot I had to skip. In particular, expect no mention of games from major publishers as I never made it out of the indies and board games.
The biggest time sink at PAX South were the 3 panels I attended:
"A Peek Behind the Curtain: PAX Indie Devs Return to Tell All"
"Local Indie Developers: Press Start!"
"The 11th Queering Up Misconceptions, LGBTQ life in gaming"
Of these 3 panels, "PAX Indie Devs Return" was by far the most useful. The panel featured members of the teams behind 2 games I'd never heard of:
Salad Hunters is a mobile title, while MageQuit is currently exclusively Steam. Both titles appear to have a positive following.
Now, FULL DISCLAIMER: I don't usually take photos at cons, so my work will be iffy. Where I can, I'll just link a YouTube video or trailer instead as video will be more descriptive.
Essentially, the Salad Hunters team reported on their entire process (including the amount of time they spent at PAX cons) while the MageQuite team focused on educating people unfamiliar with the industry.
Some interesting tidbits not on the slides I saw:
CJK, or the languages Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, can take almost 10 MB on their own.
You really need to understand the motivations of your collaborators to avoid them leaving or getting bored, especially if you're working on a free project.
Simply paying correctly and on time can go a long way.
MageQuit relied heavily on Unity assets and, aside from the need to correct any performance impacts that inevitably would arise, assets have only been a positive for the project.
Once the presentation portion of "PAX Indie Devs Return" was over I got up to ask both teams about their testing process. I recorded the audio, but I can't make myself share it due to how extreme my stutter became. I couldn't even finish my fucking sentences! That being said, I'm extremely proud of myself for asking and for doing my best to convey my question. I managed to hang in and get something more specific than "just go find a group."
From what I could gather, neither team had to pay their testers. They seemed incredulous at the idea of paying a professional tester to come in and work the bugs out of their products. In terms of the methods used for finding testers, both teams utilized cons (watch and document play outwith interfering, much as with a board game), students (contact schools or teach a free course), and local groups of developers willing to play each others games.
After "PAX Indie Devs Return" was over I joined the conversation that was forming around the MageQuit designer, Brett Pennings. Unfortunately, there wasn't time to interact with both teams, so I chose to hang around the guy with a game on Steam.
Brett had alot of interesting things to say. Half of those things I can't recall because I was nervous about having my phone out for audio. If there's a next time, I'm going to at least take more notes. The main points that stuck with me were (for legal purposes, it should be noted that nothing I've written here is a direct quote, and is merely what I recall):
Getting crowdfunded can be as difficult, if not more so, as hooking a publisher for a first time video game developer.
MageQuit was fully self-funded through the developers' full time jobs.
Brett Pennings worked 8 hours at his job, then would go home and work another 4 hours on MageQuit. Nobody asked how long he kept this schedule or if he threw in break days (I didn't think to ask at the time). Brett is now working
Smaller cons are way cheaper to show your game at than, say, PAX. By thousands of dollars. At the same time, SXSW (my local con) is reportedly very selective (Brett hasn't attempted to attend himself, and stated he knows people who have).
Streamers, Discord, conventions, and students (Brett teaches a free game design course at a high school) are the main ways information about MageQuit has been spread.
Brett is dissatisfied with what Steam offers for that 30% cut, and mentioned the interface Steam provides is clunky.
Despite the strong connection between MageQuit and Discord (Discord has all of the social features MageQuit doesn't, and players reportedly use it extensively), Brett isn't ready to move to the Discord store. He feels Discord is not yet considered a store platform in its own right, and is still primarily a social hub for users.
I got alot of what I'd consider to be useful information, while forcing myself to talk to people (my stutter was much reduced once I got off a microphone, making things much easier), and overall I enjoyed both the panel and the aftermath. I had high hopes for the next panel, "Local Indie Developers: Press Start!"
"Local Indie Developers: Press Start!" was, unfortunately, exactly what I thought it would be. I went hoping it would be similar to a SXSW event that occurred last year. Basically, I went hoping that, after a brief introduction by the organizer, the event would be a bunch of game industry students and professionals mingling. "Local Indie Developers: Press Start!" ended up being a panel of local "Greater Gaming Society"/"San Antonio Game Developers" board members, organizers, and a member or 2.
The main issue that I had was the inclusion of streamers into this society/group. This immediately made it clear that they were an organization of game makers and game players, and it bothers me when the 2 sides were so closely intermingled. I know I'm putting a ridiculous opinion out there, so take this with alot of salt, but when I see game developers put on the same level as streamers I feel like a natural separation is being violated.
To me, a Game Designer must be removed from play. They study play, they examine and attempt to provoke play, but this is always done from a distance. A Game Designer is the scientist in the lab coat hiding behind a clipboard, and a streamer is a test subject. A Game Designer can, and should, take off the lab coat and become the subject when possible. However, a Streamer is a professional of playing, and cannot simply don the lab coat without investment.
Anyway, back to the panel. Much of what they talked about was themselves: what they can offer, upcoming events, that kind of thing. If I was a San Antonio dev, it would've sounded like a fantastic way to find resources for game projects. A reliable way to find physical game jams was also a big plus. However, as an Austin dev, there unfortunately wasn't alot for me.
There was some mention of cheap local cons that might be worthwhile for Texas devs. Specifically, Mini-Mini Con and SAN Japan. If these cons are still around when I have a project worth demoing, I'll probably give it a shot.
I tried approaching some of the panelists after the presentation was over. There was a panelist who specialized in Unity programing, but he'd never worked on a card game and didn't have more than general advice. I asked if he'd be open to questions, he said sure, I gave him my card, and he didn't give me anything in return. If I had more heart for it I would've pressed him, but at that point my cold was making a bit of a comeback and I didn't press.
I wanted to leave, to flee back down to the show floor where the energy of the crowd would keep me going, but there was one other panelist I wanted to talk to. She had repeatedly stated on the panel that her job, and what she was offering, was to connect game development resources. Artists with designers, programmers with UI experts, teams with musicians, whatever. I wasn't sure what exactly that would mean in terms of what she could offer me, but I decided she was offering an opportunity.
I cannot, for the life of me, remember this woman's name. I made sure we exchanged cards, though, and I've found a card I believe belongs to her. It says, "Amanda Hufford, Voice Actor and Vocalist". This woman was present on the panel, so I'm going to reach out to her and see if I got the correct card. Did I mention my cold was making a comeback? I think I was starting to lose it.
The final panel, "The 11th Queering Up Misconceptions, LGBTQ life in gaming", was set immediately after "Press Start!", and I was late arriving due to my attempts to network with the panelists. I stayed for about 30 minutes at "The 11th Queering Up Misconceptions, LGBTQ life in gaming" and then left.
"The 11th Queering Up Misconceptions, LGBTQ life in gaming" wasn't necessarily a bad panel. It was a layman-focused panel providing information I'd already heard elsewhere, and I was running out of time to play new and interesting games. So, I left to play new and interesting games instead.
Ah, the games! PAX South 2019 is the first con where I didn't have time to see everything. It's very upsetting, but I'll get over it.
The first games I played were actually available before the main floor opened. Tucked up in a corner of the entry hall was a small room filled by old arcade machines. At the back was an already-swarmed setup of Street Fighter 5, but the rest of the machines were surprisingly open given that everything was set to free play. I assume most people were downstairs waiting in line for the main floor to open.
It's been awhile since I've been in a place with actual 80's and 90's-style arcade machines. Dave & Busters is crap. UFO Arcade focuses on fighting games and rhythm games. Pinballz lets their equipment rot (unless, of course, it's a pinball machine). Being back amongst so many digital, coin-munching game designs with free access to all of them almost made me want to skip PAX entirely.
The 2 standouts from the selection were:
Windjammers: I've never had a chance to play this before, and I can see now why it's so highly regarded. The game looks like Pong 2.0; it's essentially top-down tennis with powered characters and the ball is a Frisbee. The result has an engagement level far closer to a fighting game than Pong, by which I mean players will feint and exploit abilities versus simply moving a paddle back and forth.
Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mysteria (couldn't find arcade gameplay) is a standard coin-munching brawler. You have Jump, Attack, and Item as your moves, and you'll need to combine this limited selection skillfully if you want to get through the game without dying alot. The enemies are varied, taking advantage of the source material, and they all drop loot of one kind or another. It's possible to pick up loot in the midst of combat accidentally, which will get you hit and is annoying. As a brainless brawler, this game stands out thanks to the ability to store and use a great many items. If you're familiar or a fan of games like Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mysteria I'd advise giving it a shot just see the little difference being able to chuck huge numbers of items can make.
There was a 3rd game that was interesting for a fake 3D perspective. You play as a soldier in a desert, and you must march forward (into the screen instead of to the left or right) through waves of enemy soldiers. You always shoot to 1 point directly in front of you that is just below a certain height on the horizon, ensuring enemies have a chance to approach you. You cannot move backwards, so any foe that appears next to or almost behind you is basically going to hit you. That being said, I found the fake 3D with occasional cover to be an interesting combination. I just can't recall the name of the game, and Arcades4Home doesn't have it on their site. Oh well.
Eventually, the show floor opened. Immediately, I was attracted to a small booth filled with boardgames. The booth belonged to Fowers Games, an independent outfit I've never seen anything from before. This would make sense, as Fowers doesn't rely on publishers or distributors (and my board game exposure is limited to specialty shops, and almost all shops will only buy from distributors). I was told in no uncertain terms that Fowers had had to claw their first IP, Wok Star, away from a publisher and had been disillusioned ever since.
The star of the Fowers booth was unarguably Hardback, a complex looking word card game thing. I was fascinated, but the demo station was swarmed. Instead, I turned to a station where a man in an odd-textured hat was attempting to explain the game Fugitive to a very confused looking pink haired lady. Always happy to learn something new, I butted in.
Fugitive is a 2-player game of cat and mouse. 1 player is a marshal/cat, the other is the titular fugitive/mouse. The fugitive may play cards within 3 values (if your last card is 1, you can play any card between 2 and 4), or can burn cards from his or her hand to play a higher-value card. The marshal draws cards from the fugitive's supply, guesses cards, and keeps track of all correct and incorrect answers. A marshal also has the ability to guess 3 cards at a time. The marshal wins if she guesses all face down cards before the fugitive can escape, and the fugitive wins if he keeps the marshal guessing long enough to play the highest value card (42).
The result of all this is a very interesting form of tension I haven't felt in a game before. I suppose it's similar to the tension in gambling games like Poker, yet somehow gambling card games never thrilled me the way Fugitive does. As the fugitive, I was constantly, desperately trying to guess if I was safe to just put 1 card within 3 spaces of another, or if I would have to burn cards. There were 1 or 2 turns were I just didn't have a card to play, even if I wanted to burn 2 other cards, and I was forced to sit and draw 1 and sweat while the marshal got closer and closer. There was even an occasion when the man in the funny hat told the marshal player exactly which 3 cards I had face down, only in such a way that it seemed like he was making random suggestions.
I found out later the man in the funny hat was the designer of the game, Tim Fowers. Genius bastard. I'll have to play more of his games someday.
The next game that caught my eye was Fantasy Strike, which I've played before. The last time was SXSW, and the game looked dull, slow, and lifeless for a fighting game. This time, I noted the high damage, the fast rounds, the high number of rounds, and the easy of play (low combo requirements), and sat down for a few games. I immediately took a liking to Argagarg.
I found this fish to be hilarious, although I have no idea how to use is super move bubble thing. I definitely think Fantasy Strike is a solid and enjoyable, easy to get into fighting game. I'm planning to give it another shot once it's out of Early Access.
My path away from Fantasy Strike took to me directly to Nelo. It's a 3rd-person shooter, but you can switch the camera to top down at any time, and there's sprinting, super jumping, flying, and platforming, all in the same package.
The developer was on hand, and provided he'd been working on the project for 5 years with his wife. Gotta say, for a 2 person project, I'm impressed so far. The game looks so fast, but with the kind of speed you can learn to control. I've seen some negative reports on the Steam page about how the enemies don't move. I think I'd be ok with this, given all the bullets that can be onscreen at once. And, while I was unable to play the demo on the show floor, I found one afterward that has me very intrigued (standard disclaimer: download at your own risk):
Another Early Access title to keep an eye on.
War Tech Fighters was a game I didn't actually see anywhere. I wandered over to the booth for Blowfish studios, whose setup consisted of 3 Switch consoles and 2 displays, in response to seeing someone play the zombie brawler Obey Me. I sat down to play at an open console, and one of the people manning the booth walked over and asked me if I wanted to play Obey Me, JasckQuest, or War Tech Fighters. I was sure what any of those things were, so I asked to play the mech one.
From the outside, War Tech Fighters looks pretty average. Plus, as this was a very early Switch build, the game took forever to load. However, when it did, I fell in love.
Gameplay in War Tech Fighters can be fast. As in, fastest mech game I've ever played fast. At the same time, identifying and tracking targets was very easy. The only thing I struggled with were the controls for elevation, as your ability to move up and down on the Y access is controlled through 2 separate buttons (the right control stick is only for the X axis, while the left is for your camera).
Judging from the Steam reviews, there's probably something wrong with War Tech Fighters. I'm gonna keep a look out for the Switch release, though.
The lead artist being Arcade Spirits is one enthusiastic lady. I was watching someone playing the game, as I was curious how arcade culture would be worked into this dating sim/visual novel/thing, and a lady (I believe her name is Molly Nemecek?) popped up out of nowhere to ask if I had any questions. I found myself wishing I had her energy. She explained a few things, none of which I clearly remember (I may have been feeling the cold again), and then started selling the game hard.
I gotta say, I do like the art direction for Arcade Spirits. I also couldn't help but notice the little touches and references that were present in reference to arcade games of the time. Apparently, the whole game also has voice acting, which is nice. However, I've got 2 issues with visual novels/dating sims that are always going to keep me from buying them full price:
I can't trust the writing to stay engaging/"believable" to me (i.e., I'm gonna over-analyze the shit out of it).
I'm afraid of manipulating the emotions of fake digital people.
Now, I've played visual novels and will likely do so again. When I do, however, the likelihood of the experience actually being fun to me is very low. Some people play visual novels to relax. When I play them, I get tense. So, I apologized, said if I was gonna get the game it would be on sale, and took my leave.
Something that definitely didn't make me tense (masterful segway) was a card game called Master of Wills. Master of Wills alot of cyberpunk futuristic imagery, and immediately drew comparisons in my mind with Netrunner (one of my favorite card games). I asked for a brief demo, and was informed during the demo that there's a Master of Wills app. Immediately, I decided I would download the game as soon as I got home.
Master of Wills was initially very hard to wrap my head around. Part of this is due to the UI. Color is very important in the game, but I can't tell the difference between orange and brown, black and grey. This is because colors are muted, and every important colored portion has a highlight that drowns out the color. Poor UI is only the first issue, however.
The digital version of Master of Wills is essentially early access, so there's alot of room for change. The UI is borrowed for a physical card game, so I can't see that changing much. I do hope certain aspects of it change so that I can see without squinting (I worked so hard to avoid that in my own prototype). What should change, or what needs to, is the tutorial.
The Master of Wills tutorial is awful. There's concepts that never seem to be explained (some cards on the field have a symbol that means you can play a card from your hand, but most cards don't have this so if you chose them you can't use your hand). Honestly, though the concepts in this game are hard to explain. Which is why I've been avoiding attempting to do so for 3 paragraphs.
Master of Wills is like tug of war. Each turn, cards are dealt into the center of the field. Each card has a positive or negative number. Additionally, next to a card's main value, there are 1 to 3 other values, color-coded to match the game's factions, with even more numbers. When you choose a card, the color-coded numbers allow you to move almost any other cards on the board so long as said card is the correct color and may move the listed number in spaces. Positive numbers move cards towards you, and negative numbers move cards away from you.
But wait, there's more! The board is split into 7 zones. 3 for you, 3 for the other player, and 1 central neutral zone. The furthest edge on both sides is a locked zone that no card may escape out of or be touched within.
So, the whole game is trying to have more points than your opponent by moving cards in the center to your side (hopefully locking some down in your 3rd slot), while seeking opportunities to use the powers in your hand by specifically choosing certain cards.
I can't imagine willingly playing a physical version of this game. Master of Wills has a positive rating on Board Game Geek, and yet it goes against everything I was learning through board game design. It's large, it's complicated, the cards are covered in jargon. It feels like a made-for-digital, where the machines can handle the math, concept. Guess it just shows how lightweight I am in terms of board games. This is what hardcore Euro games are like, right? Oh, except is uses cards so there's a significant random element. I'm not sure what that makes Master of Wills, but so far as I don't have to do the math myself (which can dynamically add up to hundreds of points at any time) I'm having fun.
Now for something easier to digest: Quandary: Escape this hellhole
Created by the small No Hope Studios, Quandary is a First Person Shooter that is almost impressive. I almost enjoyed myself playing it, and accordingly I had a list of concerns that I happily provided to the nearest college-grad developer. I hope it was clear my enthusiasm was because I want the game to be all it can be. I think he got that.
Quandary is set in hell. The demo level had you running through a maze of rooms with doors (many of which look exactly the same) in search of keys. I got lost repeatedly thanks to the environment. The main character looks like he's related to the UE4 default avatar. When you pick up health your screen flashes as if you've been hit. All of the animations are asset-flip-level janky. Doors don't tell you when you need keys to open then, and consequently I'm not sure if I opened every door or if there were some that just didn't work. Last, and certainly not least, the sensitivity of the mouse was ridiculously low and aiming was weird as a result. In fact, fighting the mouse was a real, subtle feels-bad that hurt the experience.
All that being said, I had fun while playing the demo. My interest was peaked when I saw the unique design of the double-barreled shotgun (the only gun you get in the demo). The shotgun has a wide spread, and was satisfying to use. The basic enemy, white zombie things, had a funny tendency to randomly stop chasing you and cover their faces as if they were trying to make me disappear through sheer will. There was enemy variety in the form of the zombies, some taller demon things, and some floating orb things that shot balls at you. And, none of them were huge bullet sponges.
My interest grew as I noticed how easy it was to run out of ammo. Suddenly, I had resources to manage, which provoked behavior that I wouldn't normally rely on if I felt resource-safe. I began tracking my shots to figure out how much was needed to kill each kind of foe.
After my first death, the dev who was on hand told me only 3 other people had finished the demo all weekend. So, I decided I'd be the 4th. I compensated for the jank, timed and paced myself, and got to the final screen.
I asked the dev what the release plans were for Quandary, and he told me they wanted to release later this year. I asked if they were doing early access, and he said he thought they might not be.
Quandary may get the work put into it that it deserves. However, until it's released, the eye I'm keeping on it will be cautious.
As time began to click down, I headed for the 1 game I felt compelled to play. Churrascaria: A Cutthroat Game of Gluttony is just as good as everyone says it is. The goal is to eat the most meat in a Brazilian steakhouse while avoiding traps like salad, deserts, and rolls. You and 2 to 4 (the box says 2 to 6, but this is definitely a 3 to 5 game) other players draw cards and eat until all the food is gone.
The unfortunate thing about my time with Churrascaria is that I won the demo I played. Therefore, I have to assume all of the feel-bads, as everything just went my way. The biggest issue I saw was the luck of the draw: There doesn't appear to be any way to dig through the decks. You can mess with other player's plates (which I did), but there are enough cards to block those players who are getting all the bad luck. By mid-game, it was clear which of the 3 players in my demo was going to be in last place, and it didn't seem like there was mechanic aside for luck to help her recover.
If you don't mind luck, Churrascaria is pretty fun. It didn't really hit my interests, as the cards didn't really make me laugh, I'm not a big food person, and the concept, that everything that isn't meat or drink is a trap, takes some swallowing. However, I can definitely see the appeal, and I wouldn't refuse another game.
Finally, just as the show was shutting down, I was waved over to a table by a guy who was demonstrating Grifters Nexus. Grifters is a 2-4 player, 30 minute, simple crime card game. Players are competing for cash, which they can build through normal play or by completing jobs. There's a strong deck-building element in the need to buy more cards through the use of special cards, and each time you use 1 or more cards they get locked up for 3 nights in a safe house and can't be used.
I lost the demo of Grifters badly, yet I couldn't point to any real pain spots. Most of my losses felt like problems with how I was approaching the game versus the game itself. The cards seem to counter each other fairly well, and I liked the cycle players go through of locking their specialists up on jobs or single missions with the hope they wont need X specialists later.
Making this more complex are the 3 main specialists. You get them at game start, and they have good effects, and they are the only ones who can lead specialists to complete jobs. Do you want that Mastermind for card draw? Or, do you think you can get that one job now and not regret it for the next 3 turns? I found myself enjoying these choices, and I'm excited to give the game another go.
Honorable mentions go to:
Six Ages: Ride like the Wind: no demo, but looks promising.
The Day We Fought Space: Angling yourself and your fire is interesting, but I don't have iOS.
Captains & Curses: no time for a demo, although the concept looks and sounds promising.
The Resident Evil 2 board game: The guy at the booth refused to even show a demo, claiming NDA. Phooey, I say!
Boyfriend Dungeon: There were so many people packed in this booth I literally couldn't get close. Somebody hit gold!
Shot One!: It's Windjammers! I liked what I saw, but the name is too generic (I can't find videos of it, it's so hard to search for) and I suck so much the guy I talked to about it beat me without looking at me. I really don't have much to say about it.
I just spent over 8 hours on this blog entry. If you did or didn't like something about it, please let me know! I'll be back next week.