Highlights from PAX 2009

Thu, September 17, 2009 -- 15:57 UTC
pax_09 logo

A rockin' good time

The time has come to talk about the awesome things I experienced at PAX 2009. The convention has been over for more than a week now and I have been back east for about half of that time; owing to the stellar performance of United Airlines, my all-day flight transformed into an overnight red-eyed odyssey with a stopover in SFO*. I have finally recovered. Let me share with you some of the wonders I beheld. Note: this post is all pleasure – in future we may put together a Business Time post talking about the connections etc. that PAX yielded but for now, it’s all about fun.

Geek Chic: Classy Gaming Furniture

As I’ve mentioned before,  I really enjoy pen and paper roleplaying games. I also enjoy board games, card games, … really almost all tabletop games. As I may not have mentioned, I have a fiancée who also sometimes enjoys these things.  She also, however, appreciates a nice-looking home.

Enter Geek Chic. I had the great opportunity to sit down and have a few beers with the folks behind Geek Chic. Robert Gifford, the founder of the company, has a real passion for his work. His angle is that we should treat gaming like we treat more mainstream hobbies. You can play golf with really nice clubs. You should be able to play Pandemic on a really nice table. As soon as we move into an apartment that actually has some space, I hope to give these guys my business.

The only way to play Arkham Horror

The only way to play Arkham Horror

Steel Battalion

Not a lot of people have heard of Steel Battalion. Even fewer have played it. Until PAX, I fell into the latter category. Now, all my dreams have been fulfilled.

Steel Battalion was a mech combat game for the Xbox in the early aughts. What made it truly special was its controller. Unlike other mech games that use mouse and keyboard (and might even support a fancy joystick for the hardcore), Steel Battalion came with its own cockpit setup including (but not limited to):

  • two (2) joysticks, one with a thumbstick on it
  • three (3) pedals (gas, brake, dodge)
  • gear shift
  • windshield wiper control
  • various startup switches
  • eject button complete with plastic shield to prevent accidental use

Note: Failing to press the eject button when your mech is destroyed WILL result in the deletion of your saved game. That’s how Steel Battalion rolls.

It was my dream to play it in college. Sadly, I lacked both the Xbox and the several hundred dollars to buy one and the steel battalion setup.

I am here to report that it was officially worth the wait and would like to thank the kind gentleman who taught me how to destroy everyone else by shooting them with with my railgun from a mile away.

The windshield wiper control is on the lower section of the center panel

The windshield wiper control is one of the wide green buttons on the middle panel. Eject button: sadly obscured by this dude's right forearm.

The TMNT Bus

Here’s a lesson in marketing. First, find something that the members of your target demographic loved as children with a white hot passion. Second, spend thousands of dollars to transform a bus into a shrine to that childhood memory. Third, sit back while the adoring public does your marketing for you.

When I saw the bus pictured below on the PAX exhibition floor, I had to go in. You may not remember the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or their associated merch; some of you are probably too young. As for me, I spent weekends forcing my parents to drive me from store to store, anxiously searching through every rack for the two action figures I didn’t have yet.

This bus was full of those action figures. The ones I slaved over, the ones I spent my hard earned cash on, and the ones my mother secretly stole the weapons from when I wasn’t paying attention. It was a direct line to my childhood. And here I am, now, talking about it. Playing into the marketing trap.

The downside? At the time I had no real clue what product this bus was selling. In fact, until about five minutes ago while researching this post, I thought that it was to publicize the new XBLA remake of Turtles in Time. I am almost reluctant to play into their hands but I suppose it is only right that I tell you the actual marketing target was the new TMNT Smash Up, a Smash Brothers style game due out later this month for Wii. You win this round, Ubisoft.

Cool, but rude

Cool, but rude

Mechaton: The Lego Mech Game

Steel Batallion was not the only awesome mech game I played at PAX. I also played Mechaton, a tabletop mech combat game made by D. Vincent Baker. D. Vincent (a.k.a lumpley), for those who do not know, is the maker of such fine other games as Dogs in the Vineyard which I have mentioned briefly before here, and have discussed at greater length elsewhere.

I will admit that I only played Mechaton for about two turns; I had to leave early in order to make it to the PAX 10 panel. What I played of it, however, was awesome. I controlled three mechs, two of which were pretty, pretty ponies (one with a laser lance, one with artillery), and the third was a small dog I used as a spotter. The rules were fun and surprisingly tight for such a whimsical game. I hope to play it again in the near future.

Crush them now, robo-pony!

Crush them now, robo-pony!

This was not the only awesome stuff from PAX. I got a chance to play StarCraft 2 (zerg v. protoss comp), watch God and Cthulhu duke it out in Scribblenauts, and test drive at least 5 of the PAX 10 (as well as meet many of their creators, who were an awesome bunch). I met a lot of awesome people (see above) and caught up with old friends. I have, however, already gone on for too long and, more importantly, I do not have awesome pictures of these other things.

Final verdict: PAX 2009 was largely completely awesome.

* As it turned out this was not all bad. Because of the layover, I was afforded a rare chance to have dinner with Chris Cornell (of Paper Dino, not Soundgarden). I got a chance to play his upcoming game, which is shaping up to be a lot of fun, and to get his first reactions to FallGuy

FallGuy Prototype – The First 2.5 Days

by Mike
Mon, September 14, 2009 -- 18:04 UTC

This is the first in a series of posts that document the process of building a prototype game in about 7 days.  Because I am writing it, it places special emphasis on the particulars of how the art and animation got made.  Hopefully someone out there in the nettertubes will find it useful/interesting/boredom-slaying.

So there we were.  PAX was 7 days away, and we wanted to show some sort of playable prototype product to the beautiful people there.  Tim was busy in the Code Mines, slaying dragons with fell monikers like “Reflection,” “Serialization,” and “Lua Integration.”  He could not come to our aid.  That left Hal and I with just a stick, a ball, and the elaborate game-prototyping framework that Hal’s been chipping away at in Flash for the past year.

Undaunted, we made the following plan: Hal and I would prototype a playable somethin-somethin in a 7-day sprint.  Tim would be present for brainstorming/playing stuff/giving feedback, but otherwise uninvolved.  Scary as that was, we sallied forth bravely into the dark woods of prototyping adventure.

Days 1 and 2:

Getting our version control pipeline going took up the first 1.5-2 days of the sprint.  This involved setting up the new .svn and .hg repositories, linking them together in a delicate lattice that allows me to check in art that is sym-linked into hal’s flash code directory, testing that setup, fixing what didn’t work, and then writing a script that sets all that up with the push of a button.  Having gone through this process already with the website and a small Python game really smoothed these preparations out considerably. However, a website is not a flash game is not a regular game, and in each case we have needed to iterate and explore a bit before finding the optimal setup.

Anyway.  Found it.  Took about 2 dev-days when you count lunches and lengthy discussions about that most elusive of prey, the “best” solution.  While prototyping is typically oriented around “good enough” solutions, we felt a carefully-considered repository structure was worth the investment because it would make all subsequent Flash prototypes (such as the one we’re doing this very week) much much easier.  So you can call this a 5-day sprint with a 2-day speed-bump, if you like.

Day 3, part 1:

And they’re off!  First, all three of us brainstormed in the manner described a few posts down.  Then we culled and refined in a manner to be discussed in some subsequent brainstorming post.  By the end of the session, we had a pretty clear idea of what our goals were for the project:

- Get a generic shmup working. In this case, “generic” means a 2d game with a scrolling background, a ship or other craft that can be moved around the screen, the ability to shoot, and enemies to shoot and be shot at by. We didn’t brainstorm with this genre restriction locked in, but it certainly had a leg up on most other options.  This was because A) shmups have been the main genre we’ve planned to explore since before starting the company, B) we’d already used Hal’s tools to lay a lot of the groundwork for a game in that style, and C) it’s frankly one of the easiest genres of videogame to implement.   However, we still kept the door open to other styles of game during brainstorming, just in case something unexpectedly awesome and practical snuck in during the conversation.

- Add a sweet feature or two. This is what makes the prototype interesting!  Even Space Invaders, which is among the oldest and most powerful of the Elder Shmups, had more going on than the baseline features I described above (including destructible environments ZOMG).  Given how tight the project schedule was, we weren’t sure we’d even get the basics working, so this goal was mainly included in the plan just in case we found the time for it.  The sweet features we were most excited about trying out were a melee attack (most likely involving a sword), and a fighting-game-esque special attack mechanic.  Think Ryu’s fireball from Street Fighter, and you’ll get the basic gist.  In fact, think Megaman learning Ryu’s fireball in Megaman X and you’ll get even more of the gist, as that was another game that cross-bred core fighting game features with a different genre (in that case, a platformer).

- Make it look neato. This meant coming up with a coherent look for the thing, and then producing a lot of art in that style very quickly so that nothing utterly temporary (i.e. flat-colored boxes and circles) remained by the time we were done.  This actually isn’t the way we’d approach the art side of prototyping normally, as prototyping is ideally as fast and nimble and prone-to-throwing-things-away-when-they-don’t-work as possible.  Ordinarily, that would mean simple flat-colored boxes and circles were perfectly acceptable art elements until quite a few gameplay concepts had been tried.  However, this project was meant to see the light of day (unusual for a prototype) at PAX, which basically meant it would be doing double-duty as a gameplay experiment AND a piece of marketing material for our company. As such, we decided to try and eliminate all blatant placeholder art from the final product. Additionally, I still need all the practice I can get producing pixel art quickly (more on that later), particularly animation, and this project was a chance to do that on the clock in an actual production environment. The process of trying new techniques and comparing various style treatments is itself a form of prototyping, so that was a part of this goal as well.

The broad strokes of the art direction fell pretty naturally out of the high concept Hal pitched to us during the meeting.  His idea was to make a vertical shmup where the player “ship” looked like a Brock-Sampson-esqe action hero in a business suit, flying through the air with a pistol in one hand and a samurai sword in the other.

Our muse.

Our muse.

It was pretty clear from the reaction in the room that we could all get down with that, and so I started on the first step of the art process: working up a screenshot mockup for the game we would eventually start referring to as “FallGuy.”

Next post: the rest of Day 3!  There will be animated pixels and swordplay.  See you there.

Hello from Pax!

Sat, September 5, 2009 -- 16:41 UTC

This was penned mid-afternoon yesterday. I was, unfortunately, not able to put it up at that time and by the time I got to the interweb I was had been[sic] drinking. That is another story for another time.

Hello, from PAX!

I am, as I pen this, sitting on a sticky floor next to what I am beginning to suspect are the bathrooms. There is no wireless in this corner, or at least no wireless that is both freely available and is also not, I suspect, poised to steal all of my personal information.

And yet, I am content. This morning, at the game design 101 panel, I had the opportunity to shake Richard Garfield’s hand and, also, to ask him about how he tests out game design ideas. He said two things that made me very happy:

1) Most of his game ideas suck and he has to weed them out too
2) He paper prototypes when he can, and makes flash prototypes when he can’t

He also said something very important: never show graphic-less prototypes to the people you want to give you money, as they usually don’t have very much imagination.

I leave you with Friday’s cosplay image:


Bang from Blaz(e)Blue