Eli Goes to PAX, and Lives to Tell the Tale
This past weekend, I attended the Penny Arcade Expo. It was absolutely incredible. There were PC, console, and tabletop game tournaments, panel discussions, an exhibitor room (think E3 lite), concerts, freeplay, prizes, and the OMEGATHON II.
I went to see how truly large game tournaments are run, specifically to get some ideas on how to handle our recent influx of new players, and to do a little of what adults call 'networking'. Also, to play some games. Read on for complete details.
Friday, I arrived in Seattle, checked in, and joined the stream of geeks flowing up the street toward the Meydenbauer Center in downtown Bellevue. The doors were supposed to open to preregistrants at 3:00, and it was about 2:50. There was a line stretching down the street and around the block, past a Dairy Queen that must have thought it died and went to heaven. A guy next to me waiting to cross the street looked at the line and said, "I'm glad I preregistered," thinking it meant he got to skip the line. He figured out soon enough that the line was only for people who had preregistered, and hiked back to the end of the line somewhere around Vancouver.
While waiting for the doors to open, I made my first PAX discovery: the Nintendo DS becomes something truly awesome in a DS-rich environment. There were pictochat rooms going all the time, no matter where you were... in the line, in the theater, at lunch, even during the concerts. Pictochat became a sort of live commentary track for the whole event, with people getting downloadable games together on the fly (Meteos was most common). You could just put your DS into download mode and see 2 or 3 games people were offering for wireless play. I played Meteos, Bomberman DS, Advance Wars, and something in Japanese I later figured out was Puyo Puyo Fever. You could also see many people 'petting' or making baby talk to their newly-acquired Nintendogs.
I registered for the Super Smash Brothers and Mario Kart Double Dash tournaments... by writing my name on a piece of paper. It was so quaint and refreshing... given the way we IT geeks do things, I can honestly say it never before occurred to me. However, they have some approaches at PAX that we really can't take at AADL-GT Tournaments, for example, they close registration completely up to an hour before the event begins to give them time to do the data entry. If you miss the registration deadline, that's that. Also, most tournaments are pool-based, single-elimination, reducing greatly the need for the kind of record-keeping we do during a tournament.
For example, for Super Smash Brothers, each of the 24 stations was assigned a 16-person pool. After filling the empty pool spots with standby players, they made brackets for each pool and players played a 1v1, best 2 out of 3, 4-stock, 6-minute time limit match, with items set to low, some banned items, and some banned stages. Only the winner of the pool advanced to the next round. I got eliminated in my first match against a master Ness player. I was DK first, then Link, and both times I had him down to his last life when I lost.
Friday Night's concert, after a showing of the 1989 Fred Savage and Super Mario Bros. 3 Vehicle The Wizard, included The Videogame Pianist, Transformers-obsessed hiphop band Optimus Rhyme, and the The NESkimos. Lovecraftian Rock Band The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets canceled at the last minute.
Saturday morning, the exhibit room opened, and we stumbled in to find a real, genuine, E3-style Nintendo Booth, with 10 DS stations, 4 GBA stations, 6 small gamecube stations and 2 Huge ones. All sorts of unreleased games were playable, including Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess! It was the E3 demo, and while I love the Wind Waker style, the new realistic Zelda look will undoubtedly be less reviled by the legions of 'mature' rabid gamers with poor taste who think that bright colors are only acceptable for children. Regardless, the game is naturally amazing. Also playable were Super Mario Baseball and Super Mario Strikers (Soccer), both of which are an absolute blast and are outstanding additions to the Mario Sports lineup. Advance Wars: Under Fire for Gamecube is cool, 3rd person squad-based cartoony warfare, and looks fun, but very very different from the Advance Wars formula. If you like Advance Wars, Fire Emblem (the game Marth and Roy are from) for Gamecube is on the way; it's fantasy turn-based tactics battles, very in-depth, but a bit dry. Mario Kart DS was playable and is absolutely great, featuring great new tracks and best-of-breed weapons; rotating shells, the banana train, and jumping are all back, and the graphics look great on the DS's top screen. The lower screen shows you a zoomed-in overhead view that you can use to dodge shells! You can play 8-player wireless, and rumors persist that you'll be able to play over the internet via Wifi. One guy even said there would be Halo-style stat tracking and ladders, but I think he just made that up. We'll see.
In contrast to Nintendo's booth, Sony had 4 toys-r-us-style kiosks and a couple of card tables, and Microsoft had two tables and a single big TV. Ubisoft actually had a better XBOX booth than Microsoft, showing off some new combat games, a King Kong game that was fun but with a maddening fixed camera, and appearances by the Fragdolls.
Also exhibiting were NCSoft, best known for City of Heros, and Turbine, whose Dungeons and Dragons Online was a fan favorite, especially with all the tabletop gamers in attendance. The Army was there pushing America's Army, complete with Humvee, and Flying Lab Software was exhibiting their new MMORPG, Pirates of the Burning Sea.
On Saturday, we got to watch Gabe and Tycho make Monday's strip after a 'pitch your game idea' panel with several industry veterans. The best idea to come out of that session was probably "France France Revolution". Saturday was also the Mario Kart Double Dash team tournament. They had the 24 stations broken up into 6 4-station Lans, splitscreen, so they had the capacity for 96 simultaneous players driving 48 carts in 6 races, plus 2 extra pools that went after the first round for a total of 64 teams, 128 players. They had planned to have each pool of 8 teams play a 4-race cup, and the top two places from each pool would advance. However, as we know so well, the game does not keep track of any scores in LAN mode. I talked to Zig21, the head of the console tourney room about it, and was able to help them get a quick paper-based scoring system so they could record the scores of 4 races. It was great to have the opportunity to share our Kart tournament expertise, and help out a truly large event, and I think the event went very well, other than the fact that my randomly-assigned partner (because I didn't bring one) and I got knocked out in the first round. The competition was very intense. I actually did play-by-play on the mic for the finals, a set of 8 races, and last year's winning team, Sparkimus Prime, won again. Prizes for all the tournaments at PAX were different numbers of 'tickets' for the prize booth, Chuck-E-Cheese style, only with cool stuff like PSP accessories, games, toys, t-shirts, etc. I saw a brand-new set of Foster's toys that I REALLY WANTED. Oh well.
Saturday night's concert was absolutely amazing. First, Nintendo, on the ball as ever, had handed out little blue flashlights that project the nintendo logo, so the entire theater was filled with dancing Nintendo logos projected onto the walls by the audience. That was the best money they ever spent. The concert started off with Round 4 of the OMEGATHON. The OMEGATHON is an intense tournament for 32 randomly-selected players through all types of games, including tabletop, PC shooters, doubledash, Katamari Damacy, etc. Each round a few people are eliminated. Round 4 was Karaoke Revolution, which is like DDR, only you sing. In front of 2000 people. It was hilarious. The audience cheered the most for the players who sung the worst, and I can sense a surprize round game here.... just kidding, I wouldn't do that to you. However, I do want to try it at a DDR tournament and see if anyone would be interested in a Karaoke Revolution tournament.
After the OMEGATHON sing-off, Pianist Conney Lin played several beautiful, but dull, arrangements of music from Final Fantasy. Then, taking the stage by storm, came the world's 579th greatest rapper, MC Frontalot, inventor and proponent of Nerdcore hiphop, with his band, and personal hype machine, Gelatinous Cube. Front launched his new album at PAX and performed several new tracks, including 'Click Close' about pop up windows, and 'Got Message #419', about Nigerian email scams. MC Frontalot was simply awesome, high energy and suitably geeky in his short sleeve dress shirt, tie, and thick glasses. Next came a rapper who I don't think I can directly mention in this forum. I'll just say that he's the voice of Hesh from Sealab 2021 and MC PeePants from Aqua Teen Hunger Force. He was great, and led the crowd in a rousing chant of 'Nerd Power'. Also notable was his DJ, who pressed one key on his Mac at the start of each song and stood there while it played. Awesome.
However, the best band and the highlight of the evening was the all-powerful Minibosses, whose straightforward power-guitar arrangements of classic NES music stole the show. They closed with Metroid, which was just incredible. These guys are extremely talented players and they know the repertoire well, picking out lesser-known gems like Goonies II for their treatment.
Sunday began with a 'beat the pros' event, where Soul Calibur II Master Zig21 took challengers from the audience. If they could beat him in a single round, they got a $50 gift card. His main character was Astaroth, but after a few wins, he upped the ante and would beat players with their own best characters. He did get beaten a few times, but I think his final record was something like 28-17, and the whole event was just a blast. They then moved onto Halo 2 Team, and challenger teams could attempt to beat some high-ranking Halo players.
The end of Sunday, and of PAX 2005, was the OMEGATHON final round. The Omega Collection was the prize, a $10,000 collection of essentially every NES game, system, and accessory ever produced. Even the obscure and rare ones. It was kept on display in the exhibit room, locked in two enormous cages. Last year, the final round of the OMEGATHON was pong, and as we filed into the theater for the final match, there was lots of buzz, especially in pictochat, about what the game would be. Tycho and Gabe took the stage and revealed this year's final game.... it was COMBAT, for the Atari 2600, first to 2 wins. The match between omeganaughts Coreside and LeRoy was extremely intense, especially with such an amazing prize on the line. In the first match, the older Coreside showed his roots, skunking LeRoy 15-0. The next match, LeRoy got the hang of it and stormed back to tie 8-8. Then LeRoy won a match, setting the stage for an insane finale. The final match started off with Coreside taking a 6 or 7 point lead, but LeRoy came back with several shots in a row to tie it at 10 just as the scores started blinking, which in the old days, meant that your match was almost over. Finally, with the crowd going crazy, Coreside scored a final hit, and won the match, the OMEGATHON, and the entire Omega Collection. WOW.
So, what did I learn? I learned that there isn't a much better way to do Mario Kart tournaments than what were already doing, other than to have more stations or to turn people away. I also learned that if a videogame tournament smells bad, that just means you're doing it right. I learned that if you use Pictochat on your birthday, your DS announces your birthday to every chatroom you enter. I also learned that only Nintendo appreciates how powerful the hardcore can be. I saw Twilight Princess, a Game Boy Micro, AADL-GT DDR master Aaron S, Adult Kart tournament regular Omokusaki's name on the list, Mountains, Nerf capture-the-flag played across the entire hotel, and cases and cases of BAWLZ overcaffeinated soda (it's nasty). I gave AADL-GT Season 1 Grand Championship DVDs to Gabe and Tycho, Zig21, a team from 1UP magazine, the winners of the PAX doubledash tournament, and a few other random people. It was a total blast, and I'm already looking forward to PAX 2006.
HEY! You found SOMETHING HIDDEN! And here it is: OMEGATHONFTW