Monday, September 01, 2008

The PAX Experience, top to bottom

I spent this past weekend at the Penny Arcade Expo, or PAX for short. Briefly described, PAX is now the most important convention in North America that is dedicated to gaming. This title used to be held by E3, but E3 is no longer really relevant and was always a trade show anyway. PAX is not a trade show, PAX is a gaming convention. This means the primary control of the event is given to the gamers and not the vendors and corporates. And when I say "gamers" I don't just mean electronic gamers, although that was probably the majority portion. I mean board games, card games, tabletop role-playing games, console games, handheld games, and computer games. Alongside this primary focus of gaming, there was a secondary focus on all things geek. So naturally, there were some side references to anime and comics, music, and other stuff like that.

The event was huge. I haven't seen attendance numbers yet, but I wouldn't at all be surprised if there were fifty thousand people there at its peak. PAX consumed most of the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in downtown Seattle. This massive facility is right in the heart of downtown and was a nice place. PAX has been held there a couple times.

My friend Joe and two of his poker buddies, Matt and Jeff, were a group of four headed up I-5 to the convention. We timed our arrival on Sunday such that we had the option of checking into our hotel (the Sheraton right next door) and then waiting in line to get into the exhibition hall at 2pm, when the convention officially opened.

This was the first PAX for any of us, and we probably made some rookie mistakes. The first and foremost learning we gained over the first couple days is that it is almost never worth waiting in line for anything at PAX. If you have good enough timing, you can negate the need to stand in line completely either by cheating the line (which we didn't do but certainly saw lots of assholes doing) or by just filtering in after the line had already entered the venue. It meant your seat wasn't the best but the events rarely gave a worthy premium to be near the front.

If you wonder about the nature of the lines we were waiting in, feast upon a picture I took shortly after our arrival on Friday. There was a dedicated "Lineup Room" (which we called the Queuing Hall) and it was impressive to behold.


This is the Lineup Hall. The "line" snakes back and forth across the whole vast football-field-sized hall many times. I'm not sure I really have much of a frame of reference to estimate the number of people in the room, but I would take a rough swag at 10,000.

The idea was that you show up and wait in this line and then you get into the exhibition hall as soon as it opens. Or at least, as soon as it opens and you drain all the way through the lineup room, around the whole convention center and into the exhibition hall. This is one facet of the trip we would definitely bypass if we were to go again.

The exhibition hall itself was pretty cool. There were booths from all the major electronic gaming houses, plus some of the non-electronic ones. Intel of course had a major presence. But the coolest part in my opinion was the PAX10 booth. The PAX10 are ten indie games that were selected to be featured at PAX. The idea was to boost the visibility for these ten games. The PAX10 booth was prime real estate, very near the front entrance and with great traffic right by both sides of the area. And it was always packed with people playing cool games like Audiosurf and Strange Attractors 2 (my two favorites).

Major game releases were being teased as well. Fallout 3, Spore, Rock Band 2, and Guitar Hero World Tour were the ones that I noticed the most. For the music games in particular there was a lot of interest. There were several stages set up throughout the venue, not just in the exhibition hall, that allowed you to get your rock on while dozens of people watched and cheered.

On Friday and Saturday night there were concerts. Unfortunately the concert hall was a gigantic rectangular chamber with horrid acoustics that made for a very noisy experience. I'm not sure I've been to very many louder concerts, in fact, than the MC Frontalot concert on Saturday night. But with earplugs and the proper distance from the stacks, a good time could be had. It was quite bizarre to see pockets of people at the concert actually sitting or laying on the floor playing various handheld video games with each other.

Which brings up one startling facet of PAX. A huge percentage of the attendees had Nintendo DS's and some had PSPs. There was always some really bizarre pictochat threads happening, usually with some pictures of wangs involved. And always someone either delivering or consuming the Nintendo Download Play content. So there was literally always someone to play with, and not just in the "Handheld Lounges" that were sprinkled around the convention center. These lounges were places where lounging quite literally happened. Apparently sponsored by Sumo bean bags, there were big bags scattered around and people just laying about playing games and hooting and hollering. And some folks sleeping. Knowing the hygenic habits of the nerd populous, I tried to minimize the amount of time I spent in these communal beanbags, but there are points when your feet and butt are so tired from either waiting in line or sitting in a chair that you have to stretch out a bit. During those times the Sumos were nice to have lying around.

There were also conference rooms dedicated to checked-out console gaming. You could take a number ticket (a strikingly low-tech mechanism considering the clientele), watch any of several video screens to see when your number was coming up, and go to a "check out room" to get assigned any of the current-gen consoles, any controllers needed, and a game. My compadres and I navigated this process to play some rocking Mario Cart Wii in the wee hours of Saturday morning.

I attended several panels and presentations, all worthwhile if not completely exciting. The PA guys, Gabe and Tycho, did a "live" comic creation presentation where they had a rough idea for a comic, presented it to the audience of 10-15k or so, then proceeded to make the whole comic while taking questions from the audience. These guys are so talented that they just worked the room with great wit and aplomb. Unfortunately the main artist's (Gabe, aka Mike Krahulik) computer was physically broken during transit and the comic he made will have to be re-made before it can be published on the Penny Arcade website.

Another presentation I went to was the guys from Telltale Games doing something similar with their new "Strongbad's Awesome Game for Attractive People." This game is downloadable on the Wii and comes in an episodic format, with one episode about every month. They let the audience decide on characters from the Homestar Runner millieu, a rough plot, and even audition to do the voiceovers for the characters. It was fantastic fun.

I also went to the PAX10 panel, wherein the developers of the aforementioned indie games talked about the development process and what it takes to make a successful indie game.

And my group also spent several hours in the gaming annex, where Joe and I learned how to play Munchkin and Settlers of Catan, which I'm told is the current most popular board game on the planet. While we were fighting our way through the first few turns of Munchkin, some executive nerds from Steve Jackson Games actually descended upon our little nook of the gaming annex and started to rain some very cool Munchkin-related swag down upon us, as well as trying to handicap Joe, who was at the time winning the game, by decreeing that he would lose one point. Not sure what led this dude, who claimed he was the COO of SJG, to believe that we would obey his decree, but whatever. The sad thing was that Munchkin didn't really need people walking around pumping it up. It needed people coming around to players and getting some really honest and brutal feedback on the game rules. Munchkin is one of the most frustrating games I've ever played. I won the game but I felt like a loser after it was said and done, just because of all the uncertainty and arguing over the rules. Apparently if you don't have online access to their rule FAQs while playing, you are guaranteed to be mired in endless arguments over interpretations of rules. Settlers, of course, was elegant and easy to understand, at least for the basic version. Therein probably lies the difference in popularity, although Munchkin seemed to be unfathomably popular at PAX.

To demonstrate the camaraderie, the zeitgeist of PAX, the whole gaming Woodstock feel, consume the following anecdote. While we were setting up to play Munchkin, a stranger walked up to us and asked us if he could sit down and play with us. He was a nice guy and a sharp thinker named Geoff, and he fell right into our group and meshed. After the game was over, I thanked him for joining us and he wandered off. I'm quite sure I wouldn't normally feel comfortable playing a board or card game with a set of complete strangers, especially a game I was learning for the first time. But that's the nature of PAX. We also had a nerdy gentleman sit at our table and do sort of a running color analysis on our Settlers game. For his own amusement and the benefit of the newbies (Joe and me). He also was nice enough to take a picture of us playing.



But the best part of the whole weekend was getting to catch up with two old friends, Becky and James Hicks. I met them both at the Governor's Scholar Program summer camp in 1989, which was the summer before our senior year in high school. Although we kept in touch for a while, I did lose track of them some time in the last ten years or so, after they got married and headed off to San Diego. I was delighted to get back in touch with them recently via Facebook. It was also through Facebook that they found out I would be at PAX, and they already had plans to attend. So I spent the better part of an afternoon with them. We figured out that we hadn't actually seen each other in about 19 years, which is a longer time period than we had experienced on earth prior to that. In other words, more than half our lives had passed since our last face-to-face meeting. But it didn't really matter much. We picked up where we left off. It was great to see them.

The PAX experience was amazing, perhaps even overwhelming at times. There is so much to do that you can't possibly leave without some regret about not having done some particular thing. For me it was getting up with a group of people that I knew and doing some Rock Band 2 stuff. Although I did get to try out Guitar Hero World Tour and practice my DLR chops singing Hot for Teacher, it would have been much more meaningful to do it with some friends. Perhaps next time. If I go next year. Next year there will be TWO PAXes (paces?) with one occurring in Boston and one in Seattle again. So maybe that will lighten up the crowd a bit, since Wil Wheaton can't possibly be at both. We'll see.

More pictures in my picasaweb gallery here.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The view from PAX

PAX is awesome. I'm not nearly geeky enough to have the gadgets required to upload pics from the convention floor, but they will be uploaded soon. Stay tuned. It is an awesome experience.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Pics from Haifa

Pictures from my Haifa trip are available here.

It was a very busy week. 31 hours of meetings in 5 days, plus trying not to fall too far behind with my regular work.

Have you ever been in a foreign country with no form of currency or credit cards? It's a somewhat stressful experience, please take my word for it and don't try it yourself. How did this happen? Easy. I outsmarted myself.

I figured since I was going overseas it would be a useful thing to have scans of the backs of my credit cards, so that if I lost some or had them stolen, it would be very easy for Tracy to call and cancel them before they got run up. So in the waning minutes of preparation, shortly before jumping in the shuttle bus for the airport, I slapped all four cards on my scanner and scanned them. This included my sparkling-new corporate Amex card.

Then I left. And left the cards on the scanner bed. I realized this when we got to the airport and I went into my wallet to get a card to pay the shuttle bus driver. Of course I didn't have adequate time to get back to the house or have Tracy deliver them to the airport. So it was onward ho.

When you realize something like this has happened, it's very much like a physical shock. When I looked in my wallet, I felt like someone had just hit me full on in the face with a heavy pillow.

After some brief discussion with my co-workers who were going to be my companions on the trip, we decided this was not really a showstopper issue. They could spot me some cash if necessary and could definitely cover meals and such, since we were probably going to just rotate taking turns paying for meals anyway. But it meant I had no buying power of my own, and I was in a foreign country.

I attempted to get a replacement Amex card delivered to Israel. Emergency card replacement is supposed to be a perk of corporate credit cards like the one I have. So I called up the card replacement folks during our 3-hour layover in Atlanta. I got hold of a very nice lady who obviously specialized in corporate customer service. She agonized with me that if our flights had been a little earlier that day, I could probably have ventured out from the Atlanta airport and picked up a replacement card right then. But instead our layover was in the evening hours right when their office was closing.

Unfortunately there is no Amex office capable of printing or receiving the card in Haifa, the nearest one is in Tel Aviv, which is a 90-minute drive from Haifa on a good day. This meant that not only would I have no money of my own, I would have to drive at least three hours on foreign freeways by myself in order to pick up a replacement. But it seemed far easier than paying for the expense of having Tracy overnight the card directly to the hotel, especially since there was no guarantee it would really be "overnight" and might take several days. So I agreed to the Tel Aviv plan.

Despite my fears, this probably would have worked out roughly okay except that they then bungled the plan and sent my replacement card to my home address. I didn't realize this until several very confused conversations with the folks in the Tel Aviv office. Believe it or not, their "solution" to this problem they created was to have Tracy receive the card at home and overnight it across the Atlantic. But by this time it was far too late and the card would have arrived after I had checked out of the hotel.

My nickname for the trip was The Vagabond, and my co-workers were my lifeline. The trip went great despite my temporary bankruptcy. In fact if I had known how good it would go, I wouldn't have stressed so much about the credit card. The folks hosting us at the Israel site were great too, offering to spot me cash if necessary and giving me the time off required to make the drive to Tel Aviv in the afternoon. The drive never occurred and fortunately we were able to use that time wisely.

I did conquer my fear of driving in a European country. Fortunately Israel has left-drive cars and right-side roads, so the mechanics of driving were obviously familiar. However the strategy and tactics of driving were quite a shock to behold, even given my expectations. Quick lane-changes, tailgating, and cutting people off by inches were the order of the day. So was laying on the horn for the briefest of hesitations, even when pedestrians or bicycles were involved. Even the public bus drivers were maniacs. But by the time the week was over I could practically have been given an Israeli license.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Arrival in Tel Aviv, now in Haifa

I'm currently located at the Dan Panorama hotel in Haifa, Israel. Getting ready to head out on a guided tour of the area, during which I will take copious photos and post them. Stay tuned to this space for pics and trip report. I've been in the country 15 hours and it has already been somewhat of an adventure already...

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Give it to Sykora!

Take the Mark Messier award back from Mats Sundin! Give it to Petr Sykora!

I watched Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals tonight. The Pittsburgh Penguins were against the proverbial wall, trying to fend off the Detroit Red Wings and prevent them from clinching the Cup and extend the series to six games.

The Pens, after leading by two goals early, had to rally late in the game with their goalie pulled in order to force overtime. Then, during the first OT, apparently Petr Sykora, who is one of three former Cup winners on the Pens squad, told rinkside reporter Pierre Maguire in no uncertain terms that he was going to score the game-winner.

It looked like a humorous gaffe at first, because Sykora promptly landed in the penalty box for a lazy penalty. If the Wings had scored, Sykora looks like an ass, the Wings lift the hardware, and everybody goes home.

As the game went halfway into the third OT, the Wings creepiest looking player, Jiri Hudler, was imprisoned for a high-sticking double-minor. Although overtime hockey generally bores me, I sat up straight at that point because this was Sykora's chance to make good on his prediction.

Sure enough, he wired a big slapper from the point that was deflected wide to Evgeni Malkin, who dropped the puck right back to Sykora as he crept down from the point. Sykora's wrister was true and he ended the game.

With that particular feat, Sykora joins the likes of the great sport shot-callers of all time. Mark Messier did it in 1994, Babe Ruth famously did it, and Jordan and Byrd were both notorious for telling opponents what they were getting ready to do to them right before embarrassing them.

But seriously, Petr Sykora? If Crosby, Malkin or even Gary Roberts does that, we give them instant cred. But the last time Sykora won a Stanley Cup (2000), he was laying in a hospital bed after being freight-trained by Derian Hatcher. To be fair, he had been a huge force in the playoffs up until that point, on the famed "A" line.

Good job, Sykora. You may make a believer out of the Pens.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Touch

Along with researching new mp3 players, I was also researching MIDs (mobile internet devices) as well. I believe as Wifi get more ubiquitous, we'll all be headed generally in that direction. I'm probably not as internet-addicted as some, but I love a quick Wikipedia search as much as anybody, so this was something that interested me.

I have tinkered around with the iPhone and had concluded that it was "close but not quite." I certainly wasn't ready to be locked into a phone contract with a huge data plan, and the device was cool but a little hefty. Plus, as I mentioned in the previous post, I don't trust Apple from a software perspective. The emergence of jailbreaking the iPhones was a step in the right direction, much like RockBox on earlier devices but for different reasons, so I started kinda keeping my eye on developments in that area.

When I saw the iPod Touch come out, I decided that if I were to get an iPod, that would definitely be the one I considered. It was mainly the combination of the mp3 player and strong interface with a MID-like set of functionality that enticed me. The price is steep, but I take care of my devices so I'm only mildly paranoid about the dough-ray-mee.

Well, they had the iPod Touch at Costco this weekend. And it was about $20 than any price I could get online for the 16-gig version, so that spurred me into the purchase. I had narrowed my search down to the Samsung YP-P2 and the Touch and one other that escapes me at the moment because I don't have my notes, so there you go.

I am pretty happy with the device. Apple does an interface right, generally speaking, and all the stuff that should be simple with the Touch managed to be pretty simple. Picking out a wireless network, for instance. I had the Touch out of the box and registered for literally less than a minute before I was surfing my wifi network on the Touch. That impressed me, and so did the fact that it could deduce my location on google maps based on what wifi networks were around it.

To repeat myself a bit: I am still extremely unhappy with iTunes. I don't plan on buying any music through it (unless someone gives me a gift card or something) and I certainly don't plan to use it to sync my device. Right now I'm using MediaMonkey, which is a great program that I use to do all things mp3/ogg related right now. It handles iPods fairly well, with the notable exception that it doesn't know how to sync photos, contacts, calendars etc with the Touch. That's not that big a deal to me. I can use iTunes one time to sync photos and contacts, and then Mediamonkey from then on. Not 100% satisfying but better than iTunes.

I still wouldn't call myself an Apple fan yet, but I do appreciate the qualities of the Touch hardware. I'm just looking for a better way to talk to it right now.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

A huge step in the right direction: Karma

In 2004 I got the device that was probably the iPod killer, or at least the earliest serious iPod competitor, if it hadn't been for huge problems in marketing and corporate issues: the Rio Karma. The Karma had a good interface, very good audio hardware, supported formats that iPod did not (FLAC, Ogg) and had very good "smart" playlist functionality (called the Rio DJ).

Rio DJ was an awesome advance. With a few clicks of the click-wheel and click-stick that were part of the Karma, you could select shuffled playlists of varying lengths, or shuffle the entire contents of the player. You could also have it create a varying-length playlist of your "most played" songs, which was kinda-sorta nice but had some issues. My main issue with the most played mechanism is that I almost constantly ran the Rio DJ in "shuffle all songs" mode. In that mode, in theory you play every song on the device once before you play any twice. Well, in reality I do skip tunes (based on mood) and I do eventually turn off the player before the playlist completes (20 gigs of music is a long time).

Why didn't I go iPod? Well, the main issue was iTunes. First of all, during this time iTunes was big on DRM. I was also hearing about lots of problems moving iTunes-purchased tunes around and other nightmares. Plus iTunes did pretty horribly with a network-available SMB share as its library. The final strike against it was that I just didn't trust Apple with application software in the media domain. I knew that they were trying to build their little empire and they were going to kowtow to the RIAA whenever they had to in order to build. I'm glad I held to those guns at that time.

I loved the Karma, and it lasted wonderfully. It was a nice shape, fit in a pocket well, was solid but not heavy. It had a nifty little dock with some cool features like ethernet connectivity as well as USB 2. The software that came with it wasn't fantastic but it did the job okay. It had some crash issues, especially when using the ethernet port. But it had RCA outputs which was handy for connecting to stereo systems and stuff.

One problem with the Karma was not one of its own making: there were almost no accessories for it. Despite the fact that the Karma had a port on the bottom of it which was similar to iPod's in functionality, no "dock" accessories ever appeared on the scene for the Karma. I think we can firmly place the blame for this in the marketing and licensing departments of Rio. I realize that iPod had already had a head start, but the Karma was a superior product to what Apple had to offer at that time, so going cheap to get vendors to make accessories would have been huge. It's also possible that Rio was in its death throes at that time, which renders any particular hindsight moot.

There was also some limited third-party software available for the Karma, but even after purchasing some of it I never really used it. It was no less buggy than the Rio's own.

I have two buddies who also had Rio Karmas and theirs died within the last couple years. One of them went on to the Karma's spiritual descendent, the Trekstor Vibez, but the other switched over to iPod. My Karma was still kicking it so I was watching from a distance and enjoying the heck out of it while I still could. I knew eventually it would die off, being based on a hard drive.

I did purchase a Samsung flash-based mp3 player for my wife, and an additional Cowon 1-gig flash-based player for myself. The idea was to be able to leave the Karma in its dock or in the car or wherever and still have a player to use while walking to/from work. The Cowon is very battery-efficient but its playlisting functionality is non-existent. It has a shuffle-play mode but the shuffle is very stupid.

Unfortunately the end finally came last week, when I apparently misplaced it. It's possible that it might resurface, but I don't know where it is and I can't wait around for it to pop up. This triggered the hunt for a new player. I did plenty of research on the matter, like I did before buying the Karma. My next post will address why I went over to the evil side...