Monthly Archives: March 2011

PAX Vs the World

Ok, so in my universe there are only so many important convention. First, since I’m on the East Coast of the US, the cons on the west coast are pretty much right out. This is a shame because my favorite convention in the universe – Ambercon Northwest – takes place outside of Portland, and it also means the various Endgame minicons are of the table. So it goes.

There are also some smaller cons that I make a priority of, notably Dexcon and Dreamation up in New Jersey. I like the atmosphere, I like the people, and they’re an opportunity to play, so they go in their own bucket.

But beyond those are the big deal cons, and historically they’ve been Origins, Gencon and Dragoncon. The classic advice is that you go to Origins to play (or to see people), Gencon to sell and Dragoncon to drink. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I’ve found it holds up.

When PAX (now PAX Prime) showed up, it didn’t really shake things up too much. From my perspective as a tabletop gamer, it was mostly in a different sphere, absorbing the debris of E3. People came back from it with reports of an excellent convention and a broad range of nerdery, and that was nice, but didn’t move my needle much. Even if it became a bigger hub for tabletop, its position on the West Coast put it out of my sphere.

But then came PAX East, and things got upended. People came back with stories of a geek mecca, full of video games and technology, yes, but also hours of fun for other members of the geek tribe. And Luke Crane and the Burning Wheel guys reported sales numbers in the Gencon range. I was super curious, as was Fred, so our trip up this year was sort of dual purpose. First, we wanted to go and have an awesome time (we did!) but we also wanted to know if this was something we might want to look at from a business perspective, maybe doing a booth or the like.

As a company, Evil Hat hasn’t yet made any decisions, so don’t read this as me speaking for that, but I definitely have some personal impressions.

When I can only go to one summer con, I will generally choose Origins. This is not much of a business decision. Origins sales are anemic and it’s not a great place for a new release. It is, however, a wonderful convention for seeing people and enjoying their company along with excellent food and atmosphere. Gencon is more work – it’s bigger and it’s a better sales opportunity, but I find the time to sit and talk needs to be taken in stolen moments and out of the way corners. If I had a big new release, Gencon is probably the right choice for it, but otherwise…

Don’t get me wrong. Gencon is a great experience. It’s the biggest collection of the tabletop tribes I know of, and if you’re willing to put in the work to deal with scheduling, then it can be an incredibly full convention of basically non-stop activity. It’s got a great seminar track (maybe the best in gaming) and it’s the place that gaming companies are likely to make releases and announcements. But it is very much the meeting of the tribes.

PAX East (and I presume PAX Prime) is a different beast. It’s the convention of the broader geek nation, and that means less uniformity, but it also means fewer dividing lines. The people who come to Gencon and buy your stuff because they know it’s going to be there. The people at PAX buy your stuff because they _don’t_. They are open to the idea of your game, but not married to a lot of the baggage around it.

To me, that’s pretty freaking fantastic. And it’s a reason that, as a publisher, I definitely want to have some sort of presence at PAX, even if it’s just one among many at the IPR booth. For all that it’s a sales avenue, it is an even more powerful marketing avenue. We like to talk about growing the hobby and reaching new people, and I genuinely am unsure if there’s a better way to do it.

But that’s also scary. Thinking about showing games at PAX reminds me of exactly how much we take for granted when we sell within the established community. There’s a lot you don’t need to do when you are selling to the converted. And as such, there’s a reasons that did well are the ones with a rock-solid demo-centric ethos (most notably Steve Jackson Games and the Burning Wheel folks). PAX is a con that gives you the chance to show that your game is awesome, but isn’t going to take your word for it.

But all that’s through the lens of a publisher. As a player and a nerd, I can’t imagine skipping the next PAX. The fun is just there, lying on the ground, waiting to be picked up. At Gencon (and even Origins) I feel like I miss out on a lot of stuff because I’m not in the right place at the right time. PAX felt like all places and times were right.

Bottom line -PAX isn’t going to replace Gencon anytime soon. The cons have different priorities and needs, and frankly, I think it would be utterly toxic to PAX to try to absorb too much tabletop. But PAX is raising the bar for Gencon and other big conventions, especially in terms of quality of experience, and it is shaping up as a critical marketing opportunity for game companies. Even if it doesn’t go on your calendar, it’s going to be the con to watch.

PAX Downsides

Given the number of wonderful things I’ve had to say, I should probably give a little bit of airtime to the problems with PAX. There weren’t many, but they are worth mentioning.

I’ve mentioned that food was a little rough. There were actually decent options if you wanted to leave the convention hall, but who would want to do that? Most of the choices were expensive and of dubious quality, but the funniest bit was in the extra food court. I think there had been a last minute attempt to bring in more food options, setting up a new food court down at the lower levels in another of the huge rooms. It was a good idea, but I would guess that the available options were limited, as the food trucks they’d rolled in were all basically carnival food. Thus, we gained $5 pizza slices, fried dough and ice cream. I’m hoping that next year they’ll have more time to plan and maybe bring in some real food trucks, assuming Boston _has_ food trucks. I don’t actually know if it does.

It is also a convention of lines. Lines for events, and lines on the expo floor. If you want to see something, you are going to wait in line. If you’re in one of these lines, especially towards the back, this kind of sucks. The problem is that I’m really not sure what the alternative is. Every model of pre-scheduling or smart-ticketing I can think of has exploitable loopholes, and this is exactly the crowd to exploit them.

Booth babes. I had not been expecting to see any booth babes on the floor based on what I’d read about the show, so I was a little surprised to see some. That said, they were mostly inoffensive. The ones selling hardware seemed knowledgeable and weren’t too overdone. The costumed ones handing out bags were in high-quality, in theme, non-skimpy costumes. The Duke Nukem ones were kind of shameless, but I can only complain so much – it’s Duke Nukem, the FPS with full functioning urinals. I’m not expecting a lot of class. Also, frankly, you had to wait through a hell of a line to get anywhere near the Duke Nukem booth babes, so all in all, fine. I think my sole objection were the ones mixing drinks at one large open booth, in large part because the announcer was REALLY pushing the booth babe-ness (“Talk to our girls! It’s not like real life! They WANT to talk to you!”). So, points off for that, but only so many. It’s worth some credit that it was so obnoxious because it was so anomalous.

Lastly, Boston wasn’t ready for the crowd. One thing I dig about Gencon is that all the surrounding businesses know that they’re getting an influx of nerds. We’re mostly well behaved, but we want to do strange things like play games in bars. Indianapolis knows there’s money in this, and is very friendly towards is. Boston was taken by surprise, but given the size of the convention, I hope they adapt quickly. This year, I felt like we were seen as a disruption to the business travelers, and that’s never much fun.

OK, so there are the complaints. All in all, they come to a very small pile compared to the awesome, but I felt like it would be unfair not to vent a little bit.

Lessons Learned For PAX

While I had a fantastic time, there are a few things I need to think about in terms of handling differently.

  • I envy the hair. Fred’s very blue hair made him easily identifiable and findable, and had I not been paired with him, I suspect it would have been much harder to hook up with people. Being an overweight guy with a beard and glasses is not quite the camouflage it is at Gencon, but it’s still not much of a distinction. Worth putting some thought into a readily identifiable flag of some sort.
  • I need a lighter kit. My Leverage kit (only ran once because I had no juice beyond that) was way too heavy and large, demanding a backpack. Inconvenient, but addressable with better planning.
  • Bags are ubiquitous. I’d been a little worried that carrying a bag would be inconvenient, but about three-quarters of show goers either had their own bag or were carrying one they’d picked up on the expo floor. So, no problem with that. Just need one well suited to the con. Cross-body vertical bags seem the best compromise, and I must give a nod to Logan Bonner’s enviably awesome bag in this regard.
  • The lines are long, and you need to bring something along with that expectation. A portable game system (like a DS) is probably a good choice, but line-friendly games (like Zombie Dice) can work just as well or maybe better.
  • If you see something on the expo floor on the first day and think “maybe” then assume it will not be there when you get back. Make your purchase or make your peace.
  • This was not a cheap con to attend. Hotel and food were both non-trivial expenses, made a bit worse by the fact that the area very clearly had no idea what it was in for. However, the con was right by a T stop (Boston’s metro) and things don’t start in the morning until 10:00, which suggests that this would not be a hard con to attend remotely, probably saving a few bucks.
  • I need to figure out how to pack sandwiches. Lunch was the meal of doom, since it generally meant choosing options inside the convention center, which ranged from “Overpriced and ok” to “Disturbing” to “Carnie Food”. Breakfast and dinner were fine, but lunch needs a plan.


PAX Purchases
I spent more at PAX than I planned to. There weren’t many new RPG releases (which is good – a new release would be almost wasted on the PAX audience because almost everything is new) but a few things popped up that ate some bucks.
Microscope – This is a kind-of-but-not-really RPG I bought at the IPR booth after enough curious comments about it online. It’s short and to be honest I probably would have been smarter just buying the PDF, but I have these moments of weakness. Anyway, it’s a game about creating an interesting arc of history from X to Y (the rise of an empire to it’s collapse, the landing of colonists to the explosion of the planet, or the like), effectively making setting creation a game. I enjoy games like this, but there’s a final hurdle they often fall short of. Most often they build great histories or worlds, but don’t provide a lot of help answering “and now what?”. I’m curious to see if Microscope rounds this corner. If it doesn’t, then it’s in good company, but I can hope.
Inevitable – I got this through what I guess was kind of the unstore booth. It’s a wacky boardgame of post apocalyptic pop culture. It is absolutely a very silly game, and while it’s but on top of the classic roll-and-move monopoly style engine, it intentionally subverts that and most of the other expectations of such a game to produce something pretty fun. I’m not sure it has infinite replayability because, like any humorous game, things eventually grow thin. But I’m also confident that it has playability beyond “after you’ve seen everything once” which is usually when humorous games fail.
Puzzle Strike – It’s a streamlined dominion clone with a few puzzle-fighter game elements played with poker-chip shaped tokens in under 20 minutes. Hard not to go wrong.
Magic Cards – I blame other people. There were Archenemy decks on sale, and Fred got me one of the planechaser sets, and I then had to round it out a bit. It’s a sickness, but I now feel very well equipped for some multiplayer action.
Food – Food was probably the single biggest line item beyond the hotel itself. Despite some concerns, I found plenty of places to eat around the convention, the problem was that they were by and large stupidly expensive. Good, and often worth it, but expensive.
Things I Didn’t Buy
Zombie Dice – They pretty much sold out as soon as they showed up. It was very clearly the game of choice for people waiting in line.
A Baseball Hat – ten millions t-shirts, but maybe 2 or 3 booths selling baseball hats, all of whom sold out of grown up sizes almost immediately. Annoying.

The PAX East Fun Factory

PAX East was a fun factory.
That seems like a kind of jokey thing to say, but I mean it in a very literal way. PAX East was a tremendously enjoyable convention, and most of the reasons for that can be traced to how it’s run and the decisions that went into it. From my perspective, those practices and decisions are in line with those that make for maximum efficiency in factory production. Or maybe network engineering.
First, there’s a lot of “wasted space” including an entire HUGE room used only in the morning for standing in line. PAX East does not take advantage of all the space available to it.
But what looks like waste at first glance is really excess capacity, and very well managed capacity at that. It’s designed to handle the maximum load, not the average load, and that’s just good design. It means there’s always room for things to happen, and that’s important later. In contrast, when you have a con that uses all the space available, things break when something overflows or runs late. Problems cascade into the rest of the system. Excess capacity keeps that from happening.
Second, PAX has a strange schedule. There are only a very small number of events, and demand is such that the queue for one usually begins at least an hour before the event. That creates a lot of friction in getting into events, and seems like a terribe way to run a ship. But again, all is not as it appears.
The small number of events is absolutely a chokepoint, but the instictive solution (add more events) doesn’t change that. It just creates more, harder to manage chokepoints. Instead, PAX East elevates the chokepoints, putting them front and center. The queues seem inefficient when compared to a ticketing system, but a little thought about that (including questions like when you would distribute tickets) makes it clear that they work quite well. If you _really_ want to go to a panel, you can do so. It will only cost you time.
Still, if that was all there was to it, I wouldn’t consider it too much of a solution, so of course there’s a catch. See, by elevating the chokepoint that the events represent, PAX implicitly acknowledges that not everyone can be entertained by the events, and so it is necessary that convention itself be entertaining enough (or provide the opportunities for entertainment) to keep people occupied. To that end, there are numerous resources that range from an old style arcade to a console gaming room to the aforementioned tabletop gaming area. This is where that extra capacity pays off because these places can support people seeking the “passive” fun of the convention (rather than the “active” fun of events).
For people who have gone to Gencon or another highly scheduled gaming convention, consider the comparison. If you don’t have a scheduled event, what do you do (besides buy things?) I’m sure there are some answers, but I admit. most of my first answers had nothing to do with the convention.
There’s another upshot worth mentioning. By limiting the number of official events, but providing excess capacity and tools for communication (like the PAX forums) it encouraged informal scheduling. It also meant that scheduling was the responsibility of the person or group running the event. From private invitations to the WOTC run events, these were not the convention’s responsibility to schedule (though the convention did view itself as responsible for _supporting_ these events – a key distinction). A cynic might view that as a invitation or disaster, but it seems to turn out that empowered geeks self organize pretty well.
Not flawlessly though. That’s where the last bit of magic comes in. By training and empowering their volunteers, PAX has effectively created factory foremen with its enforcers. Like foremen, they have the tools and the impetus to keep everything moving, and they do so with a smile (and let me give a brief shout out to Zuki and Meatshield). It’s not that every problem they solve is a big one – most aren’t – but the reality is that most big problems begin with a small problem that has spun up out of control. Putting enforcers in a position to make the small fixes means the big fixes are less likely to be necessary.
Now, these are just a few observations about how things were run. I’m sure others will occur to me, and there are others I completely failed to notice. But from these alone, I’m really impressed at the depth of capacity managment thinking that has clearly gone into things. There are a stack of things that PAX East seems to does wrong (Wasted space! Bad scheduling!) but actually does very right indeed.

Breaking the Mould

There is no reason that 4e character classes could not be designed radically differently. WOTC has a clear template for them (a flawed one) and there’s a knee-jerk instinct to follow that same pattern, but I don’t think anything makes that necessary.

I’d suggest that all that is really required for a functional 4e class is that it have about the right number of hit points, about the right defenses, and about the right range of attacks and abilities. It’s not an exact science, but it’s not hard to ballpark. If all you need to do is hit those benchmarks, then it becomes much less important how you do so.
For example, you could greatly simplify the game by using each existing class as a means of creating numerous more streamlined sub-classes, by simply taking away choices. The Iron Tempest class begins with these two at wills, this encounter power and this daily, and the power choices (and other choices, perhaps) might be mapped out from level 1 to level 30.
On the other hand, this means that much more radical (or perhaps regressive) ideas could be supported. There’s nothing that keeps a 4e character from gaining abilities as he levels, the way that characters did in 3e. It need not even be encounter or daily powers. While those are the norm, it’s still entirely possible to adjudicate something that’s usable 3 times per day or the like.
Yes, any such model hits the big wall of all third party class creation – it doesn’t work with the character builder. That’s frustrating. But it occurs to me that it’s only a barrier because of the complexity of handling 4e characters as is. If you’re going to change the way you think about classes, is there any reason your new vision needs to be so complicated that it requires a tool?
It’s an open door. If it was only a little bit open before, I think it’s safe to say that Gamma World kicked it wide. No reason not to see where it goes.

Hitting the Road

I have never been to PAX East before and I genuinely have no idea what to expect. If the projected attendance numbers are any indicator, this is going to run the risk of being positively overwhelming. I am, I think, very grateful that I’m focused on the fringier elements of nerd-dom, if only to avoid that.

This will also be the first non-Dreamation/Dexcon in some time where I’m not responsible for a booth. That alone promises to be kind of interesting.
However, there’s a long drive between here and there. I’ll have good company – Fred’s heading up with me – but it’s long all the same. Long enough that, between leaving early and prep, you mostly get a glorified announcement that I’m heading up to PAX in lieu of a real post.

Arguing Corkscrews

I like wine. I don’t know it very well, but I’m open to taking advice about it, what to pair it with and such. I listen to wine arguments and discussions with a bit of detachment because even if the people arguing are knowledgeable and passionate, they’re engaged with things that are outside the scope of my simple “I would like a good glass of wine” perspective.

It gets utterly surreal when they start arguing about corkscrews. There are, it turns out, lots of different ways to open a bottle of wine, all of which are potential subjects for argument. What throws me is that this is not even about the wine (at least not in any way that speaks to me) yet the arguments can get even more heated than those about wine. As someone who just wants to open the bottle to get to the deliciousness inside, it’s off-putting.

Gamers argue about corkscrews all the time.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it can be a lot of fun to argue about corkscrews with other people who also Care Deeply about them, but it’s easy for the corkscrew argument to overwhelm the discussion, especially as it gets heated. It becomes hard to see that for many people, the right corkscrew is the one they have, and they’re happy with that. And when you describe in no uncertain terms how their corkscrew is crap and how the only good corkscrew is this other kind, then the best case scenario is that they think you’re a jerk, and the worst is that they decide that maybe beer enthusiasts will be a trifle more welcoming.

Disagree about the corkscrews if you like, but don’t forget that people are really here for the wine.

Other People’s Coolness

Getting ready to go to PAX East later this week, and after my week of (still lingering) plague, it’s a bit rushed, so I’m going to cheat a bit today and point to some other cool stuff out there.

First, my friend Fred has started with the A part of his Q&A posts over at Deadly Fredly. This is pretty neat to watch, and I admit that I may be tempted to try the same thing sometime. Also, to add my two bits to Question #2 – I think Scion already does Percy Jackson well enough that I’d be hard pressed to try it without feeling like I’m reinventing the wheel.

Next, for other folks looking at the upcoming con experience, Ryan Macklin made a very useful post about the con kit, chock full of useful advice in the comments. If you’re also hitting the road to be in a hotel full of nerds, it’s worth a read.

I don’t currently have a gaming PC (which is good for my free time) but after seeing the trailer for the new Alice: Madness Returns I admit I would be tempted to get one. A modern updating of America McGee’s Alice that maybe delivers on the promise of the original? Yes please. Thankfully, it looks like it’ll also be out for the xbox, so I don’t need a new rig just for it.

Chris Dias wrote a very interesting open letter to WOTC regarding openness to 3rd party publishers. It’s a good read, and he hits a lot of points I’m intimately familiar with from our own experience with One Bad Egg. I have no real hope for 4e openness – to go open would require a certain kind of business model which wouldn’t really match WOTCs current habits – but it’s a good argument all the same.

It’s never a surprise when John Harper does something awesome, and these Leverage character sheets are no exception. I hopefully will have a stack of them printed before PAX.

I mentioned them earlier, but I want to shout out to Transneptune games and d20 Pro, both of which have earned spots on my feedreader.

Anyway, all good and worthy things to check out. As for the rest of you, what should I be keeping my eyes open for at PAX? I’m going as a nerd, not a pro, and I admit the prospect of not having a booth to man feels absolutely liberating.

Fiction, Fairness and 4e

In my discussion of the role of skills in spotlighting character awesomeness in 4e (or more precisely, the lack of this) the counterpoint of solving the problem in the fiction of the game was raised and I think this merited some attention. There are a lot of issues with games – not just 4e but any other games – that can be addressed in the fiction of the game rather than with rule changes. This is especially true of things that relate to the role of the players in the context of the game. How important and respected the characters are is only sometimes a function of rules. However, there’s a point where this breaks down. When you need to solve a problem for the group, then look to the fiction, but when you need to solve a problem for a character, it’s less reliable.

Let’s look at the specific case of rangers and tracking. If I want to respect the idea of tracing as a Ranger schtick despite 4e’s not doing so, there are a few fiction and technique options available to me. I can certainly have other people _react_ like he’s exceptional (fiction) and I can make his failures more reflective of his awesomeness (You didn’t fail because you sucked, you failed because it was SO HARD that only you even faintly had a chance of doing it! – fiction) but that’s a pretty meh solution. The reactions aren’t very compelling unless they hold water in play. The fiction of failure looks like a good idea on the surface of it, but it leads me to ask when you’re _not_ doing that? If respectful failures are only an exception in your game then I would consider that a red flag.

The last solution is, of course, to make the Ranger’s rolls inherently more potent, or increase the number of situations where I don’t call for a roll. I can certainly couch this in terms of fiction, but the reality is that at that point I’m making a mechanical distinction (whether I acknowledge it or not) and that’s where the ice gets thin. At that point, we have to deal with the reality that someone else in the party can make the roll too, and they (reasonably) expect that the outcomes of their rolls will be proportional. If the Ranger and I both roll a 17 but his outcome is much better than mine, I’m going to call foul.

Now here’s the important point about it being a rule that’s very easy to overlook. My objection is not going to be that Ranger’s shouldn’t be awesome at tracking. If you ask me, I’ll agree they probably should be. Rather, the root of my objection is that this idea has never been communicated clearly or usefully, and my expectations have been violated. I like to assume that most GMs are good enough to make smart, engaging, fun rulings on the fly, and that’s great, but it’s foolish to rely on that. Not because the GM is going to trip up or be a jerk, but because the players have no visibility into a ruling-based process. A rule is a means of communication, and in solving problems (especially problems between players) more communication is almost always better.

Now, obviously, some games call for more or less of this (The Amber DRPG is almost entirely ruling based, while 4e actively strives to minimize the need for such rulings) and more, some tables have radically different ideas regarding how this should be approached. Often, the “GM-As-God” approach has less to do with GM authority than with lack of GM accountability. And if people dig that, then awesome. Go forth and continue having fun.

But the bottom line is this: the fact that the GM can fix things in play does not excuse shoddy game design, and it doesn’t excuse shoddy GMing either.