Friday, September 16, 2011

PAX Panels 2011

PAX is always a great opportunity to collect your thoughts and reflect on the industry. Last year the themes I saw crystallized around the changing demographics of games: the takeover by casual gaming, the encroaching territory of free to play, the failure of developers to reflect the diversity lurking beneath the surface. Those problems haven't been "solved" by a long shot, but now those ideas have baked for a while and don't seem to terrify as many people. The message this year, if I may blithely condense 3 days and 80k people into a single concept, was taking these new developments for granted and focusing on the best methods for moving forward.

Panels:

“We Study Games...Professionally: Academic Research and Game Studies”:

This seemed to be a repeat panel from last year. A few people talked about their research, some of which involved creating games to collect data from users. Lots of focus on MMOs and player models. One panelist was involved in using games for education. I asked why older edutainment games were largely ignored and got several dismissals: they weren't fun, they weren't educational, etc. I'll have to explore that myself, I guess.

“The Harridan's Guide to the Game Industry”:

I thought this was more focused on women's issues on getting into the industry but instead it was just issues in the industry that happened to be discussed by women. Which is fine! Actually better than fine, right? Because not all women need to talk about women issues all the time, and there were other panels that were more focused on feminist perspectives. One touching moment came from a questioner who said she was in grade 11 and unsure how to tell people around her she wanted to be a game designer. The advice: "Ignore people who tell you otherwise. One day your game will be in the news, will have a trailer or a commercial, and you will be able to point at it and say, ‘That's what I do.’ You are good enough to be in this industry.”

“It's About All of Us: A Follow Up To PAX East's The Other Us Panel”:

This panel was moderated by Abbe Heppe, who wrote a critique of Metroid: Other M that focused on Samus' shift from strong warrior that happened to be a woman to a weeping, weak tool used and controlled by men. (Obviously, Abbe got a lot of shit for that review.)

This was a great panel that focused on how to build communities that aren't fostering harassment and sexism. The Naughty Dog community manager suggested being open with the community while curating an aggressive word filter: many people "don't get" that using “rape" in a casual context is actually Not Acceptable until it gets blocked, and that’s a great way to start a conversation about why some words are not appropriate for a gaming discussion. A questioner brought up the objection that word-filtering can further marginalize invisible groups that want to talk about gay issues, survivor issues, etc. The panel didn’t have an easy answer for how to eliminate harassing language without shutting out legitimate conversations. The only advice was to be open with your users, listen carefully to feedback, and continually monitor usage of problematic words. Other panelists also emphasized the need for self-moderation in communities. It’s up to community members to make sure harassment doesn’t get normalized.

Dudebro moment: an audience member asked a question trotting out, “But male characters are bad too,” a common fallacy that suggests that women’s issues are irrelevant because men also have problems. Unremarkable if ignorant until in a follow-up comment he dropped the c-bomb during a panel about harassment and diversity. He got shouted at after the panel ended by a few other audience members for that.

Fat, Ugly or Slutty: Exposing Harassment in Online Gaming

This was also a great panel that touched on some of the same concepts as above. It was recorded, and their hilarious parody video of "how to not get harassed" is well worth watching.

Change at a Moment's Notice... User Interface

This was a hidden gem of a panel in my opinion. It was led by guys from Warner Entertainment who work on a core UI team that shares its work with every WB game. It was mostly about the process that goes into creating a good user experience / user interface. (Please don’t ask about the conflation of terms. It drives me nuts.) A few insights: A UX designer needs to know everything from user psychology to the intricacies of 3D modeling. Art is not just about skinning things, it’s about communication. Mirror’s Edge uses color as representation instead of icons; Deus Ex is entirely about enabling game-play through the UI (i.e. upgrades tend to be UI upgrades).

The Agony and Ecstasy of RPG Writing:

This was a panel hosted by people who have written for Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines (!!!), Alpha Protocol, Guild Wars 2, and Fallout: New Vegas. With the exception of Guild Wars, all games that had excellent writing marred by deep technical issues. They talked about common issues that writers experience - the poor V:TM:B writer had his head in his hands when the topic of cut content was raised. They suggested instead of time-to-crate metric, RPGs needed a “time-to-diary” metric to see how long a player could go through an RPG without finding an email, journal or book conveniently exposing a door code, Evil Plan, or back-story that couldn’t be exposed in a more natural manner, especially in “open” games where you can kill quest-critical characters or info-dump characters. I asked how boss fights fit into the writing process - unsurprisingly, the answer was that boss fights were something forced in by level designers as opposed to organically written in by the writers. Money quote: “Everyone working on a game is a storyteller.”

You Call That Fun?!:

Well, I went to this panel with skewed expectations due to the conversation K.Cox and I had. As it turns out, while the panel was filled with dudes who had an incredibly impressive history in the gaming industry, the talk was mostly about typical stuff in game design - game-play loops, extensive play-testing, etc. I posed my thesis on fun to them as a question and they rejected it. Oops. Maybe my response to the aforementioned conversation with Your Critic won’t be finished after all.

What Women Really Want:

This was much better as a panel where women talked about games rather than an in-depth discussion on feminism. There were a lot of instances of the word “slutty” being thrown around as kind-of-negative, which I always find weird. Bayonetta and “femShep” were both brought up, but they largely mirrored the discussions online: Bayonetta is “empowering”, beauty contests for femShep’s look, etc. However, hearing the women talk about Alistair and Garrus and playing Heavy Rain for the father-son relationship was amusing and interesting. I’d file this one under the “Harridan” category of “topics that happen to be presented by women” instead of the harassment or Fat,Ugly or Slutty category of “women speaking about definitively women’s issues” with the same caveat--maybe not what I expected, but perfectly fine and amusing in its own right.

2 comments:

  1. Some very nice insights. I remember playing edutainment style games as a kid and being very engaged in them, definitely worth more exploration. It's also a shame there isn't more collaboration between writers and level designers, you'd think a couple twenty minute discussions could really improve environmental story telling

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  2. ya but the other thing brought up in that talk was the issue of pipelining. if the writers are lucky, story goes in first and everything follows from that including levels and game design and etc. but the story stays relatively immutable while levels and design are at risk of sudden radical change or cuts (cue the silent anguish of the V:TM writer here, again) - and add in voice acting which is even more expensive and needs to be locked in early (not to leave out text that needs to be translated) and it's pretty easy to see how even with the best intentions the whole idea of a neat orderly progression from writing to execution can spiral into madness.

    THAT SAID: yeah i agree hugely that process affects output in a significant and extreme way. and i would not be even a little bit surprised if lots of studios were not optimizing their pipelines to get stuff like better environmental storytelling a higher priority because how do you justify that to management in terms of $$$$$$$?

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