There’s a little music content in this, so I thought I’d post it here instead of just on Dreamwidth. Hey, I haven’t posted anything here in, what a week?
I dunno whether this year’s PAX had everything together particularly well this year or whether I was just in the mood, but PAX2010 exceeded all my expectations. I don’t know how they host 70,000 people on site and make it still feel comfortable, but they pull it off. Best new features: the hidden bonus level of tabletop gaming, which I intend to explore further – much further – next year, and the “jam room,” which isn’t really correctly named yet, but does involve a lot of music, mostly chiptunes. MAGFEST hosted and sponsored the venue, and in addition to the excellent Saturday afternoon mini-chipfest – Zen Albatross and Spamtron particularly impressed, and I’m sure Fighter X did as well (like they did Friday night in Benaroya for Chiptunes Night) – but I got there late. Also, MAGFEST crew were super-awesome and displayed my Friday show poster, so maybe I’m biased. And thankful – I really appreciate it. I wasn’t like most of the music there but the people who heard me seemed to like what they heard. Check out crunchyco.com and magfest.org while you’re thinking about it.
Oh, and on Friday, I want to call out Protomen for an incredible show that happened to be something that was not my particular kind of thing – but it was done so screamingly well that it deserves props. People talk about Lady Gaga being glam, or new glam, and that’s legitimate, but those same people forget the desultory shabbyness of original glam – and Protomen have that part going on, too.
The big winners of the show, expected: Portal 2 – they seem to have kept the funny and not screwed it up, so everybody is relieved there, and the puzzles you get to solve, particularly in cooperative mode, are so far off the hook there is no longer a hook. Dragon Age 2 and Guitar Hero 3 did pretty well – I’ll talk about the new “real guitar” controller in a minute – and PopCap Games, with the single most successful promotion at the con, handing out zombie road cones for you to protect your head, along with full-zombie makeovers and temporary tattoos. I wore my cone for two days and the only reason I didn’t wear it on Sunday was because
some goddamn pea-shooter took it out I took the bus down and didn’t want to carry as much as I did when Paul was driving. Biggest shock winner: Duke Nukem Forever.
Yes, you read that right, Duke Nukem Forever. Not only there (back from the goddamn grave), not just running, but playable. Full working demo game, two levels for your enjoyment, and a three fucking hour queue the entire goddamn time. People – including me – would just stop and gape when they’d hit the booth as brains tried to process this impossibility. It was like seeing some sort of frozen caveman actually come back to life.
Smaller winners: the gaming-furniture people at Geek Chic, who became a landmark and made me want some of their wares very much. Particularly the Alexandria Codex they had on display. Whuf. The makers of Shibuya for iDevices – I saw people playing that over and over again in the handheld area, and the iPad, being used by an unexpected number of people, both exhibitors and gamer attendees.
Biggest losers: if TRON’s game were half as good as their booth, they’d have won the show. But it’s not. Kinect: a couple of decent games were based on it (e.g. Dance Central), one of which looked actively good (SEGA’s new Sonic Hoverboard game, which is another tiny mindbender – when was the last time SEGA showed up with something fun?) but for the most part it was very much a “why am I doing this I have a Wii” experience. Surface: Another sad trumpet noise for Microsoft as their good technology doesn’t have an outlet. Genuinely great and awesome things can be done with this tech, so why they hell aren’t they doing it? A racing game? With a tiny wheel controller? On a giant touchscreen tabletop? What the fuck, guys? Honestly. This is not how to show off your device. Other samples were better but still unimpressive.
Poking around with it, I think the big thing Kinect needs is about another two years away: lightweight heads-up display glasses with positional awareness that put a 3D virtual interface – or, hell, world – around you. Do that and you can climb into that mecha, and suddenly Kinect is omgsuperawesome. But without it? I watched enough people struggle with (and fail on) screenwipe control factors to just go “um, no.”
(Also, seriously, who wants to play a track sports racing game by actually running in place? It reminded me of MST3K and TV’s Frank when he invented the mobile treadmill and the fixed-position stairclimber exercise machine consisting of many flights of stairs. Honestly, what. But Dance Central was pretty good.)
Anyway, back to the new “real” controllers for Rock Band 3, like I promised. I should also describe the keyboard controller; it operates in a couple of modes, traditional colour mode either spread across they keyboard or grouped down to five keys, or in “pro mode” as a normal if very short MIDI keyboard controller – it’s an octave+1 on either side, Bb up to D#. When in “pro” mode, the five-track display turns into a ten-track display, with each track representing a white key; I’m not actually sure how sharps and flats are represented as I didn’t see any come down, but I suspect strongly they’re on the lines between the white-key tracks. I don’t know what it’d be like to play it; I’m not really a keyboard person and I didn’t get to try it.
The new “pro mode” guitar controller, however, I did double-queue to try, and that’s… quite the experience. Like the tea of Hitchhiker’s Guide, it’s almost but not entirely unlike playing a stringed instrument. There are six strings, I recommend a pick, and there’s a fretboard that mostly feels like an ocean of weird buttons in which you flail. (And I’m saying as someone who did acceptably well, even though I felt like I was drowning and I don’t play guitar. 96% hit on first go (albeit on pro mode/easy) and I won a T-shirt.)
The fretboard buttons are all the same – there’s no width difference or resistance difference, so no feedback to help confirm where you are, like there are on the stringed instruments I play. The fret markers aren’t in the same place as a zouk or standard guitar – they’re on every other fret, and numbered, which is no doubt better for non-instrumentalist gamers but confusing to me. (Also, by being so regularly spaced, it contributes to the sea-of-buttons effect; sea-of-buttons is demarked by sea-of-fretmarkers.) The frets themselves aren’t really there – instead of frets, you have gaps between buttons, which provide the same function, but it’s backwards until you get used to it, and the tactile difference is disorienting.
Down at the other end, the strings aren’t connected to the buttons in any physical way, so you don’t get confirmation in your fretboard fingers that you’re plucking the right string, and the strings themselves aren’t metal, they’re some sort of (presumably very strong) plastic, and much too loose for a normal instrument – and, again, all the same, so no tactile feedback about position there, either. Plus, being connected over so short a distance, the movement feels just strange. So the tactile feedback is all wrong.
And that sounds like a huge dump of fail, and there are things they could do to improve it without a huge re-engineering, but I really don’t know whether it’d matter for gamers. The visual feedback on screen is much better, and I found myself trying to adapt to it quickly; you have six channels coming down the screen at you, one per string, and each marker has a number in it indicating fret position, but more importantly, at the bottom hit indicator bar, numbers pop up whenever you have a fret button down indicating in what fret your fingers are pressing. So you have what amounts to a heads-up indicator of your fretboard location, and once that clicks in your brain, a lot of the sea-of-buttons problems should go away. And the non-instrumentalist gamer won’t be expecting the other tactile feedback indicators, so those won’t be a problem; the hardest part for them will be having the six strings to pluck rather than one pluck bar.
I’ll be really curious about what it’s like to learn “guitar” on one of these, then going to a real guitar. Will the tactile inversions will be as severe the other direction? If any of you get one of these and get good on it, and then try to pick up an actual guitar, let me know. I’ll be curious.
Oh, there are a couple of other new controller bits; I didn’t get to try the new drumkit, but it works the same as the old one but with what looked to me like more traditional-drumlike pads and arrangements. I did try the new bass controller; the pluck controller is now in halves! So you can do alternating-finger plucking like on a real bass in a way that feels more normal, but you don’t have to. I realised this mid-song, and fucked it up trying to switch to real playing – but in one hand only. XD It’s a nice idea, but you have to get used to it, and if you’re not, it’ll knock you right out of bass groove.
A few more bits and pieces: Chiptunes Night in Benaroya Hall was a mindbender, just for existing, and for seeing the strobe-lights-and-fog-machines warning posted at Benaroya Hall. The Pictochat scene was quiet this year; I guess it’s falling out of fashion, alas. Zombie Dice and Cthulhu Dice were big winners in queue gaming. I got my PAX LevelUp (XP-100) badge. I met a bunch of people mostly from out of town but rode back home Sunday night talking with another PAXer all the way home; it was her first convention and she was ecstatic about it. I didn’t get her name, because we were just too busy talking about all this.
I miss it already. Picture post (of crappy cellphone pics, lol) to follow.