Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Penny Arcade Expo: Reexamining My Values

As many of you probably know, this weekend marked the coming of the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) to Seattle. Being one of the few lucky enough to have not just the opportunity to attend PAX, but no less than a 3-day pass(!!!), I of course decided to make the most of the weekend. Unfortunately, due to some failures in the planning ahead department, I ended up missing or not getting into about as many events as I actually attended. However, despite this, I learned a great many things. The most important of these pertain not necessarily to the ins and outs of the game industry, although I did gain quite a bit of insight in that department, but to my goals as a game developer.

It has taken me a good deal of time to determine exactly why it is that I want to work in the games industry and what I want to accomplish there. For a while, I told myself that I wanted to make games that would make people happy; just as with singing, if I could make one person's day a little bit better with the work that I do, I would be content. As it turns out, I needed to become immersed in an environment that was completely dedicated to video games before I could really figure out what I really wanted to do. On the first day, as I wandered through the exhibition hall I discovered that the booths for all of the big-budget "next-gen" titles held remarkably little interest for me. Granted, part of this was that I didn't want to waste time waiting in line since I had a lot of panels to go to and wanted to explore the entire hall, but there was something else, too.

As the second day of the convention progressed, I pondered all of the things that I had been learning. Later in the day, I chose to skip one of the panels I had originally planned to go to in favor of exploring the exhibition hall a little more thoroughly. Once again, I found myself less inclined to visit the likes of Bioware, Microsoft, ArenaNet, Bethesda, Gearbox (despite the promise of Duke Nukem returned from the grave), Square Enix, or even Nintendo,  and more attracted to the smaller booths of the indie developers. That was when it hit me: all of those flashy sequels, even with their new technological and gameplay-related bells and whistles, are the same games that I've been playing for the past 15 years. I don't want to make those games, I want to make something new and different. And the reality of it is that I more than likely won't get a chance to do that at a large development company that makes blockbuster titles.

To do something new, something that's not what most publishers of games would consider "safe," you have to go independent and, as I've discovered, I'm more than okay with that. For a good while now, indie games have been growing on me, and I really came to appreciate them over the past month. The fact is the most unique gaming experiences I've had recently have been with indie games. Where else but XBox Live Arcade, PSN, Steam, and the web can you find games about a boy made entirely of meat, or using black goo to build elaborate structures? One of my favorite experiences this weekend was playing a game where I used a Rock Band-eque drum set as a controller in order to kill zombies. Sure, it may end up being mostly a gimmick, but it's creative and original, which is more than I can say for most of the highly-anticipated AAA titles.

Ultimately, I think starting at a larger company and then eventually going indie with some friends would be my safest course of action, assuming I survive DigiPen. Given how much money I owe in loans, I really can't afford to take chances when it comes to my first legitimate job.

Now, I could go on for a long while about all of the panels I attended and the things I learned from them, and the games I saw in the exhibition hall, and the wild costumes that some people were wearing, but ultimately the inner paradigm shift that I experienced takes precedence over all of that.

None the less, here are a few other important lessons:
-You don't have to write a story to tell a story
-Execution of an idea is more important than the idea itself
-Indie game devs are much more friendly
(There are more, but I can't think of any others that stand out right now.)

And a few titles to watch for:
-BattleBlock Theater (from The Behemoth, the creators of Castle Crashers)
-DrumSkulls
-Guild Wars 2
-Portal 2
-Retrograde
-Super Meat Boy

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