The Wonderful PAX of Oz – a (late) Diary – Day 2

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Day two of PAX Australia was another long day full of panels and walking, but far less stressful because I finally knew where everything was. No more waffling, let’s get right to it.

Cloud Imperium Games showed off the FPS module and gameplay for the upcoming massive space MMO Star Citizen. The whole ten minutes of gameplay can be seen above. It shows some rather slick gunfights with a visor HUD that is begging for the Oculus Rift.

There were 4 players running around a ship interior, talking to each other like they were actually storming a ship, which was kind of cool. The demo showed off some nice shadow and lighting effects, but otherwise, it seemed like a traditional FPS, iron sights and all, but it’s only a small facet of the behemoth that Star Citizen is shaping up to be. I just hope that when Star Citizen comes out, it’s everything people have been promised.

The rest of my day was dominated by panels that ran throughout. Below is the summary all of the ones I managed to sit in on.

Playing as a Female Character – does it matter?

Panelists: Hex [Presenter, ABC TV], Siobhan Reddy [Studio Manager, Media Molecule], Peter Hines [Vice President of PR & Marketing, Bethesda], Aidan Scanlan [Assistant Director of Design, BioWare], Randy Pitchford [CEO, Gearbox Software], Rex Crowle [Creative Director, Media Molecule]

This panel had a pretty esteemed panel of speakers, including none other than Randy Pitchford talking about playing as female characters and if it matters or not. Hex contended that she tends to play as  female characters that look like an idealised version of herself, while Pitchford shared an anecdote of playing a female character in Ultima online and having everyone treat him very differently and helping him. This is something I’ve experienced while playing as a female character in GTA: Online.

Siobhan from Media Molecule said that calling Sackboy from Little Big Planet “Sackboy” was a mistake, and has pigeon holed the character into being male, even though you can dress the character as if his gender was ambiguous.  The panel contended that it was more important to be able to have a gendered character and have it be yours in games with character creation, whereas games like Portal, even though it’s a female protagonist, her gender is secondary to the plot, and lacks any internal narrative defined by a player made character.

They also talked about the abundance of femshep in Mass Effect despite male being the default choice on the menus. Criticisms were lobbed at animation sharing between male and femshep, the counter argument being that not resource sharing in such a big game effectively doubles the work required.

Aidan Scanlan from Bioware said the coding team was about 15 percent female, while the writing team is over 50 percent female.  Siobhan said that she got into computers and coding at a young age, and was encouraged in early school life, citing a similar gender bias in children’s toys being a similar problem. This is when Randy Pitchford said that if two candidates with equal skill were applying for a job at Gearbox, the one that would be chosen was the female applicant. I consider that to be part of the problem, as it is essentially gender discrimination to hire somebody based on their gender. I think that the industry does need more women, but at the same time, you don’t need to hire women to make good games marketed towards everyone, especially if the proposed solution is to just not hire men.

Randy Pitchford noted that their data indicated that people were more likely to play as female characters and that conventional wisdom may be wrong when marketing AAA games. The panel also discussed the Tomb Raider reboot and how to many it felt different when Lara got hurt as opposed to a male character.

I don’t feel that way, but it certainly highlights the belief that women are weaker and should be protected, because this conversation wouldn’t be happening if Lara were male. They also noted that motivations between male and female protagonists tend to be different, in that male protagonists are directly threatened, and women have had something done to them, which I disagree with, but it was worth mentioning.

Overall, it was a good panel with some reasonable discussion. Randy and Aidan got a little quiet at the end, mostly to avoid offending someone, but both their hearts were in the right place and everyone on the panel clearly cared about the issue.

Losing

Panelists: Brandon Rym DeCoster [Producer, GeekNights]

This panel was interesting in that there was only one speaker, and it was more of a presentation then a discussion. Essentially the contention of the panel was that losing is an important part of the video game experience, and a discussion on how different types of games handle a failure state.

Brandon DeCoster from GeekNights was a really excellent presenter, and kept me entertained for the whole hour. His first point was that in the early days of video gaming, games didn’t have endings, and his example was the Pacman kill screen, where the only reason Pacman ends is because of a programming limitation.

Once games started having endings, they were either really crap, or sparse and there wasn’t much of a reward, just a means to an end. He also mentioned how more modern games like Super Meat Boy don’t discourage death, in that you come back straight away to try again. Conversely, he also mentioned Five Nights At Freddy’s, a game that severely punishes you for failure, not only scaring the crap out of you, but teasing you and making you wait for the jump scare.

He moved on to how losing very rarely affects the narrative of a game except mostly non canon circumstances. He cited Chrono Trigger as a game that requires a specific action in order to see a particular ending, and if you don’t do that action, you’re effectively barred from seeing the true ending.

He cited games such as Dragon’s Lair, Another World, Don’t Shit Your Pants, and The Stanley Parable as examples of games that incentivise exploring failure with gruesome death scenes and humorous outcomes. He mentioned the controversy around Gone Home and how many believe that it isn’t a game because you cannot lose, but of course it is because a game is only an interactive amusement by definition.

He then focused on Idiogames, which are games that are decided by personal outcomes, and Orthogames, a more competition based game between 2 or more players. Skill disparity can affect competitive games and the rate at which you lose. He noted arcade racing games that obscure heuristics by making it look like the less skilled player isn’t losing by much, but in fact has already lost and he or she doesn’t realise it yet.

It was a really interesting panel which discussed a topic seldom talked about enough. It left me thinking that there are plenty more ways games can make losing interesting and fun.

Geek as a Cultural Identity: Do Fake Geeks exist?

Panelists: Jessica Citizen [Editrix/Host, Player Attack], Jimmy The Geek [Presenter/reporter, Player Attack], Steven Gates [Comedian/Musician, Tripod], Felicia McEntire [Account Manager, Reboot PR]

This panel dealt with a word that I personally really don’t like. Geeks, and is there such a thing as being a fake geek. I noted that someone in the audience said “Yep!” pretty much straight away when that was asked.

Jimmy The Geek had once been on the reality television show Beauty And The Geek and mentioned that he was criticised for playing up the geek identity, even though that’s exactly what they instructed him to do on the show. He was even accused of donning a ‘geek face’ as opposed to black face, which is absolutely ridiculous, but it bothered him. The panel contended that there shouldn’t be absolute binary labels which are ultimately destructive, and noted that the hostility around hobbies and the intrusion of the mainstream is usually because people are insecure about their interests.

They also talked about gaming and geek culture items like t-shirts and key chains as sort of a social currency, a test to see if others who also like what you like will notice or mention your garment or item, which makes a passive connection between two people, as well as validation from others.

This panel reinforced what I had already thought about geek culture, so it wasn’t a revelation for many people in the audience. In fact while leaving the panel I heard a few people muttering “I can’t believe this is still an issue” and “I can’t wait to see the exact same panel next year”. It’s obvious that this is an issue people get very heated and vocal about. My two cents is that gamers and geeks aren’t the same thing, and that there’s so many different kinds and groups that no it’s wonder none of us bloody get along.

Women in Video Games: Improving Things for Everyone

Panelists: Rebecca Fernandez [Chapter Leader, IGDA Sydney], Mary King [Digital Marketing Consultant, Contractor], Nicole Stark [Co-Director, Disparity Games], James Dominguez [Journalist, Fairfax Digital], Tara Brannigan [Community Relationship Manager, PikPok], Leigh Harris [Director, Flat Earth Games]

This panel was the first panel that I was worried I wouldn’t get into. The turnout was huge, with some people being turned away due to a lack of seating. Straight away the key speaker made it very clear that the panel was not about gamergate or  ethics in game journalism, rather women in the industry and culture, which was fair enough.

The first point made was that 63% percent of female players receive some sort of harassment, and the harassment was usually sexual in nature. Females aged 18 to 24 are most affected. The graphs shown seem to point out that women and men receive similar amounts of harassment, but the types differ. I have witnessed this myself playing as a female character in GTA: Online, although I imagine that the comments are sexual in nature because it’s likely the easiest way to offend someone of the opposite gender.

The panel then discussed ways of dealing with harassment, and how some games deal with abusive players. They cited League of Legend and their recent change of having chat deactivated by default, which massively reduced the amount of reported harassment. They also contended that the competitive nature of the game affected the nature of the players. They didn’t mention the popularity of a game like League of Legends and that a higher volume of players would account for more reports of abuse.

Simply not identifying as female was an option some of the panelists took, which is a tactic I imagine many female competitive gamers take, while some decided that the harassment was enough for them to be pulled away from online gaming all together. Funnily enough, most of the women on the panel did not cite any instances of personal harassment, something which I was glad to hear.

They then moved on to women actually working in the development of video games. They cited a statistic which claimed that women made up 22 percent of the workforce, while showing the average wage for male and female employees. A wage gap was present in the graphs, but did not account for years of experience and how that affects pay.

The Keynote speaker, Rebecca Fernandez moved on to the next slide which was titled “Everyday Sexism”. She led with an anecdote of playing Harvest Moon on the GameCube. There’s a bug where even if you choose a female character,the map sprite is still shown as male, meaning the male was the default character. I don’t think it’s fair to assume that it was the default. Is that really everyday sexism? Would it be sexist to play as a boy and have the map sprite be a girl? I feel like there are better examples of casual sexism then that. Nicole Stark from Disparity games mentioned that she used to be a character artist and would find that her male co-workers would give female characters larger breasts then she had drawn.

James Dominguez noted that it is also important to talk about the positives. Why would women want to join when the buzz around women in the industry is so negative? It’s very important to make it seem appealing, but at the same time passion is needed as it is not a high paying job.

Fernandez then moved onto a slide showing two comments on a forum disparaging female gamers, which irked me. While these are clearly awful comments they are not evidence of a majority viewpoint, and are intended to hurt and offend. They also didn’t blur out the usernames, which, considering the normal internet witch hunt mentality, was pretty irresponsible.

They talked about the eSports scene and their segregated tournaments by gender. While on one hand it allows for newer players to assimilate better into that environment, it makes no sense to segregate sSports, since sexual dimorphism does not affect it like it does traditional physical sports.

Fielding questions from the crowd, a woman made a statement that as someone in the industry, she personally has had a great time and everyone has been accepting and treated her no different than anyone else, which is great. Another man in the audience noted that transgender rights is also something we shouldn’t lose sight of. James Dominguez cited Newground flash game dys4ria as one of the few games that deals with transgendered issues.

It was a good discussion without a shouting match or trying to be correct. The turnout proved that people care and want to discuss issues calmly and maturely.

Aussie Indie Showcase panel

Australian Indie Developers (who didn’t even have their names listed on the PAX Australia website by the way) who were showing off their games at the PAX Australia Indie Pavillion, fielded questions from a depressingly small group of people. The six games shown and their developers are listed below:

WavewaveBy Thomas Janson

In a similar vein to Super Hexagon, Wavewave is a twitch reflex arcade game for iOS where you pilot a wavy line through wave-like obstacles.

Assault Android Cactus By Witch Beam

Assault Android Cactus is a futuristic twin stick shooter where you blast robots. It’s good old fashioned fun.

ExpandBy Chris Johnson and Chris Larkin

Expand is a puzzle game that reveals itself to you and grows as you move around. Combined with an excellent soundtrack, it’s a striking and unique puzzle experience.

ScreenCheat By Samurai Punk

An ingenious concept, ScreenCheat is a Goldeneye style multiplayer FPS with a twist, everybody is invisible, and you have to look at other player’s screens in order to locate other players and shoot them. An interesting art style and excellent controls make this a real treat for cheaters.

Airscape: The fall of gravity By Cross-Product

A weird gravity based platformer reminiscent of the sphere walking of Super Mario Galaxy combined with the gravity switching elements of VVVVVV. Seems really fun and reminds me of another game with interesting physics.

GunscapeBy Blowfish Studios

Gunscape is an FPS multiplayer sandbox game where you’re given tools to create and play your own custom FPS game. It’s like Project Spark, but focused entirely on FPS game styles. It’s really interesting and a great idea that I hope catches on.

Questions to the panelists centered around certain challenges like being an indie developer in Australia, where little to no funding is given to interactive creative endeavours. Most of the developers live at home with their parents or had day jobs while trying to develop their game full time, and were completely self funded.

Concerning press, everyone on the panel agreed that it was important to stay open and proactive. Email Youtubers (They cited YouTuber Northernlion as one of the many excellent sources for coverage on YouTube) and press outlets to get as much exposure as possible. As far as actually developing a game, the most pertinent pieces of advice given was to start small and simple. Your first game will never be your magnum opus, and you will fail a lot before figuring out something that works. Participating in game jams was also useful to develop skills.

It was a short and small panel, too small for the awesome games involved. The big aussie indie pavilion made up for it though.

So that was day two! It was a little panel heavy, but don’t worry, day three’s write up focuses more on the sights and sounds of the convention hall. Join me next time for the third and final installment of my giant PAX Australia diary.

Last Updated: November 17, 2014

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