Impressions of PAX 2009

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a few hours at the Penny Arcade Expo otherwise known as PAX at the Seattle Convention Center. This year’s incarnation of PAX was much bigger and boisterous then the previous PAX I attended back in 2006. As in previous trade shows like E3 I tend to hover around the MMO company booths.

As I only had a couple of hours to spare, I decided spend my time walking around the exhibit hall instead of attending yet another talk on game design. Therefore my report is going to be somewhat limited and reflective of my own MMO preferences. All of the big hitters were there except for SoE which I’m going to discuss later on in the article.

General Impressions

As I wandered through the exhibit hall the influence of WoW’s highly polished user interface could be seen on almost every monitor as game after game looked eerily the same. Strangely enough the only games that didn’t seem to emulate the WoW interface were the 2 “other” offerings by Blizzard — Diablo 3 and Starcraft 2.

Seattle Convention Center PAX 2009

Part of me is worried about the lack of originality and experimentation given this apparent grand consolidation of gaming features. This is probably because of WoW’s success and the simple fact that most people in the industry creating video games have either played WoW or are playing WoW and are understandably enamored of its success. I suppose in some ways it’s good to see features becoming standard much like a rear view mirror and seat-belts became much like standard features in the automobile industry. Still, it is a bit unsettling that all games seem to be converging into one game.

Blizzcon Lite…Very Lite

To be expected, my goal was to locate the Blizzard area as fast as possible. After watching the whole weekend of Blizzcon via PPV on the Internet I felt compelled to check out the demos of Cataclysm myself.

PAX 2009 Blizzard area

The Blizzard booth was manned by community reps who were there almost as a token form of representation. There were no Blizzard panels or any sense of any kind of new or expanded information being released or discussed at PAX which naturally is anti-climactic coming after recent big event at Blizzcon. The Blizzard reps were basically babysitting maybe 60 or so computers set up to demo all 3 of their future games: Cataclysm, Starcraft 2 and Diablo 3.

When I asked the reps about changes to fishing and the new MMO they were working on their lips were predictably sealed. I got the understandable “when it’s ready” response. One nice woman there who’s part of their PR department told me that she used to be in customer service — most likely a Blizzard GM. She explained that Blizzard believes in hiring from within. She also told me how much she likes working there and how cool the Blizzard culture is.

PAX 2009 Blizzard area

No swag at the Blizzard booth but it would have been nice if Blizzard would have been able to give out a few beta slots for Cataclysm. The truth is they didn’t need it. Instead they let their games speak for themselves. Warcraft: Cataclysm, Starcraft II and Diablo III were all being previewed and opened to convention attendees.

The Blizzard presence at PAX was a pittance of what they had to show at Blizzcon. I think that they must have decided that due to the proximity of Seattle on the west coast of the USA and the fact that Blizzcon was held 2 weeks ago must have made it somehow worth it for them to be at PAX.

Cataclysm Impressions

It was in a large area next to where the Blizzard reps were standing behind a counter that they allowed players to play both the worgen and goblin starting areas of Cataclysm — as was demonstrated at Blizzcon in August. Both starting areas are very slick and heavily scripted. Blizzard has pulled out all of the stops to create a very heavily story based newbie experienced on the same caliber as the Death Knight starting area of Wrath of the Lich King.

Worgen starting area PAX 2009

From the outset your character is on the famous Blizzard amusement park ride as the focus of the story all of the elements revolve around the player.  Despite being given a carefully crafted narrative, many of the players I witnessed demoing the MMO weren’t really interested in the story and kept clicking through the quests like Pavlovian dogs in anticipation of getting to the meat and potatoes of the action.

Somehow seeing everyone experiencing the exact same storyline complete with phasing really made me pause and reflect if this is truly the right direction for MMOs. Yes, I know I keep repeating this theme but perhaps someday players will actually be able to tell their own stories or at the very least *choose* what story they will experience via important and meaningful choices. For my tastes it seemed that there was far too much intrusion by the story and not enough actual gameplay.

Back to the Cataclysm starting areas…

The worgen player starts off as a level 6 character locked up in a stock in worgen form with the townspeople and the major trying to figure out a way to save you from your “problem”. The goblin newbie character starts off unconscious on a life raft with a fellow goblin trying to bring you back to life with jumper cables. There was a huge contrast between the foggy 19th century London of the worgen area versus the lush tropical island area of the goblins.

Worgen character screen PAX 2009

I noticed a bulldog roaming around in one of the farmer’s yards in the Worgen starting area. Finally Blizzard has created artwork for a real dog instead of the typical wolf graphics. Prediction: given the dark, spooky Sherlock Holmes/Jack the Ripper/British feel of Gilneas it looks like bulldogs might be the Worgen vanity pets.

The artwork, quests and general experience of the Worgen and Goblin areas are so much more superior to the original starting areas found in the original WoW. Therefore I feel that Blizzard really had no choice but to redo them in the light of the ramped up quality of the new Cataclysm zones.

Worgen starting area map PAX 2009

Despite the Ozzy inspired name, Crowley Orchard looked outstanding. At least it wasn’t called Afrasiabi Orchard.

Conclusion: Nothing really new from what we saw at Blizzcon 2009. I’m still very concerned that WoW is becoming far too story driven.

The Turbine Booth

DDO was definitely the focus here. Only one monitor was previewing LOTRO and it was the new $20 mini-expansion Mirkwood slated to be released this Fall. I got a sneak peak at the upcoming Mirkwood expansion which includes Sauron’s original dark fortress of Dol Gudur which will play an expanded role in both of Peter Jackson’s upcoming two Hobbit movies.

Mirkwood looked refined and simply amazing! It was just announced at PAX and it will be coming with long overdue combat mechanics revamp. Some of the animations of the new monsters were awesome. After speaking to both of the passionate producers  and seeing the awesomeness of Mirkwood I got the feeling that I just might try LOTRO again.

Jeffrey Steefel the executive producer of LOTRO was kind enough to let me take this exclusive photo of the Mirkwood map.

Mirkwood map PAX 2009

The one LOTRO rep I spoke to (sorry I didn’t get his name) was very passionate about the MMO. We talked about many things dealing with Tolkien Enterprises, Saul Zaentz and of course the Tolkien Estate. The feeling is that although they’d love to get access to the rich lore of the Silmarillion (currently not available as per the wishes of Christopher Tolkien) they feel they have ample enough material to last until 2017 at which point the Tolkien license will need to be renewed.

We talked about the synergies that occurred with the release of Peter Jackson’s three Lord of the Rings films. He confided to me that they could not have released LOTRO without the commercial and cultural impact of those movies. Understandably, they are absolutely primed and stoked about the two upcoming Hobbit movies. Expect a full-blown LOTRO expansion that deals with the Hobbit content at around the time of the release of the motion pictures. A very wise move indeed and this probably explains why they have not yet gone northward toward Laketown and the Lonely Mountain the lair of the dragon Smaug.

I explained to him my concerns about LOTRO and why I as a hardcore Tolkien fan (long before the movies) have not found the game to be captivating enough for me. I told him that the newbie experience really needed work and he replied that they have reworked them this year. He also revealed that many of the older quests had far too much of the “collect and return” variety and had been replaced with more bread-crumbing quests where you go from point A to point B.

He agreed with my sentiments that the newbie experience was very important. He explained that they actually collect data as to when players stop playing. He also admited to me that the average MMO player has a lifespan of about 9 months which even further reinforces my strongly held opinions about making the newbie experience as accessible as possible.

Conclusion: A big thumbs up for the future of LOTRO as a result of what I saw and heard about the new Mirkwood expansion.

SOE Not in Attendance

I realize that SOE is at this week’s DragonCon in Atlanta but it seems rather strange that they would not be at PAX as every other major MMO company was there. With their stable of MMO offerings including their newly successful Free Realms I felt that SOE really *should* have been there in some capacity. The only company that could be excused from being there was Blizzard as they had recently completed their triumphant Blizzon event yet somehow they found the wherewithal to attend. Let’s not forget SOE has a studio here in Seattle as well.

Conclusion: If SOE wants to be a major player and spread the news about their EverQuest IPs then they really need to attend shows like PAX.

Other Misc. Stuff

Lots of buzz around the NCSoft AION booth — nothing new here considering the amount of hype and publicity that the closed beta has been getting for them. They obviously are spending a lot of money promoting this MMO. Somehow I could not find the Arenanet booth to preview Guild Wars 2.

The God of War Collection which will be released later this year on the PS3 looked great and I look forward to buying it.

After a couple of hours, my senses were pretty much overloaded and it was time to meet my wife for some Asian fusion cuisine at Wild Ginger in Seattle. She had spent the afternoon at the Seatle Art Museum leaving me with a few hours in gamer bliss. All around a perfect day.


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