Of Vikings and PAXes

PAX East began with our jaws on the bus floor. I will attempt to explain what we saw with a modicum of justice… and fail miserably to convey the experience.

The Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (sized at roughly six city blocks long by four wide) was located at the heart of the city, surrounded on three sides by channels. One could see the flashing demos of various games across a huge screen from the outside, and hordes of colorfully dressed fans lined up, waiting to get in. Between the center and the hotel, several sports cars rested inside the parking circle; Twin Lamborghini of an orange-turned-yellow color, two pink three-wheeled Polaris models and a few massive trucks. All of these wore markings of Blizzard’s Overwatch.

After perhaps 30 minutes of checking in, the skywalk between the hotel and convention center was traversed. I was permitted inside before the opening time thanks to a special Exhibitor’s badge furbished by Versus Evil, and was eager to check in with the booth. But once inside, the scale of the convention made navigation challenging. The upper two floors consisted of a handful of large theaters for hosting the panels, easy enough to understand.

The ground level was something else entirely.

PAX East

This photo captures perhaps 20% tops of the sheer size of the show floor. The aisles were packed to the gills with flashing monitors, colorful displays, merchandise and posters, game demos and videos, manikins and hardware. Within not five minutes of the chimes sounding the show’s opening, the alleys and walkways were flooded with thousands upon thousands of fans, cosplayers, exhibitors, media personae and personnel, staff, crews and enforcers. Human traffic clustered and congested everywhere. Even the merchandise stores required fifteen minute lines to get in, although everyone around was excited and in high spirits so the time went fast. The fans were easy enough to talk to.

The GuardFor Friday, the Versus Evil guys cut me loose to play. The first order of business was to hit up the Bethesda Store and score some gifts for friends and family, followed by the demo for Total War: Warhammer. Sega’s vision proved excellent, truly capturing the feel and appropriate scale of the conflict while remaining true to the themes and aesthetic… perhaps better than anyone else who has ever attempted it. The battle was perhaps twenty minutes long and perfectly eluded the sense of desperation and grimdark that is the hallmark of the Games Workshop’s fantasy universe.

If the treatment of this game is anything to go by, then Dawn of War III will be faith rewarded for long time fans indeed. To probable delight of these guys.

Time was spent trying Zombie Vikings, the game that that Zach Weiner of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal helped produce. Guild of Dungeoneering and Let Them Come were also sampled and enjoyed. Still, there was simply too much to see, so the board and card games were briefly toured, the vintage video game vendors browsed and the props and demos admired. Time is the most valuable of currencies and there’s never enough to spend.

For Saturday was the big day.

Arriving at the panel a tad too late to get a front row seat, the opportunity was not wasted to snap several photos of the Stoic Studio guys on stage. In order from left to right was Technical Director John Watson, Art Director Arnie Jorgensen, Technical Designer Matt Rhoades, Lead Writer Drew McGee and Composer Austin Wintory. After a comical trailer by Kris Straub (contains spoilers), they spoke about the challenges and efforts of their latest title.

Stoic Studio

Their conversations sparked intriguing lessons, particularly how Austin wrote music based on Drew’s story, which in turn prompted changes to Austin’s tunes. Considering this, if two elements of a game are “speaking” to each other, then there was probably reactionary work done on the technical and artistic side as well. This could have meant a four-factor (art, music, story, tech) feedback loop of on-going innovations.

Another point of interest was Austin’s discussions regarding the music of series. Not just a composer but a full musical scholar, he explained how there was little historical understanding of exactly what Viking music sounded like exactly. And how this permitted a degree of freedom to craft based around discovered instruments without any clear instructions or reliable knowledge of their application.

After fan questions came the cosplay provided by the talented Danica Rockwood, Lady Devaan and especially the dredge costume of Jackie Craft.

11 am was my time to shine, and I hurried down to the booth for the first novel signing of my career; 200 printed copies to be given out to promote the game. Waiting at the booth for the set up, I thought back about the few other book signings I attended in the past. Which authors made me feel awesome about reading their stuff? Who were the writers whom I remember the most fondly meeting?

There was Gav Thorpe, who listened to me explain how much I loved his 13th Legion trilogy enough to carry it over the Atlantic Ocean for his autograph. Clint Lee Werner, who had intriguing discussion points about where he gets his ideas. Chris Wraight, who was the nicest guy I had ever met. And Sarah Cawkwell, who encouraged me to keep writing.

I hadn’t realized it until that moment, but they had taught me how to handle visitors of book signings. I did my absolute best to keep smiling and finding points to engage people, and to always start with asking their names and writing it down in order to remember and use it when parting. This made it easier to remember people, like the friendly PAX Enforcer Malachi who dropped by again on Sunday to shake my hand.

Whenever possible, points of shared interest were discovered; the recent season of Daredevil, the games we enjoy, our favorite things about the Banner Saga. I knew there was a line of waiting people, but I also really wanted to try and give anyone kind enough to drop by an experience that would (hopefully) keep them coming back.

Signing

Whenever there was nothing to go by, discussion arouse regarding the book (“It’s a prequel– No spoilers. You don’t have to have played the first game but I highly recommend you do!”), or encourage them to play the demo (“It’s around the corner, try it! You’ll get a free pin!”) If nothing else, there was PAX East itself and what we hoped to see. Whenever met, encouragement was given to other writers, artists and hoping-to-be game creators to keep at their craft. And keeping tabs on KickStarter video for the Banner Saga: Warbands board game proved wise, as answers were rendered basic questions about it. It helped to be as excited for the game as anyone else who inquired.

Although four hours were set aside for the signing, I decided to remain an additional 30 minutes so any last minute folks could have a chance to grab a copy. By the end of Saturday, more than half of the books were gone. Checking back the following morning to see how well we did, there were perhaps 40 or so copies left to hand out before 11 am.

In the end, the event was a real taste of what it was to promote and market side of the writing business. The experience was actually fun and something I’d relish doing again someday.

Fresh and Dirty

I believe I have contracted a very small case of otitis externa, better known as swimmer’s ear. Normally, this occurs in swimming pools, where the chlorinated water just results in the discomfort of water in the ear canal.  However, ocean water is no where near as clean.

I’ve never had an illness quite like it. On the first day came some swelling in my ear. It was not visible, but I could not close my jaw all the way on my left side. Hearing in my ear was a bit difficult. It ached a little at times and made me dizzy, a result of balance impairment. On the second day, the dizziness and swelling were gone and I could close my jaw again. However, I felt nausea and just “ick.” On the third day, these symptoms were gone and replaced with a swollen and stuffed nose. Whether this is allergies or some expansion of the sickness, I cannot say.

Today, my nose is mostly clear and I only have some mild scratchiness in my throat. I’ve never had an illness as transitional as this was. But I feel relatively fine now.

If you haven’t heard of The Trenches yet, consider yourself informed. Created by Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade, and Scott Kurtz of Player vs. Player, The Trenches tells its tales via a fictional comic combined with small true-as-far-as-word-of-mouth-goes stories from anonymous QA testers. I’ve no doubt that some stories are embellish and a few might out-and-out false, but the fact that people are taking the time to report so many of them is telling of legitimate problems in the industry. 

Calling attention to these issues is probably the best remedy however. As more people discover that there isn’t much glamor in QA testing for video games, fewer people will be willing to do it. A smaller labor pool will give more power to testers. And although I doubt they can hope for much in the way of increased pay, they can (and should) try to request on-site job skill courses during non-crunch times. This would increase their value and pave the way to better careers, whether at their current company or the next.

The experiences QA folk are facing can be grueling. The least we can do is help give them something they can take from it that will improve their life for the long term. I mean, besides the bitter cynicism…