PAX East 2015 Round Up

Wait, PAX was a week ago? How is that possible? I’m going to go ahead and blame daylight savings. Losing an hour of sleep is guaranteed to make almost anyone a little disoriented. Diurnal editing aside, another PAX is in the books and we have all the highlights for you. 

PAX ran up against quite a few obstacles this past weekend, the fact that said weekend was an hour shorter than most being one of them (mercifully, snow was not one of these). The fact that the first day of the con coincided with the last day of the Game Developer’s Conference was very much another. While no companies overtly (or publicly) elected to have a presence at GDC versus PAX, West Coast versus East, there were distinctly fewer publishers/ developers in the main dealer hall than we’ve seen in previous years. This may also have been a symptom of another sort of convention fatigue, as the inaugural PAX South wrapped up only five weeks earlier. If it turns out that the latter issue kept game makers away, then next year may provide some relief as PAX East 2016 is slated for late April (the 22nd-24th according to the MCCA). Consequently, the main concourse of PAX was primarily populated with hardware names. 

At several points during the convention we asked ourselves if, “Is Studio XYZ not here or did we just not see them?” In most cases, the answer was that the studio in question had no dealer hall presence. Riot Games, who have been scaling back their convention presence in general, tried to atone for their absence by hosting a lounge for individuals cosplaying as characters from League of Legends while many other devs/publishers used the Firaxis technique and hosted one or more panels. Related aside: it'll be interesting to see what Riot does in the next few years with regards to con attendance. We honestly wouldn't be surprised if they tried to create a RiotCon.

The main dealer hall may have been light on AAA studios, but that was arguably a boon to the many unaffiliated developers that occupied the Indie Megabooth. Given the lack of big-name competition and PAX exclusive headlines, the Indie Megabooth did a lot of the heavy lifting so to speak. In keeping with our other convention round-ups, we’ll summarize those impressive indie titles along with the offerings from the bigger studios below, then follow those synopses up with our impressions of PAX as a whole.

Blizzard Entertainment – Blizzard clearly enjoyed being one of the few truly big-name studios on the floor and garnered a quantity of foot traffic rivaled only by the Twitch booth (as the latter broadcast LoL matches during the con). With two highly anticipated titles floating in the beta-verse, it was not hard to discern what all the fuss was about, even if Blizzard saved all the big announcements for its own convention. The publisher announced that its MOBA, Heroes of the Storm, will be getting another character in the form of Sylvanas, who seems to be rogue-ish and DPS-y, as well as another playable map: Tomb of the Spider Queen. Blizzard's other forthcoming MOBA, the arena combat first-person shooter Overwatch, will also be getting new characters: the gunslinging McCree and the tanky Zarya. Neither title has a definite release date, but Heroes of the Storm is said to be available later this year while Overwatch is supposed to hit the market in 2016.  

Denneton Games - Denneton found itself unable to continue its practice of hiding in plain sight during the course of the con, as too many gamers crowded around their booth in order to catch a glimpse of the fully finished Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number. That title went live on March 10th and is now available for purchase on Steam. 

Disruptor Beam - We had high hopes for this local studio. They had an engaging booth smack-dab in the middle of the main dealer hall and they had two games themed on two incredibly enduring franchises: Star Trek and Game of Thrones. Unfortunately, neither of their titles, Star Trek Timelines and Game of Thrones: Ascent seemed like they were at all ready for a playable alpha, nonetheless a live demo for tens of thousands of gamers. We queued to try out each game, but every attempt was thwarted by either network issues (in the case of Game of Thrones) or massive fatal bugs (as was the case with Timelines). It was at this booth that we learned an iPad does, in fact, have a blue screen of death. Hopefully Disruptor can shore up these issues, but neither game was particularly compelling even without the problems.

Image Credit: Dreadbit
Dreadbit - It was complete happenstance that we found Dreadbit in the Indie Megabooth, but we were very glad that we did. This British studio may be small of stature, but their game, Ironcast, was deceptively broad and deep. The title bills itself as match three meets FTL and it certainly has elements of both of these things, but is also so much more. Players are transported to an alternate history that boasts both visually stunning steampunk imagery and mechs. You are the pilot of your mech and engage in a series of duels with rival pilots. Combat takes place via a modified match-three type interface, with the player and the AI alternating interactions with said interface akin to Demiurge's Marvel Puzzle Quest. Instead of swapping tiles to make chains of three or more like colors, you must look at the board and try to draw the longest possible chain of any given color. As in Puzzle Quest, the colors aggregate and enable specific abilities. Success on the field of battle allows players to make repairs or equip their mech with more advanced gear. It's a wholly addicting title and a welcome addition to the genre. Ironcast will be available on Steam on March 26th.

Drinkbox Studios - Two PAXes ago the name on everyone's lips was Guacamelee and Drinkbox was looking to follow-up their debut success with the introduction of their new title, Severed. The first-person light RPG puts gamers in the body of the protagonist, a woman who has lost an arm and potentially her family to fantastical monsters. Players journey through the game's lush and stunning environments in an attempt to learn what brought the protagonist to her present state and battle many, many monsters along the way. While the premise is certainly interesting and the art direction/soundtrack were incredibly rich, we're wary of Severed's touch-based controls and the fact that it's going to be a PS Vita exclusive (at least for the near-term). Drinkbox has Severed slated for release during the summer of this year.  


Gearbox Software - The story for Gearbox was all about Borderlands: the Pre-Sequel. The title will be getting some new DLC on March 24th with the release of Claptastic Voyage. As the name indicates, this new chapter centers on Claptrap with the entirety of the game taking place in his mind and from his vantage. Gearbox also confirmed that the Ultimate Vault Hunter Upgrade Pack 2 will be the final add-on for the season pass of Borderlands: the Pre-Sequel. Claptastic Voyage and the Upgrade Pack will be sold as a bundle (for $10 USD) or, for you pass-holders, will be included with the purchase of a season pass ($30 USD).

Robot Entertainment -  One of the single longest lines in the Indie Megabooth was populated with gamers itching to demo Orcs Must Die Unchained, Robot's upcoming foray into the world of MOBAs. The game is coming up on the beginning of its closed beta, which is scheduled to go down on March 24th. There's still time to try and get a slot in said beta, which you can do by registering here.

Up North Indies - Some of our favorite moments from the convention came from this collective of 15 Canadian developers. Aside from producing impressive games, Up North ran their booths very efficiently and were true to the stereotype of being incredibly all-around nice. It was tough to even narrow down our top choices from these guys, but the titles below were what rose above their peers.

Dark Nexus Arena (Whitebox Interactive) - In  a sea of new MOBAs, it was a tall order to try and make your offering to the genre stand out, but Whitebox managed to do so with some clever mechanics and the benefit of getting Warhammer 40K licensing from Games Workshop. Dark Nexus lives up to its name, presenting two teams of five players each with a dank and unforgiving field of combat. While the overarching experience is similar to that of most MOBAs, we were drawn to the requirement for a high level of precision in combat and the point-based conditions for victory (specifically the ability to deny your opponents points by executing your own downed team members). You'll be able to dispense justice in the name of the Emperor beginning in the third quarter of this year. The game will be free to play and you can sign up for early access here.

Jotun (Thunder Lotus Games) - This was, hands down, our absolute favorite game of PAX. This 2D action-explorer is set in the bleak, ice-laden landscape of purgatory. You play as Thora, a viking maiden who has died an inglorious death and now must prove herself worthy of entrance into the hallowed halls of Valhalla. Aside from clean and simple, but challenging mechanics, the game boasts a soaring musical score and some of the most beautiful art direction we've seen in years. The entire thing, start to finish, is 100% hand-drawn animation, which still astounds me even just typing that out. Jotun is coming to Steam in September of this year and is definitely not to be missed.

Viking Squad (Slick Entertainment) - Vikings were one of the bigger themes of this year's PAX and if it brings us things like Jotun and Viking Squad we'll be totally ok with that. This 2D side-scrolling team brawler will have you recalling all the best parts of Castle Crashers while introducing innovative, RPG-like elements to that time-honored formula. Though there's no formal release date associated with Viking Squad, the game will be available on Steam (for both PC and iOS) and PS4. Bonus kudos to Slick for attending GDC, then hustling out to PAX East!

Given that PAX East is only in its fifth year (and its fourth year at the BCEC), it’s to be expected that we’ll see some organizational changes with each iteration until PAX staff feels satisfied with how everything works. This year’s alterations to the overall layout of the con resulted in an odd sort of overall experience. That’s not to imply that odd = bad, just that some of the some of the layout raised questions, like "Why is the PC freeplay area inside the tabletop freeplay area?" While some facets raised eyebrows, other decisions, like that which resulted in food stations being located throughout the con instead of shunting everything off to one far end, seemed to work out pretty well.

Other things that seemed to make out pretty well were board/tabletop games. Despite the weird layout of the board gaming portion of the hall, it seemed as though most developers and publishers garnered a lot of attention. Aside from a considerable presence in the main hall, board games comprised a large percentage of the panels offered during the con (which included ours!).

It'll be interesting to see how PAX East continues to develop, particularly as other conventions do the same in parallel. While it was great to see all the indies get a chance to shine, it may be tough from a business sustainability standpoint to not have many AAA studios present.

From a personal standpoint, this PAX was entirely different experience than any other convention I've attended. Between preparing for, then participating in, the panel and trying to demo as many games as possible it was all media-mode all the time. Though I'd refurbished my Red costume from last year, I ended up deciding to play games and meet developers instead of cosplaying. It was exhausting, but so very awesome.

Until next year PAX. See you in 2016!

1 comment :

  1. TimMarch 15, 2015 at 12:08 PM

    Exhausting doesn't begin to describe it! Was definitely an experience being on the other side of it, though.