With our legs a little sore, we headed back to the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre on Saturday for PAX Aus Day 2.
Day 2 of PAX AUS 2015 opened with some further exploration of the Expo Hall and some time spent in PAX Rising, the newly repurposed indie section, trying games out and meeting the very excited devs. A few highlights included Death Stair, a game that sees three players charge up a seemingly endless flight of stairs while another player becomes the Gunner and attempts to wreck up the place with obstacles for the other players to avoid.
At 12pm, it was time for the Future of Gaming panel in the Wombat Theatre. Hosted by CNET’s Nick Healey, and featuring panelists Rocky Heckman (Microsoft, HoloLens lead), Marcus ‘djWHEAT’ Graham (Twitch), Norman Wang (Opaque Multimedia), and Joe Olmstead (Alienware), the panel discussed everything from the upcoming slate of consumer-level VR and AR devices and impact they will have on streaming services like Twitch and YouTube Red, to the state of mobile gaming and where it is headed next.
YouTube and Twitch, in particular, are pushing hard to come up with a proper, fully-implemented VR viewing experience which currently presents a significant problem – 360° video streaming currently produces a bonkers amount of data. Far too much, says Graham, to stream over even a high-end US internet connection, meaning Australia wouldn;t have a prayer. For Twitch and YouTube Red, eSports are a big focus for VR streaming, allowing viewers to actually feel as though they’re in the room with the competitors and the crowd as the game unfolds or providing a complete, immersive vantage point from which to view the entire game.
Hardware manufacturers are keen to take VR and AR tech mobile, the biggest challenge there being that current VR kits drain all viable, presently available batteries like crazy which makes portability a significant challenge. Olmstead was quick to point out, however, that Alienware is currently working on the battery problem with Melbourne-based VR multiplayer experience Zero Latency (and if you haven’t checked those guys out yet, do because the work they are doing is both the coolest thing I’ve ever seen and absolutely bananas). The other consideration for hardware manufacturers is still that of resolution. With screens becoming higher and higher res all the time, most are confident that the level of immersion will only grow from here.
In terms of mobile games, it seems extension is a problem for devs, both in terms of total play time and in terms of platform. For developers looking to expand from mobile to console or to PC, the leap can often be a difficult one due to changes in and the move to more powerful hardware, as well as internal software requirements. Maintaining a playerbase is also important and keeping addiction hours high without driving the play off due to the nickel-and-dime, pay-to-win nonsense that pervades most mobile games requires a signifcant change of form.
Heckman also confirmed Microsoft are very interested in tabletop games as a potential HoloLens application, specifically citing Battle Chess as a game he would love to see ported to the device (a suggestion with which the crowd vehemently agreed).
During the Q&A, the panel was asked about the sort of timeframe in which consumers could expect VR and AR devices to become commonplace. The questioner suggested twenty years but the panel was adamant that this tech would be in homes everyhwere within the next ten years, especially given the strides being made with VR and AR in terms of medical and scientific applications.
Another question from the audience was in regard to feedback body suits for VR which the panel says are also being looked into. The key is finding something that feels comfortable and provides a significant amount of haptic feedback without going overboard. As one panel member put it, getting shot in a game poses an interesting conundrum. It should feel punchy in the pursuit of realism but you also don’t want people feeling like they’ve actually been shot. Voice controls fall into a similar category, with intention being the key as opposed to recognition. Heckman mentioned that even now, HoloLens can detect the mood you’re in by the sound of your voice and the words you use. Not only that, but it can also detect whether you’re angry at the HoloLens or just cranky in general and work with you to do what you want. Amazing times.
The final questioner at the panel pointed out to the panelists and the audience that Austrlaian public libraries can, in fact, get VR and AR devices in for people to borrow or to even use there in the library. He said that if we wanted to see more games and tech available in public libraries then all we have to do is ask: go to your local public library and tell them you’d like to see more games, software and VR in their catalogue because they can make that happen, you guys!
The very next panel we went into was also in the Wombat Theatre and was possibly the most fun panel of the entire show. What was originally going to be a Just Cause 3 panel took on a new vibe when devs Omar Shakir and Roland Lesterlin made the snap decision to throw out their preprepared remarks as the the crowd were filing in and instead do a live Let’s Play, taking audience suggestions on precisely what mayhem they should cause next. What followed was a glorious, excruciatingly funny, hour-long romp through the game’s latino-inspired environments.
Sporting a seriously huge map and a clever unlock system that lets you try a little bit of everything on the explosion buffet, the devs gave themselves free reign to mess around – attaching the severed head of a large statue with grapple cables to a pair of church steeples and creating an impromptu slingshot, attaching a motorcycle to the back of a jet in flight before climbing out of the jet and attempting to climb onto the motorcycle, destroying landmark bridges with C4 just to ruin one particular motorist’s day and even souping up a tank with nitrous and jump jets. These two knew exactly how to sell their game to the crowd and they did with style and good humour and the capacity crowd walked out at the end ready to preorder.
Finally, the Let’s Play Deus Ex with Warren Spector panel could not be missed for fans of either Deus Ex or those interested in game design. The master himself, joined by Dan Hines from developer Sneaky Bastards, and freelance journo James O’Connor, commented on many of the game’s design aspects, bringing up great trivia like the crate in the opening shot being placed there deliberately in order to win an internal industry contest to see whose game could have a crate appear the fastest, the first level’s door entry code not having any special meaning beyond being the actual door code to get into the Looking Glass Studio’s office at the time, that Liberty Island is built to scale and the fact that most people’s favourite levels were actually designed by one really talented man who now works at Arkane on Dishonoured.
Spector’s distaste for heavy weaponry was apparent, with Hines blowing open doors eith GEP gun left and right and Spector begging him to use literally anything else. Spector reiterated his points from the previous day’s keynote, insisting that games that don’t provide enough player agency or choice suffer in his opinion and aren’t as interesting. It’s clear that he loves games and isn’t happy about the direction they’ve taken but as he now teaches game design at the University of Texas, hopefully a new will carry on Spector’s mission statement into the future. Said the great man, “Some games want to focus on the pretty pictures. Others focus on being good.”
Author travelled to PAX Aus 2015 courtesy Tiger Airways with accommodation provided by Accor Hotels and YHA Australia.