It wasn’t until PAX was over that I realized just how much the indie developers had completely stolen the show. I sat at the wobbly postage-stamp table in our hotel room, thumbing through the deck of pamphlets, handouts, and business cards and dividing everything into piles I’d mentally labeled “exciting” and “whatever”. As I reached the end of the pile and began assembling my notes, I realized 80% of the “exciting” pile was made up of indies.
Okay, the best game of the show wasn’t an indie. It’s a AAA title with a full budget and lavish marketing. I’ll talk about that one later. In the meantime, I want to compare how a couple of games are reaching out to their fans. Let’s jump back a couple of days:
|Forgot to take a picture of the booth myself. This one was pilfered from Google.|
I’m visiting Assassin’s Creed 3, which is due out later this year. This game has a massive presence. The footprint of their booth (which was really just a subsection of the Ubisoft space) is vast enough that it could encompass most of the indies on the show floor. It has a towering facade of glossy black, trimmed with glowing lights to evoke the “animus” motif. Inside is a booming theater, which plays the EXCLUSIVE (no photography allowed!) first look at the game. Smiling Booth Babes guide us into the experience.
I could cut to the front of this line by waving my media badge around, but I’d have to ditch Josh. Plus, I don’t like cutting. I suppose if I was dragging around a paid-by-the-hour camera crew I might crash a few lines, but I’m not, so I don’t.
One Booth Babe stands just beside the entrance, hyping up the crowd by awkwardly cycling through a bunch of bullet points that are probably going to end up on the back of the box. She wrings some polite cheers from the crowd by asking if we are excited, which is only slightly less ham-handed than just setting up a flashing APPLAUSE sign on a timer. Every few minutes she steps down from her little stage and asks a few guys in the crowd (and that is the only sort of person in the crowd) what they love most about the series.
Their responses are… obvious. Stuff about good graphics, and combat. The phrase “realistic killing” is used. And that’s fine. This is their game, not mine. Not really. This material isn’t aimed at me and doesn’t resonate with me the way it does with the young guys. I’m not such an ass that I’m going to mock my fellow show attendees openly, but I’ve decided that if the microphone lands on me I’m going to say something like, “I think the fluid kinaesthetics and striking visuals more than make up for the narrative dissonance,” just because that would be a gleefully absurd thing to say in this context.
The microphone doesn’t land on me, but it falls to a guy a couple of spaces behind me, and his response is even better. After she’s done and she has lowered the mic, he asks her point-blank what she likes most about the game. This has roughly the same effect on her poise as skateboarding over wet cement. She is knocked off her script and stammers out something about good graphics, and combat. It’s obvious she’s never played any of the games before.
I’m not trying to pick on this woman, who is just here earning a paycheck and giving it her all. She isn’t bad at her job, the job itself is bad. Her job is to manufacture a facsimile of enthusiasm in the crowd in the hopes that we will mistake it for the real thing. The entire process was obviously cooked up by marketing people who wanted to reach out to the “bro” market, and this was the path of least resistance for them.
On that same day I visit the Lantana Games booth, where I met Julia Smith. Actually, I met Julia first, but I’m telling things in this order because it makes the story more interesting. So there.
Julia tells me about Children of Liberty, their current game-in-progress. It’s a game about four kids fighting the British occupation in colonial Boston. You can play as Joseph, Ally, Doug, or Sarah. Each kid has their own style of combat: Platforming, momentum-based free-running, brawling, and stealth. While some characters are better-suited to some levels than others, the idea is that all levels will be possible using any character.
Julia gives me the elevator pitch in a rapid-fire conversation while I divide my time between her and the demo video they are looping on the jumbo screen. It is late afternoon. The show floor is deafening, and she doesn’t have a microphone. She’s been screaming this same pitch to an endless procession of shuffling attendees for eight hours a day, three days in a row, but you wouldn’t know it by talking to her. She gives every indication of being completely thrilled to be talking about the game. Which is as it should be. As I’ll discover later when I snap up her business card, she the Resident Creative Director of Lantana Games.
|Quality photography, Shamus. Did you shoot this while being electrocuted?|
Julia knows her stuff. She knows the development process, the tools they’re using, the gameplay they’re building towards, and the thinking behind various design decisions. She tells me that they scrapped an earlier prototype of the game and started over, and if I wasn’t a fool I’d be writing this down so I’d remember it later. She’s smiling because this project is something she believes in, and she’s happy for the chance to share it. I could stand here and talk about game design and indie development all day, but I’m starting to feel guilty for hogging her time when she could be infecting others with her enthusiasm. I need to move on.
(Yes, I realize that Assassin’s Creed 3 and Children of Liberty both take place in the same time period and both feature stealth and platforming. This is a coincidence and is not a part of the point I’m trying to make here.)
The game gives us the desired 2D platforming gameplay in a 3D environment with a slick corner-turning mechanic. It’s got a fresh setting, a cool premise, and a focused visual aesthetic. It’s smart and creative.
Of course, a lot of indie games at the show are smart and creative. The aisles and booths here are clogged with smart, creative, hardworking, broke-ass indies who are hoping for their big break. But when I leave the show I’ll remember Children of Liberty better than the others because Lantana Games has a strong, intelligent spokesperson out in front. By the time Julia is done with her pitch I want to hug the entire development team. (Most of them are right behind her.)
I didn’t talk to Julia because of the way she looked. She wan’t trying to lure us over to the booth with tight outfits or stilted, corporate-designed fake-flirting. She made me care about this game by showing genuine passion for it herself, and that’s something no hired spokesmodel can ever give you.
I can’t understand the thinking behind the Ubisoft marketing team. This is your chance to meet with and connect with your fans. Why would you outsource that? This is like an adopted kid arranging a meeting with their birth parents, and sending an actor to go in their stead. This completely defeats the purpose of the meeting.
If you’re not going to talk with us directly, then why go to PAX at all? It’s crazy expensive and you probably can’t reach more than a few thousand people. For the price of that booth you could easily buy TV spots that would reach orders of magnitude more people.
I understand why Booth Babes exist. I understand that you hire these women for the same reason you put lights all over your display. This place is an avalanche of sensory input, and you’re just trying to make sure you get noticed. But shouldn’t you employ these women to augment your staff, instead of replacing them?
I can get pretty faces by opening up Google Image Search and typing in words at random, but your booth is the only place I can meet the artists and designers and see how their dreams are shaping this game. Don’t hire some non-gaming nineteen year old to read me your ad copy. That’s a waste of your money and my time. Send in someone who knows what they’re talking about, and ask them to talk about their work. You won’t have to ask very hard.
Before I go: A lot of people said they wanted a picture of Josh. So here I am with Josh, waiting to play the Chivalry demo. That’s me on the left, and Josh on the right.