I spent a few hours at the Penny Arcade Expo yesterday afternoon. This is the first full-blown gaming convention I’ve been to since the 1980 Origins. They’re a lot louder than they used to be. Even 27 years ago, there probably were some computer games to compete with the board games, but TRS-80s didn’t have speakers, much less surround sound.

Despite the technological changes, I immediately felt at home. As I waited in line to buy my day pass, the guys behind me started up a classic geek discussion. One guy had a friend who was trying to get a World of Warcraft character to level 70 without using weapons or armor. The other guy was initially puzzled by this idea—”Why the hell would you do that?”—but then got caught up in the challenge: “That would be pretty cool to brag about if you could pull it off… What character class is he?” Meanwhile the two guys in front of me were using some sort of wireless sketch pads to email drawings of penises back and forth to each other—I know this because when a news crew came by to film us standing in line, they held up the penis drawings to the camera.

Speaking of World of Warcraft, I saw nearly a dozen MMORPG demos in the exhibition hall, and almost all of them looked like WoW clones (the two exceptions were Richard Garriott’s Tabula Rasa, which has an SF rather than a fantasy setting—whether the addition of blasters to the standard MMORPG model constitutes true innovation remains to be seen—and Pirates of the Burning Sea, in which you control a whole ship and its crew). I was reminded of the explosion of collectible card games that followed the success of Magic: the Gathering. Most of those Magic wannabees failed, for the simple reason that most CCGs are very expensive to get into, so that a typical player can only afford to play one or two seriously. I see a similar problem with the WoW clones, although the “expense” here is more time than money.

The most interesting demo I saw was for a game called The Eye of Judgment, which has you playing (real) cards representing combat units onto a playing mat. A special camera peripheral attached to a Sony PlayStation 3 then reads the bar codes on the cards and brings the units to life on your TV screen. This was clever and cool, although without trying the game myself (the lines were very long) I couldn’t say whether it’s actually worth the bother of buying the special camera add-on for your PS3.

Among the many virtual offerings there were a few booths offering actual physical board and card games. My friend Chris Bodan’s company, Privateer Press, had a booth. Their latest release is called Infernal Contraption, and I almost bought it, but it wasn’t discounted and I figured if I was going to pay full price, I might as well get it from Blue Highway Games, the new Queen Anne game store that I’d like to see avoid bankruptcy for a few months at least.

The most head-scratching moment of the con came when I went into ArenaNet’s Guild Wars booth. This was a fairly large space with at least thirty computer stations running the game. When I sat down at an empty station to give it a try, though, the machine asked for my username and password. I asked an ArenaNet rep what was up, and he said: “Oh, you’re looking for a demo? Sorry, these machines are for people who already have accounts.” Um, right, because that’s why you come to an exposition, so you can show off your game to folks who already own it… (To be fair, the guy claimed that there was a demo area, as well, but damned if I could find it.)

Finally, to cause a little head-scratching of my own, I brought along some stacks of Bad Monkeys drop cards and left them on the various giveaway tables. Later I saw a couple different people picking the cards up and turning them over, trying to work out what they were for (MMORPG? Web comic? Fast-food discount?). I’ll be curious to see if I get any web traffic from it.

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