On the calendar, Summer still has a good 20 days to go, but unofficially, Summer is coming to an end quickly. In just a few short days, children will return to school (Although first days of school vary significantly from place to place, around here school begins next Tuesday) and before we know it, the leaves will begin turning, and the long descent into Winter will begin. And yet, even for those of us who have long since departed from schooling, there are certain things that mark the unofficial end of Summer and the beginning of Fall. For some, it may be a fair (the Puyallup Fair is just a couple of weeks away, although it’s unlikely I’ll make it there this year with my schedule over the next few weeks), and for others it may be a festival (Bumbershoot, this weekend at Seattle Center) or something a bit more mundane like a barbecue or a campout. Over the past few years, I have found the end of Summer to be marked primarily by the arrival of PAX Prime, which was held last weekend in Seattle.
Although by now PAX should need little introduction for most people, it’s one of the largest festivals of gaming in all its various forms (the primary focus remains on video gaming, but tabletop and pen-and-paper gaming also comprise a major part of the show as well), with most of the space being taken up by a large and ever-expanding expo hall where hundreds of game companies, ranging from the big console makers (Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo) to scrappy little three-man indie teams trying to prove themselves, show off their latest and greatest, and provide the chance to play them before their release. Or at least that’s the theory. In practice, any of the highly anticipated big studio productions that make it to PAX inevitably draw long lines of would-be players, resulting in what can in extreme cases become waits of several hours just to play something for ten minutes. Since I’m not exactly known for my patience, I tend to just skip these ones. Then again, it’s not exactly like there was a whole lot of stuff worth standing around for anyway.
Your mileage may vary of course, and I suspect for a good portion of the people who were there it did, but as I wandered through the expo hall and looked at the many games being offered, I just couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that it seemed like all the big studios were making pretty much the same game with slightly different graphics. This may just be me getting jaded in my old age, but every fantasy MMO seemed to be trying to hard to be World of Warcraft, and every shooter out there seemed to be trying too hard to be either Call of Duty or Team Fortress 2. And if I really wanted to play Team Fortress 2 or World of Warcraft, I’d just play Team Fortress 2 or World of Warcraft (I’ve got pretty much zero interest in any of the half zillion Call of Duty games on the market, so I’ve never been inclined to bother with it. ) Granted, not quite everything on the floor falls into those sweeping overgeneralizations. There were a couple of new fighting games that looked reasonably nice, but I’m pretty sure I’d get myself thoroughly clobbered at if I tried playing them against actual players (my last fighting game experience at PAX was, to put it mildly, a tad disastrous.) There was also plenty of cool looking new PC hardware that was way too expensive (although I have been looking into some sort of upgrade for my desktop system in the semi-near future.) On the non video game side, there were also quite a few new pen-and-paper RPGs trying way too hard to be Dungeons and Dragons and card games trying way too hard to be Magic the Gathering.
I’m pretty sure I’m overgeneralizing a bit here, but I don’t think what I’m seeing is necessarily as much a problem with the gaming industry as a whole as it is a subtle change in my attitudes towards gaming. I’ve long known (and asserted) that I’m something of a finicky niche gamer, having at various times gone through phases of being at least somewhat fanatical about DOS shareware games (which, growing up as a frequently broke PC junkie in the early 90s, were attractive mostly by merit of not costing anything to download off the local BBSes,) early 80s arcade games, pinball, arcade games on their actual hardware, a particular series of Japanese strategy RPGs and\or Imported Japanese 2D shooters, so I suppose it’s not too surprising if I happen to find myself turning into a bit of a game snob. But even given that fact, it seems that I’m just finding myself gradually less and less interested in gaming as a whole lately. That’s not to say that I’ve stopped playing games (or even reduced the amount of time I spend on them much,) it’s just that I gradually seem to be getting more and more picky about what I spend my time playing. There are at least a couple of games that I tried out at PAX last year, enjoyed quite a bit and eventually bought, only to find them nearly a year later still sitting in their shrinkwrap. Since it seems unlikely that any of these are ever going to become highly sought after collectors items, I’m not sure what my excuse is for those ones.
Another thing that might be influencing this newfound pickiness is that slowly but surely, I find myself spending a lot less of my gaming time on the consoles in the living room, and a lot more of it on my PC. To some people this might seem a bit counterintuitive since the longstanding trend has been in the other direction, but with the rise of major digital distribution platforms like Steam, it’s gotten a lot more convenient to purchase and play things on the PC. And while a lot of this comes from improvements to the PC gaming experience (mostly I’m just glad that we don’t have to mess around with DOS boot disks trying to squeeze out another 673 bytes of free conventional memory in order to get Jazz Jackrabbit to run,) it seems that especially in the most recent generation of game consoles, the plug-and-play experience that used to be their biggest advantage has largely fallen by the wayside. It seems like virtually every time I turn on my PS3 these days it does something to annoy me, usually in the form of an excessive load time or a mandatory patch that seems to download at about a quarter of the available speed I have on my Internet connection. My Xbox is a bit better, but it comes with more than its fair share of load times as well. My PC, on the other hand, comes with a nice little list of games I can run from my start menu, is usually pretty fast to start them, and Steam automatically takes care of the patches and updates in the background so I don’t have to worry about any of it. I’d even argue that as long as you’ve got the system to handle it (my current desktop PC is about two years old now, and I haven’t run into anything yet that it can’t handle) a PC might even be a better plug-and-play experience for gaming than a PS3 or an Xbox 360.
None of this is to say that I didn’t enjoy PAX, because even if I am getting ever more finicky about my gaming, I did still enjoy PAX quite a bit, and intend to continue going every year as circumstances permit. But I do reserve the right to become increasingly jaded about the whole thing as I continue to get older, OK?