[6 March 2008]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
For the third year in a row, the Carolina Games Summit was one of the best conferences for Game Developers and other prominent industry figures to showcase their wares in the South. The event takes place at Wayne Community College in North Carolina and is an impressive gathering of Raleigh-based game companies and industry insiders. Destineer (military simulators), Epic Games (Gears of War, Unreal), and Redstorm (Ghost Recon, all things Tom Clancy) highlight some of the biggest names based in North Carolina who were all in attendance. Combining those developers with an impressive lineup of professionals hosting panels and a huge array of tournaments, the Carolina Games Summit is a hardcore gamer’s dream come true.
“Listen, we can be in Raleigh in about an hour. You go in there, snap some pics, interview some kids, and we can get to downtown Raleigh in time for happy hour,” says my friend behind me.
We’re in the parking lot of Wayne Community College on a rainy Saturday and my two friends that I’ve dragged along on this project are keeping look out while I fill my bourbon flask. The one pining for the glories of women and bars in Raleigh is Gerry. We grew up together in South Carolina and looked each other up when we found out we lived in the same city later on. As kids we had both been pretty big gamers, but something about your mid-20s causes a shift in priority. Next to him is his little brother, Sean.
“As long as I get a chance to compete in the Halo tournament,” Sean says. When you hear someone describe the basic hardcore gamer demographic as 14 to 35, think of Sean. He turned 21 a few days earlier and celebrated by drinking a 12-pack of Coca-Cola and having an all-night LAN party. He has already been assigned designated driver duties.
A look at the program for the Summit
The first thing you see when you show up to the CGS in the early hours is a long line of teenagers waiting to buy tickets to get in the door. A few stereotypes are confirmed by looking over the crowd, and a few are blown away too. The usual panache of awkward hair, trench coats, and occasional bouts of obesity are all standing in the line. But there are girls here too. Not in equal proportion, but all the same there are a surprising number waiting in the line. No specific ethnicity seems to really dominate the crowd and they mix together in a way that would’ve done the Civil Rights Movement proud. Gamers may have a mixed reputation on Xbox Live, but standing in line I see every indication that they socialize color blind. What is also quite apparent is that everyone trying to get in is young.
“What happened to your brother?” I ask.
“Get this. I’m standing with him telling him I’ll watch him play in the tournament when this girl walks up. Cute, too, said she was 18. Asked him to play Smash Brothers with her. Just pulled him away without even speaking to me,” Gerry mutters. I raise an eyebrow but figure it’s none of my business. Twenty-one is a charming age where that kind of conduct doesn’t seem too weird with an 18-year-old. Gerry and I, however, are just old enough for these kids to not be accepting candy from lightly.
Once you’re inside the main hall you can see the basic layout of the convention. The main area consists of different booths from various groups, often with monitors showing off their upcoming games. A weird mixture of cell phone companies, game design schools, and merchandise vendors fill up the other spaces. In an auditorium behind this are various kids playing Rock Band in front of a huge audience, a side classroom for seminars, and a cafeteria with a nice selection of food. Although the teens I’d been in the line with all take passing glances at the games and even shake a few hands, they all stream immediately towards the second floor. Up there is where the tournaments are taking place. Halo 3, Starcraft, Street Fighter... almost every game that’s still competitively played is represented upstairs. None of this really grabs my attention at first. What really stands out is that there are storm troopers directing people around the convention.
Rock Band - a favorite of bars and gaming conferences everywhere
All of these storm troopers are in perfect costume and are members of the 501st Legion. They are an international organization whose members are regularly contacted to appear at various gaming and sci-fi events. Many of the members construct their own costumes and some of them are quite impressively accurate. They all sport storm trooper helmets that feature microphones that distort their voices just like in the movies and many even have weapons that can do everything but shoot. Yet membership within the group is not necessarily dependent on just dressing for the Imperial side. Several members also chose to adopt Mandalorian armor, resembling Jenga or Boba Fett. Calling themselves the Mandalorian Mercs, these members all take pains to explain that they are a separate entity but with overlapping members in the 501st. Their chief inspiration for these costumes is not so much devotion to Star Wars, but rather the logical continuation of their role playing as Mandalorians in RPGs and video games. The roles of their characters, once brought into the real world, are to get involved with charities and social functions. Members of both organizations often make appearances at children’s hospitals and conventions to help support what everyone at the C.G.S. has come together to celebrate.
“I’m going to be here for a couple of hours. You guys are security, right? If some kid starts freaking out and a bunch of storm troopers have to drag him outside, I need you to promise me something. You find me, and you let me get pictures, deal?”
Even though the cafeteria has plenty of sodas to choose from, it becomes rapidly apparent that everyone at this convention is drinking one particular brand: Bawls. The guy operating the booth is very friendly and happily explains their presence. Apparently, the beverage began targeting gamers a few years ago by hosting LAN parties, tournaments, and conventions every chance it got. The original company slogan was something along the lines of, “Stay up all night with your Bawls,” but has since shifted to “Bouncing with Bawls”. The actual drink comes loaded with caffeine and whatever else they put in energy drinks. It tastes like what would happen if Red Bull and Sprite had a baby and raised it in Detroit. The Bawls representative eventually hands me a rubber ball and tells me to go bounce my Bawls off people. Before I could say anything, a teenage girl marched up to the booth and exclaimed, “Oh my God, I love Bawls!” The grinning clerk told me to wait a moment and he asked her how many she needed. Despite the awkwardness of all this, it occurs to me that I would’ve adored this joke in high school. Looking at the huddles of giggling teens forking over cash and calling their friends over, it’s not too hard to see why Bawls has become the number one drink for gamers. Every customer gets to be inside the joke.
This’ll get you through an all-night LAN party.
Back on the main floor, people still throng back and forth as they take breaks from the tournament upstairs. There are, literally and figuratively, a lot of Bawls around. Still, in the crowd I spot a pretty girl who seems to be in her mid-20s and make my way over there. She is operating the booth for Destineer along with another female co-worker and seems excited about talking to someone a bit older. The company was originally a publisher who has decided to begin making their own games, starting out with the military simulators you often see at game conventions or download for free on the internet. Her name is Suzanne Meiler, and because she’s fairly attractive I automatically ask her what working in PR is like. The smile drops and I’m calmly informed that she is, in fact, the senior environment artist at Destineer. After a few apologies the smile is back and she admits that I’m not the first person to make the mistake. I very politely point out that it seems a bit odd for someone like her to be responsible for the environments in military simulators but she doesn’t bat an eye.
“Oh, but they’re such great stress relievers! Sometimes around the office we just fire our own games up for about an hour and just shoot each other. It really helps the atmosphere. But I do wish there were more games for girls. I love Nintendogs and Super Mario but I think the shooters can be fun for girls too.”
She has been in the industry making games for eight years.
“So what kind of stuff do people ask you when you’re at these things?” I ask.
“Well… a lot of people want jobs. How to get into the game industry, what classes to take, stuff like that,” Suzanne explains. As I’m scribbling all this down a guy behind me taps me on the shoulder.
“Excuse me, kind sir, but I couldn’t help but notice that you’re wearing a Press Pass. I too, would like to get involved with game journalism. I’ve been taking photos of the convention. Might I have your e-mail address so that I may send them to you?” asks a pimply teenager. There aren’t a lot of appropriate responses to someone addressing you in bad Shakespearean English but you can bet none of them begin with the affirmative.
“Ah, thanks, but I’ve got my own camera. You should…definitely post that on your blog though,” I reply.
In fact, people wanting to break into the game industry is one of the biggest draws for a convention like this. Students, professionals, and amateurs can all be quick to ask if there are any openings available in a company before remembering that the booth was to display an upcoming game. The team over at the booth for the MMORPG Fallen Earth quickly lament the number of people who have approached them with either resumes or suggestions for their game. A student with the Pitt Community College Game Developers Association, Zach Farrar, voices similar concerns for people looking at his student project, but is still optimistic. Having attended the show before, he is quick to point out that the crowd has diversified a fair amount and gives a lot of the credit to the Wii for making Game Conventions expand into new audiences. As he’s talking, a group of teens drinking Bawls and laughing about a recent Halo match in the tournament walk by. To Farrar’s credit, there are definitely girls present in the group, but all of them are all still fairly young. Zach also laments the repetitive nature of games today, his hopes for the new audience of gamers, and the huge improvement that video games could have once they start targeting an older audience. He hurries back to the booth after finishing a cigarette, stopping to get a bottle of Bawls on the way out.
“Can I ask you something? Back when we played video games all the time, back when we were kids. What game are you the most proud of for beating?,” I ask Gerry. We’re a few yards from the convention hall on some old bleachers. I take a swig from the bourbon flask, hand it over to Gerry, and take a long drag off the cigar I’m chewing on.
“I thought you quit smoking,” Gerry says.
“I did. This is a cigar. It’s different. Answer the question,” I answer. He takes a swig and stares out across the empty game field for a while.
“Space Hulk,” Gerry answers. He hands me back the flask.
“Holy shit, you beat Space Hulk? That game was physically impossible,” I answer. Gerry just shrugs and nods at me to speak.
“Alright. Well, I don’t know if this compares but… Heroes of Might and Magic II. Both campaigns,” I answer. I’m kind of honored to see Gerry gawk back at me.
“How the hell did you beat the Good Campaign? The third to last mission is completely unbalanced. I even bought the Game Guide. It literally said, “The only way to beat this mission is if the A.I. does something really stupid and unlikely.” Gerry says.
“Naw, I still remember how I finally figured it out. I just played it so much that I got lucky,” I explain. I take another pull from the bourbon flask. We don’t say anything for a while and just stare at the empty bleachers. Sean, the hardcore gamer, has been missing for at least three hours and Gerry has already hypothesized about what him and his new gamer girlfriend are doing.
“That’s the bitch about hardcore games, y’know? I just don’t have time to figure them out anymore. I still like video games. But between work, trying to meet women, bars… things change,” I say.
A scene from Music Wizard Group’s Piano Wizard
Probably the most impressive display at the conference is the game Piano Wizard. Not so much based on as it is inspired by Guitar Hero, the game takes the concept of watching notes ascend the screen except now they are cuing you to play an entire keyboard. The designer is an energetic man who starts the interview off bluntly, “What did you learn from playing Guitar Hero for hours every day? Nothing,” he says. I’m about to ask how pressing keys in rhythm on a keyboard is any different when, with a mouse click, the interface shifts and the familiar colored dots translates into music notes. The players are actually playing the proper keys and sequence of the song on the piano. This is not a series of arbitrary buttons, but a real piano instrument. Over time players, using the system of playing songs via visual cues, will begin to create their own music once they get used to playing. “After all, isn’t learning to play the piano just playing other people’s songs long enough to figure it out for yourself?” he asks.
It’s an impressive setup and they already have several distribution deals in the works. What’s probably the most exciting thing is that there is a guitar version being finalized, which plugs into a real guitar and teaches along similar principles. “Our target audience is three to not dead yet.”
Sitting in the demonstration chair is a woman in her eighties, plucking away at the keys as she plays “What a Wonderful World” for the first time in her life. She’s just waiting for her grandkid to get done playing in the tournament and passing the time. It’s kind of amazing, to see the smile on her face as she learns how to work a keyboard by watching notes drift up and genuinely play a song with no previous experience.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to quickly tune in to the fact that the biggest draw to the convention and where most of the attendees are is the tournament upstairs. An entire floor of classrooms have been converted into huge media centers where teenagers are lined up to play in tournaments. If that sounds a bit unnerving, you should try smelling it. An incredible number of teenage males are learning, for the first time, that there are reasons behind wearing deodorant on a regular basis. The two biggest draws are Halo 3 and Gears of War, with a surprisingly clear win for the Gears of War line. Rooms contain rows of TV’s hooked to console systems and names are called out as tier matches take place. I sit down with one of the Halo 3 judges and ask him about the behavior of the notorious Xbox 360 fanbase in a tournament. Disappointingly, they’re all pretty calm and even joking with each other. One or two have thrown controllers, but nothing sensational. The judge explains:
“The thing you’ve got to understand is that a lot of these guys have never even played a match bigger than four people at home. Some of them don’t have any business playing in this tournament. A lot of the other players are alright. I saw one guy throw a match for the girl he was playing against because she was only one kill from winning. That was kinda cool. But then there are the professionals.”
To emphasize his last point he motions to a kid sitting on the far end of the row. The matches are highest kill count after 12 minutes or first to hit 50 kills. The pro-player is at 49 kills and trying to get the last one with a pistol for the sake of a challenge. The next highest score is 22.
I find Sean patiently waiting in line for the Halo tournament with the same girl who grabbed him earlier. She glances at me and the brown blazer I’m wearing and comments that it makes me look old.
“Are you sure you want to do this? Some of these guys are nuts. Hell, I never even got past beating Halo 3 on Normal, much less dominating the multiplayer like these guys,” I explain. From the look they both give me, you would’ve thought I’d just said the tricky part about breathing is remembering to exhale.
“Don’t worry. He’s cool,” Sean explains to his lady friend.
One of the key draws for a convention like this is the speakers and this one has an impressive lineup. A wide variety of professionals are hosting individual Q&A panels throughout the day, giving tips on how to get ahead in the game industry. How to promote yourself, the merits of a video game education, or simple guides to basic graphic design are all scheduled throughout the day. The keynote speaker is a representative from Microsoft named Bruce Shankle who is discussing the effects of graphic improvements in the industry. He’s definitely a professional and he loves his craft, which he goes into with loving detail, explaining the amount of work that goes into animating a rabid bat for Crysis. Several stereotypes about game designers and programmers come to mind as I watch him speak. Yet the information is there and I find myself learning a lot about why I don’t bother to own a powerful PC anymore. The biggest problem is not so much the speaker as it is the audience. Teenagers abound, walking in and out of the auditorium and punching away on cell phones without paying him any attention. Shankle eventually decides to salvage the scene and fill up the auditorium with some classic reward-style motivation. He offers a copy of Halo 3 to whoever grabs five of their friends and makes them listen to his talk. I can’t help but think the man was wishing he was talking to an older audience.
Outside, I sat down and interviewed the mother of one of these gamers. She was, without a doubt, one of the coolest women I’ve ever met. She was tucked away on a bench with a Nora Roberts book and had been at the convention since it had started that morning. She didn’t think games made people violent, she wasn’t worried about her two sons, and she didn’t interfere with their play time as long as they spent an equal amount outside. “I’ve spent a small fortune on this video game stuff. I figure it should at least pay off somehow,” she explains. She also adds that she likes the fact that it gets her two boys playing together and forming a bond. I ask her how the book is treating her and she points at another Nora Roberts book in her purse. She’s finished one and has started the sequel. I ask her if she plays video games herself. “Me? Oh no, not anymore. I loved Atari and Pong growing up, but I don’t do any of this new stuff except maybe the Wii. Who has the time?,” she says.
Alex Macris: as eloquent as he
is dapper, apparently.
The best talk I heard at the entire conference was also the last. Alex Macris is the president of the Themis Group and publisher of The Escapist, along with several other online publications. The Themis Group helps companies advertise games by establishing web communities. They also publish something called the Themis Report, which is essentially a document predicting trends in the video game industry. The man, needless to say, has some interesting observations for the gaming world. The basic problem is that the huge graphic push in video games has made the cost of making them rise exponentially while the number of people buying them has remained the same. To give an example, Twisted Metal 1 cost about $800,000 to make. Twisted Metal Black cost 2.5 million. The fan base is just as loyal as ever and buying up the game, but unfortunately the number of copies being sold is still about the same. It doesn’t take a math major to figure out the problem. The video games you love playing now cost a lot more to make and are steadily needing a bigger audience to make ends meet. Companies have reacted by either dumbing down their games to expand the audience or ditching all creativity that might weird consumers out for the sake of selling as many games as possible. Macris explains,
“Ultimately, the reality of the industry is that companies are going to quit making AAA titles for core gamers. It just doesn’t make sense financially. The number one selling PC game, outside of the absurd sales for World of Warcraft, sold 400,000 copies. Let’s say the game cost $50. It cost 20 million to make it. They’re barely breaking even, with great sales figures. The problem isn’t that the core gamer is dead. The problem is that there aren’t enough of you to justify making these kinds of games anymore.”
He then goes on to explore the possibilities of focusing on an entirely new audience of gamers that are still untapped. What about the people who all loved video games as a kid but are grown up now? Macris points out that kids, spouses, and jobs are all huge time drains for these former hardcore gamers. The appeal of games with unlockable content, beating impossible odds, or even ones that just take a lot of practice no longer work on this demographic. They don’t play games for those reasons. They play them to kill time.
This group still wants to compete and get that sense of accomplishment from games. Macris outlines a variety of examples that all sound appealing and notes how they generate money through in-game purchases, balancing players with time versus ones with cash, and making it possible for both groups to have fun. What they’ve changed, across the medium, is the duration of play. This new kind of gamer likes his play to be in twenty or so minute bursts and without much fuss. The skills to play need to be easy to master but still possess a wide range of depth once learned. Names for this new genre include the highly misleading “adult games”, casual games (like the ones your mom plays), and the more refreshing “We’re still inventing this as we go”. Macris this new consumer who’s waiting to be served the “ex-core gamer”. It was the best talk I heard at the entire convention, but I think I might’ve liked it so much because it was such a relief to hear someone say there was hope.
Sean got taken out in the second round. He’s off saying goodbye to his lady friend. He already bragged to me that she gave him her MySpace profile. Gerry and I are back at the empty bleachers and passing the flask. The conference is almost over and we’re skipping the rewards ceremony for the bar.
“You think these empty bleachers might be a metaphor for all of this? For us? The video games we all played as kids that no one plays anymore. Like, we’re these older nerds showing up for the big game and no one else is here?” I ask.
“The only metaphor at this place is how low the fucking urinals are in the bathroom. Stop trying to make everything literary,” Gerry says. I take another pull off my latest cigar. I can’t blame him for being a bit grouchy after spending eight hours at this thing with nothing to do but watch teens drink Bawls.
“Aw c’mon, it wasn’t that bad. I think all the speakers were glad to see some adults in the audience. All the designers seemed happy to act a bit more their age when we talked to them. They could tailor this whole thing for ex-core gamers in a heartbeat. Make a few changes, maybe set up a bar, and just try to make the convention for people like us,” I say.
“What kind of video games are a bunch of ex-core gamers going to go to a convention and get drunk for?” Gerry asks.
“I haven’t a clue. But I can’t wait to find out,” I reply.
All in all, the Carolina Games Summit is a hardcore gamer’s wet dream. There are tournaments for every kind of game that’s still being played, and genuine prizes going out to the winners. Most of the prizes are free games, but the looks on most of these teens’ faces will tell you that they’re really there for the glory anyways. But sitting in the booths demonstrating, on the stages talking, and on the benches waiting for their kids to get done are a new kind of audience as well. They’re older, they’ve played a lot of video games too, and if you can fit it into their life they’ll fork over the cash to play them again. It looks like things are about to get interesting in the video game world.