Gen Con 2011 - So Much to Do!


Anime North

This year, I overbooked myself at Gen Con 2011. It isn't hard to do when over 36,000 gamers set up camp in the heart of Indianapolis for a week. Still, I'm an old hand at this: conventions are my bread and butter. What made this year so jam-packed with quality, and so lacking in sleep?

The number one culprit for excess was my plan. This year I brought a schedule to organize the events I wanted to get into, the meals I'd eat, and the gaming luminaries who I intended to meet. Instead of playing it by ear, I had decided to unlock the secret of the atom and do everything. Naturally, I failed. Between selling gaming accessories as an exhibitor, catching up with old friends, meeting new ones, and demoing new games, my usual Gen Con traditions were rushed. I was still able to contribute several buildings to Cardhalla, the city of unloved collectible card games -- but at what cost?

Gen Con, as a whole, isn't focused on computer or console RPGs. Its anime coverage isn't that hot either -- at least when compared to the explosive core of tabletop gaming that drives the event. A clever RPGamer can still find plenty of enticing material, but it takes a pair of finely tuned goggles to winnow down the unfiltered geekery.

The Internet has spoiled most of the surprise product announcements of years past, leaving the smaller booths in the exhibit hall to bring the thunder. Attendees could find most of the big-name release information without showing up for company-sponsored panels. Moreover, con-exclusive products aren't nearly as prevalent as they are at Comic Con. What's left? Ocarinas and maids!

The convention wasn't lousy with Links, but the heroic Hylian made a strong showing. Many of the long-eared costumers were outfitted with clay ocarinas crafted by STL Ocarina. Although the company's booth was modest compared to Wizards of the Coast's castle and Mayfair's avenues of demo tables, STL's costumes and enthusiasm made them stand out this year.

The second major purchase-related surprise at the convention was Tanto Cuore. While I was unable to play a demo of the popular Japanese deck-building game, I was party to several embarassed conversations over the course of the weekend. The demo booth for the maid-based card game was staffed by smiling, anime-style maids. Everyone I interviewed was embarassed to be seen with the game's sexually suggestive artwork, but filled with vigor for its Dominion-like mechanics.

I didn't attend many games, proper. About as close as I got was a full game of Tenra Bansho Zero. The website is out of date, but gives a good feel for the game's over-the-top aesthetic. More than just Shinto summoners and Materia-studded samurai, however, Tenra Bansho Zero has some thoughtful rules about destiny and attachment to the physical world. The art and character classes suggest a Gonzo anime romp, but the mechanics are geared toward meaty (melo)drama and intertwining stories.

Drama dice (a.k.a. Kiai) increase your PC's connection to the material plane. Spending them increases the character's Karma. When Karma hits 108 (the number of Buddhist sins), the character becomes an Asura, consumed with the desire to fulfill his or her Fates ("like Darth Vader," according to my GM). Only by completing Fates (or abandoning them) can a character break from being ground down by the world. Characters can gain Kiai by investing in meaty, powerful Fates.

My character (you knew it was coming!) was Ichiro Tachibana, a young armour rider. In his Prowling Lion Shikami magitech armor, he was invincible: if the yoroi greatsword, explosive spikers, or howling dragon mortar didn't finish off the foe, he had galespeed rollers (rollerblades!). Of course, he was overcompensating. Every day of his life was a test to satisfy his noble father: every companion killed on the battlefield, every birthday present, were all planned to break Ichiro's spirit or make him stronger.

Although Ichiro's starting Fates were Emotion: Loves his Armour and Emotion: Loyalty to his Domain, I quickly added Destiny: Be as Ruthless as Necessary to Save Others from his Father's Ruthlessness and Emotion: Loves Keiko, the Bodyguard/Magical Puppet (another PC). It was pretty amazing how the PCs meshed together so quickly. Keiko mistrusted Ichiro's advances, the worm-doctor tried to temper his vengeance with reason, and the worldly shrine maiden appreciated his mastery of politics and tactics. When the game is released, it's worth checking out for its Japanese console RPG elements as well as its twists to Western tabletop dynamics.

The Games on Demand room was another stand-out hub for tabletop gaming. If anyone was going to rope me into a one-shot of Atarashi Games' Panty Explosion Perfect (psychic schoolgirls learning about friendship) or Girl X Boy (dating sim), it would be the indie crowd. I also wanted to play Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple after hearing its list of inspirations: Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Little Prince, and Kino's Journey. Unfortunately, my rigorous schedule took this moment to rear up. I was able to fit in a great game of A Penny For My Thoughts, but the strongest console RPG connection one could make there is it's a game about amnesia.

Before I knew it, the exhibit hall was closing for the last time and the weary card gamers were lugging their wheeled suitcases back to the airport. Something didn't seem right. I had passed the same troll statue three times already. The kilted man underneath had a knowing gleam in his eye. Was I being followed? I registered the syringe plunging into my arm about three seconds too late.

When I woke, I was tied to a steel beam in a parking garage. A shadowy figure stood nearby. This is what happened next:

Me: Who are you, and what do you want?
????: I'm Landon Winkler, although most of my players call me Kinak.

I'm the lead developer for Metroplexity. In practice, that means I do all the plotting and coding. We have a dedicated artist, who goes by Puyo. My wife pitches in with some marketing advice and helps with marketing layout.

I also just spend a lot of time working with the players. I handle all the bug reports, fix all the typos, and see where we can sneak in suggestions. So that means a lot of cryptically answering questions on the forums, breaking the news when suggestions can't work, and doing the podcast.

Me: An online game. I see. Browser-based, like Kingdom of Loathing. What kind of experiences does Metropexity offer that are impossible to find anywhere else? Is it useful to draw comparisons to a real-time MMORPG, or is that a completely separate kettle of fish?
Kinak: Metroplexity is designed to capture as much of the GM-guided table-top gaming experience as we can. So we weave in as many options as we can. My favorite example is that you can get through the entire main quest line without harming anyone in combat. It's hard, but you can do it.

We also have a pretty amazing community. They're really involved in the development, beyond just sending in bugs. Several big sidequests along with a lot of crazy options are thanks to them. That goes back a bit to the table-top feel, I suppose.

The players as a whole are really invested in the game, which lets us keep it free with their donations. It also means that things just stay generally more positive and proactive, rather than the endless cycle of complaints you get with a lot of MMOs.

I think the better comparison that modern real-time MMOs is actually the old BBS door games or even MUDs. Every day you get some Energy to forward your goals or explore the world, which puts more of the focus back on player skill than realworld time. As long as you can afford the time of logging in to play every few days, you shouldn't fall behind the people logged in all day.

Me: OK. Sounds good, other than the tying me up and knocking me out part. What are Metroplexity's primary influences, in terms of gameplay and story? I seem to recall hearing the card-chaining battle mechanic was inspired by a console RPG, for instance.
Kinak: The card mechanic in Baiten Kaitos loosely inspired Metroplexity's combat mechanic. You had a hand of cards and played them out in whatever order you wanted, then the combined effect would be modified if you had pairs or straights.

Metroplexity makes that a little less abstract, however. You can put together chains that, in world, represent approaching your enemy (using successively closer attacks) or backing away from them (using progressively more distant attacks).

The other big influence for the game is Kingdom of Loathing, another free browser-based game that's light and comedic where Metroplexity is dark and cyberpunk. But the turn structure, our reward system for donating, and even some choices on the back end code were inspired by their design. Their developers have been great and a lot of our most involved players found us through KoL.

Me: What's the real story behind [REDACTED]?
Kinak: Well, when you take enough [REDACTED], your entire [REDACTED] can break down and change, based largely on your [REDACTED]. Midgard Industries has been trying to [REDACTED] it, but even their best efforts haven't managed to replicate the [REDACTED].

It seems like I hit a nerve. My head was pounding now, solid spirals dripping from the overhead lights. Kinak continued to talk, but it had been a long con. Unconsciousness was merciful. When I woke up, I was in the Crown Plaza lobby, surrounded by a pile of promotional tote bags. Next year, Gen Con! Next year, I'll beat you!

Enjoy the photographs! They were taken by Zach Welhouse and Misha Gurevich. If you would like your picture removed, feel free to e-mail me. I'll be around, waiting for the next big con to strike.

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