The PAX experience is not just about hitting the floor and exploring games. There are a heap of interesting things happening to the side of the convention and many don’t get the coverage they deserve. This year I will try and keep you in the loop with some of the most interesting panels or presentations that take to the stages of the event.
Keynote – Rhianna Pratchett
Some say that talent runs in the family and the similarities between both Rhianna and her father’s careers are uncanny. Starting as a gaming journalist before moving into writing for games, Rhianna has established herself as one of the industries great game writers.
This fairly informal presentation took the form a discussion where the audience learnt about how Rhianna’s career developed from covering games in the media, to taking lead writing credits on some of the biggest narrative driven games. The focus of the discussion was centred around writing for games, their likeness to more traditional media, and how her prior experience prepared her for such a unique position.
Games don’t have a great reputation of doing things in the right order. Mirrors Edge, one of my favourite games ever, was a title for which Rhianna was employed to save the story. She was drafted in against a backdrop of completed levels, world designs, styles, and characters and was tasked with creating a coherent tale that brought the whole thing together. This bottom-up design approach has been quite common in the games industry as poor mechanics will cripple a story regardless of how exciting and interesting it is. Managing these stories late in the development cycle often required the help of literary paramedics to come in and save the day, and Rhianna was one of the top go-to people in this field.
While she was amazing at building a narrative within a set of predefined boundaries, her work also took her through series like Heavenly Sword, the Overlord series, Stronghold and most recently the new Tomb Raider games. The Tomb Raider games were fascinating for her as they were remembered for their… unique… approach to character and story design. The opportunity to update the series and explore new themes within the modern story was a chance that Rhianna took by the horns.
Lara Croft used to be seen as a shallow grave robber character, more for her looks than her skills. The modern rewrite wanted to move away from the shallow and superhero design used in previous games and instead develop Lara through the series as a regular person who has to learn to rely on her own abilities and skills. Introducing this kind of fragility into video game characters is always a risk as the protagonist is often the person for which the player controls and relates with, especially as challenging players at such an early stage can risk isolating and disengaging them from the characters.
Overcoming these challenges took a lot of writing and a lot of collaboration between console manufacturers, developers, publishers, and testers, with so much feedback (much of it contradictory) that Rhianna often felt that there was more than was productive. However, by building some well-developed channels, feedback was controlled and channelled towards creating a unified vision which certainly enhanced the final product.
Unfortunately, there was no hint on what was coming next, but I am sure that it will be exciting! Thanks Rhianna for one of the most enlightening keynotes of recent PAX’s.
Who is interested in a panel about the government? Seemingly more PAX attendees than anyone expected. Much to the surprise of the panel and the audience, the room was bursting at the seams. While the panel intended to look at the way gamification can be used to better interact with the Australian public, something that would have been fascinating given there were representatives branching three government departments and the ABC, it instead veered a little off course.
The first focus was directed towards tools rather than mechanisms. With the ties of government cut, the ABC looks forward to how they can use modern tech to better create educational experiences. However, their focus was still on schools and children rather than the potential gamification of tasks within the company, or with other adults.
The more practical side of gamification was discussed more by the representatives from the government departments. The Department of Innovation is all about living up to its name, and the Department of Defence has it’s own internal training requirements, but it is the Department of Human Services which has taken the most proactive steps to engage its workforce in gamifying repetitive and boring tasks.
Rather than sitting back and having a single section of their department build a tool which is thought to address a goal, they reached out into their workforce and invited innovation from within their own ranks. This proactive and outcome centred approach enabled them to develop a tool that was not only interesting, but targeted directly at an issue and embraced by the staff due to the collaborative approach.
It was a little unfortunate, but with three of seven panelists being representatives from the ABC, the conversation naturally tended toward the ABC’s activities. While fascinating, especially when talking about how program development can be flipped from being TV development first to supplementary media first, they failed to cover anything which could be described as gamification design and instead focused on literal game design.
This panel had a handful of interesting insights into some departments, however, I think the over-representation of the ABC derailed the intended direction of the panel and missed the mark when exploring how government departments are creating engagement through gamification.