This was my first time at SXSW, the annual, um, collection of film, interactive, and music festivals held in Austin, Texas. It has grown each year with this iteration aiming to break the 70,000 attendee mark. It effectively reduces all of Downtown Austin to a singular fleshy, drunk mass covered in free T-shirts and party wristbands. Thrust deep into the inebriated conglomeration, though, you can start to perceive distinct subsections of this ecosystem.
Out on the streets, it’s somehow a much more orderly and dignified affair than in most of the indoor venues. The lines for all the theatres are civil and are largely composed of people tired of standing, talking about what they’re about to see, and drinking from brown paper bags. Wandering between the streets are those looking for food, usually of the free variety. It’s more or less what you would see at any other film festival.
Once you hit the convention centers (of which there are three: The Long Center, The Palmer Events Center, and the Austin Convention Center), though, you might as well be in a zoo. There is a mishmash of folk who forget how to walk and by the laws of physics, gravitate towards the center of walkways. There is a solid and unrelenting contingent which simply hoves between booths and tables to get free logo’d stress balls and bracelets. It is, without qualification, a hot god damn mess.
The gaming expo, however, is a bit…strange. The ACC has those seeking networking opportunities, the Long Center full of panel watchers, and the outdoor tent rife with space and NASA enthusiasts (it was AWESOME). Inside the Palmer, however, is something so totally different from everything else. On one end is a job fair, so you have the hopeful attempting to present a dignified, hirable veneer. On the other end is a darkened exhibit hall that serves beer. Oh, it also just so happens to have all the video game stuff.
It is, for the most part, sponsored by Nintendo, which coincidentally has the largest booth besides the IGN IPL stage and the Xi3 nightclub. As soon as you enter, you are greeted with gigantic displays of Luigi and Lego City Undercover and a healthy dose of thumping electro house beats. I walk up for my noon appointment for the Nintendo tour, and I expect to be drowned out by the huddled masses of children playing 3DS and Wii U demos, but instead my voice is swallowed whole by Skrillex shaking and rattling everything south of Lady Bird Lake.
Xi3 has turned their floor space into a veritable lounge of club music and flashing lights. There is a sizable staff of dudes with backwards hats and women in ripped up shirts that seem to never really do anything besides play through demos and point visitors to people with pamphlets and prepared patter. The Xi3-branded waterfall ripples in the background of their product showcases while the blue LED-tinged leather couches seem to vibrate along the broken dub beat.
So standing three to four feet above most of those in the Nintendo booth, cognitive dissonance was weighing fairly heavy on my mind. But with a cosplaying Link and Diddy Kong wandering around (presumably unattached marketing-wise to Nintendo PR), I was buoyed in approaching and beginning my tour.
On opposite ends of the space were 3DS stands where four or five units were laid out for people to come up and play games. One entire cluster was dedicated to the recent release Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate, a game bordering on Tom Clancy levels of title endurance-wearing. I have yet to play it, but it at that point had been out for five days. No point in spending time on it now.
I’m led around to the other side where there is a TV set up to face outwards on the very edge of the blue Nintendo carpet. On it was Animal Crossing: New Leaf. A Nintendo fellow was demoing it for two women as I sidled up with my tour guide. It had already been out in Japan since November, so I moved on beyond that just as quickly (also because the aforementioned Link cosplayer was standing uncomfortably close to me and smelled of raw chicken).
We then try to squeeze into the sardine-esque conditions of the middle of the booth where three humongous displays show off The Wonderful 101, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, and Lego City Undercover. Stuck between a rock and what feels like a thousand people, we stop as I ask him some questions.
“Monster Hunter is already out in Japan, right?”
“Yeah, it’s been out for a while over there. It’s been really well-received. They’ve been mo—”
“But it’s still just Monster Hunter 3, right? The Ultimate package is just a new graphical treatment and some new monsters?”
“Well, it’s also some new quests and—” I begin to lose interest. Not because of him or what he is saying, but more because a bearded guy standing next to me is eyeballing the breakfast burrito I’d been working on since the press brunch earlier. “Let’s move on,” I say.
We move over to The Wonderful 101 from Platinum Games. I start to watch, but it becomes apparent this is old as well. “How old is this demo?” I yell over the din.
“This is just the E3 demo,” he says. “So it’s kind of an old build, but it’s still fun to watch. Not many people actually manage to finish the demo because the boss has a time limit. Like two people have even made it to the other arm.”
I look around and amongst the already released games like Nintendo Land and New Super Mario Bros. U, I spot Pikmin 3. “What about Pikmin? Is that also from E3?” I ask.
“Yeah, that’s also from E3,” he says.
“So then really the only new stuff is Luigi’s Mansion and Lego City?”
“And they’re both out this month?”
Somewhat deflated, I ask to check out Lego City. While I play, I begin to poke and prod at his PR defenses. We talk about how everything will moved to the eShop for digital purchase (every TV and stand has an eShop emblem affixed to it), which leads us to talk about the difference between owning games and licensing games in the digital world.
“You can move and transfer your content, so it’s still yours,” he says. Ah, but what about the problems people had with the hullabaloo about locked accounts on Wii U? “You just call customer service and we can help you with that.” But can they help if the eShop no longer exists and I still want my games? “Well, that hasn’t really happened yet.” Dead end.
Also, I’ve finished with my short but fun run in Lego City Undercover. Smashing around in Lego cars in an open world is as great as you’d expect, and the odd hodgepodge of major metropolitan areas gives a familiar yet alien feel to the setting (this particular area was strong in the San Francisco department). It still plays like other TT Fusion Lego games, though, with pretty much the same interface and controls.
The weird thing I noticed, though, was that there are real trees mixed in with Lego trees. I point it out as we walk away, and he says, “Ha! I never noticed that!”
Saddled up in front of some 3DS games, I asked if he’ll be attending PAX East. “Yeah. Are you going?” Why yes, I am. And I begin to pry again.
“Some of these games will already be out by then. Any idea what you’ll be showing in their place?”
“We haven’t really decided yet.”
“What about at E3? By then, most of these games will be out.”
“Yeah, most of them will be out by then. Animal Crossing actually comes out just before E3 starts.”
This guy is a pro.
“That’ll be an interesting time. Nintendo already has the jump with the Wii U. Do you think they’ll be trying to compete with Sony and Microsoft on the Big News front or will they just be riding the wave?”
“I dunno. It’ll be interesting to see what Sony and Microsoft do.”
It’s been almost an hour since the start of our Sorkin-esque walk ‘n talk, so I shake hands and leave my PR companion as I found him: inundated with hyper children and drinking parents. I find myself nearly as unaffected by the experience. I know a little bit more about how Lego City Undercover will play (it has a lot more cutscenes that you would think, and most of them are pretty entertaining) and confirmed just how little patience I have for being near smelly Hylians, but there’s not much else to say.
It’s not surprising, though, since this is SXSW, which is through and through not a gaming expo. That means it shines in other ways, though, such as through panels with John Romero and Jenova Chen, stage talks with Gary Whitta, and seeing people like Geoff Keighley and Cliff Bleszinski not constantly flooded with fans. There was also the weirdest product demonstration I’ve ever seen with Xi3′s Piston (that day might have actually been the progenitor of the hubbub of Xi3 vs. Valve). And then there are the smaller guys you would just never see at a PAX or E3 like local developers Minicore Studios or Syraca Studios. SXSW’s gaming offers are well worth your time.
Just don’t expect to get much out of the big guys.