SXSW Gaming 2014: A Change in the Wind

SXSW Gaming Expo 2014

Not much has changed since last year. There’s still the massive GEEK stage near the entrance, tented for an unintended air of mystique. There’s still an inexplicable collection of people congregating around the corner where an inscrutable collection of Lego bricks exists. There’s still a bar where of-age adults buy overpriced beers and forget their 12-year-old burdens.

Well, I guess the giant Mario Kart racing track outside is new.

It’s a largely inconsequential addition, though. Texas’ fickle weather patterns saw fit to drench Austin with a mild downpour half of the SXSW Interactive weekend, ruining the Nintendo-Penzoil dream collaboration(?). It’s also incredibly boring. Walking by the track, it dawned on me that the racers I was passing weren’t warming up but already in the midst of a heated competition.

Mario Kart racing at SXSW Gaming 2014

At least it looked cool. And the idea is quite interesting, translating the items of Mario Kart to patches on the track that actually affect a kart’s speed. But given that you had to also pass a breathalyzer to suit up, I’m sure insurance was a huge factor in making sure nothing too exotic happened. Unfortunately, that also meant nothing fun happened.

For as bombastic as putting a real life analog to your video game product in front of an expo hall is, it still wasn’t the most noteworthy change, though it did make shuttle access kind of a chore. Surprisingly more remarkable, actually, was that the second floor was reserved for LAN-centric activities.

There was still the gaudy display of hubris and yelling at the tournament stage in the main exhibit hall, but the consequences of this move is interesting. Many of the Gaming panels were held upstairs before, but this year they’ve been upgraded to the main and surrounding halls in the Long Center, which is an incredibly classy performance hall for the arts.

Dumping the Alien panel at SXSW Gaming 2014

Though I’m sure it’s likely because the organizers didn’t think it would be kosher to have a bunch of rowdy gamers in the gorgeous Dell Hall, but it does send a subliminal message: the industry has grown up. We’re no longer gaggles crowding around glowing, blinking screens and subsisting entirely on pizza and Bawls but instead hold intellectual discussions about digital literacy and advancements in artificial intelligence.

There was a talk about accessibility for disabled gamers from the founder of The AbleGamers Foundation; HopeLab and Games for Good discussed a game aimed at fighting cancer within the realm of brain science; and panels regarding racial and gender diversity in the industry were hits of the weekend. We are growing up, and it shows.

Of course, this sentiment was here last year, just dormant. Local indies like White Whale Games and Minicore Studios and Stoic Studios were among the heavy hitters then with Nintendo and Xi3 dominating the expo floor. But joining them this year were what can only be referred to as major out-of-towners.

Tales From The Borderlands panel at SXSW Gaming 2014

That and major indie developers. Brendon Chung of Blendo Games was there with Quadrilateral Cowboy, which, if you haven’t heard, is exceptional. Josh Larson and Ryan Green were there to show That Dragon, Cancer and give a talk about what makes its interactive cutscenes so compelling and engage the audience in existential discourse.

(Son Joel Green, the inspiration for the game, passed away last Thursday, and if you’ve played any amount of That Dragon, Cancer, well, you know. I can tell you in that moment of discovery and this one of writing, my eyes are far from dry and my heart far from empty.)

And they go alongside Gearbox Software and Telltale Games breaking new tidbits about their previously announced Tales From The Borderlands. And Palmer Luckey discussing the future of virtual reality with his trademark confusingly grounded yet hyperbolic zeal. Marvel put on display its upcoming slate, Geoff Keighley talked with Microsoft Studios’ Phil Spencer, and Noah Robischon interviewed EA CEO Andrew Wilson.

SXSW Gaming Awards 2014

So it may not just be that gaming is growing up but it’s also just simply growing. SXSW Gaming last year was littered with apathetic crowds, unsure of what to make of the incredibly tiny local developers and their booths. This year, I rarely found myself not at the end of a four or five-person line just to see what was being shown, let alone play it.

It’s weird saying I loved waiting. But it told me that more and more people were starting to care. And more than that, people were starting to care about the right things. Emblematic of both of those were the first SXSW Gaming Awards, hosted by Justine Ezarik of iJustine and Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla of Smosh. Pretty big gets, sure, but check out the winners.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons beat out The Last of Us and Super Mario 3D World for Excellence in Gameplay. Tearaway overcame BioShock Infinite and Grand Theft Auto V in Excellence in Design and Direction. And Papers, Please won for Cultural Innovation while the nominees included Gone Home, Guacamelee, and Year Walk, more than a smattering of niche awareness.

Naughty Dog's awards at SXSW Gaming 2014

While we still have our problems as an industry, failing to diversify and include rather than exclude, this marks progress that other, much older mediums have enjoyed and endured long before. It is a sign that we’ve grown to a critical mass and vital core that we are capable of nuance and no longer only make headlines for games about hidden sex and overt violence and psychotic lawyers on Fox News.

For as little changed from last year, the things that matter have shift course. We’re headed for somewhere good, and I’m glad it’s SXSW that gave me that feeling. Of course, it might also just be that I’m still full of Franklin Barbecue and Shiner.

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