Fear and Levelling in Las Vegas

Eurogamer goes gonzo at Sony Online Entertainment's Fan Faire.

I have an admission to make: even though I've played MMOs for years, I guess I believed the stereotypes, and I expected Sony Online Entertainment's annual Fan Faire in Las Vegas to be filled with shuffling, socially-awkward freaks with poor dress sense, using obscure science-fiction references to mask their conversational inadequacy. The reasons for this are quite simple: having played MMOs for years, I'm a shuffling, socially-awkward freak with poor dress sense, and I use obscure science-fiction references to mask my conversational inadequacy.

Well, it turns out that my sad state of repair has little to do with the games I've been playing. While I searched the glossy gambling dens of Las Vegas's vast Hilton Hotel in search of nerds, shut-ins, and hunchbacks like myself, by and large I was confronted with a mass of mild-mannered families who just happened to really like MMOs - ordinary people, then, spread across a surprisingly wide demographic.

These people, it turns out, are mostly grown-ups. Real grown-ups, with children and responsibilities and mortgages. The majority of them weren't covered in pizza-stained T-shirts, and almost all of them smelled fine too (I checked). There weren't even that many people in cosplay for most of the long weekend: one bearded, armour-clad dwarf turned out to be a lady (that was a socially-awkward encounter), but she was only dressed up in Mithril to pimp her new MMO magazine. Equally, another promising subject, who I had taken to be a pint-sized Lucas-junkie in an unrefined R2D2 costume, was actually nothing more than a lavishly over-designed drinks dispenser.

Although it's always good to have clichs destroyed, I have to admit to a small degree of initial disappointment. Hunter S. Thompson came to Vegas and saw dinosaurs stalking the colour-clash corridors; I couldn't even find a decent elf.

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John Smedley's address kicked off with an animator trying to orchestrate a 3D Mexican wave, travelling across the columns and then down the rows. He failed.

The reason for such a familial and wide-ranging audience is actually pretty simple. SOE has been working on MMOs for over ten years. This is a player-base that has grown up, had kids, found jobs, had more kids, lost jobs, watched parents and peers succumb to horrendous diseases, and often found room to throw in a few divorces and second marriages along the way. To put it more directly, they've had time to level up in real life, with a constant thread of games like EverQuest weaving itself into the fabric of their existence. This isn't just an audience, then, it's a community - and SOE is smart enough to know a thing or two about communities by now.

The Fan Faire is the company's love affair to that community: an annual event that has been running through the good times and the bad, as SOE's fortunes swell and sink, its games evolve, and players fall in and out and then back in love with titles like Star Wars Galaxies and The Matrix Online. It's an opportunity for the players to meet the designers, and for the designers to find out what the players really want. It's three days of panel discussions, tech demonstrations, product unveilings - and indoor artillery fire, as endless rounds of Norrath T-shirts are blasted out of air cannons, often with comically hazardous results.

Everything old is new again

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Live Quests promised Napoleon Dynamite levels of geekery, but turned out to be civilised scavenger hunts.

Although 2008 was a year in which three new, and pretty exciting, products were on close-up show for the first time, the most oversubscribed panels were for the existing games. EverQuest and EverQuest II frequently packed the halls with round-table Q&A sessions, often of a staggering granularity; one particularly involved query about the availability of old quests was written out on two closely-typed sides of A4, and took over five minutes to ask. We got a peek at the new Guild Halls available for EverQuest II, and there were raid workshops.

It was also these two games that caused the biggest splash during CEO John Smedley's annual address, with the announcement of their new expansions. "EverQuest and EverQuest II are still going as strong as ever," Smedley argued. "And we're coming to a milestone I never expected: our tenth anniversary." Both expansions - EverQuest's Seeds of Destruction and EQII's The Shadow Odyssey - have the tangible scent of a Greatest Hits collection to them, bringing a smattering of new features, but focusing predominantly on a return to many of Norrath's most iconic dungeons and zones. As senior producer Clint Worley put it, "Every expansion is the result of brainstorming with the entire team. This time we're rekindling fond memories."

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