MAGFest 12: A festival by and for gamers

Posted in News by on Jan 12th, 2014 9:57 PM

MAGFest — originally the Maryland-Area Gamers Festival, now the Music and Gaming Festival — celebrated its 12th annual gaming convention this month. As a veteran of E3 and PAX East, I decided to attend my first MAGFest in 2014. The show started on Thursday, but as I was flying solo and unlikely to have as much fun as I do when I have my crew with me, I scheduled my arrival for late Friday, giving me that evening, all of Saturday, and the half of Sunday that is the closing hours of MAGFest. Unfortunately, a New England nor'easter delayed my flight by 12 hours, not getting me to my hotel until 2:30 AM Saturday.

Even at that hour, I could tell I'd arrived in the right place: both within and without the hotel lobby, dozens of colorfully clad conventioneers and cosplayers were keeping the place alive. I grinned to know I was among my people, then headed to my hotel room to crash before an early morning.

The first panel was "Movie Production 101", co-hosted by James Rolfe, aka the Angry Video Game Nerd (AVGN). His co-host didn't introduce himself until several minutes into the panel and proceeded to do most of the talking, which was disappointing — but more surprising was that only a few dozen people were in the audience. I'd read that MAGFest had grown from only 300 attendees in its first year to 12,000 in 2014 — so where was everyone?

The answer could be found in my arrival the night before. This is a late-night crowd, and 10 AM was far too early for anyone to have crawled out of bed yet. When Rolfe hosted his second panel at 5 PM later that day, it was standing room only, with hundreds of people in attendance. I tried to get into Jon St. John's panel at midnight that night, and the line wrapped around the block. Prepare to shift your circadian rhythm if you want to get the full measure of MAGFest.

Next I enjoyed a presentation by Hank Chien, the current Donkey Kong world record holder. Chien emerged on the scene after the infamous rivalry between Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe was portrayed in the film King of Kong. Deciding being a successful New York City plastic surgeon wasn't challenging enough, he took up Donkey Kong and blew everyone away. Chien described his experience coming into this hobby, where and how he practiced, the strategies he used, how the press responded to his victory, and his appearances at Denver's three annual Kong-Off, most recently in November 2013.

During the Q&A, I asked Chien if he were to pursue a record in another game, what game would it be? He didn't envision himself playing anything else, but he admitted to enjoying Centipede, though he said he'd never be as good as current record holder Donald Hayes, whom I met at PAX East 2011. I chatted with Chien after the panel, getting his autograph for myself and for my friends who host the No Quarter podcast.

The next panel was shockingly fun. Voice actors Ellen McLain (Portal's GLaDOS), Jon St. John (Duke Nukem), John Patrick Lowrie (Team Fotress 2's Sniper), Matt Mercer (Resident Evil 6's Leon Kennedy), and Wes Johnson (various characters in Skyrim) told stories, took questions from the audience, read lines in various voices, and prank-called attendees' friends. I don't know what I was expecting, but I was laughing my head off. The panel went for two hours, but I had scheduled lunch with a local friend and had to leave the panel after the first hour. I thought I would've had my fill by then; I was wrong! I tried to catch these voice actors later at their autograph table — where, unlike Hollywood actors, they were't charging for their signatures — but the line was ridiculously long, and I didn't see that they were handing out glossies to autograph, and I hadn't brought anything else for them to sign.

I stopped into the AVGN's next session, but it consisted almost solely of Q&A, and the audience had no microphones. Rolfe heard the questions but didn't repeat them into his microphone, so I only ever heard half of each conversation. But just from that I could tell that Rolfe works best off a script, as he does in his game reviews; he's almost adorably awkward otherwise. I saw some footage of his upcoming feature-length film then cut out.

The next panel was "Promoting Good Gaming Community", which was once my responsibility as a CompuServe sysop in the Video Gaming Central forum. Communities still exist today in message boards but also in clans, guilds, and even Xbox Live Parties, and I enjoyed hearing the various methods moderators and community members can use to bring the quality of discourse up. I was pleasantly surprised to find Bob "Moviebob" Chipman on the panel — our paths hadn't crossed since dinner with Anita Sarkeesian two months ago to the day. He espoused Wheaton's Law and the value of shaming other people in the community but later clarified that shame is a tool best used by peers, never by those in power.

That was the end of my Saturday panels. I finished by entering a Retro Gaming Gauntlet video game competition of 8-bit NES games (via emulation), which held several surprises. Eighteen of us went up against Mike Tyson in the original Punch-Out!, and he downed many of us, including myself, in 18 seconds. Only one person lasted the entire first round. The next two games, I'd never played: Zombie Nation and North and South, both of which I quickly mastered. But after three rounds, the organizers culled anyone not in the top four, and my disappointing performance against Tyson eliminated me. I didn't stick around to see what games the finalists played. The Nintendo World Championships, this was not.

There was time for only two panels on Sunday before MAGFest was over, and maybe it was because I'd finally gotten a decent night's sleep, but I enjoyed these panels perhaps the most of any. Derek Alexander, aka the Happy Video Game Nerd, showed us how not to shoot a video game review. Now 29, Alexander showed us one of his first YouTube videos, a review of Splatterhouse, published in 2007, and paused it every few moments to criticize every aspect of it: his script, his set, his editing. I myself find anything I wrote more than five years ago to be crap, so I can appreciate how cringe-inducing this experience must've been for Alexander. I'd never seen any of his videos before, but his self-effacing humor and enthusiasm for the subject — as well as his encouragement for anyone who has ADD or ADHD as he does to get on medication — made me a fan.

Finally, I attended "Paging Dr. Mario: An Intensive Care Plan for the Wii U". The intended moderator was Chris Melissinos, curator of The Art of Video Games, but he called in sick, leaving panelist Joshua Lynsen to step up to the plate. He took the unusual approach of stepping into the aisle to address the panelists head-on. I was a bit distracted, as I occasionally left to attend Al Lowe's panel on the history of the Leisure Suit Larry franchise, but I enjoyed hearing from Lynsen's panel the enthusiasm for Nintendo's consoles and the confidence in Nintendo's ability to dominate the handheld space, even in the face of competition from smartphone devices. An actual checklist for what Nintendo can fix, though, I did not walk away with.

In between all these panels, I had plenty of time to explore the vendor space and arcade. Dozens of indie shops were selling used games, original art, posters, figurines, books, dice, and more. I desperately wanted to expunge all my cash on the awesome artwork and knick-knacks, but every time I stopped myself and asked, "What would I do with it?" That question guided me to buy Moviebob's book, Super Mario Bros. 3: Brick by Brick, from the Fangamer table, though absent from the table was Fangamer founder Reid Young, whom I'd interviewed a year earlier. The last day of MAGFest, I picked up some chiptune CDs at 50% off. That's all the swag I went home with.

The arcade consisted of far more coin-ops than I expected to find. A few were donated by the American Classic Arcade Museum of Laconia, New Hampshire, but others were on loan from local collectors. From classic uprights to rare cocktail tables to Japanese-style sit-downs, everything was available — even three Apple II computers, a Commodore 64, and an Atari 800. All the games were set to freeplay, an the arcade was open all day and night, accommodating gamers of any schedule and temperament.

Something noticeably absent from the "show floor" was any sort of developer or publisher space. There were no booths for Nintendo, Capcom, or Electronic Arts; and unlike at BostonFIG, where indies had a massive hall all to themselves, here they were crammed into a corner of the arcade. That's no oversight, as it's written right into MAGFest's charter:

There are no corporate sponsors, no over-crowded showfloors, and no top-secret-behind-closed-doors showings. MAGFest is built from the ground up to be a party-like atmosphere with focus on community and fan creations, which creates an environment that no other expo or convention can ever recreate.

MAGFest truly is a festival by gamers, for gamers, and no one else.

Despite music being right in the festival's name, I did not attend any concerts other than impromptu ones in the hotel's hallways. Most concerts tend to be at a decibel level that leaves me uncomfortable, and I've never found myself engaged in the mob mentality that makes such crowds enjoyable.

MAGFest is a smaller event than PAX East and one with a much different vibe. Most goers stay right at the hotel where the festival is held, allowing them to stay up all night without worrying about catching a subway or taxi home. Unlike a convention center, hotels are open 24/7, dramatically shifting the hours at which popular events can be held. At "just" 12,000 people, it's less claustrophobic and easy to bump into the same people over the course of the weekend. Tickets do not sell out and are in fact sold right at the door. There's no emotional baggage or conflict of morals over attendance. I wonder if this isn't how PAX began in 2004.

For these reasons and more, I enjoyed my time at MAGFest 2014, but I don't know that I would go again. As a Boston resident, there is no convention easier or more affordable for me to attend than PAX East. Although that event is much larger and potentially more difficult to navigate, it also offers almost everything MAGFest does and more. Only at one point in MAGFest were there two simultaneous sessions that interested me; that conflict is an hourly occurrence at PAX East, which offers an embarrassment of riches. With more professional networking opportunities, PAX East's demographic skews a bit older compared to MAGFest, where I often felt the oldest person in the room (despite being just shy of the average gamer's age of 35). PAX East and MAGFest also occur only 2–3 months apart, which is more often than I need my gaming community fix.

But depending on your preferred convention size and camaraderie, MAGFest could be exactly what you're looking for. I have nothing but good to say about MAGFest and recommend to any and all gamers.


PS4 FAQ: Top 10 most frequently asked questions

Posted in News by on Dec 16th, 2013 5:56 PM

With my PlayStation 4 unboxing video accruing five times as many views as the Xbox One unboxing in a similar timeframe, one interpretation is that gamers are far more interested in the Sony's console than in Microsoft's. But discriminating shoppers want to know more than just what's in the box. To help you make a better purchasing decision, here are my answers to the top ten most frequently asked questions about the PS4.

Xbox One first impressions with Lon Seidman

Posted in News by on Nov 27th, 2013 5:33 PM

Last week, I unboxed the Xbox One Day One edition. This week, I shared my first impressions of the console with Lon Seidman on his YouTube show, Lon Reviews Tech. Lon, fellow gamer James Brainerd, and I reviewed the hardware, controller, and user interface while Lon played some Dead Rising 3 and Killer Instinct. The show was streamed live this past Monday, November 25, and is now available on YouTube:

I unfortunately lack the sophisticated A/V setup the show's host has, but the show's amazing production values more than made up for my amateur equipment.

I originally met Lon through our other mutual hobby, the Apple II computer. Back in June, Lon was a guest on my monthly podcast, Open Apple. It was great to be able to collaborate with him again!

Microsoft Xbox One unboxing video

Posted in News by on Nov 22nd, 2013 6:03 PM

I loved my Xbox 360, so how could I not jump about the Xbox One? Microsoft made some stumbles with their original vision for the console, and I'm still not convinced that they've seen the error of their ways. Their pitch to make this an all-in-one entertainment box also falls flat with me — I just want to play games. But I gave them the benefit of the doubt and picked up an Xbox One Day One console.

I had a bit of trouble setting the system up: for some reason, the HDMI cable that worked on my Xbox 360 doesn't work with the Xbox One. But there was an HDMI cable in the box that worked fine, and the included Kinect camera and microphone were nice bonuses, almost justifying the $100 more this console costs over the Sony PlayStation 4. Being able to capture gameplay directly to my Elgato without HDCP also trumped the PS4. I like the PS4's "Share" button, but I chaff at being forced to use Sony's inbuilt functions instead of my own workflow.

Let's see what else is in the box in my Xbox One unboxing video.

There'll be plenty of gameplay videos to come — subscribe to my YouTube channel to catch them all!

Read more about the Xbox One at

Sony PlayStation 4 unboxing video

Posted in News by on Nov 15th, 2013 4:04 PM

The Sony PlayStation 4 launched today in the USA, and I got my hands on one. I'd preordered back in August at Target, though I discovered this morning that they received more consoles than they'd been allowed to sell through preorders; the first 32 people in line at 8 AM this morning went home happy. Those same early adopters also cleaned the store out of all their software, including launch exclusives Killzone: Shadowfall and Knack, leaving only Call of Duty: Ghosts and Just Dance 2 for preorder customers to purchase.

I got the console home and found it no quicker to configure than the Nintendo Wii U. A day-one patch updates the OS to v1.50, introducing such basic features as online play, video chat, and DVD playback. If you're new to the Sony ecosphere, you'll also want to create and configure a PlayStation Network (PSN), which appears to be overwhelmed with new users today; I had more success using my laptop and a web browser to complete this step.

Watch my unboxing and installation video:

Unfortunately, HDCP prevents video capture, at least in my experience and that of other day-one users. Let's hope a future patch removes this "feature" as promised.

Read more about the PlayStation 4 at

Super Smash Wars: A Link to the Hope

Posted in News by on Nov 10th, 2013 6:06 PM

A young boy, raised by his uncle, given a ancient sword with which to save a princess…

Is it The Legend of Zelda? Or Star Wars?… How about both?

Behold James Farr's eight-minute animated opus, SUPER SMASH WARS: A LINK TO THE HOPE:

The number of in-jokes, parodies, and references in this short is astounding. Keep your finger over the pause button, lest you miss something — and keep annotations enabled for more surprises.

Farr is no stranger to animated mashups, having previously created the acclaimed series Trainsformers, which was ultimately removed from YouTube due to copyright infringement. So why shouldn't he plunder the iconic characters of Nintendo and LucasFilm Disney? Second time's the charm, right?

Check out his other Nintendo/movie parodies, including Teenage Mutant Koopa Troopas and Super Mario Busters.

(Hat tip to Chris Lackey)

Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency at Northeastern University

Posted in News by on Nov 6th, 2013 3:51 PM

Anita Sarkeesian was launched into the limelight 18 months ago when her Kickstarter project, Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, drew as much vitriol as it did funding. Derided by insecure gamers who saw her critical analysis of feminism in video games as an attack on a traditionally masculine stronghold, Sarkeesian also attracted nearly 7,000 supporters who backed her modest $6,000 goal to the tune of $158,922, or 2,648%.

Despite impersonations, rumor-mongering, DDoS attacks, and threats against her life, Sarkeesian has persevered. Her Feminist Frequency blog has released the first three in her Tropes video series, providing gamers the framework and vocabulary with which to think critically about their favorite medium while still enjoying it.

Sarkeesian doesn't limit herself to video presentations. As a backer of her Kickstarter project, I received this update from her last week:

Over the course of the last year, I've been invited to speak about the representations of women in gaming at colleges, universities and conferences, to provide commentary to mainstream media outlets and have been given the opportunity to speak to game designers about how we can make gaming better. While all of this does take up some of my time, I think that connecting directly with new audiences, people and developers has become an essential aspect of this project.

One of those engagements was last night at Northeastern University in Boston, for which I joined Monica Castillo of the Cinema Fix podcast and Bob Chipman of Escapist Magazine's Escape to the Movies with MovieBob to attend.

Sarkeesian's presentation began with slides exemplifying the harassment she's received and the unbelievable lengths to which her detractors will go to quiet her, soliciting uncomfortable chuckles from the audience. She then played a segment from one of her videos and outlined her ongoing research, which will be demonstrated in her future videos, the next of which is "Ms. Male Character". Such work is necessary in an industry where nearly half of gamers are female, yet only 6% of playable characters are — and even then, often in a sexualized manner, adorned with revealing outfits or subjected to offensive behavior even in-game, be it from other players or the game's own antagonists.

After Sarkeesian's presentation, handwritten questions were accepted from the audience on index cards, allowing the moderators to filter some of the more aggressive or loaded questions — an unfortunate necessity for Sarkeesian, who can't even allow comments on her YouTube channel without exposing herself to assault. After the formal presentation, audience members were welcome to approach her and ask brief questions, pose for a photo — or, for one fan, ask her to autograph his 3DS.

Confessing that "I'm always hungry after my speeches,", Sarkeesian then recruited my troupe for a trip to the nearby Uno Chicago Grill for dinner, where she further reflected on the positive and negative responses to her work. She pointed out that even those critics who vehemently disagree with her are sometimes using her own vocabulary to do so, prompting them to think critically about games in a way they wouldn't've before.


Xbox One Tour: Road to Launch

Posted in News by on Sep 22nd, 2013 10:34 AM

This past week, Microsoft's Larry Hryb, aka Major Nelson, launched the Xbox One Tour: Road to Launch, with stops at the Microsoft Stores in Burlington and Boston's Prudential Center. With him were playable Xbox One units the public was invited to play. I scoped out the Burlington stop on Thursday and snapped a few photos.

The event ran 7:30–9 PM EDT. By the time I got there at 7:20 PM, the line to get into the store was already about a hundred people long, with more queuing rapidly. Hryb, sporting a Price is Right-style jacket, was shaking hands, signing Xbox 360 faceplates, and posing for photographs. When the store finally opened, there were enough Xbox One stations that the line progressed quickly, then halted while the first wave goggled over the new machine. I'm unsure what the maximum playtime was.

I chose not to get my hands on the Xbox One that evening — I already have my Xbox One preordered and don't need to be sold on it. But the staff of the store, which had opened just that day, did allow me to skip the line for the purpose of taking photos of the console. Enjoy!

Highlights from BostonFIG 2013

Posted in News by on Sep 16th, 2013 12:49 PM

Robin HunickeDespite being the second annual event, this past weekend's Boston Festival of Indie Games, or BostonFIG, bore little resemblance to its 2012 debut. Gone were the crowded classrooms in which a few dozen developers and a few thousand curious gamers were crammed; now the developers had an entire sports arena in which to entertain 5,000 attendees, with parallel tracks of speakers, lightning talks, and concerts spread across the MIT campus.

If anything, BostonFIG was too much of a good thing: it'd be generous to say I saw half the games on the show floor. That's still more than the budding developers participating in the day-long Game Jam, who were sequestered in their own building. Between the 60+ complete or near-complete games on display and the half-dozen Game Jams written in just six hours to the theme of "equality" BostonFIG 2013 offered an embarrassment of riches.

But what I did see, I enjoyed immensely, beginning with a thoughtful, inspiring keynote speech by Journey's brilliant designer, Robin Hunicke of Funomena. The creator of the game that proved not everyone on the Internet is a jerk encouraged budding developers to start with a feeling, and then create a game that is an expression of, and consistent with, that feeling. Indies may be best suited to do so, given their size, as I wondered how that notion would scale to larger teams, when different developers have conflicting feelings; even Hunicke admitted that working with other people is chaotic, since people by their nature accept sensory input, add feelings, and respond unpredictably.

Fortunately, Journey tends to evoke positive feelings and senses, as demonstrated by the Videri String Quartet, which opened Hunicke's keynote with an original arrangement of her game's score. The musicians and developer had never met, and each was more than a bit emotional over the other's work.


If you missed BostonFIG, you'll eventually be able to get your hands on all the event had to offer. The talks were recorded and I expect will be published to the BostonFIG website, and the games will be released when they're done. I picked ten games off the show floor to profile on; please read that blog for gameplay videos and more. My photos of BostonFIG are available below.


How to upgrade the Xbox 360 hard drive & transfer saved data

Posted in News by on Sep 6th, 2013 1:05 PM

When I got my Xbox 360 in December 2008, the included 60 GB hard drive seemed like plenty of space. As long as I deleted any demos I was done with, I always had room for whatever games and saved data I wanted.

Then Microsoft started giving its Xbox Live Gold members two free retail games a month. These games are often several gigabytes each, bursting my hard drive at the seams. Although I knew I could "purchase" the game without downloading it, making it available for later retrieval, I barely had room to download even one game I'd so queued. It was time for an upgrade.

Having the Xbox 360 Premium or Pro model, I couldn't replace its inbuilt storage with any of the many drives available for the Slim model. I bought a third-party 250 GB drive for $50 off and a first-party transfer cable with CD for $9.49. Swapping the hardware was easy, and transferring the data took about an hour.

For anyone unfamiliar with the process, I recorded a tutorial for upgrading your Xbox 360's hard drive:

The old hard drive and transfer cable, both having served their purpose, were bundled and put on eBay, where they sold for a Buy It Now price of $30.

PS4 vs Xbox One: Which console to preorder?

Posted in News by on Sep 5th, 2013 11:17 AM

The Sony PlayStation 4 is releasing on Friday, November 15, 2013, with an MSRP of $399. The Microsoft Xbox One will follow a week later on November 22 for $499. Which one should I get? Watch my latest YouTube video to find out!

Yes, it's true: I've preordered each console twice. GameStop had already stopped taking preorders, and though I prefer not to give my business to Wal-Mart, they were the only ones still taking preorders, starting August 24. I got there when they opened and found no line, though one person eventually showed up behind me and said that Target was also taking deposits. I called that store and found their preorders began on August 25. Their location is closer, so I got the consoles there, too.

Still want a PlayStation 4? As far as I know, you're out of luck — but you can get the Xbox One directly from the Microsoft Store. This special "Day One" edition includes "a commemorative controller, Xbox One chat headset, an exclusive achievement, and special-edition packaging". Hmm… maybe I should get a third?

Honestly, neither console excites me, especially when I consider how many of the current generation of games I've left unplayed — I could continue gaming for years without buying any new consoles. But the opportunities to shoot unboxing videos are rare, so I'll be taking a few days off from work this November to keep my YouTube channel updated. Please subscribe to see what's inside the box!