Machinima makes a strong appearance, including the theatrical premiere of Red vs. Blue: Revelation, a showcase of "best of" shorts, and the entries for the 48-Hour Machinima competition. Like most 48-hour film projects, the entries are impressive, but of uneven quality. The pick of the litter is a Mass Effect 2 short featuring a space-suited hero boogieing down a Krogan nightclub owner in a deadly dance competition. Old standards make an appearance, including Leeroy Jenkins - the Stairway to Heaven of viral videogame videos.
Arcade is a 24-hour event. Every day features a happy hour and games tournament. The star attraction is a Left 4 Dead 2 mod, recreating the Alamo Drafthouse and The Highball. After dark, Arcade becomes more animated, fueled by an all-night happy hour and endless $2 pints. Halfway through, everyone's tired and frequently hung-over. Capitalizing on the fatigue, one of the sponsors, HitFix, hands out white mints in faux prescription bottles to keep everyone sharp. They work, but look suspicious when you share them on the dance floor.
Since it's Austin, the parties are music-centric. Nerdcore hip-hop legend MC Frontalot plays opening night, apparently broadcasting a signal to every girl in Austin who owns a pair of canvas high-tops and Buddy Holly glasses to report for duty. If you've never been to a party with two dozen girls flinging their hair around to a rap song about Magic: The Gathering, your bucket list just got longer. Closing night features a recreation of the game show Starcade, where contestants answer videogame trivia and battle for points in games like King in Balloon and Dig Dug 2. The 6,000-point Lightning Round consists of chugging beer.
It's the last day of the festival, and I'm sitting with Burnie Burns, noshing custard doughnuts out of one of Austin's famous Airstream Trailer restaurants. I ask him whether he thinks Arcade has been a success. "It has definite growth potential," he says. "Austin needs something like this, and I think this one's caught."
"We're not looking to be the next Comic Con," echoes Tim League. "We're looking to keep it a very intimate affair for people with intense interest in the subject." Using that rubric, Fantastic Arcade is a huge success. E3 may have the big releases, but you'll never get close enough to Richard Garriott to pull his rattail. An individual can make himself heard at Fantastic Arcade, rather than being awash in a crowd of thousands. The potential for attendees to interact with panelists and network with gaming figures is immense.
Fantastic Arcade hasn't blown up yet, but the fuse is lit.
Robert Rath is a Hawaii-born novelist, playwright, and freelance journalist who operates out of his home base in Austin, Texas. He occasionally blogs about films, television, and other media at robwritespulp.blogspot.com, even though it goes against his ethic of never working for free.