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Revamped ScreenBurn has new location, mission for gamers

Omar L. Gallaga
ogallaga@statesman.com

Sometimes, when you're playing a video game and you reach a particularly frustrating challenge that you can't get past, it can help to restart the game or at least stop playing, walk away and come back later with a fresh approach.

This year's ScreenBurn Arcade, the video-game segment of the South by Southwest Interactive festival, is a little like that. For several years, ScreenBurn has seemed stagnant as the rest of Interactive exploded with attendee growth and buzz. Stashed in a gigantic, impersonal expo space of the Austin Convention Center, it felt like a video-game convention gone wrong, with gigantic spaces between marketing-driven booths, half-hearted game tourneys and too little compelling programming.

Karen Ngo, a game industry veteran who has largely taken over the task of rebooting ScreenBurn, said that this year's event — most of which is free and open to the public — will be bigger and have better programming and a more accessible location.

"Gaming is just becoming a very important platform; it's much more pervasive now. We wanted to grow the gaming arm of South by Southwest Interactive, and some of that messaging might have been lost at the Convention Center."

The biggest change is the venue. ScreenBurn this year moves to the Palmer Events Center where there's ample (though not free) parking, getting it out of the fray of the Convention Center area.

The venue will house a big expo floor with a stage featuring panels from game industry luminaries, including local developers from BioWare's big-budget online game "Star Wars: The Old Republic" and LightBox Interactive, which will be releasing "Starhawk" for the PlayStation 3 in May.

IGN Pro League will host several game tournaments, including one on Friday for "Street Fighter X Tekken," which was released on Tuesday, and for "League of Legends" and "Starcraft II" on Saturday.

Though the tourneys are exhibition events for spectators, there'll be hands-on booths from companies such as Dell's Alienware division for visitors to check out and play with.

But perhaps the biggest star power at ScreenBurn will come from the comics and film worlds. A 1 p.m. panel on Sunday will feature comics stars Axel Alonso and Jeph Loeb and Marvel executive Peter Phillips discussing "Avengers VS X-Men" and upcoming animated project "Ultimate Spider-Man."

Three stars of the "Boondock Saints" film series, Sean Patrick Flanery, Norman Reedus (more famous of late as Daryl from the TV show "The Walking Dead") and David Della Rocco, will discuss an upcoming game adaptation from Critical Mass Interactive at 3 p.m. Sunday.

Ngo said that featured guests will sign autographs and distribute swag to visitors. ScreenBurn will also feature life drawing workshops, a demo of author Jane McGonigal's new fitness-related game "SuperBetter" and a competition for "cosplay" enthusiasts. (Cosplay is dressing up like video-game characters or other pop culture figures.)

ScreenBurn will conclude Sunday evening with its first-ever closing party, including live music from gaming-inspired bands, an event that won't be open to the public. The fest plans to distribute 100 free wristbands for the 21-and-older party at ScreenBurn. There will be a separate track of more industry-focused panels for badgeholders in two rooms upstairs at the Palmer as well.

Ngo promises other surprises, including a possible dance contest featuring Stormtroopers from the 501st Legion and the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls.

The beefed-up content, Ngo said, is part of an effort to differentiate ScreenBurn from big gaming conferences such as the Game Developers Conference and PAX, which cater to both those in the industry and game fans. She said they've been reaching out specifically to college students interested in entering the gaming industry, as well as the game developer community and the public.

"The goal was to make the expo more robust with more free content, panels, meet-ups and workshops for the community," she said.

Contact Omar L. Gallaga at 445-3672