The Penny Arcade Expo, or PAX for short, is an event every gamer should experience. 70,000+ gaming enthusiasts converge on downtown Seattle for 3 days, and the convention is vast enough that no two attendees can possibly have the same experience. In some ways, PAX is like a giant open world video game , where your choices determine your experience. There are many ways to enjoy PAX, so many that it is impossible to experience even a tenth of what is available.
The largest part of PAX is the vendor convention halls. Game developers create lavish sets and statues showcasing their latest games, with consoles or PCs set up so players can try a sample of the new game before it is available for sale. 1000s of eager gamers line up before 10 am, then rush to their favorite game developer’s booth…so they can wait in line again several hours. Some of the games with the longest lines this year were Borderlands 2, Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, Mass Effect 3, Uncharted 3, and many others.
Panels take up the second largest amount of floor space. Theaters with distinctive names of Unicorn, Pegasus, Kraken, Serpent, and Wolfman host hour long panels featuring game developers, journalists, community managers discuss a wide range of topics and take questions from the audience. My favorite panel was “What women really want” which discussed the current characterization of women in video games, and what hopefully the future would hold as the gaming audience matures. Live podcasts with audience participation, such as the Giant Bombcast, Major Nelsen Radio, Retronauts, Weekend Confirmed, were common. Game development teams often talk about the challenges of making past and current games, and reveal aspects of games that aren’t released yet. The crowd at Gearbox’s Borderlands 2 panel was very excited to walk away with a copy of the game for free, before you can buy it!
You can also spend your entire time at PAX just playing games. Most of the 3rd floor was reserved for table top gaming, and even when I wandered by at 1am, all of the tables were full and players were tossing 20 sided dice and pushing hand painted figurines around hexes and grids on boards. Nintendo sponsored a handheld area that was full of 100s of bean bag chairs, where gamers could trade Pokemon and Dragon Quest monsters, grab free cotton candy from the Kirby booth, or catch a quip nap. Upstairs in the sixth level, there was a cornucopia of gaming opportunities. In either the classic console or current console rooms, you could check out a game from a wide library for free with your driver’s license, and plop down and play it at one of the many stations for at least an hour, longer if there wasn’t a wait. I witnessed a heated Street Fighter 2 battle as I wandered through late at night. PC gamers also have a few options. There was a huge room set up with networked stations, and a smaller room for those who brought their own rigs. Check the video for the scope of this room! I got the distinct feeling that many never left this area except for food and bathroom breaks!
PAX also serves as a hub for online communities whose members are separated by large geographic distances. Cosplayers often plan their costumes all year, so they can meet up with others for group photo opportunities. There were a lot of people in Spartan armor this year for Halo Fest, and the Mortal Kombat crew was quite intimidating. PAX may be the only time online gaming clans meet physically, and I witnessed several joyful reunions. After the Main Expo Hall closes each night around 6pm, there are several after-parties every night. I had the pleasure of attending the Gamma Ray Games Level Up Comedy Show, Dues Ex community party, PAXtra benefit party for Child’s Play, and the PopCap Party. I would especially like to thank Xbox360Achievements.org, who welcomed me with open arms to their Thursday night pool party as well as their Saturday lunch event. I wasn’t even a member of their forums, but they were all friendly and welcoming to their community. We’ll see what happens after I post my gamer score.
You could also experience PAX as a treasure hunt, or in gamer terms, a loot quest. Every vendor was passing out something. Without even trying, I came home with 9 T-shirts, 4 lanyards, 8 pins, 2 masks, 2 patches, a Mega Bloks Halo Warthog vehicle and three Halo mini-figs, 2 blow up Mass Effect Omniblades, a foam chainsaw, a whoopie cushion, and an OnLive Game console. There was also a scavenger hunt involving QR codes hidden all around the convention, with clues to a word scramble that if solved would get you a free PAX XP pin for bragging rights. Although I completed the XP challenge last year, this year’s challenge had over 30 steps, and I chose to pass on the quest for the sake of time.
What makes PAX great is not just the plethora of simultaneous events, but the general atmosphere. There is an overwhelming attitude of excitement and anticipation. People gladly wait in line several hours because they are going to see something awesome, and everyone around them thinks it’s awesome as well. You can dress as a dark elf with a longsword on your back and only receive complements. The positive energy and enthusiasm surrounding PAX is why I look forward to coming every year.
This device was indispensable, keeping my 3DS and phone charged.