Monday, October 15, 2007

Penny Arcade Expo, Part 1: Introduction

PAX is a conference for gamers. And yes, the gamers I said didn't really exist as a demographic. Maybe they do.

At any rate, it's a conference for people who play games: This year it lasted 3 days, filling up the entire Seattle convention center, with not just a convention center but entire floors devoted to console, PC, portable, tabletop, board, and RPG free play, including a rental system for board and video games, as well as tournaments and over 80 overlapping hours of talks, public demonstrations, and concerts. Despite being attended by close to 40,000 people, it was easy for me to feel at home, even though it was the first event of its kind I had ever attended. It's difficult to describe just how friendly everyone was. They were friendly in the spontaneous, "let's play a DS game" way that transcends good manners and is simply impossible without knowing everyone in the building is as passionate about something as you are.

While many players would have (and did) take fully enjoyment of the freeplay areas and the tournaments, most of my weekend was spent in the exhibit hall, where companies like Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony, Wizard of the Coast, UbiSoft, WizKids, and even the U.S. Army were showcasing games, services, merchandise, and peripherals that were either already on sale or hopefully would be before the end of the year. I got to play demos, talk to company reps, and grab the occasional beta key. I also attended many talks on the state of the industry and saw a few exclusive demonstrations - many of the games at PAX had never been shown to the general public previously. Overall, it was - to put it simply - good.

And I'm going to tell you all about it.

Seattle is identical to any big city in the U.S., with the exception that it seems fairly slanted; I was reminded of San Francisco and needed, on occasion, to marvel at the automobile's ability to go up and down these steep inclines every day.

Like any large American city, it's full of shops, malls, offices, and people; similarly, like any large American city, there's no place to eat, nothing's open late at night, and there's nothing worth buying. By the end of the trip I saw Seattle as more of an obstacle, a mission objective that must be overcome to earn the glories and fun packed inside its convention center. The city was beautiful - for a city - and quite clean - for a city - but in the end that's all it was, and it had to be tolerated more than enjoyed.

The convention center itself was 4 stories tall, with the fourth floor actually crossing the street via a "skybridge" - fancy-talk for "this building keeps going beyond the street" - leading to the exhibit and concert halls, where I probably spent more time than even in the hotel room (including sleep). Level 1 was small and was basically just an entrance; level 2 was devoted to tabletop gaming; level 3 to consoles; level 4 to the PC. Scattered across all floors were conference rooms, handheld areas, restaurants, bathrooms, and Penny Arcade comics which had been enlarged, printed on banners, and hung from balcony railings. All in all, the environment of the expo was clean and comfortable.

Sorry to anyone who's into tabletop or card games, because I didn't pay any attention whatsoever.

As far as video games are concerned, there were generally two categories: New, cool stuff and old or rehashed for-the-love-of-God-please-support-our-families stuff. The latter is neither interesting nor were the employees nearly as willing to speak frankly. Gametap, EVE Online, Dell, EA Mythic, and others were relatively easy to ignore, when one wasn't forced into a moment of pity.

The stars of the show, in my opinion, were America's Army, Eidos, Flying Lab Software, Harmonix, Microsoft, NCSoft, Nintendo, and Ubisoft, so I'll be sure to cover them.

Check the bottom of this post for a tour of the exhibition hall just a few minutes after the first people started walking in. I made the film as I entered it for the first time, and I got a few wierd looks; here the place was open for all of two minutes, and some wierdo was walking around filming instead of stopping at the nearest open booth to play a game.

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