April 17, 2012
Post PAX PAX Post
"Welcome Home!" That was the resounding message of PAX East, or Penny-Arcade Expo, a convention unlike any I have ever attended. The tone, the overarching "vibe" of PAX, is one of celebration; not of just one genre or style, but of all gaming culture. My three days in attendance were like being at a party with 70,000 friends who get all of your jokes and are also wondering if anybody else saw the man dressed as Chun-Li.
I did, PAX. I did.
I have never been to Boston, so I was eager to arrive at least a day before the convention to do some urban exploration. I wish I would have given myself more time because the city is amazing! I love the juxtaposition of colonial architecture and modern skyscrapers.
Boston is famous, at least in my mind, for its seafood. I came hungry, and I was not disappointed.
I will let this picture speak for itself.
Boston also has the highest concentration of Dunkin' Donuts stores per square mile I have ever seen. I did not know it was possible for a city to have a corporate sponsor, but apparently it is.
One of my goals in attending PAX was to maximize my enjoyment of the convention whilst conserving my wallet. Con food is expensive while its quality is questionable, so I came prepared with a backpack full of ostrich jerky and vitamin water. For the first day I was running strong, but I needed a boost. Then, when my desperation was at its peak, I saw the oasis:
FREE FIVE-HOUR ENERGY!
This is the best idea ever. I cannot even imagine how many tiny bottles of caffeine and B vitamins were consumed over the course of the weekend. At least enough to get to Mars and back.
Prepare for Inspiration
This is the line leading to the Main Theater in the Boston Convention and Expo Center. In that theatre, Jordan Mechner, the creator of the platforming classic Prince of Persia delivered a truly inspiring keynote describing his journey from building a game on an Apple II to finding independent success, traveling Europe, handling defeat as his own company failed, and his triumphant return. One point he made really resounded with me – that life is not a resume. Life is a series of challenges, failures, and experiences, and it is not a constant march forward.
Game design has progressed so much since its inception, and it is still so very young. It took film over a century to evolve into the medium it is today, but electronic games as we know them have only been around for about thirty years. In that time we have gone from Pong to being able to play full-3D multiplayer games on a device the size of a notepad. Technology and storytelling techniques have intertwined in such provocative ways that the potential of games as a creative medium are nearly limitless.
This keynote eloquently set the tone for what would be a first PAX experience to remember.
Purity of Vision
Many conventions reach a point at which they attempt to cater to a wide swath of the population. Often, this is so wide that the original intent of the convention is diluted and the target audience is enveloped in the wave. PAX is 100% about gaming. There are no dealers peddling cheap katanas or bizarre anime DVDs or washed-up 1980s actors selling overpriced signatures (which may be a turn-off for some) but it means that the convention is entirely focused around the goal of celebrating games and gamer culture.
Unlike some other major conventions in the industry like E3, PAX is a more ground-level view of gaming. It was a convention designed by and for gamers, meaning there is minimal corporate nonsense. The focus is not on the spectacle of big publishers trying to outspend each other trying to overhype products, but convention attendees playing and discussing their favorite games while having an opportunity to test drive the latest and greatest upcoming products. Typical convention fixtures such as "Booth Babes" are discouraged as the convention organizers feel they are degrading to women and detract from the games themselves. This helps cultivate a much more comfortable convention experience.
PAX is also an amazing venue for independent developers. Many of their modest booths reminded me of the booth Titan and I constructed in Ohio while attending small, local conventions with extremely rough versions of the EpicDuel (one-shot Supercharge, anyone?) available for the attendees to try. It was exciting to think of the possibilities of an Artix Entertainment megabooth sitting next to Square-Enix and Microsoft, but that might be a bit ambitious for a first outing.
I tried to attend as many panels as possible, but not nearly as many as I planned. Some were funny, while others were funny, informative, and inspiring. The best was an impromptu panel in which two of the three panelists dropped out at the last minute, so the sole panelist picked several people from the audience to fill in. It ended up being one of the most random, yet informative panels at the convention. Of all the panels attended, not one felt like a waste, and it would be truly amazing to see an Artix Entertainment panel at PAX.
It's worth mentioning that just about anything can happen at one of these panel. During the first Q&A panel, the panelist were surround by Aperture Labs scientists, a lightsaber duel broke out, and everyone witnessed a very sweet marriage proposal complete with a poem about the couple's shared experiences with gaming. That was all within an hour!
This is a great time for the little guy. It has never been easier for independent developers to enter the market, with services like Steam and the App store making even the most humble games accessible to the masses.
If you want to break into the industry, make a game. Now. This is simple yet challenging advice was echoed throughout many of the panel discussions with veteran developers. If you fail, make a better game. However, in order to be successful you will need to make sacrifices, and often those sacrifices come from your social life. You have the infinite expanse of the internet at your disposal for a knowledge base, so there is no excuse for not having enough information to begin.
Mobile, Mobile, Mobile
Handheld game systems are a common sight at any PAX, but this year it was impossible to ignore the prevalence of tablets, specifically, the iPad. Indie developers were shaming the major studios across the expo floor with polished mobile efforts that were easily worth their modest price tags.
See game. Try game. Buy game.
I marveled at the ease with which interested gamers would see a game, play it for a bit, and purchase the App within a ten minute window. This seemed like a huge advantage over traditional distribution models as many games at the show were either not ready to purchase, or were only available through traditional retail channels.
Budding developers and small studios would be wise to take advantage of this new trend in gaming because crowded as it may be, it is full of unprecedented opportunity and possibility. EpicDuel for tablets, anyone?
No One Is an Island
The game industry is a community and all companies and gamers are intrinsically linked. No company can survive the vacuum that comes from ignoring industry trends or consumer needs. The history of gaming is littered with companies that have failed to think progressively. Want to succeed in the gaming industry? Make friends with other developers, make games that nobody else is making, and pour your entire being into your work. In the words of Wayne Gretzky, "A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be."
Video Game Orchestra, Supercommuter, The Minibosses, The Protomen, AdventureQuest Worlds musical guests Paul and Storm and Jonathan Coulton, and many more! I could describe the crowd becoming a vibrating mass of frenetic energy and rockitude, but that only does so much. Watching Paul and Storm urging an army of 4000 nerds to take over a 7-11 or a rock opera interpretation of classic games performed with a full orchestra is just a "you had to be there" experience. I shall do my best with pictures.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, the Omegathon is the centerpiece gaming tournament of PAX. Throughout four rounds, the competitors known as Omeganauts battle each other in games ranging from the latest console titles to ancient board games. The final round is always super secret and the prize becomes more epic each year.
This year the final four Omeganauts took center stage in the Main Theatre to wage war across a freshly waxed Crokinole board for an all expenses paid trip to Gamescom in Germany. The loser was destroyed. Not really.
Oh yeah, and we were also treated to Paul and Storm and Jonathan Coulton singing the Canadian national anthem.
That happened. I teared up.
With a final applause and the drop of the microphone, PAX ended. The ground rumbled, the air thickened, and the Boston Convention and Expo Center collapsed in on itself like the house from Poltergeist.
The flight back to Tampa was a long sad one, but I arrived safe, inspired and ready to dive back into the business of making games. This is an exciting industry to be a part of, and if PAX was any indication, it will get even more exciting in the near future.