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Editorial – Baby’s First PAX Prime

I’m fairly new to this whole “video-game journalist” thing. I’ve been to Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) East and 1 1/3 E3s (it’s a long story), photographing what’s going on. I attended PAX East as a civilian. PAX Prime 2010 was my first actual photojournalism assignment. Since my interest in covering these events is more about the experience and the people than their reason for being there, I figured PAX would be an excellent fit.

As I understood it, PAX was the convention that put journalists and the public on equal footing. According to the media-credential confirmation e-mail, a press badge would grant you access to the media room and Wi-Fi but wouldn’t allow you to jump ahead of lines or guarantee you access to panels or events. PAX made a small number of wristbands available so journalists could cover the concerts, but reporters would still have to line up with the rest of the wristband-clad convention-goers to get in.

Journalists could also attend the media-only question-and-answer session with Gabe and Tycho on Sunday morning (I did not, as I was there to photograph the overall convention, not capture the media-only perspective). But otherwise, journalists covered the convention, not the games. The reporting would be a different kind than the work done at E3 less than 3 months earlier, at GamesCom a few weeks before, or the Tokyo Game Show a few weeks after. Journalists would attend panels alongside the public, or maybe they would take part in a panel or record their podcast live in front of their fans. All of the convention organizer’s facilitation of the press was to enhance coverage of the convention itself as a cultural event.

A few weeks before the show, press releases started rolling in. Most of them encouraged me to stop by a specific booth at some point during the show, but quite a few asked me to schedule appointments to see games. That seemed odd. Is this normal, or is this a sign that video-game companies are taking over PAX? As this is my first PAX as a member of the press, what did I know?

A few months earlier, Penny Arcade President of Operations and Business Development Robert Khoo announced some changes regarding the convention. These were all expansions of the PAX formula: larger exhibit hall, an additional theater (allowing for more panels), and more space for tabletop games.

I’d never seen the PAX Expo Hall before. I’d been assured that it was a lot more manageable than E3. It was a little surprising, then, when several of the booths on the floor were in part or wholly brought in from E3. Disney re-created their Tron and Epic Mickey booths from E3. Bethesda’s Fallout: New Vegas statues loomed.

The PAX Expo Hall wasn’t a total rehash of E3 — Sony and Microsoft didn’t have their multistory enclosed structures, with windows that opened onto the floor framing everyone demoing Kinect and Move as live advertising for the games. Nintendo’s booth small booth showcased games like Dragon Quest IX and Metroid: Other M.

And, of course, there were lines. These were the great equalizer, though — everyone had to stand in them. Unless you had a media appointment. If your appointment was in the booth, you could jump the queue. If you were especially lucky, you might have had a closed-door demo or interview in a meeting room and avoid the booth altogether.

This wasn’t exactly the PAX line experience I’d prepared for.

The lines for panels were a little different — here, the promise that your media badge granted you no special access still applied. I didn’t attend as many panels as I did at PAX East in March, and those I did make were not very full. My favorite panel of the weekend, “MMOs: Empowering the Disabled, Enriching Lives,” took place at the same time as, and directly across the hall from, the “Halo: Reach Meetup.” This was the second of two panels dedicated to that game.

Now, panels for upcoming games aren’t unheard of at PAX. Though to be fair, these are less like panels and more like miniature versions of E3 press conferences usually focused on a game or two set for a relatively recent release. If more of this was at 2010’s PAX than at previous conventions, well, they added another satellite theater to increase the number of panels. No big deal, right?

I did some counting. Here’s the number of panels dedicated to specific company’s upcoming products since PAX 2008:

  • PAX 2008: 4
  • PAX 2009: 3
  • PAX East 2010: 4
  • PAX Prime 2010: 10

All but one of these were for video games (one of the PAX East panels was for Nvidia products).

The video-game-company presence at PAX is growing right along with the convention — possibly faster. But PAX still has places where I saw that sense of community that people had so enthusiastically described. The tabletop gaming areas (including the Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering specific locations) were full of people every time I walked by. Some of these sat in what the expo map referred to as the “Hidden Level” — a section of the convention center accessible only by a pair of escalators located at the back of the Expo Hall and a street entrance that was in the description but, as far as I could see, did not actually exist. I’m sure it was there, but the Washington State Convention & Trade Center is huge, and it’s labyrinthine, and it’s almost impossible to keep your bearings as you move around it. The tabletop gamers, in rooms and levels separated from the din of the Expo Hall and the panel lines, seemed to be at their own convention. Some ubiquitous signage, orienting you toward the different areas, would do a lot toward making that chopped-up space feel whole.

Maybe.

PAX is growing fast. Video-game companies are bringing an E3 influence to their booths and panels, a boisterous, in-your-face approach that doesn’t quite mesh with the quieter demo-table-off-in-the-corner-based approach the tabletop companies have. You can feel a tension here — one that people who’ve been to multiple PAXes (and E3s) have been responding to over the past few days — between the community and the corporate, the grassroots and the giant marketing budgets. Striking a balance between those groups and easing that tension — that’s the challenge PAX faces going forward.

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