PAX East 2014: General Impressions

narutaki_icon_4040 I think there was a danger of over-expectation on my part based on friends who absolutely loved PAX East in previous years; after all, they were instrumental in finally getting me on board with checking it out. But it was quickly apparent that I had actually underestimated the convention, leaving me surprised and overwhelmed, all in good ways, once I entered the event.

All the rumors are true, PAX East is a frickin’ blast.

hisui_icon_4040 Say what you will about Penny Arcade in general but the PAX conventions are fairly well-regarded as being some of the best run conventions you will ever go to. Some of our friends have been trying to convince us to go for a while now with PAX East being in Boston. We are not huge gamers but both of us at least casually play enough games, and absorb enough geeky news in general, that we had an interest in going. (Also for some reason I casually consume a lot of information about game design.) Much like SDCC you have to decide fairly early on that you want to go to PAX East. You can’t just decide a week before the convention that you should go and then get a 3-day pass and a hotel. This is a convention that sold out of weekend passes a few hours after they went one sale. The only way to get a ticket past that point was to pay marked up ticket scalper prices. So we barely got our tickets but we got them. So the question is was it worth the effort for a convention about a secondary fandom of ours.

narutaki_icon_4040 PAX East was full of people and yet it didn’t feel that crowded for the most part. I was definitely surprised by this considering the attendance cap and how quickly tickets sold out.

The staff seemed to have everything well in hand over the course of the weekend. I never had trouble locating a line, in fact many rooms had designated queue rooms clearly marked, when I needed to line up at all which was hardly ever.

The interior setup of the convention center is very much centralized around the expo hall. With the upper most floor devoted to one gigantic panel room. All the hallways and other panel rooms were along the perimeter. Though let me be clear that you didn’t need to enter the show floor at any point to get to anything. Luckily, there were skybridges running above the show floor so you could quickly get from one side of the building to the other. This was definitely one of the best things about the center and made getting around a breeze.

The skybridges were also an awesome way to take in the sight of all those game booths and people.

After the first day, I was navigating the center with purpose and even finding some secret pockets to take a break in as well as the best course for getting to specific destinations.

The experience of PAX East made me realize how much of a difference a good convention center makes. I realized all the cons I regularly go to are in pretty terribly laid out, old, or just plain too small convention centers.

hisui_icon_4040 The stories of PAX conventions being some of the a joyous clockwork machine is more than mere hearsay. Even professional and expertly run conventions could learn a thing or two from PAX East. Was everything prefect? Certainly not. Nothing this big could ever run even close to perfect. But I have to say overall Kate and I had a hard time coming up with any thing we would majorly change. A tweak or two here and there. But they were all along the lines of taking a system that worked really well and making it even better rather than trying to fix a system with some major flaws.

I was impressed how easy it was to walk to the convention. The map originally made it seem like a bit of a jog but overall we walked every day and it was never a problem. But while it was windy the weather was fairly nice. The one time it rained it rained I just jumped on the shuttle as soon as I used the Guidebook app to track the bus. The shuttle bus tracking app went down for a bit on Friday but I was thankfully working on Sunday when we needed it. We did not really ever have a problem with the shuttle in either direction but we were lucky enough to be the first hotel on the loop. While there are seven shuttles I did hear from other people who if you were the first hotel on any loop you were fine but often times the other hotels would often find nothing but full shuttles during peak hours. But the ability to know where the shuttle was is just amazing.

I totally took advantage of the free WiFi at the convention. It was one of the few times I was able to tweet as often as Kate at a convention. At times there was so many people who I had to massage the connection very gently for a while to get it to work but other times it worked instantly. The general rule was the more popular the area the longer it took me to get a decent connection. But considering that most cons don’t give you anything close to free WiFi throughout the entire convention I will take what I can get.

We did not have any big line problems. Even the Boston mandated bag checks went smoothly. It was always extremely clear where to line up and which line you were on. If conventions take one things away from PAX it should be that any staffer maintaining a line should have a simple mini-wipeboard with the name of the panel and what time it starts on it. It clears up so many misunderstandings without a single word needing to be uttered.

If I had any complaint it would be that there was no easily accessible places to eat at a reasonable price. If you did not stock up on portable food (which is what we always do) you had three choices. You either had to hike back to the area with food which could easily kill and hour and a half or more of your time, pay for the diverse but extremely expensive mall food court meals inside the convention, or take the free restaurant trolly which was nice but probably consumed as much time as walking. If you wanted a break from the con it was no a big problem but if you were in a rush you either had to bring a bag lunch or pay through the nose.

narutaki_icon_4040 To get to the show floor of PAX East you head down escalators, so there is this moment of impact as you approach and look out on to this enormous celebration of games. This was the moment that overwhelmed me. Despite that immensity however, there was still breathing room especially along the edges where you could take a break or have a snack.

I always find myself in the expo hall of NYCC more than I estimate before the convention starts and the same thing happened at PAX East. I was hoping to play a few games and see even more than that, but I didn’t have a set plan of things I was looking for which didn’t end up being a problem because all the things found me.

My favorite section was easily the Indie Megabooth housing dozens of creators and games. I do wish it had been off to one side of the other instead of plopped in the middle though. The booths were understandably smaller than the big publishers but lines for demoing games at times clogged the aisles. Still that didn’t prevent me from traversing the area and coming away with a new appreciation for the work being done on the indie front. Most of the staff was very talkative and friendly on Friday, less so on Saturday, which added a lot to the experience.

As for the big names in games, they were out in full force, though I did note the absence of Nintendo since I’m knee-deep in 3DS love.

Once I realized the League of Legends booth was situated by the main escalators leading to the show floor, I quickly figured out an alternate route for entering. Where the rest of the show floor was teeming with moving masses of people, LoL had an unmoving mob of fans. They were going hard all day long with live streaming, give aways, and even bands playing later in the day.

Video game, and video game-inspired, music was a nice part of the convention. Each night three groups played in the upper panel space. I attended two performances, my favorite of which was Bit Brigade on Friday night and Video Game Orchestra on Saturday night.

If Bit Brigade wanted to endear themselves to me, they did since their entire set was dedicated to Legend of Zelda music. The band presented a hard rock edge to many famous themes from the series. Their clever extra is one of their members plays through a game, in this case the original Legend of Zelda on NES, alongside the music. He even beat the game in a magnificent speed run!

I wanted to enjoy the Video Game Orchestra, and indeed I did in parts, but I found the three electric guitars on stage drowned out the rest of instruments present. Apparently, this is less of a problem on their CDs since they have many more members to even things out.

hisui_icon_4040 The show floor was crazy. Since I have never been to SDCC so I will just assume that is it slightly bigger and brighter but I would go as far as to say that it intimidated me more than NYCC’s big room. Oddly enough the flow control was better than NYCC despite that. One you realized that there was more than the main entrance which led you to the insanely packed League of Legends area it did not seem as hectic but that first trip down the escalator is a bit overwhelming. Other than that if you went in from any other the other entrances you could get around fairly easily. Not perfectly. There will always be lines to certain popular booths that bleed into the isles, gawkers and people making chit-chat while standing in the absolutely worse places in the world, and just plain old traffic congestion from time to time but overall I never got stuck anywhere for more than a few seconds. I rarely had to use my NYC Commuter Parkour to get anywhere.

Also I never had to wait behind or bust through a person taking cosplay pictures right in the middle of traffic. I’m sure that it happened to several people during the con but it never happened to me. Considering at Otakon or NYCC it is something that happens every 100 feet or so it was the simplest testament to ease of movement and amount of space given to the convention.

I did not spend that much time on the show floor in general. I have just learned that I am absolutely horrible at getting free swag. Kate and I can walk through the same area and I will get next to nothing and she will come back with a Happosai sack filled with stuff. I just decided to leave that to her. I mostly went around the Table-top games section on Saturday. I never do go over to the Chessex booth but since I was trying to not spend any money that was probably for the best. I might have been tempted into buy a big bag of d6s so we could play some Shadowrun 5th edition.

I did spend some time with everyone in the tabletop gaming area. Since we are all in the same tabletop RPG group it only made sense. We sadly found a Downton Abbey board game. I said sadly mostly because it seem so very generic. We had some real good ideas to spice that up. There were also some nice exotic dice but they were all hideously expensive. Kate almost bought a small press Boys Love RPG but I mostly think we forgot to go back and see how much it was. They also had some nice dice towers but if dice were too rich for my blood than a dice tower was just a silly thing to look at.

I do regret not trying out the Oculus Rift. As much flack as it has received since being purchased by Facebook everything I have heard about it before that point made me very interested in at least testing it. The main booth in the showroom has a consistent line and was often capped to prevent the booth from eating up too much space. Therefore you had to spawn camp the area and keep checking it to see if new places on the line opened up. Apparently there was another rig set up in the Kickstarter room but even that had a fairly consistent line. It seemed like a huge wait so I picked attending panels instead. I think I made the right choice but I won’t say I’m not a little disappointed in the fact that I did not get to try out such an unusual piece of hardware.

narutaki_icon_4040 Mike and Jerry of Penny Arcade, you either love em or hate em I supposed. I happen to like the guys so I was very much looking forward to their two panels over the weekend.

The Make a Strip panel is the one you’re always hearing about. Mike draws the comic live as he and Jerry answer audience questions. When we first heard that they question had to be submitted online, before the con, everyone was worried it would be rather lame and rehearsed. But no, they didn’t know the questions either! So no worries on that front, the hilarity ensued accordingly.

Still, my favorite part was watching the comic come to life before our eyes. Watching how people work is an awesome sight, and one you aren’t often treated to. I love seeing the in between process where mistake are made and redrawn (and redrawn and redrawn) despite having drawn these characters for so long. It is a very humanizing experience I think and one that allows you to walk away with a better appreciation for the work as well as feeling better about your own creative process.

Speaking of Mike drawing, I just want to take a minute to say how much I loved the cover to the PAX East 2014 guidebook. Just put a smile on my face every time I saw it.

As for PA’s other panel, it was the first live Acquisitions Incorporated D&D session at PAX East. I don’t think I laughed harder during any other time of the con making it kind of the best part of the entire convention. Since it was also the last event I attended it left me feeling very contented.

Apparently, in past years they have done more panels but have now taken a step back. I was very happy with what we got, so I hope no one else was disappointed.

hisui_icon_4040 I spent most of my time at panels so I was going to write that up in its own post but we felt there were two panels that were so integral to the show that we felt they should go here. Those were the two panels with Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik. On Saturday there was the Make A Strip panel. The idea is simple. They write and draw a comic in front of the audience while the answer questions. This year all the questions were picked from an online solicitation instead of from the audience. As an added bit of amusement the envelopes were color coded white and red. The white ones were supposed to be safe but the red ones were supposed to be risky. The running joke was that the white envelopes often seemed to have some rather big landmines in them with the battle cry being, “Are you sure this was not supposed to be a red envelope question?”

I think one of my favorite answers was they both agreed that despite writing a gaming comic they still liked games and making comics. I feel all too often there is this idea that working in a field that you love will only make you hate the things that were once your hobby. They both admitted that sometimes they need to change-up what they play or how they approach work but it never seemed like they were utterly burnt out or hated what they did. On the other hand it was a bit sad to hear they did not casually hang out anymore. They were definitely friends who were business partners but they no longer did anything outside of their job. In the end that is probably for the best especially considering they both have families now but it was still a little sad to hear.

The other panel was the Acquisitions Incorporated panel. A celebrity D&D panel with Scott Kurtz from PvP and Morgan Webb. I mostly remember Morgan Webb as a host of X-Play back when X-Play was good. It was a little surprising to see her. The game itself had a little less razzmatazz than previous sessions I had seen. Only the GM was in costume and the table was not the grand production they usually make of it. But it was nice that they finally ran a game of it at PAXEast at all so beggars will not be choosers. Overall it was a fun game played more for humor than for OMG HIGH LEVEL PLAY. We sadly had to skip out half way through to get to our bus but I enjoyed what we saw. At least we saw the conclusion of the first battle. If nothing else I think my players were a little reassured by the whole event. It is easy to struggle to make choices during your own game and assume everyone else playing the game at other tables one-third the strategist of Yang Wen-li, one-third the suave charm of Don Juan, and on third the rapier wit of Tyrion Lannister. Seeing veterans gamers struggle to make choice and need the GM to prompt them along reassures you that most people’s games run something like that.

narutaki_icon_4040 If anyone was following my tweets during PAX East, you’ll know it quickly turned into “Button Con” for me as many, many, many of the exhibitors, especially in the indie game section, were giving away buttons to promote their games!

All in all it should be apparent that I loved my first PAX East with very few complaints to speak of. In the true spirit of the convention, I walked away wanting to play more games than ever. I definitely plan to make this one of my staple conventions from now on.

hisui_icon_4040 I got all the Street Passes over the weekend. All of them. By just clearing out my queue whenever I was waiting in line I easily got over a thousand new hits on my DS. By Friday night I had gotten the 400 unique street passes to get me to the 3000 Mii limit on your 3DS’s library. At this point the only thing I have left to do are crazy high level accomplishments. Usually the numbers on those are so high they seem more like the numbers that need scientific notation than actual goals you casually try to fulfill.

Overall I have to say I was damn impressed by PAX East. It pretty much sets the standard for video game conventions. Some video games conventions might top it by being better is some niche field but over all there is no bigger general interest convention for fans. I constantly had something to do, as did Kate. But other than a few points of deliberate overlap if you compared our schedules you would assume we went to different conventions over the same weekend. Since it nigh impossible to find someone who reads this blog and does not like video games and/or table top games (and it not my mother) there is little reason for you not to check out the PAX in your area. Just make sure you check when the tickets go on sale.

PAX tickets move pretty fast. If you don’t stop and check the Internet constantly, you could miss it.

More PAX East 2014 posts:

PAX East 2014: Tweets
PAX East 2014: Panels
The Speakeasy #052: Death of a Virgin, PAX East 2014

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