Last week I packed my bags and went to Washington to partake in the event known as PAX, The Penny Arcade Expo. That sexy new rising star of video game conferences. Along with thousands of other fans of the comic strip, we filed into the Meydenbauer conference center unclear as to what would greet us inside.
When we arrived on friday it was already packed pretty solid. The hotel parking lot had many cars colorfully decorated with windows proclaiming cryptic messages like "OMFG PAX05". We were definitely in the right place.
We entered the hall in time for for Gabe & Tycho to give their opening panel before their legions of adoring fans. The pair speak charismatically and energetically, giving fun answers to the good questions, and handling the lame questions with expertise that can't be learned. jerry is the loud one, and he especially enjoys the crowd. He's fast, witty and very entertaining, even when they have to answer the question about where the (cw) in their nicknames comes from for what must have been the 103rd time of the weekend. Mike is more quiet, but when he speaks it is always draws a laugh. They clearly were speaking to their home crowd, but it also was very obvious to see the real chemistry that makes their strip so funny.
The Red vs Blue panel was similarly entertaining. They answered questions about some of the more ridiculous aspects of the show, to some more philosophical points about machinema and the relationship between the would-be director, and video game publisher. Most entertaining was the story of shots with the number of actors on screen outnumbering the number of performers, requiring dextrous feet to get the shots right. They screened a fair bit of RvB material for a receptive audience. What most impressed me was the schedule they work under. Writing the show, recording the dialog, and animating it over the course of a single week. It's no small task. I bought the Season 3 DVD.
For me the highlight of the weekend was the 'Make Monday's Strip' panel where the process of actually creating a single Penny Arcade comic was put up on a giant screen for thousands of fans to watch in amazement. Ok, so they cheated a little and pre-sketched the strip, but to actually watch Gabe ink and color all 3 panels in like 45 minutes was really cool to see. I used to do a lot of cartooning back in the day too, and I can only imagine the stress this put him through: drawing is hard, and to do it under the megascope of a couple thousand people, even tho the masses are fans, well he handled it well. To see him hold aloft his "Wacom Pad the Size of an Aircraft Carrier" like some sort of bizarre 2001 monolith was very fun. And somehow Jerry manages to spew forth a vast quantity of words, most of which get laughs. Talented boys, these two.
Of course there was more to the show than just the panels. The exhibition hall was packed elbow to elbow. The line to purchase Penny Arcade merch was like a mighty cobra coiling through the building. I'm sure that countless fruit fucker t-shirts are now spread around the nation like a plague of locust, descending upon electronics stores around the land causing children to shield the eyes of their unaware parents as PAX attendees strut by wearing the arcane symbols of their fellowship.
The big 3 consoles all had representation, but by far the Nintendo booth took the cake. I mean, they had the new Zelda up for all to behold. New Zelda. Do you understand me? New Zelda causes feelings in my pants that I find best to ignore in public. They also had Nintendogs which compelled me to visit the local Best Buy that very day. Tragically they were out of stock, but since I still have not 'caught-them-all' in Pokemon Emerald, maybe I should just say NO to a new portable addiction.
Turbine was demonstrating early builds of both their Lord of the Rings massive, and their Dungeons and Dragons massive. I spent a fair bit of time chatting with them about their plans for each of these games. Competing with the gorilla that is World of Warcraft must be a difficult place to be, but each of these games appear to be addressing different issues with the shadow that looms over their industry. D&D Online for example will only be implementing levels 1-10 at launch. The game will be less about the level grind, and more about compelling story line. Of course, for me, I'm a numbers guy. When I play Warcraft, I often don't even read the whole quest (this has screwed me in the past mind you). I need to kill 10 murlocs? Ok GO! KILL KILL! But the graphics for D&D On-line are very compelling. A definite upgrade from any other massive I've seen. I'm looking forward to the office going on an adventure in that world, if only because it is based on the D&D 3.5 rules, and that sort of thing has a fuzzy warm place in my heart.
The Lord of the Rings game was much earlier in development. By far the most interesting aspect of their system was their concept of difficulty-over-time instead of difficulty-over-location. If you go to The Hinterlands in WoW, you know you're going to be fighting 40-something monsters. And it will always be the same. When you kill the named char, he will re-spawn 5 minutes later for the next guy to gack. LotR is causing the world to change following significant events. A town that you visit at level 5 might burn to the ground following crucial story events. When you later visit that town, the inn will be ashes, and the NPC who gave you quests is a corpse. In other words, it's a sense of state that doesn't exist in WoW. They also had the interesting idea of allowing 9 player parties, but getting together parties that large is a lot more challenging. I love the concept in theory, but in practice, I think it would drive me mad.
Both games seem more tightly focused on compelling story and team play. Less about the level grind. Also they had some interesting puzzle type action unlike what I'm used to seeing in a massive. I definitely look forward to trying them out as they become available. WoW now has 4 million subscribers around the world. Since these games won't be available for many moons, I imagine the market will be ripe for a shift.
WidowPC was sponsoring a gaming room. It was neat to see rows of PCs with gamers slumped over them focused upon killing aliens, friends, or monsters with hope to earn points, repution, or most honorable of all, that glorious thing known as "XP".
The Bring-Your-Own-Computer space was also a sight to behold. The real surprise to me was the general quiet in these spaces. Almost tranquil at times. Everyone seemed very focused on the games they were playing. Personally I like a little more cussing when I play, but the whole weekend was a pretty clean affair. I wish I had lugged my box- Speakeasy was providing bandwidth and my arcanite transmute was cooled down!
And let me not forget Bawlz. The caffeinated drink of choice was available and sold for a buck a bottle. The beverage was everpresent: from people dropping the glass bottles in the audiences listening to panels, to watching literally dozens of people lugging cases of the stuff from the conference, to the hotel a half dozen blocks away, struggling under the weight, taking pause to lean against whatever flat surface would support the weight, hearts racing from the caffeinated equivalent of almost 3 cans of coke consumed in minutes. It reminded me of the time at ALS in like 1998 that we first discovered Penguin Mints. We didn't really know how much caffeine they put in those things so we were popping them like Pez all morning. By the end of the afternoon the concept of "Blinking" was foreign.
The saturday night finale was a concert by the Minibosses, MC Chris, and MC Frontalot. For Kathleen, the highlight was listening to MC Chris rant in front of thousands of attendees. I don't know how much was his voice and how much was the sound system, but it was often difficult to make him out when he was rapping, but when he was complaining, it was quite audible and crowd ate it right up.
Anyway, PAX was a fun experience. Next year they plan to move to a larger space in Seattle proper. They really need it: this place was packed. The sardines cliche doesn't do it justice. Every bit of wall had consoles and TVs on it with gamers glued to the screens playing Katamari Damacy, Super Smash Bros. Melee, and whatever other games they could get their hands on. Movement was difficult, especially in the exhibition hall.
I imagine that next year they larger space will open doors to more exhibitors, larger displays, more room for games, and attendees. Does PAX spell the end of E3 or CES? Obviously not. But would I choose PAX over COMDEX? Definitely. Any vendor would be crazy not to want to show their stuff here: this was a very hardcore crowd. Real gamers here to play, and talk about the games they love and hate. It's not about marketing or dollars, just about passion, and that makes for a far more fun weekend.