PAX 2010 Debriefed: No, that’s not a Duke Nukem joke

There were only a few thousand dedicated folks who made the trip to Bellevue, Washington for the first-ever Penny Arcade Expo back in 2004. Maybe it’s because it was the first time I ever took a road trip with some friends since coming of age, or maybe it’s because we planned to go about ten hours before the expo began, but something about that trip was life-changing.

Here were a bunch of gamers congregating in a public space to play some Tetris, take in the handful of new games on display, debate menial details like which Final Fantasy game is best (trust me, they still get off on that argument), listen to some nerdy music and hang out at one crazy, 24-hour party. I think it’s safe to say that there had never been anything like it in the history of time, and so yeah – I take a little pride in knowing I was one of a few thousand people who were there when it all started.

In fact, I’m one of what has to be a pretty small number of people who have attended all seven PAXes in Seattle. I keep coming back because, simply, I think it’s a fantastic event. I love what it stands for, I love how it brings together new and old friends, and I especially love having the opportunity to hang out with people who create, write about, produce, promote, and just generally love games.

But something was wrong this year. Despite its strongest turnout yet, I felt there were some significant problems that surfaced at this year’s PAX.

First, it’s a victim of its size. When the folks at Penny Arcade saw the 60,000-plus attendees at the 2009 show, they knew they had to adjust for an even larger crowd for this year’s show. As a result, the entire Washington State Convention and Trade Center was opened up as well as the newly remodeled annex across the street. And to top it all off, the entire Benaroya Hall theater at 3rd and Union was relegated to major game demonstrations, panels with the Penny Arcade guys and – unfortunately – the concerts. With a fixed number of seats and no standing room (a major problem when you’re listening to any sort of up-tempo live music), concert-goers were forced to commit to long lines and a comparatively subdued atmosphere for the traditionally high-energy live shows.

And with a more than 10% increase in attendance comes a greater problem: massive lines in the exhibition hall. Arguably the main attraction for the majority of PAX attendees, the exhibition hall was expanded from even last year’s labyrinthine sprawl, incorporating part of another floor in addition to the majority of the fourth level. And it’s no wonder why: the number of attendees, ranging from publishing giants like Electronic Arts and Nintendo to smaller names like The Behemoth and Halfbrick, is staggering. It’s a testament to the importance of a community-driven event in the games industry that so many publishers and developers took the time to spend an entire weekend showing off their latest and upcoming games and discussing them with their fans and peers.

At least, that’s what they were trying to do. But with so many big-name games on the floor – including elephant-in-the-room Duke Nukem Forever in playable form – the wait to get some hands-on time with many of these games was, frankly, too damn long. I waited two hours and fifteen minutes to step inside the Dragon Age 2 booth for a presentation that amounted to a five-minute speech on Bioware’s goals for building a sequel to Dragon Age and about ten minutes of hands-on time with a relatively limited combat-focused demo. And while the Portal 2 line only took about an hour, the payoff – a fifteen-minute live demonstration of the co-operative mode – felt similarly thin. But a three-hour wait to check out a game for a few minutes? Even if that game is the industry’s longest-awaited game, Duke Nukem Forever? That’s just unreasonable.

But the greatest problem became apparent after I waited in line to play Epic Mickey for a good twenty minutes before being cut off by an editor from a major gaming blog, who was promptly escorted to the front of the line for a lengthy, hands-on demo of the game. It dawned on me: PAX is losing its focus as a fan-oriented event. Sure enough, members of the gaming media were being given preferential treatment for all sorts of games on the show floor. I saw several booths where playable games were cordoned off with a “RESERVED FOR PRESS” sign. To add insult to injury, some games – including Civilization V – were present on the show floor but relegated to sealed rooms, available “by appointment only.”

By appointment only? The only kind of person who makes an appointment to see a game is a game critic. And really, that’s what made this year so troubling – PAX is turning into yet another video game expo where publishers are going out of their way to cater to the professional blogging crowd. Simply put, that’s not what PAX is supposed to be.

If everything works out like we hope it will, next year will be the first time that all three Silicon Sasquatch editors attend the Penny Arcade Expo as media members. Although I’m really excited to add a little legitimacy and recognition to our blog, I’m also a little hesitant: Are we going to make the PAX experience worse for the average attendee?