Penny Arcade Expo 2010 Recap Day one:
Although I’ve been immersed in gaming and gaming culture since the days of Atari, Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) is the first Com of any kind I have been to. Despite my attempts to maintain a facade of familiarity, I spent the first couple hours bumping into things and leering at girls in short skirts; none to subtly. The entire thing is a spectacle of the grandest order. Taking place on all six floors of the Washington State Convention Center, PAX was dreamed up by its founders as a symposium to rest at the nexus of all gaming. Board, Dice, RPG, Card and for course Video games, this is the hallowed ground for them all. A place for all nerds, anyone that gathers in fear of daylight with their few friends to cast a spell or pone a nube, this is our promised land.
I must admit that when researching this event I grew concerned, I found a forum thread who’s subject was what to bring and it started with an entire page praising the merits of clean clothes when appearing in public. The freshly washed masses have come out. Planes, trains and ships have shuttled these polite and rabid fans to the Pacific North West, where they have gathered to drain Pho bowls and share hotel rooms with people they have never met in person --until now.
It took me some time to find my footing in the sea of events, at any given moment there was more then one room open, housing a panel discussion or a speaker. These spaces had all been renamed for the event, forcing me to keep asking the staff if the line of enthusiasts wrapped around the hallway was for the serpent or unicorn theater. I stopped in on as many of these as my schedule would allow but, spent most of my day on the exhibition floor. The big top, it reminded me of fever induced dreams I had, years ago in Cambodia, nightmares of Asian markets run by robots. Or perhaps of wonderful daydreams I have been having my whole gaming life of what the future will hold and how I will at last be a part of it as it happens.
The reason I didn’t make it to as many of the speakers as I would have liked is I had lined up tons of interviews in the weeks before the doors opened. So I spent the bulk of my first day getting oriented and taking these short interviews (all of which will be transcribed and posted in the days to come). Skimming over that little point, that I don’t plan to disclose the bulk of what I spent my time on in this short recap, I’ll try to carry on and convey the vast wonder and scope of the Penny Arcade Expo.
It is pretty much the best thing I have, or ever will do in my life. I have owned and operated a small business, fallen in love and crushed my left index finger in a hydraulic press. I can say without a trace of guilt, that none of those things caught my attention like this amazing coagulation of nerds and their heroes. It’s like all the arteries that course with our weird corner of the Internet have hemorrhaged, sending platelets flying into Seattle and now they’re scarring, forming a pockmarked scab that will last three wonderful days. Then it will fall off and break apart allowing each of us, its constituents, to go home.
Penny Arcade Expo 2010 Day two:
It’s the end of day two at the Penny Arcade Expo and I’m beginning to feel like I’ve been through some kind of vetting process for a neurological dysfunction. I’m now sure that if I had any predisposition towards seizures I would have been reduced to a quivering mass of pudding on my last walk though the exhibition floor. Here on the couch, savoring some sensory deprivation, I look back and see what a great day it was. This is my first set of press credentials and I don’t think they’re doing anything for my quest to find a modicum of humility in my character.
I spent the bulk of this day seeking out the companies that I couldn’t make contact with before Friday. Having now gotten face time with some of the giants of the expo like Lego Universe, Tron and Kill Zone 3, I find that all of my interviews take an unusual tack. Every time I huddle up with my recorder and a personable developer, bracing ourselves against the cacophony of the background, I find myself asking questions like “so, have you had to sleep at the office in the last couple months?”. I can’t help but think that most of readers of anything I write are notably more savvy than I am (not that I set the bar very high) and would be able to find anything they want about game play with just a few well placed key strokes. So I’m invariably leaning towards anecdotal remarks, I want to know who’s the crazy writer in the office, who’s the gun nut among the artists, or at least how they combat malnutrition during crunch time. Given the candor of the people I’ve spoken to so far I’m either doing something they’re not used to and like, or am so far off the mark with my line of questions that they think it’s necessary to humor me, like a kid that rides the short bus.
After a long day of bludgeoning my sensory organs, I found myself slumped in a hallway, charging my phone and nursing a Rockstar the size and dimensions of a smoke grenade. It was time to focus what little juice I had left and pay some attention to the rest of the convention. I am so happy I did. Up on the sixth floor is the main ballroom, it is filled wall to wall with over nine hundred gaming towers. On one half are around four hundred that have been supplied by Intel, on the other, the most motley crew of PCs I could have imagined. There was every custom, bad ass, home built rig known to man. If the Intel side were a legion of Prisus’, the other side was a well ordered militia of trucks fabricated by Mad Max. Cooling systems that would put your refrigerator to shame, casings that would be the envy of every street racer awake after one am. The place was a custom car show, an arena of Blade Runner gladiators, all I could do was look over at my escort and shake my head. He was a really nice bearded PAX volunteer, one of the many people working there that I imagine is not so at ease in the real world but, placed in a symposium of his peers has become a bastion of dignity and tact. He was my guide through this room that would have eaten me alive if I had wandered in alone. In the end we disagreed on our favorite towers, he liked the one that was built onto the frame of a scooter and I was partial to one made completely out of FedEx boxes (including an old-school arcade controller). We parted way amiably, I thanked him for his time and protection in this latest arena of gaming culture, just another part of the Penny Arcade Expo that would have swallowed me whole had I not humbled myself and asked for the help of one of my seventy five thousand new friends.
Penny Arcade Expo 2010 Recap Day three:
It’s the end of day three, the final day of PAX 2010 and find myself looking back on the weekend and gathering life lessons, like an attendee picking m&m’s out of their trail mix. It was an ordeal, a marathon of sorts, where the importance of self care was only dwarfed by one’s need for mental fortitude. I did better and worse at different points of the expo, those peaks and valleys always corresponding to controllable variables, like my blood sugar. What I was looking for and therefore saw everywhere this weekend was a feeling of belonging, a sense of acceptance within a culture that would allow me a peek at it’s foremost edge, where I could have a few moments with the men and women that are breaking ground out there. The people that are realizing the dream of the rest of the gaming world, a chance to shape an industry that we all live for in varying degrees.
PAX has a reputation for being the gamer’s Con and it is. Everywhere I turned I was met with industry representatives that simply oozed with the understanding of what drives the gaming industry --fanatical fans. And everywhere I turned after that I saw swag laden gamers following up on their end of the bargain, waiting for hours to catch a twenty minute demo of a game they have been waiting on for over a decade (coming up tomorrow I’ll give you a complete transcription of Gear Box’s Duke Nukem pitch, recorded inside the booth). The whole tail eating serpent was visible in that exhibition hall, scores of development crews and their CEOs, and the unruly mob that is the gaming community, flaunting their buying power.
One of the traditions of the Penny Arcade Expo is the Omegathon, a tournament of twenty preregistered contestants who compete in a weekend long battle. They play a bunch of games at different venues, games chosen from a wide range of eras and genres, all the way from Pong to Halo. The closing event of PAX 2010 was held in the main hall, a theater four blocks away from the convention center, that seats over 2,500 people; it was also the final contest in the omegathon. I was seated up in the third level, all the way at the back and this afforded me an amazing view of the theater. It was packed to capacity and the juxtaposition of the thousands of nerds with the operatic feeling of the venue put me in mind of some steam punk reference that I can’t quite put my finger on now. Just before the last battle began I peered over the two foot high railing, the only thing between me and defenestration (is falling to your death still called that if it’s not out of a window?), seeing a sea of people sitting on the floor level. Hundreds of points of light seemed to ripple on the tides of they’re excitement like phosphorescence. Every third person had some kind of hand held device and the glow from them augmented the warmth of the room.
Then came out the men themselves, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, the creators of Penny Arcade and our hosts at the convention. Introducing the two finalists of the omegathon by their handles only, Jerry and Mike went on to ask the audience what we thought the last game was going to be. “We will give you three clues. First, this game is ancient. Second, it is turn based and third it is all about resource collection.” Thousands of people called out, yelling the name of their favorite old school RTS. After a suitable period of suspense the curtains parted to reveal that most devious of opponents, the bane of bowling alleys the world wide, the claw machine. Or as it was called on the stage, the Omegaclaw!
Far from being anti-climatic, this conclusion to a weekend of spectacle was fitting, it encapsulated the spirit of the last three days. This was our civilization, our culture and what is an empire without its Colosseum? We stood, we screamed for blood, we smacked our brows with our palms as the plush Yoshi fell from the claw inches before reaching the shoot that would place it in the hands of its rightful owner; our champion.