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PAX East: A Primer, Part the First

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Tuesday, Apr 16, 2013
Among all the masses of people attending PAX are an equal number of varied experiences and varied interests, some quite similar and others so fundamentally different that they don’t even begin at the same place. And somehow PAX finds a way to cater to them all.

PAX is a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Regularly the show and its Boston counterpart (the one PopMatters was nice enough to send me to) attract attendees in the tens of thousands. Each show has been larger than the previous one to the point that they no longer bother keeping track. Among all those masses of people are an equal number of varied experiences, some quite similar and others so fundamentally different they don’t even start at the same place. Their interests, their goals, their purposes and day-to-day, minute-to-minute desires are all fundamentally different. And somehow PAX finds a way to cater to them all.


Now this is true of any convention large enough to need police to corral people into the correct lines at the start of the show. And thanks to my press badge, my experience was going to be fundamentally different to the vast majority of people in attendance. PAX East is a fan convention, and while it may have started as a way for Penny Arcade to create a convention dedicated to all the things that site’s proprietors love, it really has moved beyond them. There’s a good chance that if you talk to a random person at the show that they wont know what Penny Arcade is or anything about it, only that they loving gaming, and that this is a convention hosted in their town or, as in my case, on their coast as a celebration of gaming. That part of PAX has remained the same.
  
But as I’ve already said, no two gamers there are the same. No two gamers have the same interests. And no two gamers will do the same things or even recognize certain parts of the show even exist during their whole weekend there. I was press and a lot of my time is expected to be spent at demos or on the show floor. As a result, I only wander around the various parts of the convention center in between the times that I have to be somewhere. But still, regardless of what role I was playing, I saw the same thing all weekend: a love of the game.


Expo Hall


At any time of day, save for the single hour they give press alone time with the games and developers, this is the busiest and most crowded place to be during the entire convention. And if you are a fan I can guarantee that time spent here is the biggest waste of your time. Lines for the games quickly stretch into the one, two, or even three-hour territory at which point the people in charge of those booths cap the line. The floor is solid concrete, and you will have to stand there ever inching forward every so often to get a little closer to a game that hasn’t been released yet. Sometimes. There were games being advertised and shown off that you could have bought at your local store the previous week. Those booths still had lines. It gets painful to keep standing, legs becoming locked as they beg for movement. And the noise, the unrelenting, indiscernible noise of a couple dozen dubstep spewing speakers alongside another dozen people doing their best carnival barker impressions through microphones amid all the sound effects and several thousand gamers all talking at the same time.


The wait is miserable, and I suppose might be worth it in that one instance where you really want to try out and see that one particular game in action. To feel it work in your hands, the wait might make it all the sweeter. But for the most part, especially the closed booths where they only show off video of devs and a trailer, it is a waste of time. Thank you to Ubisoft by the way for releasing the trailers to Assassin’s Creed IV and Watch Dogs during the car ride home and making that particular excursion rather pointless on my part.


I get why I have to drag my sad carcass around to see everything I can. It’s my job. But why anyone would willingly wade through the crowds of their own making for a potential fleeting joy in sub optimal conditions, particularly for the sake of something that they already have a good grasp of what it is and what it is going to be. I will never know. And yet they did. All day, every day.


I can’t judge. I get the feeling my myopic view of it isn’t that I want to see all of these games but that the need to see them colors my perspective on the joy of waiting in line for that one game. It’s also the fact that I have to do this by the handful and not for the one or two that truly grab my interest and hold it fast.


Now take all of what I’ve just said on the show floor and throw it out the window. You can forget it all if you set your sights on the Indie Mega Booth. That I completely understand. The lines are much shorter, the games much more diverse and surprising, and best of all you can easily get sideswiped by a sense of discovery. In previous years, there have been indie games on the PAX East show floor, but they’ve been scattered and hidden away off to the sides as the event organizers try to fit together the Tetris blocks that make up the biggest of the booths. The Indie Mega Booth changed all that with over 60 game developers all pitching in to present themselves in a manner as big and bold as any of those huge corporate booths.


Down those rows are an eclectic band of mobile games, those destined for consoles, PC games soon to be released on Steam, and others begging for Greenlight support. All of them are packed together like some technological gaming flea market. If I had a regret of the show, it would be that for all of the time that I spent on the show floor, I didn’t spend more time in this booth.


Tabletop


If there was ever a more direct counterpoint to the Expo Hall, it would have to be the tabletop gaming area. The first thing that you’ll notice is that it is a long way away from anything. Nestled at the back of what could be mistaken for an airport hanger in a (admittedly large) corner is the tabletop gaming area. The second thing that you’ll notice is how damn quiet this space is. Despite the several Magic: The Gathering tournaments, Dungeons & Dragons (as well as many other RPGs) sessions, and displays of tons more board games, war games, miniature paintings, and what I swear were art exhibits made out of playing cards, it was still rather quiet. Yes, there was some hustle and bustle, but in contrast to the Expo Hall, the noise is negligible.  If you are a fan and wish to partake in some straight up gaming while communing with others of a similar interest, come directly here.


Thanks to it being so less crowded than the main show floor, the tabletop area has a whole different dynamic. The people selling the games at the stalls are the people that made them. You can hear the game’s pitch from its creator, and for some, that makes the experience a whole lot more personal and persuasive. Demos are being run all the time of all these different games and often, again, by the creators themselves. Everything feels more intimate, more natural, and more relaxed. In regards to attitude and stress, if the Expo Hall is full of power gamers wanting to beat a game into submission, then the denizens of the Tabletop area contains the casual gamer looking for a good time while hoisting a beer or two. The food court was nearby, so beer really isn’t entirely out of the question either.


Press rarely come here. There is not a lot of interest in the tabletop scene as a whole, which is damn shame because I think more joy can be found stepping up to a random demo or to the board game sign-out booth than there is in waiting in the lines for the AAA games. Following just a quick amble around the booths, I had already scanned at least four or five games that I would have loved to sit down and give a good run through. Alas, I only got to try two but loved both experiences and wished they could have been longer.


The first, almost mirroring my first PAX East, was trying out the new Dungeons & Dragons rule set. I had to wait in line for that, though. It was late at night and with nothing else happening, the anxiety was gone. Plus, waiting in line with two friends who whip out Magic decks and suddenly you don’t care about sitting on the cold hard concrete floor. There was room to breathe, and the line wasn’t corded off so as not to interfere with through traffic or other lines. The whole atmosphere was better, more playful, and less like work.


As for the game itself? Well, like all things role playing related, one has the opportunity to go from normal human being to deranged sociopath in five minutes or less. I, as an Elf Ranger, alongside a Halfling Rogue went to scout ahead and ended up clearing an entire outpost of guards without them seeing us… and without confirming first that they were in any way evil. The other highlight: making the DM burst out laughing when I said we should run back and grab a mine cart so we toss it into the river and row after the escaping slave ship.


The other game that I played was an adorable indie board game RPG by the name of Mice & Mystics. It’s kind of like a Dungeons & Dragons in which you play anthropomorphic mice and with a much simplified ruleset. The world and story are presented on cardboard maps and through a storybook adventure that is broken up into chapters. We didn’t have the time to finish a full chapter, but even the little that we did get through felt like a playable storybook.


No waiting and no issues of someone tapping their foot behind you waiting for your turn to end. Instead, a friend had bought the game from the guy who designed it, and after unwrapping it, we gave it a go, learning as we went. Even based on my limited time with it, I can thoroughly recommend Mice & Mystics.


Intel PC Room


The last major section of the bottom level of the show floor is set aside for PC gaming. People brought their own desktops for Lans and tournaments. It’s an alien world to me that I didn’t get to see up close, but there it is, wedged between the Expo Hall and the Tabletop area.


Next time: Panels, demos and lines. More damn lines.

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