Games

PAX East: A Primer, Part the Second

This is a gamer’s convention. Even waiting in line, we will game.

Last time I talked about the Expo Hall, the show floor for video games, and the Tabletop area, the show floor for non-video games. They are, however, a fraction of the entire convention.

They comprise the majority of the bottom most floor of the convention center. The floors above it consist of a single hallway that wraps around the inside edge of the building leading to various rooms filled with various additional activities. The most notable, or at least the most widely advertised, are the panels.

Panels

I am of two minds about panels. On the one hand, they are really nice, as they offer a chance to sit down. Getting to hear people talk about a topic that they know a lot about to an interested audience is also a plus. You also get to hear people from the community ask questions directly of the panelists. It’s very much like a live action podcast.

Some of them are turned into podcasts thanks to the sound engineers recording the discussion. I avoid those panels nowadays. If I’m able to hear what is being said later on at my own pace then I will. I don’t need to be in the room with them.

There are a lot of panels scheduled. There are at least seven rooms, including the Main Theater, holding one at any given time. They are in constant rotation with the next panel happening a mere half-hour after the last one has finished up. This is enough time to get everyone else out and the new attendees in. There’s a lot of talking going on about so many different and diverse subjects that there is going to be at least one that will interest you.

Here’s the thing though. You might look at the roster and see all these great discussions going on and want to see as many different topics discussed live as you can. Unless you devote your entire day to it, you won’t be seeing more than a handful. You have to be at the theater entrance at least an hour before the doors open for the panel you want to see. Regardless of how obscure or niche the panel’s topic is, I can guarantee there will be enough people to fill up the room and have to be turned away.

I should describe the lines because these lines are very different from those of the Expo Hall. Down on the show floor, all the lines are single file because the kiosks there get freed up one at a time. The panel lines consist of more of a controlled mass. They take up about half of the hallway. And these are pretty wide hallways. It’s just a mass of people filling an invisible container.

My own attitude towards panels has changed over the years. Originally I was overwhelmed by all the different topics that I could see discussed and all the different exciting formats that they took. To that point and in my naiveté, I would try to get to one panel right after leaving another not knowing how lines worked at my first PAX East. Three years later, I find myself still going over the panels ahead of time to see if there’s anything I really need to see, but ultimately I don’t care as much anymore. I don’t live close to other gamers, so in person discussions of this nature don’t happen often. I wanted to see them happen and be a part of them. That feeling has waned over the years.

There are a few different types of panels. As I mentioned, there are those that are recorded for podcasts and will be posted later. I’ve said my piece about them. Then there are the panels run by companies that are basically press release presentations. I know some people want to see the news about their favorite franchises first hand and maybe even get some cool swag. Honestly, I’ve found these panels to be rather a bore and ultimately not worth the time either. I’ve had to sit in on them because, again, press pass. Or at least believed that I had to. As long as there are one or two games journalists in there with decent 4G connections, everyone outside the room will know everything going on inside the room in real time. The wonders of twitter. The Capcom panel was one such panel. The news stories were filed as the panel was still in progress. In some cases, Capcom had given trailers to websites ahead of time, embargoed until they showed them live.

Also, I carry around a laptop, notepad, several water bottles, a DS, etc. I have absolutely no room to carry extra junk that companies keep insist on giving me. I have a friend who loves it and attends the show. I unload all of it on him whenever I see him.

The type of panels that I do go to are the ones that are on a topic that I’m super interested about and don’t hear much about anywhere else and/or have someone I know on the panel. Additionally, past a certain time of night, the rules change. I’ve walked into a panel at 9PM with two people I know on it 10 minutes late and still got a third row seat. People have gone home or to their hotels or to the bars by that time, but the show keeps on trucking.

Another recommendation, if you choose to go to a panel. Skip the ones on AAA games or with AAA developers. Go see the ones with indie game makers on them. They are far more candid, open, and free when they speak.

Go to the one to three panels that seem really interesting to you that you really want to see. Don’t waste your whole day in line to see as many as possible. You can easily lose a whole day watching other people talk. A panel that wasn’t very good, for whatever reason, can also burn you. One last thing, skip the keynote. It is never worth it.

Press Exclusive

There are certain parts of the show not accessible to the general pubic. They are press only. I want to mention them partly because they make up a big part of my own experience at the show and partly because I want to gloat.

I’ve already mentioned the one hour before the Expo Hall opens for everyone else on Friday. I wish they did that every day. Another perk, though, is the press room. A single room filled with journalists typing away at laptops or storing their stuff in lockers. It also has the best internet in the entire convention, mainly because the router is password protected and doesn’t have 30,000 smartphones trying to access it simultaneously.

I haven’t mastered that room yet. It exists for the press to write up and submit their stories while the show is still going on. But there’s always that looming pressure in the back of my head that I have to be somewhere else and that writing previews can be done after the fact. I’m sure I’m wrong on this, but for me, I tend to think the less time that you have to spend in the press room, the more successful you are in putting that badge to work. But then I’m a freelancer, not a staff member with a quota.

The biggest bonus that I didn’t get to experience last year due to problems with the Penny Arcade staff approving my pass are the press demos. (I only got approved the week of and therefore didn’t get put on the press mailing list until about 3 days before the show -- too late to make appointments.) Often held off site at the connected Westin Hotel, they are quiet and intimate hands-on experiences with the games. By its very nature, the environment is more relaxed and better suited to playing a game.

Square Enix booked two rooms for a number of games it is putting out. Also, FOOD! In the morning they put out a breakfast buffet for the press, and I cannot thank them enough. Running all day on granola bars, Pop Tarts, and water isn’t the best of experiences. I even thank them for providing mini-snack-bags of pretzels and popcorn along with a can or two of soda. You have no idea how much of a difference they can make. Aside: don’t be a nut like me and go to the food court or an offsite restaurant or eat before you arrive. You will need the energy.

I made other appointments, but all were in the Expo Hall, and I’ve already covered that. If nothing else, the offsite demos are a grateful change of pace. An hour or two to breathe, scattered through the day, can make all the difference in the world by contrast to the “go go go” of the show. Not everyone has access to such a thing, but see fit to make your own quiet, restful moments even if they are just sitting by the wall for a few minutes waiting for your phone to recharge.

There are also the late night parties, which you can get into if you know somebody. Luckily, I know one or two people that were invited, and they managed to get us into the Irrational party at the Westin. However, if you want to have such an experience, it is easily reproducible. Go to any nearby bar on Saturday night near the convention center. Go inside. Congratulations, you’ve replicated the experience. The only difference is the people you’re with. And really what good is going to a bar without people you know.

They also held an event where you can drink with the devs on the Expo Hall floor after they closed it to the public on Friday night. I left after a few minutes. I don’t drink, I didn’t know anyone there, and there was still other stuff to do. Viva la Tabletop.

Lines

I’ve touched on this here and there. But it’s worth mentioning that you will wait in line for everything. You can’t have 100,000 people descend on something without having to wait. Now obviously there are lines for games, demos, and panels. You expect those.

There are lines on the first day to enter the building. You will wait in line to get into open and free rooms. There are lines for the food court, the coat check, and even sometimes lines to use the escalator. I’m not kidding about that.

But the big one. The biggest, most massive line is at the beginning of each day. People are herded like cattle into that airport-hanger-like section of the ground floor. It’s like the lines for the panels. Except when one container fills, they start pouring people into the one right next to it. So on and so forth. What is this line for? It’s for the Expo Hall. They put people here to funnel them in at a more reasonable rate. How massive is the crowd? They have beach balls. Someone always brings beach balls and people pass the time by playing. Even in line, people game.

While in lines for panels, you can see people sitting on the floor or starting up impromptu games of Magic: The Gathering or whatever new game that they just bought at the Tabletop booths. Handhelds are everywhere. If you don’t have someone else to play with, you play your DS or PSP or Vita or whatever else you have. You do not use your phone. Mobiles games are a no-no. Outlets are scarce and so is battery life. The smartphone is probably the single most important item that you can bring to the show next to your wallet. At the Westin, especially at night on the mezzanine, you can see every type of board game pulled out and played. Some enforcers will walk by panel lines and ask trivia questions. I’ve seen games of Joust and Ninja break out in the entrance hall.

This is a gamer’s convention, and even when suffering the most depressing, mind numbing activity that human beings have been able to come up with, we will game.

Next time: Miscellaneous rooms and activities. Plus, the real and best reason to come to PAX in the first place.

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