PAX, the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, is special to me. I think it’s special to a lot of folks. It’s an opportunity to play so much unique stuff, and meet so many interesting, dorky people. It’s a homecoming, of sorts. I love it, and over the next little bit I’ll be throwing out impressions of a lot of the different games and other stuff I encountered on the show floor. Games and the people who play them are fascinating: it’s an ever-expanding, creative universe of oddities, breakthroughs and surprises. The medium is forever exploding outward in a thousand directions, so I’ll do what I can do spread the word about some of the stuff that really struck me this year. Check the Recency Bias column for those mini-reviews, I’ll be loading them up in the next couple days. Below, an RB column on PAX itself, because the show has changed in some fairly striking and interesting ways that I think are worth talking about. Even if this article is coming out in November. Cause that’s just how I am. ❤️
Before all the reviews and stuff, let’s talk about the show itself.
So I’ve been to PAX West the last seven years, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop going. That show is remarkable: it functions simultaneously as a trade exhibition, an indie artist showcase, a massive fan convention love-in and a competitive venue. As someone that spent the majority of my (boring, lonely, smalltown) life unsure whether there were other people out there that love games as much as I do – or if these people would be welcoming, or weird in all the ways that I am – my first trip to PAX came as both a relief and a wake-up call. It felt like home. That was like seven years ago. I love the feeling of being in that space, I’ve always loved it, and I’ll basically keep going forever. This isn’t to say that the organizers haven’t had their controversies (they sure have!), nor that the show itself is perfect (oh my god no), but there’s something very special about that environment, to me, complex as it might be. Despite all its flaws and its internal conflicts and the many, manifold issues with whatever ‘gamer culture’ is or ought to be, PAX feels like home. Like my home, and just as complicated, vital and familiar.
My personal bias aside, this year was a peculiar one for PAX West. In the several years I’ve been attending, I’ve seen the show grow, shrink and fluctuate, and fairly dramatically. That’s to be expected. The exhibitors and displays are always in flux, so no two years are expected to be alike. That said, 2019 saw drastic changes in the energy, organization and attendance of the show, some of which came as genuine surprises. For starters, PAX abandoned its massive performance space at the Benaroya Hall in downtown Seattle, their main theatre for the last 6 or so years, to re-install themselves at the gorgeous-yet-smaller Paramount Theatre instead. This was a change no-doubt precipitated by a combination of diminished attendance (fairly blame Convention Fatigue), and a significantly smaller corporate presence – but we’ll get to that. This one big obvious change, swapping theatres, heralded many smaller ones, all in line with a more modest PAX in general. For example, there was no out Fortnite pavilion this year, no Epic presence at all, nor an outdoor diorama for PUBG. There was no parking-lot tank demonstration for World of Tanks. There were no noisy, circling customized Ubers, showing off for Final Fantasy XIV or Mad Max. Neither was there a wild Magic: The Gathering GP tournament taking over the Paramount Theatre for the entire weekend – because after all, Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast have their own convention now: the creatively-named HasCon in Rhode Island. There was zero Twitch presence (which might have been a blessing in disguise), for they too have their own late-September TwitchCon to worry about. Perhaps most surprisingly, there was no show-floor booth from Seattle’s Microsoft. There was no mention of Microsoft at all, aside from their annual PAX-adjacent Open House event. Sony and Nintendo did their best to keep the lights on with their massive Final Fantasy and Pokémon displays, but if you were looking at 2019 purely from a major-corporate trade-show perspective, this year’s PAX West was… kind of a ghost town.
New management has taken over PAX in the absence of Robert Khoo, and it immediately showed. Something’s obviously up in the industry, and I don’t think you have to look to far to guess what that might be.
While these absences were weird, they were not wholly unexpected: so many of these properties are building their own conventions for fans, or abandoning the boots-on-the-ground strategy entirely and prioritizing online distribution. Or marrying-up into major PC tournaments overseas. Or revving up their engines for major pavilions at the uh four other PAXes that the public can attend. Or E3. These major publishers have split their attention to try and cover as many bases as possible.
All of this is understandable, that’s the industry, and PAX isn’t necessarily the center of it. PAX isn’t really meant to be: the soul of the show has always been the attendees, the players themselves, and the independent developers they flock to. ‘For gamers by gamers’ as they say – whatever that’s meant to mean. Let’s say attendees instead of Gamers, maybe, that word has taken on some connotations. Whatever you call them though, major changes awaited for attendees of the show as well.
Following over a decade of surprisingly – sometimes nervously – invisible security presence, PAX 2019 featured enhanced security precautions. Gone are the days of free-flowing, open gateways with patrolling guards mixed with convention-center staff cheerily checking badges. This year there were numerous armed guards, visible weaponry, security check points with airport-style lineups, metal detectors and mandatory baggage checks. PAX basically had border checkpoints, and I think it freaked everyone out a little. What had previously been a largely invisible, presumed security force had suddenly became an extremely obvious, aggressive deterrent. If PAX had always had the secret security force that Jerry Holkins alluded to in the past, well, they aren’t a secret anymore. They really weren’t fucking around, and I think the reasons PAX suddenly needs to flex its security muscle like this are universally sad. It’s a damn shame that the friendliest video game convention requires armed checkpoints and metal detectors in 2019, but there you are. The face of the show, visibly, is changing. It made folks nervous.
However, and to their credit, these lines ended up being largely a harmless formality: over the course of the weekend I might have encountered two rude guards over dozens and dozens of interactions, and maybe one solitary bag-check that ran over the 30 second mark. I can’t speak for cosplayers in costume – as, say, commandos coated in faux, realistic weaponry – but my experience was almost entirely neutral, if not positive. The feedback I’ve heard from others has been the same. We all went in sort-of freaked out over the whole security thing, and came away from the experience mildly confused. I made a point to observe these lines and the folks wandering through them for some time over the four days: mild confusion seemed to be the overwhelming emotion on both sides. Either the armed deterrent was successful, or it was unwarranted in the first place: either way, it feels ungrateful to complain. I suppose I’m glad it worked, though I’m not sure if it resulted in anyone feeling safer.
While our attendance experience was positive, I fear might not be able to say the same for PAX’s organizers and accountants: this year was the first year in a very, very long time that I can recall there being door tickets to PAX. To a longtime attendee, that phrase is so preposterous it’s almost unbelievable: there were door tickets to the largest independent gaming convention on the planet. Because it didn’t sell out. The show that people – myself included – camp out online for months and months to snag tickets for, failed to hit cap and had a walk-up box office. This is a wild and startling development, and I think it’s going to herald major changes for the show in the future. I have no idea what these shifts might look like, but they’re bound to be just as dramatic as this year’s changes.
But that’s the future.
For now, let’s tick down the list: less major publisher presence, aggressive new security procedures, smaller footprint in downtown Seattle, noticeably diminished attendance. For any other show, I have to imagine this would read as a list of disasters. Perhaps, to the organizers, it does. I don’t know. What it meant for fans though, and this is one of my favourite things about PAX, is that it meant more room to stretch our legs. Smaller big-name presence meant TinyBuild got to install a giant fake graveyard with caskets you could lie down in while you demoed Graveyard Keeper. Seattle institution Pink Gorilla tripled the size of their retro/collectibles show-floor outlet. Supergiant expanded their demo space with huge, gorgeous demo stations for their early-access title Hades. Nicalis had a giant booth – immediately before the world found out that Nicalis is apparently [very bad]. The Indie Megabooth, inches its way further onto the floor show each year, sprawled out with wider lanes that felt wider still thanks to the smaller crowds. For 2019’s PAX, at least, fewer people meant that the people that did attend were among the friendliest and most passionate folks I’ve ever met at the show. I got talked to a lot more this year, and did a lot more talking to random people in return. Devs didn’t seem as harried and rushed as usual, the lineups were less brutal than I’ve seen in recent memory. Of course, this didn’t mean that stuff like Borderlands 3 and FFVIIR didn’t cap immediately – it was more that things like the PAX 10 on the elusive floor 6 felt less like claustrophobic gauntlets, and a little more like the enthusiast trade show they’re meant to actually be. Washrooms were accessible, lunch was a thing you didn’t have to do three miles from the show floor. Like a stew boiling down, a smaller PAX is apparently just a more highly concentrated one?
Okay, I’m comparing the game convention to a stew. Maybe it’s time to stop.
Surprising just about everyone, the PAX that seemed most in jeopardy actually turned out to be one of their best shows in years – just maybe not in the ways I’d expected. I’m curious to see where they go from here. Maybe we’ll see the absurd carnival atmosphere of shows past return, though I sort of doubt it. Perhaps we’ll get a greater focus on community at the expense of big-budget demonstrations, a return to PAX’s roots. There’s a chance the PAXes of tomorrow could be bigger and more intimate somehow, who knows – the impending expansion of the Seattle Convention Center guarantees to at least displace the massive gaming festival, so at least there’s always change on the horizon. Either way, I’m glad I went. Like I said, I’ll keep going forever: I’m in this for the long haul. It’s my big, weird home, and I’ll keep reporting back for as long as I can.
Now then, on to impressions and previews. I played a lot of weird, interesting stuff, some of which is even out now! Check the Recency Bias column, they’ll all be rolling up in there as they get published. Happy November, and stay warm out there. ❤
(Photo credit to me, and the wonderful @bittersweetcariad on instagram)