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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Three PAX a day

My wife is awesome.

This point cannot be stressed enough. When PAX came to the east coast, my wife offered-- offered, mind you, as in "Took the Initiative"-- to take the kids to visit her mother for the weekend so I could spend the entire weekend geeking out in Boston.

Such a woman comes around once in a generation, and she married me. You have no idea how happy that makes me.

For those of you not in the know, PAX is the Penny Arcade Exposition. It's run by the guys who write the venerable comic strip, which is kind of a big deal. I have an on-again-off-again relationship with the strip. I'll read it for a while, and then they'll write a comic that pisses me off enough to stop reading it for a few months, but then I'll check back and they'll have something funny enough that I'll read the backlog again.

Anyway, PAX was a West Coast phenomenon for a long time, but they announced "baby PAX" would be coming to Boston sometime last year.

The last convention I'd been to was back in the early 1990s. I saw Jimmy Doohan at a Star Trek convention in Albany with my folks. (He signed my copy of Mr. Scott's Guide to the Enterprise, and seemed like a pretty cool dude.) It was a pretty small affair, just one big room at a hotel.

PAX, on the other hand, is freakin' massive. Even PAX east, which was supposed to be a miniature version of PAX, was big. It took up three floors of Hynes Convention Center in Boston, and was big enough that after three days of wandering the floor, I was still getting lost.

What follows is my report from all three days, as written on Sunday night after the convention ended.


GAH! Had to work late, and I already missed Wil Wheaton's key note speech because PAX started at 2PM on Friday. I also got lost on the way to the hotel.

The weekend was not off to a stellar start.

When I got to the hotel I found out they were out of rooms, and in order to honor my reservation they had to upgrade me to a suite... at no charge. Things were looking up.

After checking in I beat feet for Lir's Irish pub, which was where I had arranged to meet some people from a gaming forum that I'm a member of called Gamers with Jobs. I reserved space for about 20. 45 showed up. We took over the bar.

I met a bunch of nice people, and had my first beer in about four years. A pint of Guinness, that I didn't even have to buy for myself. Things were really looking up.

We hung out until around 9PM, at which point those of us who remained at the bar hit the convention to see what there was to see. I wound up playing a card game called Space Munchkin until 1 in the morning with one of the gamers from the bar, a random forum goer, and a dude who looked a whole lot like the male Captain Hammer groupie in Dr. Horrible (I don't think it was him, but I couldn't man up enough to ask)

By the way, Space Munchkin is hilarious, and if you're a fan of card games I recommend it. It's cutthroat as all heck, though, so try to keep it friendly.


After that, I hit my suite (glee!) and watched a show called "Supernatural" which was pretty gruesome considering it's a cable network show. Fell asleep afterward and woke up at 6AM because A) I'm a morning person and B) I kids usually wake up by then so I'm conditioned to wake up before 7 anyway. Got up, felt like pancakes and thought for sure there was an iHop on Boylston street, but there wasn't so I got donuts instead.

It was 8AM when I got in line, which had extended out into the Prudential center mall by then, and the convention wasn't even due to open until 10AM. I got in the line for the Expo hall, which would feature a bunch of game companies presenting their wares.

As I waited in line, they announced the Joystiq breakfast, which I was under the impression you needed an invitation for so I didn't go. I found out later that I could have hung out with some dudes from Gamers with Jobs (including minor celebrity Julian "Rabbit" Murdoch, who I met at Lir's the night before and found him to be a genuinely nice person.)

(It was Saturday that I discovered that most of conventioneering was spent waiting in line. I waited in line to get into the convention. Then I waited in line to go to a panel (hosted by minor celebrity Julian "Rabbit" Murdoch), then I waited in line to get into another panel (hosted by the same guy. I'm not a stalker, honest) I waited in line to try video games, then I waited in line to collect a "prize" that I won from Intel for wearing an Intel advertising button (it turned out to be a pen with an LED flasher circuit in it.) Then I waited in line to try some video games in the free-play console room.)

When the doors opened I made my way to one of the theatres to see a panel about machinima. I don’t really know anything about machinima, and have never made machinima, but I like saying “machinima” and I found the concept of someone making cartoons by recording what happens in a game and editing it together is fascinating to that part of me that wants to make things but knows it will never actually happen.

After that I spent a bit of time browsing the floors and trying to find people I’d met the night before.

Before I knew it, it was both lunchtime and time to get in line for a panel on the Death of Print as it pertains to gaming journalism, which included Julian Rabbit Murdoch. I had good reason to be stalking him at this point, as he left some items at the previous evening’s meet-up, and I wanted to return them. Plus, he’s dreamy. I popped out of the convention hall to grab a sack lunch from Trader Joes, because they’re turkey club wraps are a) delicious and b) cheaper than anything I was likely to find within the convention hall. I returned to find that the line stretched on for hundreds of people. I happened to secure a spot in line with some fellow Gamers with Jobs , where we discussed the iPad and compared it to a Kindle, which someone standing near us in line happened to have and let us look at. I must say, the screen is quite impressive, but I still have my old Luddite reservations about reading books one something that needs batteries. Say what you want about paperbacks, a flight attendant will never instruct you to stop reading one so the pilot can land the plane.

The panel was interesting. If you wanted to set it to music, you could call it Internet Killed the Magazine Star or something perhaps a bit cleverer if you were smarter. The banter amongst the panelists was good, and everyone was in good spirits in spite of the fact that they were a bunch of writers talking about how one venue for them to sell their work was going away.

Later I got to check out the expo hall. There were some interesting games on display. A lot of downloadable games for the Xbox, including updates of Snake (Snake 360) and Warlord (Gravitronix). A new multiplayer game called APB that basically takes Cops and Robbers into the digital age with an open city that lets you steal cars as a crook or commandeer them as a cop. I didn't get a chance to try it, but the demo looked interesting.

Another XBLA game called Monday Night Combat had a big presence. My impressions of it was that they took Quake Arena, added all the classes from Team Fortress 2 (mixing the genders up a bit) and added cheerleaders in skimpy outfits.

It will likely sell millions of copies.

After that I attended the other Julian Murdoch panel (again, totally not a stalker) on podcasting for PR. The panel featured such giants of the video game podcastosphere as Jeff Green, Sean Elliot, Ken Levine (!) and Microsoft's Major Nelson.

Highlight of the panel: During the Question and Answer section a woman purporting to be working for Sony Online Entertainment asked a panel featuring people who work for EA and Microsoft for advice. They were very diplomatic and told her to swing by after the panel, but I doubt she got much out of them.

After that, I probably ended up passing up the chance to have dinner with some gamers with jobs alums because I wanted to be sure to say high to my wife and kids before it was their (my kids) bedtime and my phone was out of charge from twittering all day.

Then I had dinner, and found my way to the freeplay console rooms where I finally got to try Rock Band 2 (I suck at drums) and Beatles Rock Band. I also saved myself twenty bucks by trying Brutal Legend and realizing that, funny though it may be, has elements of two-- count 'em!-- genres that I hate: Racing games and Real Time Strategy games. Around the fifth time I failed the "drive the kegs of beer to the beach without them blowing up" mission, I realized I would spend a lot of time frustrated at the game.

I turned in on the early side on Saturday, getting to bed just before midnight.


For the final day of PAX, all I really wanted to do was hit the "Pitch Your Game Idea" panel and maybe do some freeplay. (Gosh, that sounds like a drug reference, doesn't it? Hey man, you know where I can score some freeplay? )

I wound up attending the Blamimations panel, which was entertaining but served to remind me of why I don't read PvP anymore. Afterward, I got to the mic to pitch my idea only to have it shut down before I finished for legal reasons (they thought licensing would be a problem for a game about The Tick). Sigh.

I left shortly after my idea was rejected because I didn't want to see the prizes that people with better ideas than I had would win. Because I'm all bitter and stuff.

I went back out into the expo floor to see if the lines would be shorter on Sunday. My intention was to hit up the Skate 3 booth, which was having a contest where you could win a free skateboard deck if you scored over 70,000 points in the equivalent of Burnout's crash mode. The line wrapped around the booth and appeared to be devouring itself like a serpent, so I decided I didn't really need a skateboard deck and moved along. I did get a chance to try Snake360 and 'Splosion Man, which is not a new game but is from a studio that is pitching new games. Splosion man is pretty fun, and if I had an Xbox 360 I'd consider picking it up. And I'm not only saying that because the guy running the booth was surprised that I'd never played the game before.

I had just about decided to go home, with a heavy heart, but then I ran into some of the Gamers With Jobs I'd met on Friday. They were off to play Carcassonne, which Julian Rabbit Murdoch (totally not a stalker!) frequently praises on the GWJ podcast. They let me in on a game, and I ate lunch while building a ginormous city. Came in dead last (in fact, the person who won had to leave halfway through the game), but I enjoyed playing.

Then, with a slightly heavier heart, I made my way out of the convention hall, pausing briefly at a vendor booth to note that they had some Epically Awesome Heroscape expansions that I heroically resisted buying because I have an entire dresser full of Heroscape characters, many of which I haven't actually even fielded in a game yet.

All told, it was two and a half days where I had a great deal of fun. Many thanks and kudos must go out to my wife, who made it possible.

I don't know if I'll ever make it to another PAX, but I don't know if another PAX would be quite the same. I'm left with some good memories, a few new friends, and some pictures of awesome cosplayers.

And that's epic win, as far as I'm concerned.