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Essay: What I Learned From My First PAX

The inaugural Penny Arcade Expo East sold out earlier this year, but I was never worried.  I’d ordered badges for me and my friend R in October.  And so, last Thursday, I made my way to New York Penn Station to begin my first weekend at that great gaming Mecca: PAX.

I learned a few things from my first PAX and my second con:

  • I should get myself a portable gaming system.

My PAX kicked off on the Amtrak’s 176 Northeast Reagional train, the official Northeast Regional train of PAX.  There were sundry tabletop games in the dining car, plenty of geek-talk in the one regular car that we colonized, and quite a bit of Mario Kart.  You could tell from the volume level in the car when a race was drawing to a close; a murmur that culminated in on person’s triumphant shout and a chorus of congratulatory and/or competitive answers from all corners.  May the PAX Train Fruit Fucker flag ever fly.

The portable gaming lounges in the convention proper were littered not with chairs or couches but with Sumo bean bag chairs; always well populated with people napping, eating, and playing portable games on the free wifi.  R and and I sat down on a couple on Sunday while we ate lunch, and yes.  They are incredibly comfortable.

At the concerts, in addition to phones, DSis, PSPs, MacBooks and netbooks were hoisted into the air, waving gently to Paul & Storm‘s mournful ballad about the man who invented chicken nuggets.

  • Don’t be scared of the tournaments.

R signed up for Saturday’s Munchkin tourney.  I decided at the last minute to take up an empty slot, and readied myself to resist an ego bruising.  As it turned out, I came in second in our group of six, which qualified me for the second round.

I’d have had just as much as much fun if I hadn’t placed so high.  It’s Munchkin, for crissakes!  The Settlers of Catan tournament is on the list for next year.

  • Know how to use a camera.

Our goal for Friday was to simply walk around the con, figure out where things were, and make a rough game plan for the rest of the weekend.  This turned out to be a good idea, because PAX is the kind of place where every time you turn a corner, you are surprised by something cooler than the last corner.  Case in point: we didn’t find the tabletop free play room until Saturday, where the Surfacescapes team was exhibiting their Microsoft Surface screen rigged to play 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons.

The team was inviting anyone who walked into the room to play one of four characters in a short combat encounter.  The interface for each player was linked to a clear plastic disk that when placed on the table/screen sprouted a circular menu with all of your possible actions.  The table kept track of dice rolls, character stats, movement, line of sight, and pretty much everything else you could name.  The DM manipulated the map by placing their own object (a sort of wooden stamp) on the screen to drag the map around, twisting it to zoom in or out.  R and I sat down for a few rounds of combat, and I tried to snap pictures a camera I’d borrowed … but I hadn’t figured out how to turn the flash off, so they’re kind of disappointing.  You can find them here, here and here.

I did figure out the whole flash thing in time for Saturday night’s concert.  It’s the difference between this:

and this:

Yes.  Basic photographic competency is a good thing.  I’ll be even better next time.

  • Stay for a whole concert.

Since our Friday was a wandering around and assessing day, and we really wanted to see Jonathan Coulton, we skipped that concert and instead spent some time in the Rock Band lounge (more on that later)  We hoped in vain that JoCo would appear early in Saturday’s concert, before the last bus.  Sadly, this was not the case.

We didn’t feel too bad, though, because we got to see the Video Game Orchestra and Paul & Storm. The Video Game Orchestra brought the house down with Snake Eater, the Bombing Mission music from Final Fantasy VII, and other songs from Chrono Trigger, Super Mario Bros, and Yoshi’s Island, all arranged for a lose chamber group ensemble with electric guitar, percussion, and keyboards.

Paul & Storm opened their set by lip-synching to Trolololo in suits, yellow ties, and ridiculous wigs.  With Wil Wheaton.  No.  Really.  But then they came back and gave us a succession of funny, geeky songs with tight vocal harmonies.  At quarter to 11 when we were forced by public transit schedules to separate ourselves from a crowd of happy dancing geeks, we did so with barely a trace of disappointment.

A note: I would like to congratulate my fellow con-goers on a distinct lack of B.O. for the entire weekend.  Even when we were all throwing up the horns for VGO, things were still fresh.  Commendable effort, everyone.  Special thanks to those who, like me, realized they’d forgotten their deodorant, and so went out and frakking bought some Friday morning.

  • Get there early enough to see the keynote and opening ceremonies.

Actually, attend every event that you can, if it takes place in the main concert hall.  The PA Q&A wasn’t just Gabe and Tycho being funny.  It was Gabe and Tycho graciously accepting praise from, and giving hugs to those who were personally touched by Child’s Play.  It was Gabe and Tycho answering the question “Who would win at arm wrestling” on the spot.  It was Gabe and Tycho trying to reward a fan who’d done something nice for them by giving them a $1,200 CPU, only to have that fan give it right back to them “for Child’s Play.”

And then there was the final round of the Omegathon, a relay race of classic games from Super Mario Bros, Rad Racer and Tetris, to Contra, with hundreds of screaming gamers providing encouragement.

  • Hit up the Rock Band lounge more than once.

Harmonix had an entire room set up as a lounge, with a stage rigged for Rock Band performances.  We hopped on the line on Friday night, met a couple of others who needed two more to round out their band, and wound up as the last band for the night, closing it out with Living on a Prayer.  Hey, I’m from New Jersey.

The love that the Rock Band lounge had for every group that came up there was typical for the entire con.  The free play rooms were set up so that you could sign out a game and controllers, but there was frequently a wait.  Frequently, however, this would happen:

  1. Take number, so I can sign out Final Fantasy XIII.
  2. Wander into coop room.
  3. Get invited by people to play bass in Beatles Rock Band.
  4. Player gets up, shift to drums, invite someone else.
  5. Realize they’ve probably already called my number.
  6. Shrug.
  7. Shift to vocals, invite other people in.
  8. Realize that there are five other people playing Beatles Rock Band with you, every one is singing the song, and everyone is having a blast.
  9. Play Rock Band with happy strangers for two hours.

Repeat the above a day later, but this time with Super Smash Bros Brawl.

In Conclusion: PAX’s Atmosphere

This is what I didn’t quite believe about PAX.  I’d heard such glowing reports as “It’s 60,000 friends you just haven’t met yet,” or, as WilWheaton said: “Welcome to PAX.  Welcome home.”  I am here to tell you that it is true.  PAX isn’t really about Penny Arcade, and it isn’t really about gamers as much as it is about playing games.  If you want a visual metaphor, look here.  Everybody there was happy to strike up a conversation with you, happy to invite you to get in on the next game of Smash.  I saw a bunch of guys who’d turned Heavy Rain in to a spectator game, “Brush your teeth!  Faster!  Dude, you suck at shaving.”

PAX is over, but it’s left me with renewed vigor for pursuing my gaming social life.  Time to make good on those personal promises to find more D&D players in my area, to introduce my family to Munchkin or Catan, and to start having a regular Rock Band night.  And start counting the days to PAX East 2011.

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Susana Polo thought she'd get her Creative Writing degree from Oberlin, work a crap job, and fake it until she made it into comics. Instead she stumbled into a great job: founding and running this very website (she's Editor at Large now, very fancy). She's spoken at events like Geek Girl Con, New York Comic Con, and Comic Book City Con, wants to get a Batwoman tattoo and write a graphic novel, and one of her canine teeth is in backwards.