Day One of 2008's Penny Arcade Expo, the annual gathering for hard-core gamers, in Seattle, WA has come to an end. What's the verdict so far? It's too early to say for sure if the entire weekend will be boom or bust, but my experience so far has been far from ideal.
For starters, all the concert event attendees are determined by whomever arrives first to the Expo, opening day (today). Apparently you could start showing up at 8am, and the first few thousand arrivals got bracelets that assured them a seat in the auditorium for these shows. That's great and all, but the materials for PAX clearly state that the doors open at 2:00pm. We arrived promptly at 2pm and it looked like things had been going on all day, and one could rest assured that all those concert bracelets were gone.
Next up, rather than have registration in the lobby right when you come in, you have to deliberately make your way up to the fourth floor of the Washington State Convention Center and wade through a sea of people with varying degrees of personal hygiene just to find out that preregistering actually put us in a longer line than those with Will Call or no tickets whatsoever. On top of that, the lines for registration got mixed up with the line going into the exhibition hall, so we ended up waiting around for about 20 minutes for something I wasn't even trying to get to. I just wanted a lanyard and a goodie bag. In contrast, the last PAX I attended back in 2004 (the first of its kind) at the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue, WA had registration and goodies right at the front door. Granted, they goofed and didn't really have a separation for preregistrants and everyone else, but honestly, I couldn't tell a difference today, this their fourth try at it.
In fact, we walked through most of the building without even getting our pre-reg badges out of our bags. We even got into the exhibition hall without them, and saw what's new and great from such companies as Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Blizzard, Razer, NCSoft, Stardock, and various game design schools. I started wondering why I even paid $50 for the three-day badge. The two times we had to show it were to get into the tabletop gaming area in the annex across the street, and to actually check out a game for the console freeplay rooms, which was a story all its own.
The exhibition hall was busy. I mean like E3 busy. Literally shoulder-to-shoulder, we had to wedge our way through a sea of bodies to get to any booths we wanted even a glimpse at. The lines at the Penny Arcade merchandise booth were no exception, and began what would be a series of lines with varying payoffs we'd experience this day. At any given time, there were probably 100 people in line to buy merch, lines that snaked back on themselves. Why so long of a wait to get an overpriced t-shirt? Because they only had about three or four people working the counter. I don't blame them for having a crapload of people showing up. It's a testament to how entertaining Penny Arcade and its comics can be. However, you really need to get more staff behind the scenes. This extended to several facets of the day, where the theme was not enough space, not enough staff, and too much going on at any given time.
There are four or five separate panels or presentations going on at any given time, right alongside tournaments and freeplay areas, meaning you really have to pick and choose what you want to try to do. Fine, I don't mind sacrificing one thing to do another, but to give up a spot in a tournament to get in line for a presentation that can only seat fewer than half the interested attendees is asking a bit much. I waited in line for about an hour for the keynote presentation by Take 2's Ken Levine, only to finally be told a half hour AFTER it was supposed to start that they had reached full capacity and no one else would be getting in. My cohort later pointed out the irony that they blocked off half the theater just for the cattle call line, which they could have opened up and allowed twice as many people in for that show.
Next up was the Writing in Video Games presentation, something that I really had a vested interest in. We showed up at least 15 minutes before it was supposed to start, and apparently the room was already full even at that point (they weren't forcing everyone to leave the room between panels, which they DID do at PAX 04). However, that didn't tip off the staff to tell about 50 more people not to bother getting in line for a room that was already packed. Another half-hour wasted.
Frustrated, we headed across the street to the tabletop gaming in the annex, and trekked upstairs to the Engaging Online Communities panel, which was fine, if not terribly informative for me personally. I moderate forums for a game company, so I thought they might shed some insight on how to deal with trolls and problematic users, but it was mostly stuff I'd heard/experienced before. The perk of this was that by being here (and the fact that they don't clear rooms between events), we secured seats for Round 2 of the Omegathon, a six-round tournament spanning the length of the show, involving 20 pre-selected participants from the preregistrants, all vying for a prize including $5000 cash and a free trip to the next Tokyo Game Show. This particular round pitted the 16 remaining players against each other in rounds of Boom Blox for the Wii. I'd not played or really seen the game in action yet, so that was a treat (once they worked out some technical difficulties). After that we decided to try to check it out and play it for ourselves in the freeplay console rooms.
Upon arriving at the game checkout room, you're required to literally take a number. Ours was about 60 places down the line from the number currently being served. We bopped on down to the freeplay room where Xbox Live Arcade games were on display for all to enjoy. It was primarily N+, Aegis Wing, and Geometry Wars nonstop. After messing around there for about an hour, our number was up. Seemed Boom Blox was within reach.
We return to the checkout room with our number, only to find out they don't have any copies of the game currently available. They did have it around somewhere; they just didn't know where. We'd toured several of the freeplay rooms and seen virtually every Wii sitting empty, so where all these copies were was a mystery to us as well. They put is in a queue for that game specifically. About 10 minutes after that, someone finally returned one, and we got our shot at it. Good enough game, but 20-30 minutes after that, a staffer kicked us off and made us return the game. So, all-told we waited over an hour and a half for less than a third that much time with the actual game. Soulcalibur 4, Rock Band, and Guitar Hero 3 were available almost everywhere, all the time. Too bad we weren't looking for those. PS3s were scarce as well. I honestly don't think I've seen one there yet.
From there we headed over to another theater where a Rock Band 2 demo was up and running. That was interesting to watch, because the song list is ridiculously huge, there's a "No Fail" option now where if one player really screws up, it doesn't ruin it for everyone else, and the game looked a little rough in the framerate department. It wasn't unplayable by any means; just nowhere near as smooth as it'll surely be when it hits retail.
At this point, it was almost 1am, and we'd been there for about 11 hours. Nothing can be done at this point to remedy the fact that more seats are needed for virtually every presentation/panel this weekend, but with Saturday being the longest and busiest day of the show, I'm hoping they have about twice as many staff members ready to come out of the woodwork and get this show moving the way it ought to be. This extends beyond just the PAX crew, though. Our stop at a pizza joint inside the convention center revealed two people working, and hungry customers waiting in a line around the entire store and out the door, just wanting a slice of the pie. Sure, it was fresh when it finally came out, but it was staffed and prepped like they didn't know anyone would be coming to the show.
Short of taking over a fourth of the city for the Expo, I'm not sure what they could do to make it more user-friendly in terms of space and accommodations. In 2004, only about 3,000 people showed up, there was elbow room, and you didn't have to sign up for something just to mosey about, seeing what all there is to do. I wanted to browse the custom PCs in the "Bring Your Own PC" room, but I had to sign up for freeplay or something just to go in and LOOK. It wasn't like that in 2004. Back then it felt like a much more intimate affair, and I preferred that. You could basically walk into any room you wanted with no hassles. I realize that with all the hype and increased attendance, you have to have measures in place to keep everyone in line. It just kind of sucks the fun out of it.
At one point I asked one of the PAX Enforcers whether a given line was for the keynote. He said, "Are you media?" Unfortunately, though I'm writing about it, I wasn't registered as media, so I had to say no, and rather than get a speedy entry, I was made to wait in a line whose fruit would never come. In 2004 it was, "PAX is for the fans; E3 is for the media." Guess that's not really the case anymore either.
Check back tomorrow for a recap of PAX Day Two!