Day Two is in the books for the Penny Arcade Expo of 2008, and while a few problems persist, overall it felt a bit more like the show I was expecting.
First, I want to tie up a few things from yesterday that weren't as detailed as they could have been (that's what I get for trying to write at 4am). At the PA merch booth, they have not only a bevy of comic/game-related t-shirts and hoodies, but also posters, books, a special edition of their first game, and a limited edition PAX '08 themed Razer mouse. With so many special/limited items combined with it being the first few hours of the show, the deluge of patrons was to be expected, but that still doesn't explain why they only had one credit card machine and a small handful of people available to take customers. Today, there were no lines at the booth when I passed it. Seems the early rush was the worst for them.
Next, despite the severe overcrowding of the exhibition hall, the exhibitors didn't hold back. On display were playable versions of H.A.W.X. (being demoed by the lovely FragDolls), Need for Speed Undercover, Midnight Club L.A., World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, Tom Clancy's EndWar, the WoW Adventures collectible-card game, several Wii projects at Nintendo's booth, and many more. Sega even had upright arcade machines housing their works in progress, cordoned off in a special area made up to look like an old school arcade. The booth promoting Brothers In Arms: Hell's Highway was offering free copies of the game for anyone willing to get their head shaved bare right there in the booth. I was willing to do that, but not to stand in line for two hours first.
Cosplayers were present in scarce numbers, but with admirable attention to detail for their attire and selections. The fully dolled-up harlequin, a Final Fantasy black mage, a medic and spy from Team Fortess 2, Yuna and Yuffie cosplayers, whoever donned the metal exterior of one PA-original Fruit Fucker 2000 (I swear that's its name), and the chick in the white robes with the contacts that only showed her pupils were standouts in this category. There were also a couple of guys running around in costumes promoting Ninjatown as well as an extensive photo op for a trio of impressively geared-up WoW fans. Probably half my photos are just cosplayers or promotional costumes.
I didn't want it to end up sounding like there wasn't anything worth doing there. Much to the contrary; it's just difficult to get to. For example, an ongoing issue for me is that the staff won't let us simply walk into the Bring Your Own PC (BYOPC) room to check out the custom rigs and talk to their creators about how they built them, get pictures, and just engage fellow attendees in conversation. Rather, you have to stand in a line of varying (but typically extensive) length to sign up just to enter the area, even if you're not going to play anything. I asked about this Friday to no avail, and it's the same story today. Guess I was hoping if I bugged them enough they'd let me in.
Today kicked off (for us anyway, who slept in till about 10:30am to recover from Day One) with Round Three of the Omegathon where four more Omeganauts were eliminated in heated games of Pictionary. Round Four came later in the main theater, a sprawling warehouse-sized room with a stage and two large screens on one side. The eight remaining Omeganauts were grouped up in fours to go head to head in Rock Band, but not until PA's own Gabe, Tycho, Kara, and Robert put on quite a show, bringing custom likenesses of themselves up in the game, and playing exclusively on Expert difficulty to Journey's Any Way You Want It. Seeing the custom characters made the crowd go nuts. Their song choice elicited another roar of approval. When they one-at-a-time each chose to play on Expert, the place went wild. Then when they each nailed 97% or better performances, the roof blew off (figuratively speaking). I don't know how long they rehearsed for that, but it was damn impressive, and THIS was the kind of interaction and flashy nonsense I was expecting and hoping for. In almost two full days at the show, this was the first I'd seen of our hosts! The more I see of them, the more I feel I belong there, that our own journeys from far and near to be here are justified and appreciated, though I know they are already (at least in a general sense) from copious praises and acknowledgements on Penny-Arcade.com.
After that knockout showing, Gabe (Mike Krahulik) and Tycho (Jerry Holkins) introduced "their" bands, each composed of four Omeganauts. Gabe brought forth his band "Omegadeath," who put up an impressive score of about 482,000 to Survivor's Eye of the Tiger. Next came Tycho's Omeganaut band dubbed "School of Hard Cocks," which immediately prompted at least one attendee to scream, "I love Hard Cocks!" much to the amusement of the crowd. SoHC pulled together a score of about 461,000 on the same song, bumping those four players out of the running for Omegathon prizes. Tough break, but it still made for a heck of a show — a 20-minute event that was supposed to last an hour, and that required those who wanted to see it to sit on concrete floors in the "queue room" for over an hour. It ended up being fun, but my chiropractor will be debating the overall value of that experience separately.
This brings up yet again the one prevalent problem at PAX: lines. The equation works out not so that you have to miss one or two events to be at another, but you have to miss everything going on during the time of the presentation you want to see, as well as an hour or more of everything PRIOR to that event, as getting in line is apparently part of the experience. That's just it, though… they haven't really found a way to make the waiting game a valuable use of our time. I guess the Distributed Tournament System was designed to help here, at least for those who wanted to participate (each goodie bag comes with two DTS pins, you challenge other random players at any game to win their pins, whoever has the most pins at the end of PAX gets a prize). We kind of made our own fun by finding other people in a 50-foot radius to play Tetris and Mario Kart DS with wirelessly, though something in the immediate area must have been causing some heavy interference, as I was getting some terrible latency, to the point that games were nigh unplayable, even with people sitting right next to me. In any case, PAX has essentially evolved into an amusement park, where you get corralled into a queue, stand in line for an hour or so, then you finally get to the "ride" (which may or may not be open by the time you get to it), and then you have to figure out quickly whether it's worth your time, or if you should be elsewhere getting in line for something else, lest you miss that as well.
I inquired specifically why they didn't use the "queue room" to expand the main theater. Reasons mainly had to do with fire codes and the legality of having a line out the door and around the block. They did it in Bellevue four years ago; maybe they got in trouble for that. Either way, I guess everyone has to be in the building and out of the major thoroughfares if they're not moving, to prevent the fire marshal from having a fit.
This also brings up attendance issues and why they let lines grow longer than they should. We were waiting in line for pizza when an Enforcer came into the shop and notified us all that Round Four of the Omegathon would segue directly into the concerts for the night, held in the same theater. This created some concern about who could get in and what to do about squatters, and wristbands were handed out to be sure people could get in who wanted to see either/or. When questioned further, the Enforcer said they count how many people go into each room so as not to go over maximum occupancy. Okay, so if you're counting anyway, why let 50-100 or more extra people get in line than you know you can reasonably allow in the first place?
What's more, apparently some theaters and venues clear out completely before allowing in new audience members for the next presentation, while others do not. In the Main, Serpent, and Walrus theaters, you could sit there all day if you wanted, while in the Wolfman and Raven theaters, it was like having a drill sergeant in the room, telling you where to sit, how to sit, and when to get the hell out. I had to push, shove, and almost tackle people to get a seat at the Giant Bomb Reunion Tour panel in the Walrus theater, which refused to clear out between sessions. This one was of particular interest to me as it featured several former Gamespot.com writers and editors, all of whom departed after the infamous firing of Jeff Gerstmann, in the wake of his review of Kane and Lynch not being "favorable enough" in the eyes of its publisher, a major contributor to the site in question in terms of ad revenue. It's mostly speculation and could all be coincidental, but until someone can come completely clean about it, panels like this are as close as we're going to get to the truth. It's telling that their main current project is to create a site where they can talk about and review games without "corporate shilling" going on all the time, determining what they can say and how they have to say it. Not so much of a coincidence, methinks. It was a great panel, and all the guys involved (Alex Navarro, Jeff Gerstmann, Rich Gallup, Ryan Davis, Brad Shoemaker, and Vinny Caravella) had very laid-back but honest demeanors regarding honest journalism, the evolution of said journalism, and what not to do in the industry.
Similarly intriguing was the panel called "Game Criticism and Old Game Journalism." A rather unfortunate title, the panelists admitted, but it was essentially dealing with how impossible it is to write a game review, given that everyone has a different experience with any particular title. They also discussed how things are shifting from a one-way, all ink and paper format to online communities where the reviewer doesn't have the last word, and can further engage and be engaged by his or her audience, and flesh out their ideas about a game well beyond the review's date of publication. This one featured Chris Kohler of Wired.com, Karen Chu of PlayFirst (formerly of 1up.com), Onion/X-play freelancer Gus Mastrapa, and Patrick Klepek who writes for MTV now, also formerly of 1up.com.
I got to talk to Karen Chu a bit after the presentation as the topic and positives/negatives of aggregate sites like MetaCritic.com came up, as well as how gaming is viewed in other publications, referring to a scathing blog post she wrote about how negatively and trivially gaming was portrayed multiple times in an issue of Marie Claire magazine. In response I noted, "It was cool to pick on us nerds in high school, but I'd have thought our detractors would've outgrown that by now." The difference between how a movie that gets a 5/10 rating and a game that gets a 5/10 rating is perceived (same score is assumed worse for a game) also came up, how it's not really fair, how numeric scores in general kind of suck and mitigate the value of the written review, and how it's not getting any better since EGM used 5/10 as average, but Game Informer uses 7/10 to the same effect. We had a good chat, and saw G4 interviewing Gus and Chris just behind us. I even saw Adam Sessler, routinely overdone handshake and all.
Whew. With all that cerebral nonsense going on, who'd have thought I'd find time to snap a few photos of cosplayers and booth babes, get some swag, try out a few games, and even attend portions of the evening's concerts? Oh, and as for the wristband thing for the concerts tonight…turns out that there was more than enough room in the main theater this evening, and we were allowed to come and go as we pleased, wristband or not. Seems they tried to solve the problem just in time for it to solve itself. There were simply fewer people around.
Really, that one thing made all the difference today. There was a bit more wiggle room in the exhibition hall, the lines were somewhat shorter (though still insufferable at times), and I started to feel like I'd actually miss all this craziness when it was over. By the end of the night (around midnight), I was tired, had sore feet, bleary eyes, and a sour belly full of cheap expo food, but I didn't want to leave. I wasn't going to go through the hassle of checking out another game (though I was inspired to see people playing unlikely choices like Endless Ocean, Beautiful Katamari, and Heavenly Sword… yes, we finally found the one PS3 at the show for console freeplay), and the common areas were filling up with comatose PAXers. While I didn't want to leave, I wasn't really compelled to stay either, given the circumstances. Back to the hotel we went.
The final two rounds of the Omegathon are tomorrow, and I expect at least the final round to be a complete spectacle, perhaps even enough to wipe away the dreary aspects of the expo this year. Despite the multitude of people I've overheard and even spoken to directly about the long lines and hideous wait times for things, I think many of those in attendance are still enjoying themselves overall. It's tough becoming a victim of your own success, and this is but one of many challenges Penny Arcade will face down the road, though they're certainly deserving of the loyal fan base that continues to hold them high.
Day Three recap and overall impressions coming tomorrow!