With the world still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic all aspects of life are affected, from health and financial issues to leisure activities like concerts, movies, and videogames. One of the many industries that has had to pivot and adapt is conventions and trade shows. One of the largest in the world, the Penny Arcade Expo, or PAX, has had to shift dramatically.
Not so long ago I was in Boston for PAX East just before the North American shutdown. In September we would typically see PAX West and then later on Pax Australia, but these in-person events are just not possible. In response the PAX organizers pivoted, somewhat brilliantly, and offered a nine-day online event, dubbed PAX Online.
This event is a merging of PAX West, PAX Australia and the Europe-focused EGX rolled into a nine-day rolling event. With a jam-packed schedule running nearly 24 hours a day because of differing time zones, and tons of demos live just during the event, this is one huge and at times overwhelming conference.
The main portal into PAX Online in theory is the online schedule and website, and it is fantastic, but the PAX Online Discord is where the real magic happens.
Discord is a live ecosystem packed full to the gills with tons to see and do as the show is happening. The funniest bit is the Line Simulator channel that has a crowd of folks virtually queuing, chatting, balloon tossing and collecting emojis in mini games.
There are also sections for the many exhibitors, streams, merch, retailers, the omegathon and many others. True to the real in-person conference there are AFK and diversity lounges, handheld lounges for meetups, and tabletop discussion sections where breakout games are occurring virtually.
The Discord server dedicated to PAX Online is unlike anything I have experienced before and that is where it gets a tad overwhelming. There are so many concurrent conversations and rooms that finding a spot to settle into can be daunting. I found myself flitting between the line simulator, expo hall and pax-explorer rpg.
The meat and potatoes of any PAX experience is all the panels, concerts and chats held by community and industry members. At PAX Online they threw this into overdrive by holding three (four including PAX Arena) never-ending channels with all manner of content.
The schedule for the nine-day event is another daunting, and at times sleep-prohibiting, adventure. Spanning timezones in North America, Europe and Australia there is varying content rolling all through the night which can get confusing at times.
There are panels covering all manner of topics, from Neurodiversity and Accessibility in Tabletop Gaming to Ooooh Noooo: How to Thrive as a Creative During the Calamity, and from Video Game Music Theory 101 to The Art of Motion: Performing and Acting for Games and Film.
There are numerous Charity streams as well, such as a Childs Play drive and regular GenerOZity Charity Streams featuring Australian streamers raising money while they play.
Concerts are also happening all the time across various timezones: ConSoul Big Band, to an EDM concert by Patric Catani focusing on The Behemoths, Alien Hominid, etc. There are also Acquisition Incorporated sessions and golf and racing sessions from Penny Arcade founders Tycho and Gabe.
Virtual Expo Hall
The PAX experience hinges as much on games as it does on panels and talks. In this case expo halls and game demos are being handled in a very different way, with many of the exhibitors presenting limited-time demos coinciding with the show schedule.
These games are primarily in the Indie or AA sphere, with only a handful of large companies, such as Bethesda and Arkane, showing some content virtually. This is giving a lot of smaller and unknown games a spotlight, which is great, but this is another area where PAX Online gets overwhelming.
Many dozens of demos are listed in the section devoted to exhibitors and many are available via Steam or other platforms, or direct from the developer. Sorting through these demos can be daunting, but the PAX expo hall channel on Discord is a great place to get feedback from others on demos worth checking out.
Over the week I have been checking a ton of these games out, such as Cris Tales, Ghostrunner, and Uragun, and plan to have some focused previews as PAX Online winds down.
The virtual nature of PAX Online is a great opportunity for a lot of developers to show their games even if they could not normally make it to the show. Plus, with the show spanning three continents, there are games from all over the world to discover and experience.
The PAX experience has always relied a lot on the merchandise and retailers to add a fully rounded experience and PAX Online is no different. Incorporated right into the virtual show floor are retailers, merch booths, and sponsored experiences.
Despite being remote there is still a new round of exclusive PAX and EGX merchandise and many vendors are selling some exclusive pieces as well. One of the perks of PAX being online this year is that Pins from the popular Pinny Arcade line that are generally only available for trade are purchasable.
One of the oddest sites at every PAX is the massive, and I mean MASSIVE, lines during the first few days to get the better PAX merch available. This virtual merch experience takes that frustration away and frankly is one of the best things about the online conference experience.
The Overall PAX Online Experience
I can’t argue with the sheer amount of content available via PAX Online. It is to the point of being overwhelming and I think that is a lesson the organizers can take away for inevitable future online events, which could include some more curated experiences, threads in the schedule for different experiences like audio design, inclusivity, or community involvement.
As it stands the experience is a cacophony of panels, demos, merch, and Discord chats that can be really hard to navigate, to the point where I am sure some have given up. The content is great, the interfaces fantastic, but focus and guided experiences will take the PAX Online experience to the next level as they work towards the potential PAX East Online next year.