The final weekend of January, in San Antonio Texas, thousands of enthusiasts gathered for the second annual Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) South, an event with humble beginnings and a larger-than-life community. PAX, as you probably know, has grown above and beyond itself since its first expo ten years ago and now includes conventions in four locations in the United States and Australia. Each PAX has a different flavor and things that make it unique. As the youngest expansion PAX South is, in my opinion, teetering on the fence between becoming one of the most enjoyable community events and something doomed to forever be in the shadows of other annual events. After some time to decompress, catch up on sleep, and pour over photos and experiences, it is time I might share my impressions with you.
If you’ve never been to a convention before, or only attended small local ‘cons’, then PAX itself can seem very overwhelming. There are thousands of people and a diverse range of activities all running simultaneously. It takes a bit of homework to decide what you want to see and do during your PAX weekend, because you just simply won’t be able to do it all. PAX South, however, in its infancy, is still struggling to flesh out its schedule. This may seem like a drawback, and at times certainly can be, but it also can force you to take more time with each of the things you’d like to see and do; you simply won’t need to rush. To get a better idea of what I mean, let me talk a little bit about each of the areas that may pique your convention-going interest and talk a little bit about my experience with them at PAX South 2016.
The Expo Floor
This is largely the area that you’ll see photos of when someone talks about PAX. The expo floor is where games are shown, demos are played, and free swag is procured. A large population of attendees will line up first thing in the morning to be in the first wave of people to crowd the expo floor.
This year, yet again, Twitch had a very large presence on the expo floor, securing the booth front and center. With constant streaming all weekend long and a series of ‘meet and greet’ events, partnered Twitch streamers are treated like celebrities – and the crowd responds as such. While I’m not sure I fully understand this Twitch celebrity trend, and fully admit to an old lady get-off-my-lawn skepticism, there’s no denying that this new breed of internet stars are drawing in large crowds.
The indie games are where I like to spend my time on the expo floor. It’s a great chance to see what people are working on and talk directly to the people working on them. This year, even the indie section was lacking. Most games on the floor were games that have either been out for a while already or have been in development so long that this is not the first PAX I’ve encountered them at.
Big names are usually where people will line up on the expo floor. People will line up for hours to try a game that’s either pre-release or just released. Notably missing this year from the floor were Texas-based companies like iD or Gearbox, each having a product coming out soon to show but neither making the drive down from the Dallas area to be in front of this audience. Yearly staples that I’m used to seeing, like Microsoft and The Behemoth, were also notably absent. In terms of VR demos, while it’s possible I missed a booth on the expo floor, the only VR I encountered was the Vive being used in conjunction with stationary bikes in an inconspicuous area of the floor.
There were lots of opportunities to spend money on the expo floor. Between clothing and apparal shops like Welovefine, Glitch, and the very cool Volante Designs, there were also sellers of PC accessories, resellers of vintage gaming items, big names like Astro, HyperX, Gunnar Optics, and of course PAX Merch.
Panels are a great way to listen to some of your favorite ‘personalities’ talk about what it might be like to work in that industry. They often share ideas and talk about how they came to be in the positions that they’re in. There are many panels that cover ‘breaking in,’ whether it be into gaming, streaming, or journalism, there’s usually something for everyone. This year at PAX South, the panel schedule was quite thin for me personally. The panels are usually where I spend a great deal of my PAX time, but this year I wasn’t in tune to most of the discussions or presentations, so I skipped a lot of them. This milage varies from year to year. One of the very first PAXs I attended, for example, I spent a good 75% of my time in various panels. So it pays to read over who’s there and what’s being presented.
I’ve often marveled at the tabletop community at PAX. It’s a convention within a convention, or at least that’s been my experience at PAX East. There are large areas for tabletop players to have a seat and play with friends. There are vendors with lending libraries, vendors with new merchandise, and a great number of game developers showcasing their games to the world. As you push your way through the demo tables and ‘paint and take’ figure tables, you’ll pass sellers with scores of dice on display. There’s usually a strong MTG presence, with tournaments running throughout the weekend (if they were happening at PAX South this year, I missed them). The folks who you encounter in the tabletop area are always welcoming and ready to help. Whether you’re an avid tabletopper just looking for someone to play, or someone who likes to pretend they dable in tabletop (like me), this part of the convention can be a great way to spend a few hours with friends or make new ones. And if you’re shy like I am, you can easily pick up a card game or something to get you started and take it home to play with your familiars.
Admittedly, I spend very little time in the PC area during PAX, but it’s impressive none the less. With a full BYOC area and tournaments running throughout the weekend, this is a great place to hang out if you’re hankering for some PC time. When we wandered into the PC ballroom this year, there were groups of gamers lined up for upwards of 45 minutes to get time to play some Rocket League with their buddies. I would have loved to spend more time in the PC area, but I think if I were going to BYOC, or look for an opportunity to get in on some LAN party fun, I might look a little closer to home at something like QuakeCon. If I didn’t have a viable PC at home and wanted to try out something on the PC, this would be a great opportunity to do that.
It’s hard to pass by the classic arcade and not get drawn in. When I was in 9th grade, I spent many lunch hours and skipped typing classes (stay in school, kids) hanging out in the local arcade before it closed down. Any time I see a grouping of arcade games, or even pinball games, I’m drawn in. The PAX South classic arcade is…well, it’s okay. They bring in some of the main games you would expect to see – Galaga, Pac Man, Mortal Kombat II, and so on. The music is geared toward a young audience, with base drops and wubs that drown out the bleeps and bloops and dings of the arcade. The lights are dim, the place is packed. It’s a good time. However, just in case you’ve been awed by the classic arcade that FunSpot hosts at PAX East, it’s like that arcade’s kid brother.
Free Play Console/Classic Console
The free play area is a spot that I’d have spent a lot of time as a kid. This is a place where there are lots of monitors set up with lots of consoles and you sign out a game, grab a spot, and play. Don’t have a XBONE at home but want to play an XBONE game? Go right ahead! As an adult gamer who married a gamer, we have a pretty substantial collection of consoles at home, so this itch doesn’t need to be scratched at PAX…HOWEVER! Classic Consoles are not as easy to dig out of the closet. Connected to old CRT TVs, you can try your hand at games on anything from the Atari 2600 to the Super Nintendo to the Apple Computer (complete with floppy discs). There was even a large LAN of Steel Battalion on the XBOX with original controllers being played, and tutorials being given. There were daily challenges in the classic console room, and tournaments taking place throughout the weekend. I admit, I played very little in here, but I did sit down at the Apple computer and try a few rounds of a very laggy version of Pac Man while hubby shot a light gun at an old TV for nostalgic glory.
All right, this one was new to me when I went to my first PAX. I had no idea what the heck the Omegathon was or why I should care. Now, five PAXes later, it’s the one thing I wouldn’t miss and, quite honestly, one of my favorite PAX culture-isms. The Omegathon is a three-day elimination tournament between randomly selected attendees (pre-arranged, for the most part) who compete in games from any and every category (tabletop, console, PC), culminating in a live championship match on the big stage during PAX closing ceremonies. This year, I attended every round of the Omegathon. Round one was Beautiful Katamari, a personal game fav. Round two was Kerplunk, three was Geometry Wars, four was Steam game Avalanche 2, five was Lumines, and the final round on the main stage theater at the closing ceremonies on Sunday night was Licence to Kill on the N64. It was an edge-of-your-seat competition that came down to the final shot, and the crowd was electric with excitement.
There are many areas at PAX where you can take a load off and just chill for a while alone or with friends, with a game or just people watching. There’s a diversity lounge for those who feel more comfortable with an openly ‘judgement free’ zone. There’s the AFK room, a great place for those who may be feeling overwhelmed by the crowds or the content of PAX, a place to sit and unplug and take a breath. There’s also the JAMSPACE, for those who want to listen to some inspired musicians, and of course the handheld lounge. The handheld lounge is, typically, an area clad with bean bag chairs that line the walls offering a space to sit down and plug in (if you’re fortunate enough to procure precious plug space) and hang out with your favourite handheld games. There are tournaments in the handheld lounge, and it’s a great place to collect street passes and puzzle pieces.
Friday and Saturday nights there are musical acts in the main theater to rock the night away. The bands vary in style, approach, sets, and inspiration, and you’re bound to hear something you like or have never heard before. If you wander into a concert and hear a band you dig, there’s an area of PAX called Band Land where you can go and buy from the artists themselves. You can tell them how much you loved their show or look forward to seeing their show, ask for them to sign things for you, or just talk about their work. This year, we went to the concerts on Friday. I caught the first act and half of the second act before my little guy in-utero decided that was enough rock music and I called it a night.
One of the most unique features to PAX South is the riverwalk in San Antonio. It’s a great place to go in between events, or after the convention center closes. Between the BBQ, the Tex Mex, and the margaritas, you’ll find tons of PAX-goers and tourists spilling into the picturesque experience below the city. With the balmy weather and the close proximity of everything to the convention center, the riverwalk is an excellent perk that should be explored if you find yourself in the area and in need of a bite between games or panels.
There are a ton of other things happening at PAX that I haven’t even touched on: the Penny Arcade culture, the Twitch rockstars, the pre-PAX pub crawl, Cookie Brigade (seriously – google them, they’re amazing!), and of course the cosplay; but I don’t want to ruin all of the surprises. If there’s any one thing I want to impart on you about PAX in general, be it South, East or what I can assume is the same at the others, it’s the people. The attendees at PAX are what make this convention what it is. While PAX South may still be young and struggling to find support from big publishers and industry names, so long as this convention maintains the atmosphere of sharing, friendship, and passion, PAX will continue to be an event unlike many others. After a full weekend at PAX, I grieve the loss of friends I don’t know, of a community that makes me feel welcome, and the shared experiences that bring us together year in and year out. If you’ve never been to a PAX or a convention in your area, I encourage you to give it a try. A convention like this can be what you make of it, and PAX South, whether it finds the presence that East and Prime have or not, is still a reflection of the attendees and the spirit they bring to it.