Analysis: The 7 Ways That Penny Arcade Expo Does It Differently

As Penny Arcade Expo 2009 ends, Gamasutra looks back on the show to analyze what sets PAX apart from other conferences, and how the fast-growing Seattle event continues to artfully present nerdvana, even in a recession.
One of the major success stories in video game events over the past few years has been Seattle's Penny Arcade Expo, which ended yesterday after another tremendously successful three-day show. The Expo, which was started in 2004, was constructed out of the desire of the Penny Arcade web comic creators, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, to create a genuine, grassroots event made for their peer group. The duo have built their reputation on their sardonic but heartfelt love for games, and PAX is a key extension of that sentiment. In 2004, a relatively small Seattle con was what resulted. But cut to 2009, where this year's PAX practically took over downtown Seattle. Everyone, from taxi drivers to TSA officials at the airport, seemed to know about "that convention," and seemed pretty happy that the geeks were in town. A mass of attendees (pre-con estimates were around 75,000) swarmed the Seattle Convention Center to geek out on panels from game makers like BioWare and nerd icons like Wil Wheaton, indulge in community-based video game and tabletop game playing, and walk a show floor packed with the highest-profile games, from BioShock 2 through Diablo III and Brutal Legend. As a first-time Penny Arcade Expo attendee, and someone who's been to most of the other big consumer and trade video game shows worldwide, from E3 through GDC to GamesCom and beyond, I really did have a positive experience at PAX 2009. But simply gushing about the event or recapping the happenings blow by blow won't really give anyone insight. So I've tried to distill down what's different about the show to any others I've encountered -- as opposed to what is definitively good or bad about the convention that Gabe and Tycho birthed. And I've come up with the following seven differentiating factors: 1. Everyone at Penny Arcade Expo is a gamer. This may sound like a bald statement, but it's a subtly different demographic from other shows. For example, at Comic-Con, the fanbase is split between comic fans, TV fans, movie fans, and other franchise aficionados. Conversely, Game Developers Conference is developer-focused, and E3 has a lot of businessmen -- any of those who tend towards the "fan" are obviously closer to a store clerk demographic. But, because it's a relatively inexpensive consumer-specific game expo -- complete with cosplayers and happily rabid fans -- almost nobody who attends PAX is in it for the money. That's because they don't get money from games -- they get pleasure from games. Positive vibes ensue. 2. PAX is a smooth melding of the video game and tabletop game worlds. One of the key things about Penny Arcade guys is that they're as geeked out by social board, card, and D&D-like games as they are video games. So, rather than paper game events like GenCon trying to incorporate video game in a potentially unwieldy manner, Penny Arcade Expo is a natural blending of the two, which is a good thing. Having $11,000 deluxe wood game tables showcased alongside XBLA downloadable games is a pretty neat concept. 3. It's not E3 expensive for companies to participate at PAX. As PAX expands, it's obviously getting more and more of the big publishers participating. For example, Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, Ubisoft, Blizzard, and many more firms had set up in Seattle for PAX this year. But having been to both E3 in Los Angeles and GamesCom in Cologne in the last few months, the slightly reduced scale (lower ceilings, less cavernous expo space) of PAX means that exhibitors don't have to spend millions on their booths. I'm sure it's still relatively expensive to get all that equipment up there and set it up. But the gap between large and small exhibitors is smaller (a good egalitarian trend), and the insane multi-level E3 mega-displays are nowhere to be seen. Hopefully, this means value for money for exhibitors. 4. The PAX panel line-up mixes up grassroots and big budget artfully. It's great that PAX has panels and showcases throughout the three-day conference, and a lot of work has gone into arranging these sensibly. Having content besides the show floor is a major boon to attendees. In addition, much of the line-up feels uniquely PAX-like, particularly the community-specific panels from those who hang out in the fan spaces of game culture, like Mega64, Player vs Player, or The Guild. But there's also mega-panels for games like Halo 3: ODST to keep things interesting. The sheer diversity of discussions boggle, too -- panels about everything from philanthropy through gaming to Xbox Live user enforcement keep things interesting. Some of the panels are a bit unfocused and the "takeaway" may be weak, but this isn't GDC where you have to learn things and tell your boss -- it's a spare-time fan convention. So having such a diversity of content works. 5. Penny Arcade Expo's opening hours are totally geek-friendly. If there's one thing we know about game fans, it's that they don't exactly follow a 9am-5pm schedule in their fandom. It's great to see common areas at PAX open practically around the clock, and evening concerts and panels well-designed to eat up the night hours with (optional!) fun. Of course, this leads to hilarity like the "Psychiatry, Video Games, and Kids" lecture being given at 9pm on a Friday. But the extraordinary commitment from volunteers and organizers really pays off in the ability of attendees to enjoy themselves at almost any time of day or night. 6. PAX is a unique place for indie creators to both showcase their work and sell merchandise. There are obviously plenty of places out there where independent creators can showcase their games. For competitions, there's the IGF and Indiecade, and for exhibiting, there are a few options, including Comic-Con and smaller regional conventions. But PAX allows independent creators from multiple industries to co-exhibit to consumers easily. So, there are folks like graphic novel creators Oni Press, the Red Vs. Blue machinima creators at Rooster Teeth, indie game outfits like Twisted Pixel and Klei, and paper-game folks like Privateer Press all showing alongside each other. In addition, the PAX 10 helps independent creators show off their titles and gain interest, in a similar way that the IGF Pavilion does at GDC. That's really awesome (and a slightly different angle in terms of reach vs. business contacts) in a consumer setting. So this all builds up to an interesting, rather democratic-feeling public convention. 7. At PAX, you can feel the love. I know, this sounds a little vague and group hug-like. But if you consider last year's PAX keynote from BioShock's Ken Levine and this year's from Monkey Island and DeathSpank creator Ron Gilbert, you'll see a common theme. It's not about how to make games or even how game developers should get inspired (as in Game Developers Conference keynotes). It's about how games make you feel. It's about the emotional response that you, I, and every gamer has to the artform. And that's a wonderful thing, and a hallmark of the entire Penny Arcade Expo experience. Conclusion: The Future Of PAX Of course, the next step for PAX is an expansion to the East Coast for a Boston event in Spring 2010. The firm's partnership with events giant Reed Business has helped to facilitate this expansion, and it's going to be fascinating to see how it works out. With PAX in Seattle completely sold out of tickets this year, it's hard to imagine that there isn't going to be a lot of demand for the East Coast version. How the Penny Arcade Expo organizers deal with this expansionary pressure -- on several fronts -- will be interesting to see. But as it stands, PAX is living proof that a video game event with genuine, carefully thought-out goals to bring video gamers together can be more successful than any individual conference developed with a chiefly business imperative. And in this way, the gamers win.

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