Follow that dude in the Zelda hoodie.
I landed at Boston's Logan International, bleary and haggard after a red-eye from Los Angeles. After staring at the subway map for a solid 10 minutes, willing it to make sense, I hear across the terminal, "Quick, follow that dude in the Zelda hoodie!"
Aah, welcome to PAX. I can't think of any other time or place where you can roll up to a group of strangers, insinuate yourself into their conversation during a trip across an unfamiliar city, and be treated like an honest-to-god friend, but that's PAX for you.
I've been going to PAX (now dubbed "PAX Prime"), the Penny-Arcade Expo in Seattle for the last few years, and when I heard about PAX East, a sister expo in Boston, I couldn't pass up a chance to game in the birthplace of Sam Adams. And, for the very few of you that haven't heard about Penny Arcade [You have just lost all your "geek" cred. ~Ed. Nick], it is a brilliant video game-related web-comic, and the two guys who run the site are hilarious. 'Nuff said.
PAX East is a bit smaller than its West Coast counterpart, but keeps all the bits and pieces that make the convention work: a huge expo hall with plenty of playable games on hand, a series of discussion panels covering gaming of all stripes, and plenty of tournaments, LAN setups, and free-play areas.
The Expo Hall
Compared to the cavernous Washington Convention Center used for the last few PAXes (PAXii?), Boston's Hynes Convention center seemed fairly piddly. Sure, there were a great set of games on show, but it's hard to ignore the fact that it feels smaller than what we're used to and is split across two rooms to boot.
As far as the companies with games on display, there were a few notable absences like Stardock, Valve, and Blizzard, who've been out front in the past at PAXes with playable versions of upcoming titles, but a lot of the regulars like Ubisoft filled in the gaps, with plenty of Splinter Cell: Conviction stations on hand.
March timing hurts PAX East a bit. With E3 right around the corner, game companies like Ubisoft seem to be demoing either recent or upcoming releases, while Valve and Co. are keeping the really interesting titles under wraps until the expo to end all expos hits in June.
That aside, the real star of the show was Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar San Diego's Spaghetti Western GTA-alike. The line for the demo units was full at 10 a.m., but from everything I've heard, well worth the wait.
If you haven't seen the trailers, let me paint you a mental picture: Think of Clint Eastwood. Yeah, old, leathered, spurs, cowboy hat… you got that? Now think of all those awesome scenes from Ocarina of Time with Epona, Link's trusty stallion. Right, now add a little sandboxed carnage from GTA IV in there, and you can see what all the fuss is about.
The Boston Indie Showcase
Let's be honest, if you're going to a convention like PAX, you're probably into making games or playing the hell out of them. The indie showcase taps both these pleasure centers by exposing you to A) cutting edge indie games and B) the developers behind both games. This year focused very specifically on Boston Area indie devs, highlighting some of the great work coming from MIT's Gambit Game lab as well as individual game teams from the area.
When you show up at the indie booth, you're greeted by an exhausted game dev who's spent the last month slaving away at a half-complete game, and the few last days single-handedly manning a booth at PAX armed with no more than a business card and a laptop.
What's great is that these men and women are working on honestly good games and are more than willing to talk to you about how they're designing them, what issues they're running into, and what you thought of the level you just played. If you're an aspiring dame designer, this is a great opportunity to pick the brain of someone who's taken the plunge and is actually building something today.
I'm going to try to cover more of the indie games later, but you can check out the full list of Boston Indie games on the PAX site.
I managed to catch a few of the interesting panels at PAX, but given the amount of cool stuff going on, you inevitably have to make a few hard decisions when two panels you're keen on are back to back, or surprisingly, scheduled for the last thing in the day (10 p.m.?) or right as the convention doors open in the morning.
The big draw for PAX is the actual Penny-Arcade gents, Tycho and Gabe, or as the real world knows them, Mike and Jerry. These guys put on a great show at the three Q&A panels they host at each convention, and this year they did not disappoint.
I'll admit, it's a bit odd to see two scrawny geeks like myself stride onto a stage in front of thousands, greeted by thunderous applause with Rick Ross' "Hustlin'" deafeningly loud in the background. Seriously, if you haven't heard Hustlin', load that ish up on iTunes right now and blast it all the way to 11. Epic, right?
Mike and Jerry preside over these Q&A panels like a pair of lordlings holding court. Many of the "questions" are fans gushing over the comic, a few give thanks for all their work on Child's Play, and there are enough truly interesting requests to make attendance mandatory for any fan.
One person simply asked "Uh.. could you two arm wrestle", and in moments, Enforcers swarmed the stage with table and two chairs, for the upcoming showdown, while Jerry flexed menacingly towards Mike. Awesome.
Was this convention as good as the West Coast PAXes? Sure, it's smaller and still feels cramped (a problem PAX has been struggling with for years), but what makes these Expos as fun as they are is the feeling of camaraderie and kinship with your fellow nerd. You get the feeling that if all Mike and Jerry just provided a venue, sans trimmings like the expo hall and panels, that you'd still have a pretty good time.
It's all over the banners they throw up for these conventions, "Welcome Home".