Introducing: Around PAX West in 80 Hours
I’m not an expert at covering live events by any means. Reviews are my wheelhouse and I certainly rolled out of my comfort zone when going to PAX West. The first and last event I attended was in London when I was invited to Nintendo UK to preview The Witcher 3 for the Switch, some time before it was scheduled to release. Although the events I’ve had the privilege to visit are limited, Big Daddy Gaming has been to a handful. Most under our former moniker as Nintendad.
PAX East of 2020 marked our most recent excursion as we secured press passes for two of our editors. Since then, Covid plagued our world with confusion, worry and uncertainty. It seemed, for a time, that any further conventions or expos would be postponed, cancelled or relegated to an online audience.
With 2021 came new hope, vaccines, and the return of gatherings. I was fortunate enough to gain a press pass to E3 this June as well as PAX West. With E3 being online juxtaposed to PAX West as the first major in-person event, I was curious how the two would contrast. Though out of my wheelhouse, I’ll do my best to compare my experiences and share impressions of how PAX West was handled in terms of Covid and as a first time attendee.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Seattle’s Washington State Convention Center is exactly 800 miles from me (and 7 feet, but who’s tracking?) To cast aside the convenience of air travel, I would be looking at an 11 hour drive. But I wanted to get there fast, so fly I did. Of course, the nearest major airport to me is in Salt Lake, roughly an hour and a half away. So I drove through a drought stricken canyon and boarded a train to Salt Lake. A transfer to another train and a short bus ride later, I was at the airport. Security was as exciting as ever. It wouldn’t be long until I flew a short hour to Seattle. Oh, wait. We’re going to Las Vegas in the opposite direction first? Ok, but then onward to Seattle! Ten hours later and I landed in Washington. I made it with an hour to spare. Well, there’s still waiting for the final train plus another forty minutes. All in all, it still took eleven hours to reach my destination. Now I’m ready for PAX.
There’s a different mindset that you need when taking a trip over casually browsing a screen from the confines of your own home. As I rode to the train station an hour from my home, I read and reread my itineraries, hotel bookings and PAX entry requirements. Two bags packed, a roller-luggage and sling bag, I was confident I had everything I needed for a week away. Preparing for E3 Online was a different matter entirely. Am I in my pajamas? Sure. (Granted, I could have gotten away with pajamas at PAX.) Is my internet working? Am I connected? Do I remember my password? No, but my fingerprint will get me logged into the site.
What didn’t change was preparing interview questions. Scheduling appointments. Reaching out to various companies to share the BDG brand and getting mentally ready to write.
The Personal Touch
One glaring difference that stood out to me like a beacon was how moved I was by meeting industry teams in person. A zoom call is great, don’t get me wrong. I worked six years remote prior to the pandemic. It’s an adequate alternative especially in today’s landscape, but online meetings or calls lack a certain personal touch. You don’t build the same connections. Not to mention the drab impressions conveyed through an email. Sure, you can still be yourself and show your humor and personality but that live connection makes a huge difference. This couldn’t have been more evident than when I arrived at my first appointment of PAX.
Sitting down with various developers and publishers, one thing was evident. Close proximity to human emotion makes a huge difference. The folly isn’t lost on me that you are reading mere words when I just reinforced the importance of in-person communication. But the level of love and passion these indie developers had was more powerful than I can convey. And perhaps being masked amplified that passion as I found their eyes to be the focal point instead of watching lips move up and down. I could see in their eyes how much each game meant to them. I could feel the pain, fear, joy, love and enthusiasm each developer had for their game. It reinforced that taking a risk for something you care about is worth more than monetary gain. For some of these developers, this is their first endeavor in creating a video game. Often with a handful of team members, and even going solo. To me, it’s just a game. For them, it’s life.
If I’m being honest, E3 didn’t take the wrong path. I had problems with it but there was still a lot of value from the expo. Companies adopted creative video presentations in lieu of live shows. When looking at the popularity of the Nintendo Direct presentations, we know the model can work. Not every company was successful at leaving a memorable mark, but the potential is there and has been proven. The biggest issue with E3 2021 online was its delivery.
E3 Online used a website as the main access point to all the digital booths and events. Unfortunately the portal was broken and rarely worked. Over half of the links in the individual booth pages bugged out and led to something entirely different or fell into an endless loop. The social aspect was also lacking and reminded me of a dogmatic forum circa 2002. And though connections were made and digital business cards exchanged, none of the projects stood out enough that I even remember the names of people I e-met. Ultimately, E3 Online wasn’t as memorable or engaging. It lacked any lasting connection.
Penny Arcade PAX a Punch
Having discussed the deficiencies of an all online show, was PAX worth the risk of cramming into an event center with thousands of strangers? I can resoundingly say, it was absolutely worth it. I’m not naive enough to think nobody spread or caught anything during PAX, but I felt wholly comfortable while I was there. A sentiment shared by others I chatted with.
In order to enter, every individual had to have proof of vaccination or a recent negative Covid test. Beyond that, masks were mandatory and sanitizer stations were ever present. Each Exhibitor I spent time with had sanitizer and clorox wipes. They faithfully wiped stations between use. My turn to preview a game? Hold on while the staff clean the controller, headset, mouse or keyboard. And no one did it in a way that came across either elitist or overbearing. They didn’t make a big show out of it. It seemed natural. Of course, that could just be the way we’re tuned after the last year we’ve had. I felt completely safe and returned home happy and healthy.
That’s a Wrap
In terms of having a first experience at an in-person convention, I’d have to say PAX West was incredibly enjoyable. For one, the sense of inclusion was a paramount theme I felt at many of the booths as well as from the people in attendance. It was nice to see that such a large group of strangers can come together to celebrate common interests despite differences. I even entered a 7 Wonders tournament and was matched against five strangers. We instantly clicked despite our different backgrounds and never having met. The patrons, the staff and the exhibitors were all courteous and cordial. I’m not saying the world is perfect and we still have a long way to go, but there have been continued steps forward. That was especially evident in some of my meetings with the developers. It’s nice to see that more people with diverse backgrounds and beliefs are able to bring their projects to life for the betterment of our world.
By sharing a multitude of viewpoints we can all gain a better understanding of another. PAX West was a melting pot of geek culture and I found I really enjoyed the live social aspect of gaming with groups. Especially during the board game tournaments, or Table Top Tourneys. I met a lot of amazing people and I can’t wait to watch them succeed in their endeavors. So is there a place for in-person expos, conventions and paloozas? I’d say so. Especially if they are done right and follow the advice of health officials as well as use common sense with safety at the forefront of planning.