Penny Arcade Expo: 60,000 Gamers Press 'Start'


Chase N./flickr

Typically, the hallways of the Penny Arcade office in Seattle, WA, are littered with video games, comic books, Dungeons & Dragons paraphernalia, and other geeky touchstones. There, a small staff has created a webcomic whose millions of readers laugh at its every gaming-obsessed joke.

This week, the halls are a little cleaner. Things are in order. That's because all the good stuff has been shipped off to their industry-leading games festival, the Penny Arcade Expo, which begins tomorrow and ends on Sunday. And the dozen-strong staff is too swamped with Expo prep to miss their toys.

Their prep list, for the most part, has all the elements of a dream dorm room: hundreds of thousands of dollars of TVs, computers, and game systems; a concert hall's worth of musical equipment; an annex building stocked with every board game imaginable; phone and e-mail confirmations from nearly every major game company in the world; and a production cost tab in the "millions of dollars" range. The only downer is that the staff keeps having to tell fans that, yes, the full allotment of over 60,000 tickets has been sold out for weeks.

The Penny Arcade Expo, better known to fans as PAX, has grown in less than a decade to become the country's largest and most well-known gaming festival. New games are revealed. Industry heavyweights give rousing speeches. Heck, last year's fest was big enough to spread the H1N1 virus across the world.

From the look of it, this is just another one of those nerdy conventions, like a comics or anime thing, right? Its public face comes with the usual trappings, like fans showing up in full costumes and vendors shamelessly peddling their latest wares.

Thing is, PAX sets itself apart from other cons, and other gaming fests, by embracing the social, group-centric side of games—the shared experience that's different from other forms of entertainment. Think four-player Xbox with pals on a couch, or challenging a stranger at the arcade with the flick of a quarter, or unboxing a board game like Scrabble (if you're geekier, the German smash Catan) at the neighborhood bar. Those premises run counter to the usual news reports about "solitary" and "violent" gamers, and PAX was founded, among other reasons, to nuke the old stereotypes.

"PAX is about game culture," Penny Arcade's business manager Robert Khoo says. "We really pushed that early on. This [expo] is focused on communities."

It's huge in scope, sure, but so are many other nerd conventions. PAX stands out by forcing its fans to meet strangers and play in unexpected ways: wait in line to try new games together, participate in social panels (like the popular "Pitch Your Game Idea"), team up in the nostalgic, old-school games lounge, teach each other to play new board games, or even join quickie, pick-up games of Dungeons & Dragons.

Fans, then, are really making their own fest. In that respect, it's less like a convention and more like South By Southwest, Austin's annual music/film/tech showcase. The free parties and games-obsessed concerts only boost that comparison.

The indie contingent is monstrous here, too; in spite of titans like Nintendo and Microsoft setting up shop, PAX dedicates a lot of its space to small-fry board game makers, basement coders, and its own "PAX 10" pedestal for the showrunners' favorite new indie games.

And the employees of Penny Arcade's Seattle office hummed along all week long to make sure those entertaining facets fit together as planned—with two exceptions. The 30-something founders of Penny Arcade, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, sat on the opposite side of the office, blissfully ignoring the hubbub by playing video games.

Over a decade ago, these two Washington-state natives started PAX by themselves as a webcomic about games, only to grow it with a merchandise empire, an annual charity drive, and, of course, the Expo. So if they created PAX, what's with the slacking mere days before launch?

"[I'm not] comfortable being thought of as the causation element of PAX," Holkins answers. "I think we can help catalyze things, I guess, but the reason [PAX] works is, we set the context. We invite the people and make sure there's a system in place. Then we give people a reason to enjoy it, and as few reasons as possible to hate it."

Having seen PAX in action—its main halls teeming with fans, its panel lines winding through full hallways, its concertgoers screaming while holding iPhones as if they were lighters—I know that Holkins' statement isn't a dodge. The best part of PAX is the community that gathers to play at will, and he knows better than to take credit for it.

So he and Krahulik, three days before the largest game show in the nation begins, set a good example. They sit side-by-side on a couch and play some video games together.

Next week, after Labor Day, I'll be back to report on the show's speeches, parties, game reveals, and overall weirdness. I'll interview a few folks from the industry, as well, including Warren Spector, the decades-long gaming legend responsible for the forthcoming, "mature" video game about Mickey Mouse set for release this year.