Pax Aus 2013 Review

by Sara Hanson

When: July 19 - 21
Where: Royal Melbourne Showgrounds, Melbourne
How much: I think the 3 day passes cost in the order of $115 each and sold out quickly. Single day passes were also available and sold out well in advance of the convention. NO tickets were available at the door.

So what is PAX anyway?
The Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) was started by Gabe and Tycho after E3 stopped allowing the general public in and it became more of a trade show again. It's a convention featuring all aspects of gaming from video games and e-sports, board games, card games, tabletop roleplaying games and cosplay. Demos of products and panels.

This was the first international PAX, it was held in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. It was enough of a success that it sold out and before the con was even held, they were already planning to bring it back the following year. This has subsequently been confirmed by Gabe and Tycho on their website (http://www.penny-arcade.com).

The convention was managed by ReedPop in Australia and was on the whole well organised. Enquiries were responded to promptly and courteously at all sorts of strange hours in the lead up to the convention.

I first heard about PAX Aus on Twitter and the information about tickets going on sale was announced there first, a bunch of useful PAX Aus related twitter feeds are as follows:

PAX Australia @PAXAus The general feed for the convention, lots of announcements about concerts, panels and general enquiries.

PAX Australia Lines @paxaus_lines This feed specifically is used during the convention to give updates on how the queues are going and whether it's worth making a dash to try and get into a particular panel.

PAX Tabletop @TT_HQ A feed to answer questions about tabletop games in the lead up to the convention.

The Cookie Brigade @cookie_brigade The cookie brigade hands out cookies for donations. The cookies themselves are provided by volunteers, the donations are given to Child's Play, a charity which buys games for children in hospital.

There is probably also a feed for the Enforcers, a brigade of volunteers who act as GMs, guides, security or are just generally helpful. They did much of the setup and breakdown, manned the games libraries and the various ares of the show. They worked in shifts and got free entry to the convention. Normally a short while before the convention the call will go out for enforcers, you have to cover your own transport and accommodation, but it's a way to see the show if you couldn't otherwise get there. It probably helps to have attended the con before to have an idea of what it will be like before volunteering.

During the convention the hashtag #PAXAus was running at undress of messages per hour. Some panels had their own hashtags which were used to capture questions and provide feedback in realtime.

Venue:
The Royal Melbourne Showgrounds is a fairground site originally established to host the annual agricultural show. The convention was held in a number of the pavilions near the Showgrounds Station.

Because the pavilions are freestanding and it's Melbourne in winter, a number of covered walkways were erected to minimise quite how wet and cold you got moving between buildings or waiting in queues. These covered walkways however did not make it all the way to the toilets, some of the venue entrances or some of the food vans. Warm wet weather gear is strongly recommended, especially if you are visiting from warmer climes.

There were 4 venues for panels, the main theatre seated 2-2.5k people, the smaller theatres only seated a couple of hundred. There was a fair bit of contention about the placement of some of the more popular panels in smaller rooms when the main room was not in use, such as the Bioware panel.

The queuing room is something every attendee should experience (and probably will). Australian's aren't particularly practised at queuing, let alone queuing for two hours to then go queue for something else (if there was a panel early in the day you wanted to see). On Friday morning it took nearly an hour or more for the initial queue to clear after the doors were opened. The queue filled the queuing room and out as far as the station platform. The queuing room opened at 8:00am daily and the site opened at 10:00am daily, it would fill up pretty early most mornings. It was pretty common to see a line of people make straight for coffee or the toilets once the doors opened. you may want to manage you food/fluid intake before queuing. There were thousands of people packed tightly into the room waiting to get in. Each morning inflatable beach balls were thrown into the crowd and batted around to keep us amused while waiting. There was a game of trying to get the beach balls over the signs and people were writing messages on them as they bounced around. Lots of people would be playing handheld games or simple card games while in the queue.

The pavilions were basically broken up into the PC area which had the PC Tournament and free play area and the BYOC (Bring Your Own Computer) area with a small theatre upstairs; the Big Top which had the tabletop and board games, card games, vintage consoles, handheld lounge and the food court; the Main theatre and Dropbear/Wombat theatres and finally the ExpoHall where most of the vendors were located.

One word about the handheld lounge, it was populated by a flotilla of beanbags and was one of the few carpeted areas that was quiet. It filled up quickly be late morning most days and beanbags were highly sort after. I was impressed about how gracious everyone was about finding someone to give a beanbag to when they got up to leave. The bags were awesome and provided by Chilli zone (http://www.chillizone.com.au).

Travel:
Metro ran special show trains for the morning and evening arrivals and departures. There probably weren't enough services for how well patronised they were, and there were an number of glitches which meant that quite a few trains either were cancelled or misrouted. This was a particular problem on Sunday morning when the first train got diverted to the racetrack instead and stranded for half an hour.

We took the train the first day to avoid Friday peak hour traffic and drove on the Saturday and Sunday. We arrived early both weekend days and had no problem getting a park, though finding your way out of the labyrinthine showgrounds road maze got us lost on the Saturday night, we did slightly better on the Sunday.

There is a regular tram service that goes past the show grounds, but Yarra Trams didn't seem to have put on extra services and there were apparently complaints from non-PAX customers about the crowding.

Food and Amenities:
There was quite a variety of food vans on site at quite reasonable pricing for a largely captive audience. During standard meal times the queues for these got quite long (at one point the queue for one of the burger trucks was reputedly over 45 minutes and that was before they cooked the burger). So if you want to control when you eat, pack something to eat on the fly. I'm told there were vegetarian options, there were a lot of dessert based options available. The quality on the whole seemed reasonable for van food.

There were water fountains at a few locations around the site, so it's a good idea to bring a refillable bottle rather than need to pay for drinks all day. The water fountains are outside, so if it's raining you may get a bit wet getting to them.

Toilets were another potential issue. For a change there was no queue to use the women's loos, but frequently queues to use the mens. The portable toilets brought in for the event were situated away form the main pavilions so in the rain you got pretty wet getting to them.

Panels:
A large part of the convention was the panels. They covered everything from getting into the video game industry, cosplay, anime, creating machines, parenting and introducing gaming to your kids, industry launches, tabletop game design, nerd core music, concerts, Q&As etc.. The queues for most panels were about an hour, with some of the larger panels starting the queues about 2 hours before.

I queued for 5 panels and got into 4. The one I miss rout on was particularly frustrating because we queued for most of an hour and missed out by about 4 places after a group of people pushed in ahead of us as they started letting people in.

Gaming on the Mac - Will there ever be a rainbow (Friday 11:00am) - this panel was a little disappointing to be honest. A quick show of hands identified that none of the panel actually used their Macs as their primary gaming machine, the discussion was largely around the lost opportunities of Mac gaming, such as the lack of upgradeable hardware, code optimisation and general disdain from Apple. Many of the main developers don't develop for Mac directly and port after release for PC if they bother at all, ports are often handled by Mac specific development houses and quite a few of those have closed in recent years. The panel quickly moved to gaming on iOS which was seen to be a much brighter opportunity. I'm not entirely sure what I expected form the panel, but it wasn't overly encouraging as someone who does use a Mac as their primary gaming machine and as a consequence plays only very few video game titles.

Beyond Dungeons and Dragons (Friday 1:00pm) - this panel was awesome. They came out and said that they were probably going to make a heap of people angry and started dissing on D&D. As someone who has been playing D&D in various version and flavours for 20 odd years and is married to someone who has been dedicated to playing it for even longer and is a D&D Next beta tester, I expected to not enjoy this panel once they started, but I was wrong. Their main criticism was that D&D is primarily a conflict resolution system - where conflict is focussed on combat, and that it doesn't really support characterisation well at all. They did a breakdown of the character sheet and how much of it was dedicated to combat, non-combat skills and characterisation attributes. Then they proceeded to run through a list of other roleplaying systems which did focus largely on character rather than conflict:

Inspectres., Prime Time Adventures., Freemarket., A Thousand and One Nights., Dread., Shock: Social Science Fiction., Shock: Human Nature., Mouse Guard., The Burning Wheel., King Arthur Pendragon., Lady Blackbird., Dogs in the Vinyard., The Classic Dungeons and Dragons., Torchbearer., Action Castle

Indie Publishing Downunder (Saturday 10:30am) - we primarily went to this panel to catch up with Morgan Jaffit. I felt slightly guilty later that people who really wanted to see this panel because they wanted to get into the video games industry missed out on seat because we decided to go, about half the line for this panel was turned away. The panel was 4 experienced indie games developers from a variety of background with about 60+ years experience between them. The summary of the summary, if you want to develop games and publish and you are doing anything to get there other than making games and releasing them, stop and make games and release them. The App Store is a brilliant opportunity for indie developers that wasn't there before. They talked about how to market your game and yourself, how to get your foot in the door at existing studios.

Why So Serious? Has the industry forgotten that games are supposed to be fun? (Saturday 4:00pm) - this is the panel we missed out on, but raises an interesting question. I really would have liked to hear what they had to say, as I frequently see Hardcore vs. Noob debates online and people get so caught up epeening and forget that games are supposed to be fun and a pastime. I see this at tabletop conventions too where people tend to takes things too seriously sometimes.

Writing for Tabletop Roleplaying Games (Sunday 2:00pm) - I was expecting this panel to be about crafting enjoyable and effective tabletop scenarios, it was mostly about writing games for publication. How to get your material in front of someone who could publish you, word counts, the importance of grammar and following style guidelines if they are provided. The panel were highly experienced published game authors with multiple titles and systems under their belt. I don't think any of them were full time games designers, this is probably an important difference between the pen and paper games designers and the computer games designers, the video games guys were mostly able to make a living form it, the pen and paper guys not so much.

Tabletop Games:
I played a session of Dragon Age on Sunday morning with a pickup group, something I haven't done in years as I'm usually in a pre-made group at gaming conventions. Skill level varied, I'm not sure how much tabletop the guys had done before.

I also spent a bit of the afternoon on Sunday playing Crokinole (www.crokinole.com/rules.asp) with various people, my flicking finger got very sore and it was exceptionlly good spirited with people congratulating their opponents for good shots.

Bits I didn't do but wanted to:
Friday and Saturday nights had concerts in the main theatre from premier nerdcore acts such as MC Frontalot. Maybe next tar, but neither my partner nor I were up to spending 16 hours on site and then doing it again the next day this time around.

Cosplay, it was everywhere. I used to do a bit of costuming and some of the costumes I saw both made me embarrassed about some of the outfits I'd made in the past and inspired me to pull out the sewing machines and give it another go. Possibly the best costly of the weekend went to the Spiderman and Deadpool duo who showed up with a different costume over their Spiderman and Deadpool costumes each day. On Friday it was french maid outfits, on Sunday Deadpool had a Ezio form Assassins Creed outfit over the Deadpool suit. I didn't see them on Saturday. There were a good dozen Chell costumes form Portal, lots of steampunk and period costume and cyberpunk and mechs. The were a few Pokemons, lots of Links and Princess Peach and even a pedobear. I really wanted to go to the panel on Cosplay, but it was against the writing for tabletop one.

Stuff I saw in passing but didn't get involved in:
There were a number of e-sports competitions held there over the weekend include League of Legends tournament play. There was also some more traditional wargaming and miniatures gaming and miniature painting, Magic the Gathering tournaments and a Pokemon championship event.

The Expo Hall had a bunch of (mostly independent) developers pimping their upcoming games. Keep an eye out for Fallen and Hand of Fate, due out on iOS and Android later this year. Both looked awesome.

Pinny Arcade (bonus round):
Gavbe and Tycho collect collectable pins, they trade these at the con. There are limited edition pins available form the merchandise stands, certain pins are only available through trading and not by direct purchase. I'm not sure if they will only trade for PA pins or whether they accept other pins, I'm hoping to find out before next year.

Tips for people planning to attend next year:
Keep an eye on the PAXAus twitter feed for when tickets go on sale. Tickets for this year's event went on sale in October last year, the 3 day passes sold out within a few days, so if you want to go get in early.
Wear comfortable shoes, you will be spending hours standing in lines.

Dress in layers, the queuing room got pretty warm, other areas were freezing, especially moving between buildings.
Consider packing food and a drink bottle to minimise time queuing at food vans, otherwise plan to eat outside of regular meal times for short queues.

Plan which panels you'd like to see in advance and get in the queue early. PAX uses a guidebook app (available for both iOS and Android) which lets you see which panels are available, which theatre they are in, and to set reminders to go queue. You will need to allow at least 1 hour to queue for most panels, take that into account when planning what you'd like to see.

If you have a Nintendo DS befure to take it and have wireless turned on, you will be overwhelmed by StreetPasses.
Make sure you charge your phone,tablet,handled game overnight every night. Consider packing the charger as there were a few power points around the place, but most were camped by other people who needed a boost.
Make sure your phone/table has a twitter feed to get con updates.

Certainly a very different experience to the usually roleplaying convention we attend, but none the worse for that. I'm planning to head back there next year, possibly as an exhibitor running tabletop games of some variety or running a panel on freeform( systemless) game design which seems to be a particularly Australian style of roleplaying. You never know, you may see me there dressed as some character from a roleplaying game.