PAX West 2017: A Retrospective Journal
The Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) is an annual gaming showcase/celebration that began in 2004. Founded by creators of the incredibly popular web comic Penny Arcade (Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik AKA Tycho and Gabe), PAX quickly exploded in scale to become one of the biggest gaming-related conventions in the world. The event has grown so much that the original PAX that was hosted in Seattle is now known as PAX West (previously PAX Prime), with PAX East (Boston), PAX South (San Antonio), PAX Australia (Melbourne), PAX Unplugged (Philadelphia) and PAX Dev (also Seattle) now all existing as well. Simply put, PAX, regardless of if you actually read Penny Arcade or not, has become a pretty big deal.
PAX Enforcers, the volunteer army that help make the show possible.
I, personally, have been attending the PAX in Seattle more or less annually since 2008 (I missed 2016 due to bronchitis and being in between apartments). As I attended PAX West 2017 I’m going to offer a somewhat detailed journal entry on my trip. A companion piece will follow offering some more generic tips for attending PAX West, PAX events in general as well as anything at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle.
Day 0: Thursday
I left my hometown of Kelowna at around 8:30 AM or so. Kelowna to Seattle is around six hours, especially if you travel the way I do. On the way down we listened to the Acquisitions Incorporated podcast. The podcast is done by Penny Arcade in conjunction with Wizards of the Coast (the current producers of Dungeons & Dragons), and features Jerry, Mike and friends playing a live role-playing session that’s run (or DMed, the DM standing for Dungeon Master) by Chris Perkins, a key figure with the Dungeons & Dragons team. The adventures have spanned eleven seasons and despite being easily over fifty hours worth of content by this point are one of the easier ongoing role-playing podcasts out there. The reason for this is there tends to only be a few episodes a year, and each episode is ‘only’ three hours. Critical Role and Heroes & Halfwits, two other role-playing podcasts that I do recommend, are a bit deeper to delve into. The reason I even bring up the podcast choice is because we were planning to attend the next session, that will be hosted live on Sunday (Day 3).
The trip was relatively smooth. The nice thing about the drive from Kelowna to Seattle (and Kelowna to Vancouver for that matter) is there’s ideal rest stops every hour or so. After a quick stop in Langley to eat lunch and check the border wait times (assuming we want to go the most direct route, we have four border crossings to choose from), we headed for Seattle proper. Aside from a small traffic jam roughly five to ten miles outside of Seattle, we encountered no issues. The traffic jam was relatively benign too, as we rarely came to a complete stop.
<— Cause of the accident, seen here.
Our hotel for this trip would be the Sheraton Seattle Hotel. Booked through the official PAX West website, the Sheraton offered decently affordable rooms, and since it’s a PAX partner it even offered free Wi-Fi for attendees (normally it’s around $15 a day). Unfortunately, while the Sheraton is conveniently located right next to the Washington State Convention Center, has fairly nice rooms and an indoor pool, it also has insanely expensive parking. The valet service went up from $42 in 2015 to $57 in 2017 per day, but it can be a pain to get into their non-valet parking garage. The price difference, however, is over $20, so if I go next year I’ll be skipping the valet, and I highly advice anyone on a budget to do the same. It may seem like a no-brainer, but Seattle traffic can be quite congested in the area, so if it were still only $42 I might not have felt this way. In any event, we checked in, grabbed a meal at Il Fornaio (excellent Italian restaurant only about two blocks away) and had a quiet evening, though some in our group attended a pre-PAX board game night in the Sheraton. The Sheraton, due to its proximity to the expo itself, often has events of its own in its many lounges and conference rooms, so it’s another perk to staying there.
Day 1: Friday
I got up early and after a nice (but kinda pricey) breakfast at the Sheraton’s Daily Grill Restaurant we headed to the Convention Centre. So here’s an important thing to know about PAX in general: lines are rough. At PAX West 2017 they let people start lining up to enter the event two hours early (8 AM for a 10 AM door opening each day). Given how eager people are to be first when the doors open, people will, somewhat paradoxically, line up early to avoid lining up later. It seems crazy, and it probably kind of is, but the trick is that lines inside the event can be capped, while the early morning line to get in is designed to accommodate as many people as possible. Most lines for events during PAX won’t be allowed to form until at least two hours before they start as well, so this is a recurring theme for the show. To that end, I brought a small camping stool to sit on and pulled out my PS Vita (Yes, I’m a Vita owner, and I’m perfectly fine with that). Given I had Persona 4: The Golden, Persona 3 Portable, Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Dynasty Warriors Next and more to keep me entertained, the line was nothing to me. Other popular options are playing games with other people in line, via small deck card games or trivia games via a phone. Beach balls are sometimes tossed around as well.
The geek-tide has come in!
Come 10 AM the doors opened and tens of thousands of people flooded into the event (PAX West averages 80,000 people and the passes tend to sell out within 30 minutes of being put on sale). I personally started by walking around with a friend of mine who was attending his first PAX, and we soon found a few fun activities to do. ASUS had a challenge where you had to move an object through a maze without touching the sides, my friend doing well enough to win a sweat-absorbing wristband. Next a booth featuring Dragonball Fighter Z invited audience members to come up and play, so I happily walked right up after dozens of people hesitated. While I got my backside handed to me, I started off strong, and I have to say the game seems to be a solid ‘easy to pick up, hard to master’ design. The game also gave off a Marvel vs Capcom vibe, but in a good way.
After the game my friend and I got in line for the Capcom merchandise store, as my friend is a massive Megaman fan. The Capcom store was insanely crowded due to the push for Monster Hunter World, a game I’m still not full sure I understand, marketing wise. The game’s big statue on the floor at PAX was a massive dragon, a very intimidating monster to be sure… but it also features these anime cat creatures, with a big thing the Capcom store was selling being a giant $200 plush of the cat. I’ve never liked trying to combine cutesy with realistic like that. In any event, my friend got himself a Megaman towel and after a bit more exploring around the expo hall we headed to Benaroya Hall.
Huh… Is that what a dragon looks like?
Benaroya Hall is the home of the Seattle Symphony (I’m sure Frasier on Frasier at least name-dropped the location a few times), and PAX West frequently uses it as the ‘Main Theatre.’ Big events are hosted there as it can hold over 2,000 people, making it ideal for popular events. Since PAX began Rooster Teeth (a web series production company behind Red vs Blue, RWBY, Achievement Hunter and more) have been in attendance, their panel almost always in the Main Theatre. This time was no different, and as I’m a fan of their content I went to attend. The panel was about 60% comedic discussion on their experiences related to PAX and talking about upcoming content, with the other 40% being Q&A. They’re ultimately very fun people to listen to, and my friend, who did not watch their content, quite enjoyed the panel regardless. Following the panel we had lunch at New Saigon, a fairly good hole-in-the-ground (you enter and immediately enter the building’s downstairs area) restaurant nearby.
The panel may or may not have mentioned NAMBLA more than once. Comedy is weird.
Following lunch we headed to get our swag bags and hit up another panel. PAX swag bags are a precious commodity, though they’ve kinda gone down in value over the past few years. What used to be a lot of coupons and free stuff (including League of Legends character codes and Magic: The Gathering starter decks) has become pretty much just a series of ads plus one or two goodies. In this case, the only swag of note was a League of Legends minion figure and a code for Sivir that they’d actually given out before at PAX Prime 2014. Cool to get all the same, but in terms of historic swag, kind of a let down, that’s all. We then got in line for a live demonstration of Jackbox Party Pack 4. For those unfamiliar with the Jackbox series of games, they let you host a series of silly games that people can participate in using their web-enabled device, be it a phone, laptop or tablet. In this case, games included Survive the Internet, in which each player would write a comment in response to a fake headline they were given, and then they’d in turn create a new headline for someone else’s comment to essentially try and ruin it (for comedy). The panel was fun, those involved (including Jerry Holkins) delivering some solid laughs, but the smaller Theatres have a problem: the chairs are so close together that people basically have to lean forward to avoid invading personal space. The seating, combined with a lack of Wi-Fi (making my personal audience participation impossible) really hurt the panel for me.
Note how close together the audience is. You have no personal space here!
After the show I took a little time to relax before going to a private party for dinner. I can’t be specific about this party as it was secretive, but PAX does have a lot of parties that get hosted around town. A few years previously I attended one at the Hard Rock Cafe down the street from the convention centre and they’re generally a great way to get free food, prizes, play a new game and generally have a good time after PAX itself is more or less closed. PAX technically doesn’t close until around midnight or two in the morning, but the Expo Hall closes at six, greatly reducing the available activities. Fortunately there are many other options open, which will be explored as the trip continues.
Day 2: Saturday
The day began with disappointment: we lined up two hours early, eager to try out Fallout VR. We were among the first three hundred or so people to enter and… the line was already four hours long. Look, I like Bethesda a lot (I’m a sucker for Fallout and The Elder Scrolls if nothing else), but I really wasn’t impressed with their line management and general set-up this trip. What irked me more was that despite having the newest expansion for Dishonored available to play-test, they didn’t have any merchandise related to the game available to buy (a friend of mine back home wanted some). Thankfully, we were able to go check out Hand of the Gods, the strategy game put out by Hi-Rez Studios (makers of Smite and Paladins: Champions of the Realm). The game is part digital card game part turn-based strategy, as there’s a playing field you control, but your actions are determined by your cards. It works fairly well, though if you check it out, play the tutorial. My friends and I made it through and got one of the best rewards of the entire trip: a free shirt with game-code and wristband (usually you’d get one out of the three from most developers). Our spirits lifted, we went in search of further games.
Shout out to the booth that actually deserved a line!
Next came a game I’d not heard of before: Phantom Doctrine. Made by Polish developer CreativeForge Games, Phantom Doctrine is, at a glance, an X-Com clone. You move a squad like you would in the most recent entries of the franchise, complete with an Overwatch command and such, but there’s a few differences. First up, the game is set in an alternate history version of the Cold War during 1983 (so it’s more human vs human). Second, there’s more of a stealth element like with X-Com 2, including having moles inside of buildings to do work in secret (guns even having silencers). Third, the existing X-Com commands are a bit different, including how Overwatch is used. Finally, in addition to my field team, I had a sniper team in position that could, once per turn, take out an enemy in their line of sight. The resulting design really intrigues me and I’m excited to see where this game goes in 2018. One of my friends then introduced me to Divinity II: Original Sin, by Larian Studios, which seemed like a solid RPG in the vein of Diablo and Pillars of Eternity. If nothing else, you can turn people into chickens (which I did).
Playing some Phantom Doctrine.
Lunch followed, after checking out a few more booths. We ended up going to the Daawat Grill & Bar, a fine Indian establishment with an all you can eat buffet that was very affordable, so it’s become a favourite of sorts. After lunch we headed to check out a few other areas, such as the Destiny 2 show area (with a comically long line for their merchandise booth that crushed even that of the Capcom Store), the Monster Energy sponsored area (looked kinda dead) and finally the official VR area at the Westin Hotel (about 4 or 5 blocks from the convention centre). There, after a fair bit of waiting, we played Marvel’s Powers United on the Occulus Rift, in which you play as one of four Marvel Comics characters: Captain Marvel, Deadpool, Rocket Raccoon or the Hulk. I ended up being the Hulk, which resulted in the delightful fun that was flinging the henchmen of Ronan the Accuser around like they were footballs. The game was a lot of fun and did feature walking mechanics, which made me all the more motion sick as I saw myself moving without actually raising my feet. The game’s pretty good, though it still needs a fair bit of polish before it’s 2018 release.
Ready for Virtual Reality! I’m sure it’ll suck less than Actual Reality…
The rest of the afternoon saw us checking out some card games (including the new expansion for Hero Realms, which is a pretty good casual game) and the official Fallout: The Board Game. The Fallout game revolved around exploring, which made sense, but I gotta say, like a lot of titles by Fantasy Flight Games, I’m worried it both over-simplified and over-complicated, if that makes sense. It’ll probably be one of those games one friend wants to play but no one wants to take the time to set up. Dinner was had at McMenamins Six Arms, which was okay but horribly delayed (over an hour to get our food). This was bad because we had to rush back to get into line for the Late Night Dub Fight, an annual tradition of mine. The Dub Fight features a group of comedians taking clips from TV shows, anime, video games and more and dubbing over the dialogue to create comedic scenes. It can be magical to watch in person, and sadly, despite its insane popularity, it always gets stuck in tiny theatres. The Dub Fight line was capped eighty minutes before it started, which is kind of insane (That’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim pre-launch numbers). Still, good show, and one of the best late night panels the show has to offer. Some of my friends, meanwhile, went to the concert at Benaroya Hall, and quite enjoyed performances by The OneUps, The Doubleclicks and Super Soul Bros.
Day 3: Sunday
Another morning, and a relaxing breakfast of Eggs Benedict, since I was planning to just go buy some merchandise from the ThinkGeek booth before heading to attend the Witcher panel at Benaroya. After getting some cool swag (including twenty-sided dice that light up when you roll a 20), it was off to the panel. Being ninety minutes early seemed prudent, but while I was sort of right the panel never got capped, so I’ll fully admit I probably wasted some of my time here. Still, the panel itself was great, offering an interesting look at the history of CD Projekt Red and their development of all three Witcher games. It was inspiring stuff, especially if you want to focus on telling a story properly versus simply doing ‘what sells.’ Post-panel everyone received a free shirt, poster and a special pin, which was probably the single nicest swag bundle I got all trip.
The mood lighting can really make these photos look a bit ‘bleh’, can’t it?
After the panel I hit upon a few more booths, including Square-Enix. The company was heavily pushing the new Final Fantasy XV multiplayer mode, which looked pretty good (the character creation demo was decently detailed as well), plus they were giving out cardboard Red Mage hats to promote Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood. The big game I wanted to try, however, was Secret of Mana, the remake of the Super Nintendo classic (fun fact, Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger started as one game, thus some similar design elements). The game-play itself was fine, but it did kind of remind people of the annoying parts of the original (auto-hitting magic attacks being a big one, especially when they’re not in your favor). The new graphics looked okay, but you can tell the game will probably look the same on the PS Vita, and it’s a bit jarring to have voices but no mouth movement. The art style at least looks consistent with the original, and I am curious to see if the remake will allow for online multiplayer.
The Secret? Tree parents.
I next hit up a few smaller booths, including Blue Mammoth Games to play Brawlhalla (a fun semi-clone of Super Smash Bros), as well as the Rooter Teeth booth to get a poster signed and play RWBY: Grimm Eclipse (it’s been out for a while but I’d never played it, it’s an okay action game). My friends and I then began to line up for Acquisitions Inc, a show at Benaroya Hall… that got capped over eighty minutes before the show even started. A three-hour show got capped roughly an hour and a half before it began. That is how popular this particular event is, I just want to make that clear. Thankfully we endured the strain placed on our bodies and got decent seats, as while high up and far away it gave us a good view of the projector screen. The resulting show was hilarious and kind of amazing, well worth the wait, and I highly recommend you check it out online if you can.
Day 4: Monday
Since the final day also required me to check out, I did so, which ate up a good chunk of my morning. Following that, I went to get some of my Dungeons & Dragons merchandise signed by the cast and crew of Acquistions Incorporated. This was another rough line (over an hour), but you actually got to spend some time chatting with all the players since the signing line tended to move slow (Chris Perkins in particular was slow to sign things as he loves to doodle as well). One last lunch at Daawat followed, and then it was off to buy some final gifts. On the final day if merchandise booths like FanGamer and ThinkGeek have any product left they may mark them down by $5 or more, so it can pay to avoid buying less popular items until the last day.
No word if someone asked for their chest to be signed. Given the game involved, they might have meant a wooden box.
Following lunch I spent my last few hours hitting three big games: Detroit: Become Human, Total War: Warhammer II and Ark: Survival Evolved (or as I nicknamed this trio, the Triple Colon). Detroit was rough to get into as you needed to use the Playstation Experience app to book a demonstration, and there were I think only two demonstrations going at a time (each around twenty minutes long too). Thankfully I beat the odds and got my shot in, which is great as I loved Detroit. I can’t get into it too much (there’s more to break down than there was with Phantom Doctrine), but it really made me think that the final game might be a bit like L.A. Noire, while also being closer to what Until Dawn tried to be. The general investigation and negotiation mechanics seem quite solid, and I’m interested to see where the diverging plot paths will go. I have less to say about the other members of the Triple Colon, just that Total War: Warhammer II pretty much seems like more of the same (but with the expected improvements you’d see in a fairly by the numbers sequel) and Ark: Survival Evolved, despite the level of content it now offers, still doesn’t seem quite ready to leave Early Access. I will give it credit though… It had amazing photo booths.
Need I say more?
With that we left for home, managing to make it back to Kelowna around midnight, even when considering a dinner stop at Bob’s Burgers and Brew (which is a chain in Washington I believe). PAX was pretty good, but it really felt like there was less to really want to line-up for than compared to some other years, and it was weird seeing one with no notable EA or 2K presence. Missing Fallout VR was probably my biggest regret, but for whatever reason Bethesda loves to poorly use the space they buy up at PAX. The VR area where we played Powers United would have suited Bethesda much better. All in all, while the plethora of PAX events can potentially make the individual events feel a bit less special,