PAX in times of pandemic: why I liked this year’s moderate gaming exposure better, even with COVID-19 rules


Magic: The Gathering players compete on the 6th floor of the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle during PAX West 2021. (Thomas Wilde Photo)

With a week to go from the Penny Arcade Expo, I’m still figuring out what to think of it. It was less of a big comeback and more of a careful reboot of sorts, which also shed much of the dirt that the series had built up.

Frankly, even with the sanitary restrictions, I think I liked it better this year.

PAX is typically a feature of the Seattle geek calendar and attracts exhibitors, vendors, artists, and fans from around the world to celebrate gambling as a hobby. Like just about every other event across the country, PAX was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its organizers moved it to a virtual week-long format last year, with some success.

This year, PAX returned to the Washington State Convention Center for a physical performance, albeit with limited attendance and strict safety precautions. A month after that initial announcement, he doubled down on confirming that the WSCC would require either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test for entry into the convention.

This month appears to have done some damage to PAX’s overall plans. The show was sparse this year, with half the crowd due to limited capacity, and perhaps a quarter of typical exhibitors spread out for social distancing.

The WSCC 4th Floor Exhibit Hall is usually a stereoscopic hype blitz full of booths announcing the biggest new video games, but most of the usual suspects weren’t in attendance at PAX West 2021.

Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Valve and other companies of this level were all absent, which left third-party Japanese studio Bandai Namco as the biggest developer in the show. Even though he only had one game to show: Tales of the Ascension, the last opus of the long Tales RPG series, which was released shortly after the end of PAX.

Superhuman Streetwear, a clothing company from Northampton, Massachusetts, exhibits at PAX West 2021. (Thomas Wilde Photo)

The second largest stand could have belonged to PM Studios, a Los Angeles-based publisher that offers a range of original games like Friends of Ringo Ishikawa. One of his demos at PAX, a hyperkinetic cyberpunk hack-and-slasher with a completely unidentifiable logo called Is no longer human, maybe the best thing I played at this year’s show.

Another surprise exhibitor was the new live streaming platform Trovo Live, which made its first appearance at the congress at PAX West. Trovo’s audience share is just a statistical failure right now, but its parent company Tencent is one of the biggest players in the modern gaming industry. It’s worth staying on your radar.

This serves to illustrate the point, however. Most of PAX West 2021’s floor space was devoted to indie developers, some of whom showed one-man garage projects or barely-out alpha demos.

In a more typical year, the 4th floor exhibition hall would be jam-packed with the biggest upcoming games of the year, while the 6th floor would be filled with standing only with independents from around the world. . Tabletop and VR exhibitors were typically set up in nearby hotel ballrooms, just to manage space. It was frantic and over-the-top marketing, and frankly, it pissed me off.

The 2021 show was, of necessity, a lean version of the show, running on hand sanitizer and cautious enthusiasm, where everyone seemed happy to be there but still didn’t know if it was a good idea or not. The fully volunteer crowd of Enforcers were there all weekend, providing extra masks, helpful instructions, and hand sanitizer to those in need, and they took up the health rules. extremely seriously.

Some of the long-time attendees I spoke to, people who had started PAX since its first show in 2004, compared the PAX West 2021 experience to the downsides of previous years, especially 2008.

People on the ground

“We provide a carnival atmosphere,” said Mike Selinker of Lone Shark Games from inside a shark, “to try and entertain the people who need it.” (Photo by Mike Selinker)

Relatively few vendors showed up this year, whether local or from out of town, and everyone I spoke to said they had a surprisingly successful convention.

“PAX went really well for us,” said Alena Alambeigi, Marketing Director at Limited Run Games, who had a booth on the Expo lobby floor during PAX.

Limited Run, headquartered in Raleigh, NC, specializes in publishing physical collectible editions of video games that are otherwise digital exclusives or long out of print.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” Alambeigi told me, “but it was as good as our last PAX in 2019. We wanted to be safe, and we didn’t know how much PAX would enforce health restrictions. , but since I’ve been here they’ve been great and very strict.

Every time I walked past the booth to Pink gorilla, a Seattle-based retro / import game store, there was a long line of crooks waiting to enter. He launched PAX with a large assortment of play-related plush dolls strapped to the walls of his booth, and by Monday afternoon, most of those plush toys were gone.

“We never have a line like this,” said Paublo Smith, one of the former owners of Pink Gorilla. Although he no longer runs Pink Gorilla, he often helps run his booth at Seattle-area conventions. “We are based where Sony’s booth is normally, and it has been going on and on. “

“I think people are thirsty for exhibitors and there aren’t enough of them here. People said, “We’re just glad you’re here. We don’t mind the wait.

Mike Selinker, president of Seattle-based board game company Lone Shark Games, had a booth on the grounds of Expo Hall to hand out dice and demonstrate his game. Lords of Vegas. “We’re happy with the sales we’ve had, but that’s not really the point,” Selinker said. “We’re here to encourage people to become players again. “

The game is the thing

Con attendees play board games on the sixth floor of the Washington State Convention Center during PAX West 2021. (Thomas Wilde Photo)

“I came here thinking it would be a dumpster fire,” said Matt Zaremba, “but it isn’t.”

Zaremba is the owner of Zulu’s Board Game Cafe in Bothell, Wash., Which set up two booths during PAX. 2021 was his 10th year at PAX West and his 4th as an exhibitor at the show.

“Last year was a draw,” Zaremba told me on Saturday morning at PAX. “But this PAX went really well, easier than it ever was. It looks a lot more like [the tabletop-only show] PAX unplugged. People just play games.

It was hard to miss on my travels through the WSCC. The exhibit hall on the 4th floor, where many vendors and game demos were housed, was often relatively quiet during PAX.

The 6th floor was however mainly devoted to table and card games, including a large library of board games that con-goers could borrow and try out, and this part of the show was surprisingly full.

This might be my biggest takeaway overall. Most of the people who seemed most satisfied with this year’s version of PAX seemed to be the ones who had actually spent their weekend. playing games with each other. If your ideal PAX is one where you collect a massive amount of pins and buttons while visiting all the major new demos, this year’s show could only be a bummer.

On the other hand, if you just wanted to hang out for a while, meet people you haven’t seen in a while, and play games, this was the convention for you. In the end, even with all the sanitary measures in place, it felt more like a ‘celebration of the game’ to me than the 2019 show. It still doesn’t feel right, but the more low-key approach really did. good to PAX.

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