PAX 2011: Connecting Through Gaming
Game designer Nels Anderson looks at the connections and relationships forged by the annual Penny Arcade Expo gaming convention.
While I’m standing beside a nearly six-foot-tall statue of some cerulean death machine, shortly after setting foot on the expo hall floor, another attendee stops. He looks at me puzzled for a second and then asks, “Hey aren’t you the panty game guy?” Ah yes, it’s good to be recognized. In truth, the gentleman was not wrong. Last year, when I still worked at Hothead Games, we were on the show floor demonstrating DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue. I gave hourly presentations that culminated with throwing women’s undergarments emblazoned with DeathSpank sigils at the assembled throng. I suppose something like that would be memorable.
What’s astonishing about the Penny Arcade Expo (aka PAX), though, is that, despite attendance now climbing over 70,000, encounters like that aren’t just possible, but likely. PAX feels less like the nation’s largest consumer gaming event and more like a small town, or, perhaps more appropriately, a college campus that somehow coalesces for a weekend and then dissolves again just as quickly. But instead of, “Hey, there’s the guy that sat next to me in Calc 2,” it’s, “Hey, there’s the girl that came dressed as Rainbow Brite last year.”
Standing on stage in Seattle’s gorgeous Paramount Theater—which would only require a few thousand gallons of seawater to be perfectly at home in Rapture—David Jaffe’s packed address opens the show on Friday morning. But Jaffe’s keynote, characteristically ribald and bristling with profanity, touches on a different kind of connection that also appears at PAX—the connection between creator and audience. “I hope that you find a game that stirs your soul and speaks to you, and I hope you can find some of the team members that made those games, and you let them know.”
At its heart, PAX is about making connections. It could be the annual renewal of friendships formed at the show or it could be a connection between creator and player that manages to pierce the tempest of bass and strobes filling the expo hall. On Saturday morning, after spending a half-hour playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, I briefly spoke to Matt Carofano, lead artist on the game. I asked him if he ever feels stifled by the expectations The Elder Scrolls carries with it, given how popular the series has become. He replied that it was actually those expectations that keeps things feeling novel. “We’re trying to create that perfect simulation of a world. We know we’ll never really get there, but each time it gets better.” Pushing the depth, detail and breadth of the world challenges Matt, and the rest of the team, to keep doing something different.
Less than 24 hours later, a young woman with her face mostly obscured by a felt horned helm told me about her deep, personal connection with The Elder Scrolls (the kind of surreal experience made commonplace at PAX). I caught Kaylee as she was leaving the Skyrim demo area. When I asked her how long she had waited to play the game, she said, “Three hours, and it was totally worth it.” She relayed how she’d been introduced to The Elder Scrolls in high school and the world’s rich detail had left her transfixed. She said the tremendous freedom the series provided encouraged her to express herself more, both in the game and out of it. While Matt will likely never meet Kaylee, it felt obvious that the things Skyrim was being used to say were being heard and appreciated sincerely.
Everyone has their own reasons for attending PAX. While waiting in line to play Borderlands 2, I spoke to a couple from Seattle named Sean and Cat. They said that while they like the big games, it’s discovering small indie games they’d never heard of that really excites them. “You’re reminded that these games are made by people. You can literally go talk to the creator. That’s so great.”
The main expo hall dominates the fourth floor of the show, but there was a smaller appendix on the sixth given over almost exclusively to those small, independent developers. Jerry Holkins, who writes the Penny Arcade webcomic under the name “Tycho Brahe,” described the area as a “bonus stage” and said its presence was quite intentional. Holkins said attention is specifically paid to smaller developers, as the challenges those developers face are “not a quality problem, it’s just exposure.” To provide even more of that exposure, the PAX 10 was established. The PAX 10 is a showcase of 10 independent games, selected from over 100, to be given a free space on the show floor and receive that exposure. And while there were no three-hour lines to play any of the PAX 10 games, a steady flow a people around the showcase certainly kept all the games’ creators quite busy with near-constant demonstrations.
Even independent developers outside of the PAX 10 recognize the tremendous benefit having their game at the show can have, and they’ll travel vast leagues to do so. Broken Rules, the Austrian team of Jan Hackl and Clemens Scott, who released their first game And Yet It Moves in 2009, were showing their new game, Chasing Aurora. They brought the multiplayer portion of their game. This mode allows four players to control a bird of prey in a 2D area and chase after a glowing crystal attached to a chain. Once the crystal has been grabbed, the other players try to steal it while the owner plays keep-away. It’s simple but tremendously elegant. If you’ve ever seen birds fighting in the sky, wheeling, swooping and dive over each other, this is exactly how Chasing Aurora looks and feels. And that is entirely purposeful. Jan told me the game was meant to evoke the “roughness and brutality” of nature in the Alps. This didn’t seem lost on anyone I saw playing the demo either. When I asked Jan what about the show had been especially satisfying, he said it was the “really dedicated fans you can talk to about your game.”
That dedication isn’t just on the part of attendees either. Hello Games, creators of Joe Danger, were also at PAX showing their new game, Joe Danger: The Movie. The team had just finished showing the game at Gamescom, the European version of E3 combined with PAX and greatly expanded in size (its 200,000 attendees make PAX look like a county fair). Hello Games drove a van filled with consoles and TVs from London to Cologne, Germany, and back, and then basically unloaded the van into a commercial airliner. And unlike Broken Rules, who dispatched part of their team to Gamescom and the rest to PAX, everyone from Hello Games that went to Gamescom was in Seattle days later. By the time the team returns to London for the second time, they will have traveled roughly 10,000 miles in less than a month to show off their game.
Despite traveling nearly halfway around the world, managing director Sean Murray and the rest of Hello Games were nothing but ebullient. Having personally demonstrated a game at PAX for two different years, I can tell you the process is hugely rewarding but also completely exhausting. You basically say (or, more appropriately, shout) the exact same thing over and over again for three days while sleep-deprived and hopped up on caffeine. The back-to-back of Gamescom, international travel and PAX is almost unimaginable. In contrast to some more industry-focused events, “Everyone who comes by [the booth] is happy to be here,” says Murray. “Nobody is pissed off because their last appointment went badly or rushing to get to their next appointment.” Sean observed that even at PAX’s size, maybe “one or two thousand people per day will see your game.” But he said “all those people are excited and just want to check out what you have to show.” In short, you can connect with the people who are interested in what you do.
Perhaps most interesting of all is that those connections don’t even need to involve games. The lifeblood of PAX is its volunteer staff, known as “Enforcers.” I was actually an Enforcer for my first five years at the show. I spoke to an Enforcer named Sarah, also from Vancouver, about her attraction to the show. She described herself as a “gamer by proxy,” who would watch a friend or significant other play games, but played little herself beyond a few puzzle titles like the Professor Layton series (I recommended Telltale Games’ Puzzle Agent series to her and do the same to you).
But despite not being particularly interested in games, she feels comfortable among kindred spirits, a common theme at PAX. “Nerds and gamers are my people,” she says. “When I’m down here, people think I’m this big social butterfly. But normally, I’m actually really introverted. But when I’m here, I feel like I could be friends with any of you.”
In his closing keynote, David Jaffe observed how much creators invest in their games. “The reality is, this is personal. For most of us, this is very, very personal.”
The spirit of PAX isn’t a celebration of games, per se. It’s a celebration of the connections games help us form. Between old friends caravanning to the show together, between new friends who met playing the board game Citadels under the escalators at 1 a.m., between the creators of games with something to say and those that heard them say it—PAX celebrates all aspects of gaming. Whatever else it may be or it may become, the connections formed at PAX embody the best things about games. As long as that doesn’t change, PAX will be a place where anyone can talk about their passion for creating or playing games and find a great many others more than happy to listen.
Nels Anderson is a game designer at Klei Entertainment, and is probably the only game developer in Vancouver (and maybe all of Canada) that was born and raised in Wyoming. He can be Twitterfied via @Nelsormensch