Hyper Mode: Alternative Game Conventions

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Because we’re PAXed enough already.

The Penny Arcade Expo always reminds me of Six Flags. I remember the weekends in my youth where I waited hours to spend just a few seconds on a water-slide. I’d come up with word games to play with friends or strangers in line, and try my best not to be cranky even though all I had for lunch was fried dough, curly fries and a soft pretzel the size of my head. Replace “water-slide” with “the demo for The Last of Us,” and, well, now you know what it’s like to go to PAX. The similarities are uncanny, from the high ticket price, to the long walk from the packed reserve parking lot, to the overpriced food that won’t sustain anyone for long, to the time invested in long lines that may or may not have a fun pay-off at the end.

On the other hand, there were plenty of parking spaces at the garage below No Show Conference on the morning of September 14. I was the only person on the elevator at the Microsoft NERD Center. I arrived just in time to slip into the first event on the schedule, which was a keynote speech from Anna Anthropy about the culture of classism in videogame development (bonus: donuts and coffee included in ticket price). After listening to a few hours of smart talks, I ate two complimentary sandwiches, and then I met a handful of other noted writers, critics and developers for the first time.

Comparing a huge fan-centric expo with a small conference geared towards industry folks may seem bizarre, even unfair—but I go to these events with the same goal in mind, so I can’t help but put them side-by-side in my brain. I go to gaming cons both large and small because I want to hear smart people tell me their thoughts about videogames. With any luck, I’ll find out about a handful of games that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise, and maybe meet some new people.

Not everybody agrees on what an ideal videogame convention looks like, but at the very least, it’s good to have options. After the most recent PAX Prime, at which co-founder Mike Krahulik alienated some of the con’s attendees by admitting in a Q&A that he regretted pulling some controversial merchandise from his web comic’s store, I saw several people complaining about how few alternative videogame conferences exist.

But does showcasing a game at an “alternative” (read: smaller) conference really benefit exhibitors? If you want to get the word out about your videogame, especially if you’re an independent developer with little to no marketing budget or experience, going to every major convention might feel mandatory. Christine Love expressed her mixed feelings about this quandary in her open letter to PAX co-founder Jerry Holkins; the minds at the FullBright Company, the indie developer that created Gone Home, chose to pull out of exhibiting at PAX despite the possible sales consequences.

In spite of the bad reputation that PAX’s co-founders have amassed, attending the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) or the Game Developers’ Conference (GDC) might not provide enough networking or marketing potential for independent developers to be an adequate replacement. E3 and GDC at least do not appear to be run by childish shock jock cartoonists; they may be huge and corporate, but at least there’s no sting by association. PAX, however, has the dubious benefit of intending to cater to fans (after all, it was created by two “fans”).

It’s hard to believe that PAX didn’t exist before 2004. It’s grown into such a staple of the game development scene that indies and games journalists alike can hardly imagine how one might succeed as a developer or a critic without attending it. With each passing year, PAX inevitably becomes more and more of a cultural juggernaut. Attendance rises, its co-founders continue to embarrass themselves by having no idea what to do with the ever-extending amplification of their own voices, and game developers continue to be at a loss as to how to ignore what is becoming yet another corporate bastion of gaming. Rather than an alternative to E3, PAX may as well be another E3—except PAX is coming to your town. Rejecting PAX is not an option. You will be assimilated.

But what if you’re a developer determined to escape the system? And what about fans who might prefer to play game demos or hear smart panels and talks without enduring all of the downsides of attending a bigger, more theme park-like convention (the heat, the stench, the crowds, the food, the lines, and the proportionately larger handful of jerks that scatter themselves evenly among every hundred or so decent people in attendance)? Surely there’s an alternative to the reputation of PAX, as well as the corporate sliminess of both PAX and E3. Indie games, after all, are meant to be the anti-slime.

Perhaps Indiecade, Games for Change, the Seattle Indies Expo and other gaming cons elsewhere do not pass muster; I don’t know. But from what I’ve seen of Boston’s own gaming scene, PAX East is at the bottom of my personal list of favorites—and not even because of its embarrassing co-founders. PAX’s high attendance numbers prove there’s a demand, but I question whether everybody in attendance at PAX necessarily enjoys huge conferences more than smaller ones. If games industry folks (or fans!) in other cities want to see more alternative conferences, they shouldn’t be afraid to found them, or improve upon the existing cons and meet-ups.

boston fig 1.jpg Courtesy of the Boston Festival of Indie Games

PAX East has been swarming through Boston annually since 2010, but it’s not alone here. Since the late aughts, Boston has been packed with numerous opportunities for local developers to meet, share advice, showcase demos, and—yes—interface with fans. Boston hosts miniature industry events on a monthly basis, via Boston Indies and WIG Boston, both of which are intended for local developers to listen to a talk, ask questions of the speaker, network and compare notes with one another. On the very slightly larger side, Gameloop brings together local developers for a day-long “un-conference,” at which attendees pitch panel ideas on the spot and vote on which talks will fill the day’s schedule.

Conventions intended “for fans” tend to be larger, and besides PAX East, most don’t show-case unreleased games. Arisia specializes in tabletop gaming, and Anime Boston has everything from free-play DDR cabinets to fighting game tournaments.

Boston now has so many industry events to its credit that two of them mistakenly took over the Cambridge area on the exact same weekend. On September 14th, the same day that No Show Conference began, the Boston Festival of Indie Games sprawled itself throughout the MIT campus, with an impressive spread of indie titles in its Digital and Tabletop game showcases, as well as numerous panels featuring famed game developers (like, say, Zork co-author Dave Lebling), and a game jam. I attended No Show rather than Boston FIG, but the decision wasn’t easy. FIG was the more accessible choice, clearly intended “for fans”—in part because of its “free” price tag, but also because of its emphasis on game demos. No Show did not showcase games, but it did feature speakers that I knew I wouldn’t be able to see without traveling all over the country, like Anna Anthropy and Mattie Brice.

I can’t prove this, but I’m 99% sure that the talks on display at No Show would never be accepted at an event like PAX East, or even at GDC. The talks (and games) on display at Boston FIG might have been—but that’s a good thing, because Boston FIG was free, and most people who live in Boston can’t afford to attend GDC (the plane tickets alone are enough to most people off, and then that GDC registration price might make your eyes bug out Looney Tunes-style). Boston FIG represented a sort of miniature PAX/E3 hybrid for me, except free, catered heavily towards PAX’s Indie MegaBooth section and nestled in my own backyard.

No Show, on the other hand, was special—almost too special to warrant a comparison to any other event I’ve attended before. Even though all of the speakers didn’t agree with one another, and even though progressives and feminists and accessibility-loving game creators often fight with one another about how best to achieve representation and equality, I felt a fire of warmth in my stomach as I listened to people I respect trading stories, airing grievances and offering concrete, well-reasoned solutions and ideas for the future.

These were not the stodgy, boring celebrities who present at E3; there was no forgettable train of bros or slapdash jokes, no insufferable staged “banter” between presentations. I would much rather hear Chris Klimas, creator of Twine, admit his surprise and joy that his tool for creating text adventures has grown into a symbol of accessibility, particularly for budding game developers who can’t afford programming courses. I delighted to hear both Mattie Brice and Liz Ryerson coincidentally choose to mock Burning Man in their two completely different talks. No Show’s ticket was pricey, but all of its talks are available online.

I feel the same way about videogame conferences as I do about videogames, and about anything else: Once a corporation gets too big, I question its ability to keep doing exciting work, to keep pushing the envelope, and to stay in touch with its audience effectively. Sometimes the videogame industry feels like a long string of disappointments and hopelessness, like some sort of vast, unchanging mountain—but even mountains erode, and smaller conferences give me hope that individual voices can scratch its surface, bit by bit.

After attending No Show, I felt the fire-glow of hope burning in me for days. I couldn’t wipe a smile from my face no matter what disheartening news I read about such-and-such videogame controversy of the hour. Why? Because I had seen something unusual happen: people I respected, coming together to argue civilly with one another about the games they create and distribute, the games they play and care about, the games they study and love.

I’m not sure No Show will have a reprise next year, so I’m glad to have been able to attend while I could. More than that, I am lucky to live in a town with a plethora of options for gaming meet-ups, and I hope that other people will be able to create more alternative spaces in their own cities. No Show Conference isn’t perfect, nor is Boston FIG, nor is PAX East—but having the choice matters. We need all of these conferences, just as we need Depression Quest and Knightmare Tower and Grand Theft Auto V to all exist within the same world, challenging one another.

Maddy Myers writes the biweekly Hyper Mode column for Paste Magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Kill Screen and at the Border House. She also blogs at her personal website Metroidpolitan and tweets @samusclone.

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