PAX West 2016: Recap

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Ah, Seattle.  Home to PAX West (9/2-9/5,) which used to be called PAX Prime, for which I had been trying to get tickets for the last couple of years.  I had actually really wanted to go because of all the BioWare content it had in the past, and this was the year I finally scored passes!  Unfortunately, it was also the year that BioWare was between games and did almost nothing!  Oh well.

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Because I waited until the last second to get flights, the only ones that were not exorbitant were at horrific hours, so I wound up getting into SEA at 2am (boo!) and hobo-ing around the  airport until the trains started running around 5am (boo!)  I had discovered that the metro ran directly from the airport to a station about a block from my hotel (yay!) so I took that uneventfully and they let me check in some ten hours early (YAY!)  After heavy napping, I staggered off to check out Pike’s Place Market and the first Starbucks, and the first of many macaroni and cheeses from Beecher’s.

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So the next day PAX started, and I’d have to say that PAX is maybe one of the more interestingly run cons that I’ve been to in awhile.  For one thing, many of the panels and events are broken up into several hotels and theaters around the convention center, but unlike SDCC where the hotels are generally right next door, these hotels could be some distance away.  I think the major…panels?  Shows?  Took place at a main theater location that looked like it was around ten blocks away from the convention center, so I never actually went there.  They did have a shuttle that went around the periphery of the further locations, but it started up about an hour after the con started for the day, and ended about an hour after the floor closed, so it was almost never convenient for me to take it.

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As I walked over to the convention center, the first sign that I may have underestimated what would be involved, was all the guys walking over carrying portable camp stools.  These were really smart guys, because boy howdy, were there lines for everything.  When I first entered, the first location I found was the BioWare Base, which was offering Systems Alliance Recruitment.

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The line didn’t look too long, so I got in.  After nothing moved for awhile, I asked an “Enforcer” (PAX volunteer) for a rough estimate of how long it would take, and she said maybe 90 minutes.  As it turned out, it took around 90 minutes to get to the DOOR, and then there was a line that snaked back and forth inside the door that took about another 60 minutes.  By the time I left, it had been over 3 HOURS.

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The spartan Systems Alliance Recruitment Center.

As it turned out, the process involved teams of two people undergoing three tests–Biotics, Combat, and Tech–to see what area you should be placed in.  If you passed all three, you got to go on to the fourth test to achieve N7 status.  Unfortunately they only had one station per test, and each test took roughly 4 minutes, so it took them something like 20 minutes to finish 8 people, which made this a pretty low-capacity attraction, as we say at Disneyland.  While my team rocked pretty hard at Biotics and passed Tech, we were unable to complete Combat, so we did not get to try the N7 test.  Your reward for all this?  A ribbon for your badge with the designation you tested into.

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For the rest of the day, I mostly rambled about the exhibitor’s floor (actually two different non-consecutive floors) buying the occasional pin and Grunt plush, and admiring the various booths.

The most exciting thing for the day was that I lucked into a last-minute VR demo of “Star Trek Bridge Crew,” which was amazing.  I don’t know why anyone spends anytime doing anything else.  I got to run the helm and aside from some difficulty grabbing onto the levers during moments of duress (those exploding stars are nerve-wracking!)  It was terrifically fun.  The worst part will be trying to convince three other people to invest in the VR gear, because you can only play it with four.

The next day was the major one for panels for me.  Some of the ones I attended:  “For Honor Panel and Gameplay” with developers and voice actors, including Jennifer Hale, voice of Commander Shepard…

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“Making and Promoting Non-Traditional Characters in Games” with BioWare writer Patrick Weekes…

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And “Romance in Games,” with BioWare Lead Designer Mike Laidlaw.

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All the panels were pretty entertaining, however it was strange that the super crowded panels generally tended to be in smaller conference rooms, while I attended others that had like thirty people total in the room, and were put in huge ballrooms.  I did try to get into a few that I knew would be popular like the Final Fantasy ones, but they filled up pretty fast.  The official PAX app had a line estimator part that was pretty handy, as it depicted how the rooms were filling up by an increasing bar graph, but the rooms dropped off the app after the start time of the panel, so it was hard to know if it was worth it to try to get into a room once it started.

I also made it to the “Swag Bag Room” at one of the hotels.  This was pretty odd, as it was clearly sponsored by Reese’s Puffs cereal and featured a huge ball pit into which people would dive to find Magical Balls that held prizes they would then play games to win.  It seemed like quite an ordeal.

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The swag bags were also puzzling–they seemed to be a plastic bag that held about five postcards advertising different things.  I actually had to ask someone if that’s what they were, because frankly, it seemed like maybe someone wasn’t really familiar with the concept of “swag” as I know it.  At least they gave you free mini boxes of cereal.

For dinner I managed to hike a half-mile over to “Pie Bar” which had some quality pie.  It’s a tiny, tiny place where people wait outside for large quantities of time to get their pie from a window, but I lucked out and a table for one happened to open up just as I got there.  Would patronize again.

I spent most of the third day investigating more of the booths on the floors and playing demos for Final Fantasy and Phoenix Wright.

I did get to one panel on “Women in Games & Tech” moderated by BioWare producer Melanie Fleming.

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This evening, Bethesda threw a “Dishonored 2” party open to anyone at the wharf, around a mile away from the convention center.  There was a streetcar that went directly there from my hotel, but it had stopped running early because it was a Sunday.  Whomp whomp.

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This was pretty interesting–the area was dressed up as an in-game environment, with people roleplaying characters and a mystery you were supposed to solve by running around and playing cards and interrogating different actors.  Unfortunately, by the time I got there, I was advised that all the tokens for the winners (dice? Silver cups?) had been given out already so the game effectively had no end for people who came afterwards.  Regardless, they showed some new gameplay footage and had some limited food and drinks available, and a cool print-to-order shirt station that was also totally inadequate for the volume of people who showed up wanting shirts.  It was really well done, I thought, with the caveat that they probably needed to expect about three times the people they ended up having.

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The last day was pretty minimal for me–I needed to pack up and check out of the hotel and then store my luggage with the bell desk as my flight didn’t leave until 0730 the next morning (I SAID I had terrible flights.)  I ended up watching a table-top RPG game for most of the afternoon (I’ve never played–seems very involved!) and then did a little more shopping before PAX West closed for the year.

In retrospect, although I enjoyed PAX, I’m not sure if it’s an essential part of my con schedule at this point.  At least 50% of it is table-top games, of which I know nothing and have little prospects of playing with any regularity, since you need other people for them.  Additionally, most of the major draws in terms of panels seemed to be various podcasts and YouTube/Twitch shows which I hadn’t seen.  Probably the strongest suit was the many demos and particularly the extensive VR set up, but the lines were pretty extensive–usually over an hour, which isn’t necessarily bad for something like E3, but sometimes over two hours, which is getting up there.  The difficult part of getting to some of it was that no one seemed to know the hours of a lot of the off-site installations, so the thought of walking all the way over there to find out that it was closed wasn’t that enticing.

The main thing is that most activities simply didn’t seem to be set up for the kind of traffic they were getting.  The Final Fantasy booth offered a different shirt everyday that was only available by playing the demo…but the demo was an hour long, so it was only available through appointment only.  This meant that people who wanted in were lining up sometimes around 0700 for a floor opening time of 1000, and that all tickets for the day were given out in the first three minutes.  I go to a lot of conventions, and routinely you hear from companies “well, we didn’t know if anyone would show up.”  Maybe it’s just what they’re telling people, but if it’s not…Seriously guys:  If you Build It, They Will Come.  Plan for a lot of people.

So general thumbs up to PAX West, and in particular to the Mayflower Park Hotel who put up with me and my hobo flight hours.  If Mass Effect Andromeda decides to make a big showing next year, maybe we’ll be back.

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