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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

PAX East 2012 Afterthoughts

PAX East 2012
Every year, PAX East always takes place during an awkward time. Between the Game Developers Conference in late February/early March and the big, bad E3 in June, PAX East merely fills the March/April gap in terms of video game expos. In theory, publishers don’t have much incentive to debut games at East that they wouldn’t otherwise showcase elsewhere.

But it does have one trump card: unlike the others, it’s open to the public. This fact alone helped last year’s East to both break the PAX attendance record up until then and feature a show floor full of big, exciting games. It was way bigger and better than the first PAX East of 2010, and it easily rivaled Seattle’s PAX Prime in terms of attendance and overall quality. Its awkward timing didn’t seem like a big deal.

This year, however, PAX East faced another disadvantage. The Boston Convention and Entertainment Center where the show’s typically held had few open weekends in 2012. The best one, ostensibly, just so happened to be Easter weekend. When I first saw the show’s schedule, I immediately felt worried.

For one, I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to attend, despite living a mere train ride away from the Boston event. Sunday fell on Easter itself, so it wasn’t ideal for me as I typically spend time with my family on such holidays. At least I could probably still make the other days, which would be enough to check out plenty of games and panels.

Anyone paying attention to the sale of PAX passes could figure out that Easter was bound to impact attendance. Only the 3-day and the Saturday passes sold out well ahead of the show, while both Friday and Sunday remained available even within a week before the event. Which was insane. Normally, you’d be lucky if any passes were still available a month before PAX, let alone a week.

So with both its awkward timing and the major holiday, PAX East wasn’t looking so hot this year. And the show hadn’t even started.

When they saw the date, publishers might’ve also anticipated that the major religious holiday would keep the public away. My guess is many of them then either decided to skip the show entirely or display a limited few games while saving their best stuff for E3. For the most part, they’d be right about the reduced attendance, so limiting their PAX presence would be a good call.

PAX East 2012: 154 Exhibitors
One look at the show floor this year was all I needed to confirm my suspicions. Compared to other PAXes, I saw fewer excited nerds clogging up the aisles. Fewer booths welcomed me with their dazzling, inviting presence. And so, fewer cool games made a splash.

But these are based on my personal experience. In terms of exhibitor counts, PAX East ’12 was surprisingly bigger than East ’11. Check out the floor plans and my estimated exhibitor counts in the pictures to the right, all based on the info included in the free programs I gathered from each PAX.

Despite the hard numbers, I’d argue that the quantity of “big games” at show this year was less than what I expected from the previous PAXes. Last year, those games for me, counting the ones in the expo hall and those in panels, included Portal 2, Bastion, The Darkness II, Duke Nukem Forever, L.A. Noire, Rage, F.E.A.R. 3, The Witcher II, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. This year the only games that caught my eye were Max Payne 3, Assassin’s Creed III, Borderlands 2, Far Cry 3, and Spec Ops: The Line.

PAX East
PAX East 2011: 118 Exhibitors
These are the games that stood out the most for me personally, but again, they are a matter of preference. I’d imagine that someone else possibly could have had different experiences, saw different groups of games each year, and then thought that this year had the greater number of exciting titles. Maybe I also didn’t check out enough indie titles, which I—guilty as charged—never have time to see, but I’ve heard are always fantastic at any PAX. In the end, though, the best I can offer in terms of “evidence” is my own experience.

In a word, I wouldn’t exactly describe my experience as “disappointing.” No, the games and panels that were there, however few, did present rather enjoyable experiences. Borderlands 2, as it was for PAX Prime 2011, was undoubtedly the biggest draw: the fully playable demo had a reportedly 3+ hour wait, which unfortunately meant I had to skip it in favor of other games. Its booth, moreover, prominently featured gorgeous life-size character statues. And Far Cry 3’s booth even had a genuine tattoo artist on hand who’d give you real tattoos. You know, the kinds that’re burned into your skin. Forever. As such, the booths were among the coolest-looking I’ve seen out of the four PAXes I’ve attended over the years.

If I have to point to one thing that actually threatens the PAX experience, it’d be the increasing trend to incentivize game sales right from the booth. “Be sure to preorder the game before you leave!” “GameStop employees are stationed in our booth to take your preorders!” “Get your preorder bonus while supplies last!” Honestly, it’s all starting to get annoying. No joke, the GameStop employees are a very real presence, and a nice, disturbing touch to any demo. If the trend continues unchecked, soon publishers will keep all their “free” schwag behind the lock and key of the preorder. I shudder at the thought.

Outside of the expo hall, I sadly only ended up attending a single panel over the course of the whole event. A huge fan of Uncharted, I had to go see “The Uncharted Story” that Naughty Dog had in store. The panel, helmed by Naughty Dog’s own Justin Richmond, Eric Schatz, and Arne Meyer, depicted a kind of post-mortem of Uncharted 3’s “Chateau” level. They gave fascinating virtual tours of the level at various points in development, from the basic, blocky first mock-up to the final, spider-infested, gloriously burning version that you explored in the game. Seeing the whole process—what they cut from the level and what they added—was an interesting, technical glimpse into the development process. If you weren’t of the huddled fans at the theater with me, luckily you can still watch the panel (among others) in the video below at around the 3 hour, 8 minute mark.

Watch live video from PAX East 2012 on TwitchTV

The word I’d use to describe PAX East 2012 is simply “underwhelming.” It certainly wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. I saw a few neat games, attended a single panel, met up with some friends, and had some fun. But, you know, a huge part of the reason I go to PAX is feel especially overwhelmed. I want it to seem like there are far more things to see than I can realistically experience in three days. It’s part of the magic. The holiday might’ve dulled the magic this year, but it at least means I’m quite ready for the next PAX to blow me away. Come on PAX Prime. Bring it on.
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