Before PAX East 2011, I put together a FAQ of sorts for PAX first timers. I've updated and revised it a couple times, but now it's time for PAX Prime 2012. For those that don't know me, I have attended the last seven Penny Arcade Expos (2008, 2009, East '10, Prime '10, East '11, Prime '11, East '12). I have also attended ten E3's from1997 to 2006. As you can see, I have quite a bit of experience in attending gaming conventions, making the most of the time available, and generally surviving four days on little to no sleep. While a lot of this info is targetted at those who have never experienced PAX, I believe it is also helpful to those who have.
If you read the guide prior to PAX East 2012, much of this information is going to be a repeat. I've edited it to focus on Seattle and the WSCC instead of Boston and the BCEC, of course. And there may be a few new bits of info to add in there. Off we go...
Wheaton's Law: Don't Be a Dick
I once wrote an article about The PAX Vibe. In it, I tried to describe the most indelible thing about PAX. The experience is as though you've come to some sort of reunion with tens of thousands friends you never knew you had. Whether it's an attendee, enforcer, exhibitor, panelist, or D-list Internet celebrity, virtually everyone has a permanent smile affixed to their face for three days. Our leader, Wil Wheaton, said it best...
All of the things that make us weird and strange in the real world.
Those things that people tease us for loving.
Those things that we seem to care about more than anyone else at work and school.
Those things make us who we are.
And when we are at PAX, we don’t have to hide them, or explain them, or justify them to anyone.
We have come here this weekend because just playing games isn’t nearly as fun as playing them together, surrounded by thousands of people who love them just as much as we do.
First of all, for the sake of everyone at the show, please shower. Yes, every day. And use deoderant. It's not hard. You're going to be doing more walking than you're probably used to doing. Aside from that, why is this so high on the list of tips? Well, after PAX Prime 2010, there was a confirmed case of H1N1 on my flight home. So, use the hand sanitizer whenever you can. There are generally dispensers set up all around the convention center and especially right outside the bathrooms. You're going to be touching controllers that have been touched by people of varying degrees of sickness from all over the world. Be smart, and don't spend the week after PAX in misery.
Enforcers Are Awesome
The Enforcers are the incredible army of blue shirts that volunteer their time in order to make sure that PAX is an enjoyable experience for everyone. Can't find the right panel room? Look for a blue shirt. Need medical attention after experiencing the Hideo Kojima panel? Look for a blue shirt. Can't figure out where Jeff Green is handing out light-up Plants vs. Zombies sunglasses? Look for a blue shirt. These guys and girls are stationed everywhere. If they ask you to do something, listen up. Respect them. Appreciate them. Buy them cookies.
Do Your Homework
The schedule is avaiable right now. Download an app as well. Ther Official PAX App is Guidebook and it's the best. Skim through it, look at the presenters of every panel, and make a rough draft of what you'd like to see. Compare with your friends, look for overlaps, and start the excruciating process of deciding how to cut the least awesome things from your to-do list.
Planning ahead is a must. If you walk in there completely unprepared, you're going to either be a deer in headlights or a wandering madman. It's overwhelming. The key to planning ahead is to be flexible. Inevitably something will come up and you'll want to rearrange your plans. And know that it is virtually impossible to go to two panels that are back-to-back even if they're in the same room. For most panels, the Enforcers will empty the room in between. This means you'll be at the end of the line if it hasn't already been cut off. Also, not all of the panels are in the convention center. Getting to and from the convention center from the Sheraton, the Hyatt, the Red Lion, or the Paramount in under 30 minutes may be tough on its own, but it almost certainly means the panel you're running to will be full.
I'm going to tell you right now that you're simply not going to be able to do everything you want to do/see. Don't stress out about it. Stick to your plan as best you can, but have fun above all else.
A common misconception is that PAX is just like E3 in terms of being a giant expo hall of developers and publishers demoing their games. While that is a big part of PAX, there's so much more. The expo hall closes at 6 PM each day anyway, and the party certainly doesn't shut down at six. The concerts are an excellent way to spend your evening, whether you know the artists or not. In 2008, I only vaguely knew of Jonathan Coulton. I knew he did "Still Alive" for Portal, but that was about it. After that night, I was instantly a fan. The same could be said for Freezepop after that night as well.
This year's line-up includes the Video Game Orchestra, Sam Hart, Supercommuter, and The Protomen on Friday. And then Paul & Storm, Jonathan Coulton, and MC Frontalot on Saturday. When I go, I typically go on Saturday. For the uninitiated, Paul & Storm typically steal the show with their comedy stylings and a 15 minute song about pirates that you'll never forget. Generally, these concerts go pretty late. Sometimes well into the following morning. But, sometimes they are strictly told by the venue to be out by 1 AM. Dejected ARRR!
The Omegathon: Final Round
The Omegathon is a three day tournament between attendees that were randomly selected weeks ahead of time by Penny Arcade's staff. You'll see that each round is on the schedule if you want to see a particular game they're playing, but the important one is the final round. The final round's game is always kept a closely guarded secret until just moments before the contestants are set to play it. Have you ever imagined being in the crowd for the final showdown in The Wizard? Well, this is it. Literally thousands of people cheering for a few of their peers as they battle head-to-head in Pong, Contra, Skeeball, Ikaruga, or whatever they come up with this year. And it's all hosted by Gabe and Tycho from Penny Arcade. This is the perfect closing ceremony, and you should be there to experience it.
Hurry Up and Wait
As the years have gone by, attendance at PAX has only increased. The Washington State Convention Center is a massive maze of six levels, but you will inevitably be waiting in line for many things you intend to see and do. I've waited over an hour to see/play things like Dragon Age II, Mass Effect 3, Skate 3, and others at E3. On the most popular panels (i.e. the Keynote, Giant Bomb, Mega64, G4/X-Play, Kojima, and anything associated with Penny Arcade), you should arrive about an hour ahead (at least) to guarantee yourself a good seat.
So, be prepared. Bring your 3DS, Vita, Game Boy micro, or whatever it is you like. If you're a 3DS fan, you will get literally hundreds of StreetPasses over the weekend. Just check this out! If you're a Vita owner, be prepared to gather up more Game Goods than you will the rest of the year combined. And regardless of your handheld gaming option of choice, you'll likely never find a better place in the world to jump into random multiplayer games. I've mentioned it before, but I once used Pictochat on my DS to solicit people to come play me in Hot Shots Golf on PSP...and it worked!
Backpacking Through the Pacific Northwest
Many convention rookies make a mistake as soon as they leave their house. You simply must have a backpack of some kind. If you show up to PAX empty-handed, you'll be hurting and feeling like an idiot by 2 PM. Some think you can just pick up one of those big, fold-out, paper bags from a booth, but there's no guarantee any booths are doing that. Plus, they're cumbersome, you'll be hitting people with it constantly as you squeeze through crowds, and you need to keep your hands free.
So, be smart. Bring your favorite backpack or messenger bag to throw all of your swag into. Your shoulders are going to be killing you by Sunday afternoon, but it's your best option.
Expo Hall: It's a Trap!
The expo hall is where all the developers and publishers have booths set up to show off their upcoming games. You get to play stuff that's not out yet and typically talk to the people that are making them. It's awesome. But don't get stuck in there. Make sure to make your rounds through the convention center. Go upstairs and check out the PC Freeplay area. It's a massive farm of PC's unlike anything you've ever seen (unless you've been to QuakeCon). Hit up the Console Freeplay room and take your shot at some of the best fighting game players around. Think you're good enough? Enter one of the nearby tournaments (check the schedule). Need to take a break? Crash in the Handheld Lounge and rack up some StreetPasses and Near stuff. Head up to the Classic Console room for a bit and take a look at the massive library of gaming's past, pick out something you loved and play it with some people. And, even if you don't play board/card games, drop by the tabletop area and play some Cards Against Humanity with some random duders. There's just so much more than just the expo hall that you need to see and do to get the full PAX experience. And for the love of all things sacred, do your best to play some fuckin' Pooyan.
The Dangers of SWAG
Free stuff is great. I know. But, listen to me for a second. Don't spend the majority of your time trying to get inflatable swords, funny hats, and Gunnar Optiks t-shirts. You're going to get free stuff without trying. Not all of it, sure, but plenty. The vast majority of free stuff you get, you will eventually throw away or, if you're like me, going to pile into boxes in a closet. At PAX East 2010, there were people that waited well over an hour to play APB for 15 minutes and get a t-shirt. How do you think those people feel about that decision now? Just be smart, people.
Pack Light and Carry-On a Big Bag
For those of you flying to Seattle, you're likely going to pay at least $25 to check a bag on the plane, so you might as well get your money's worth. Even if you're only packing three Internet meme t-shirts and three sets of socks and underwear, bring a big suitcase. The extra space is going to be great for any swag you obtain as well as any stuff you end up buying inside or outside of PAX. At PAX 2009, I bought a 'Splosion Man statue from Twisted Pixel's booth. It came in a block of styrofoam, and I was still able to safely fit it into my luggage on the way home. At PAX Prime 2010, my friend (Washa Endrya) bought a fight stick from Capcom and was able to get it home easily as well.
Also, if you have one, bring a cardboard tube in your suitcase. You are likely to be handed posters at the show, and there's really no other way to get those home without folding or crushing them. One more tip from the experienced in packing for a con. Throw an empty trash bag in with your stuff. You can use that as a dirty laundry bag, which will allow you to quarantine your sweaty socks from all the cool stuff you accumulated at the show on your way home.
Do You Like Sleep? TOO BAD!
Sleep deprivation is a major side effect of the PAX experience. You can sleep on Monday or on your flight home. But, there are official and unofficial PAX events going on virtually 24 hours a day beginning Thursday night. The concerts Friday and Saturday typically go til at least 1 AM, and you're going to be in downtown Seattle, which awesomely has everything you need within walking distance. Don't even bother renting a car. In the grand scheme of things, your time at PAX is very limited even if you can be there all three days. You may not realize this now or even during the show, but come Monday, you'll know what I'm talking about. So, if you get four to five hours of sleep, you're doing great. Make the most of the time you have.
Microsoft Space Bucks Don't Work Here
If you've got a debit or credit card, you're mostly okay. Any food places in the area (i.e. Brock Lesnar's Jimmy John's) are going to take your card just fine. Most booths in the expo hall will take it as well when purchasing their wares. But, it may be a good idea to carry at least a little old-fashioned paper money. Cash can be good especially if you're going out to the bars at night. If you know you're going to need cash, there are several ATM's at the convention center, but you should hit them early because I've seen them run out of cash to dispense. And there's nothing worse than knowing you can afford that one of a kind Cammy drawing by Long Vo, but being unable to retrieve the funds to buy it.
This may sound ridiculous at first, but once you're in the thick of PAX, you may forget to eat or drink. And considering that you normally don't walk around for 10-14 hours a day, you're going to need to hydrate. Stopping for 30 minutes to eat may not sound enticing either depending on your schedule, but you've gotta. Luckily, downtown Seattle is a pretty great place to run out and get food. Just don't make the dumb mistake of standing in that hour-long line for the tiny Subway in the convention center. There's plenty of places within 5-10 minutes of walking distance. Otherwise, you could toss a few Clif bars in your bag and just eat on the go.
Don't Let PAX Ruin Your PAX
This is something I've learned over the last couple PAX's. Whether it's the pre-PAX board game meet up at the Sheraton, the Pokemon bar crawl, the Double Fine meet up at the Hard Rock, or one of the countless other unofficial PAX festivities, make an effort to do stuff after show hours. Honestly, it doesn't even have to be PAX related. Chances are, if you head out to the bars and restaurants in downtown Seattle, you're going to run into other PAX goers. We generally take over the city.
What I'm getting at is that being in line at the Queue Room of the convention center at 8 AM (2 hours prior to show open) isn't worth missing out on the great stuff that's going on at night. Now, if there's a game that you HAVE to see and you know the line during the day is super long, go ahead and get to the convention center early one day and run for it when the doors open. But, just make sure you spend some time outside of the convention center and your hotel room.
It's All That You Can Do
Be yourself, but also be open to meeting new people. I know your mom told you not to talk to strangers, but I'm telling you that's a bunch of crap. It's unlikely that you're ever going to be around more people like yourself than you will at PAX. Above everything else, including all the tips I've given you here, have fun. You're about to have an experience that you'll never forget.