Penny Arcade Expo 08 Roundup
This past weekend in Seattle was PAX 08 (along with Bumbershoot and a ton of other stuff). I don’t know how many tourists were in Seattle last weekend, but almost 59,000 of them were there for PAX. Penny Arcade is, of course, one of the biggest web comics on the web and is known for brutally honest commentary on the video game industry. This was the fifth year of their conference who’s stated goal is to make the Internet into a physical place for one weekend a year. I’ve gotta say that they definitely succeeded this year. With Fruit Fuckers walking around downtown Seattle, some of the best nerdcore rappers around, and three floors of bean bags to hang out and play Nintendo DS games (which mostly consists of drawing penises on pictochat), it’s hard to imagine what else is missing from this physical presence of the Internet.
Truly, it’s too difficult to try to sum up everything I saw and heard while there, but I’ll do my best to mention some of the high- and low-lights. The company I worked for paid the registration fee for about 20 of us to go and most of us got there Thursday evening. Thursday night was the PAX pub crawl all over Seattle, ending at The Chapel, a cool little bar that was nice enough to make special PAX drinks that night (the Witch and the Warlock were both excellent mixed drinks). On Friday, the convention opened at 2pm which means most people stood in line all day to get in. They literally had a room as big as the main speaking hall (which could hold several thousand people sitting down) reserved just for standing in line. This being PAX, everyone in line was playing DS and PSP or using the free WiFi provided in the line-room. Friday evening was the keynote address from Ken Levine, the creative director on Bioshock, and the Penny Arcade Q&A panel. I’m a huge Ken Levine fanboy because I think the work he did on Bioshock was amazing and the interviews I’ve read with him have been great. Unfortunately he didn’t talk about making video games and instead talked about how much it sucks to grow up as a geek, but how now it’s kinda cool to be a geek. He had a few funny lines, but it wasn’t nearly as interesting as the other talks he’s given. Plus I learned far more about his sexual development and teenage fantasies than I ever wanted to. After that, the lights went down and an orchestra started playing. Then lights started flashing and some rap started playing and out walked Gabe (Mike Kraulik) and Tycho (Jerry Holkins). It’s worth noting that these two men are a couple of the biggest celebrities in geek culture, but they are also two of the most stereotypical nerds you will ever meet. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great guys, but Gabe/Mike has the classic nerd speech disorder and Gabe/Jerry came on stage wearing a velvet cloak. Over the course of the hour long QA session, though, it became readily apparent how they became famous: they both have amazingly sharp wits and are very, very funny.
The Friday night concert had some names that are big in geek culture (Freezepop and Jonathan Coulton to name two), but with thousands of people with varying degrees of having showered in the past ever packed into one big room, it wasn’t a very comfortable place to be. I stayed half-way through Freezepop, who I had never heard before, and really enjoyed the music that I could hear. The highlight of the show (after I left) was the Jonathan Coulton and Felcia Day (of The Guild and Doctor Horrible fame) doing a duet of Still Alive (the theme song from the hit game Portal).
Saturday was pretty crazy, but there were so many people there that it was hard to get into most of the panels that were interesting and the expo hall floor was almost too crowded to move around. I got a chance to play a few games (Warhamer Online, Pirates vs Ninjas Dodgeball, Tabula Rasa, and a few others). They were all fun, but not particularly outstanding from what I saw. Champions Online (Cryptic’s new super hero MMORPG) has a really interesting art style where they’ve made it look uncannily like comic book art, but I can’t decide if I like it or not because it ends up looking weird when it’s moving. Also, Starcraft 2 looked like a lot of fun, but from the bits of it I saw, it could’ve just as easily been Starcraft 1 with updated graphics. I suppose, though, that that’s what the hardcore fans want. Saturday night a couple people from work and I hit the Space Needle (which is super cold at night, by the way) and went to a Freezepop show at a smaller venue (maybe 50 people). I gotta say, that was one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to. They were a great band, I hadn’t really heard any of their music before, and there were 2 clowns there making balloon swords for everyone in the audience. They’re final song, Less Talk More Rokk, sounded really familiar to me, but I asked my friend and they weren’t doing a cover. It turns out that Freezepop has had a song on nearly every Harmonix game and Less Talk More Rokk was on Guitar Hero 2. I played it so many times that I recognized the melody and lyrics. That was a fun, cool experience that really hit home the whole physical Internet/geek culture theme of the weekend. Also, that show was easily the highlight of an awesome weekend.
Sunday morning was more panels (including one by Wil Wheaton aka Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation) and more expo hall. The producer on the game I’m working on was on a panel on how to get your girlfriend into gaming. She was great and the panel was interesting, but turned into a sort of geek version of Loveline where people kept coming up to the microphone and explaining the situation they were in. After the people from my office had lunch together and then most of us hit the road. The only other highlight for me was that while checking out of the hotel, we found out that Freezepop was staying there, too. So while we were waiting for them to get our car out of the garage, I sat on the couch and chatted with the members of the band about video games. It was pretty awesome.
So that’s all to say that PAX 08 was a pretty amazing event, but I didn’t get to see even half of what I wanted to because there were just too dang many people there. Luckily there’s going to be an East coast version of PAX starting in 2010 (together known as the PAXes of Evil), so hopefully that’ll make these geekfests a bit more manageable.