Why I won’t be going back to PAX Australia

First off, a disclaimer. I have been, and remain a massive Penny Arcade fan. I read the comic, I watch the series, and I thoroughly enjoyed what they did with Strip Search. This article is about why PAX, the Penny Arcade Expo, isn’t for me.

Like many folks, I was excited when PAX Australia was announced – I didn’t hesitate to buy a 3 day pass. I’d seen the schedule for previous PAX-es (PAX-en? PAX-ii?), and was happy to assume PAX Australia would be of similar calibre. The good news is, I was right to make that assumption. The PAX Australia schedule is great.

So, what’s the problem?

It certainly wasn’t the attendees. Everyone was there to have a good time, a bunch of people had put excellent work into their cosplay outfits, and for a crazy novelty, queues were polite and orderly. The Enforcers (event staff), though all volunteers, were doing a great job of helping everyone out. The expo part was a decent size, with a huge variety of exhibitors showing off cool things.

The problem was the size. PAX managed to be both way too big and way too small, all at the same time. I was following along with the #PAXAus Twitter stream while I was travelling on the train, and I should’ve realised something was up with these early tweets.

“Well, that’s just the early-bird queue”, I thought to myself. I was okay with missing the opening keynote, I figured I’d still get there in plenty of time to see the next session.

How wrong I was.

First off, there was the entrance queue – about 500m long when I joined, and a solid 30 minute meander through the Melbourne Showgrounds carpark, which several people wittier than I commented on:

“At least it’s more orderly than the mobs at Big Day Out”, I reasoned to myself. “There seems to be plenty of room to move when we get inside.” And there was plenty of room to move – between the queues for each session. I joined the queue for the first Q&A session about 60 minutes before it was due to start, deciding I’d given myself plenty of time.

(It was unfortunate that, either through the the PAX organisers not notifying them, or underestimates of how much extra capacity they’d need, the Optus mobile towers had died under the weight of 10,000 people looking to the internet to entertain them while they queued.)

30 minutes after the session started, I was still 100 people or so from the front of the queue when we were informed that the session was full, and this was now the queue for the next session – an hour and a half later. Now, I like the guys at Rooster Teeth, but I didn’t feel like queuing 90 minutes (plus the time to actually get inside) to see them, so I decided to see what was going on elsewhere.

By now it was about midday, and I went to check out the exhibition hall. As with all exhibitions, the crowds were thick and slow moving, so I took my time looking around at the various displays and wares. I noted a few booths with small crowds were demoing games with Oculus Rift headsets, I figured I’d be able to check them out later. At one end, there was a great game of Johan Sebastian Joust going on, which I enjoyed immensely.

The Indie Showcase had a bunch of cool games, and there were some great booths by some of the bigger companies, too. There was only one company I noticed pushing the “No Booth Babes” rule.

Having gotten a feel for the exhibition hall, the next session I was interested in was starting in about 45 minutes, so I went there to queue up. I needn’t have bothered, the queue was already twice as long as would fit in the room.

Mildly annoyed, I checked the schedule, the next session was over 90 minutes away – and here was where I made a fatal error – I thought that would be enough time for me to check out some of the other areas. Oh, how wrong I was. I went to join the queue about an hour before it started, and it was already significantly longer than would fit in the theatre. Having learned my lesson the last two times, skipping the session and grabbing some lunch sounded like the best option.

Yeah… not so much. It’s now 2pm, I’m hungry, and more than a little annoyed at my experience so far. I’m really excited about the Oculus Rift, so going to see a demo of it seemed like a good option. I found a booth with 4 demo units, that looked like the most capable of moving people through – until I joined that queue. After not moving for 10 minutes, I asked a couple of guys towards the front, “Hey, how long have you folks been waiting here?” one of them looked at his watch, “Oh, since about 12:30 or so.”

With the prospect of yet another 90 minute wait ahead of me, I decided to call it a day, and an expo. I’d been at PAX for a total of 4 hours, spent the vast majority of that in one queue or another, and really hadn’t seen anything I couldn’t catch on YouTube. It was an unfortunate waste of a 3 day pass to barely spend a morning there, but I’m okay with chalking that up to a learning experience.

So, how do we fix this?

In short, I don’t know. I’m not an event planner, I don’t know how to make these things run smoothly. But I go to music festivals where the food queues are less than 10 minutes, the bathroom queues don’t exist, and it’s possible to see everything you want to see, so I know it must be possible.

UPDATE: Some of the feedback I’ve received on this article is that it sounds like I’m totally down on PAX – nothing could be further from the truth. PAX, as imagined by the Penny Arcade crew, is the gaming convention I’ve always wanted, it’s just that the implementation left much to be desired. No two people experience the same PAX, some folks are there for the expo, others for the panels, others for the gaming (whether it be card games, board games, role playing, Warhammer, console or PC), and that’s part of the magic. For me, I go to conventions to hear people speak, and that just isn’t possible to do at PAX Australia.

Did you go to PAX Australia? How did you deal with the queues? What about other PAX-es, or similar expos and conferences?

25 thoughts on “Why I won’t be going back to PAX Australia”

  1. PAX Prime is pretty nutso too. However, I find the real joy is to be found hanging out in the freeplay rooms picking up new games and joining random games with friendly strangers.

    Sounds like they have a few links to work out forAUS though :/

  2. Yeah – so far, having learned from your example, I’ve only queued once, and allowing 70 minutes for a less popular talk was plenty. But I just got stuck in gridlock as a huge queue from the queue building crossed the main walkway! Insane. Otherwise, by ignoring anything with a queue I’m having fun… But it is annoying.

  3. This article has not been exaggerated at all. I have enjoyed PAX however my inability to stand in one (wet & cold) place for more than an hour has effected my experience. I’m not to sure what they can do to fix it. Hopefully they haven’t signed a contract with the current venue and can look at Jeff’s Shed for 2014.

  4. Good article, and absolutely true. The event organisers didn’t seem to have a good understanding of the requirements relating specifically to the panels/presentations etc. there was a large disparity between supply and demand for these. However, everything else was great IMO. good call @trizoe on Jeffs Shed, don’t understand why the event wasn’t held there.

  5. What they should do is have tickets for the sessions, either electronic or online. Make them available via an online first-come-first-served system, or a lottery; and have a bunch of non-ticket seats for those willing to queue (and unable to get them online). There’d be some pain and effort managing the tickets, unless you assume everyone has a smartphone (and a working connection), but far less pain than making hundreds of people queue for hours in the freezing cold!

    1. I don’t think they should have online registration for panels – get there in person!

      However, barcoding the passes and allowing you to ‘check in’ physically and then go away and do stuff without queuing up works for Disneyland, and might be an interesting idea for PAX.

  6. With a three day pass, why did you only turn up on Saturday, the busiest of all three days? Friday was a much lighter traffic day in the EXPO hall (and everywhere else, really).

    Food wise, I’ve found getting lunch before 12 and dinner around 6:30pm were quick and I didn’t even have to queue for my pizza tonight – last night was a brief queue for my burger, a few minutes; nothing more than I’d expect from any food truck.

  7. The food queues seemed much better on Saturday, even though I heard it was the bigger day for ticket sales. The panel queues were worse though.

    I wanted to see two panels in the wombat theatre one after another, but because the queues were starting 90 minutes early (i.e. as soon as one queue enters the theatre the next one starts) the “paltry” 30 minutes between sessions meant the queue was full when I got out.

    I’ve averaged 3 sessions a day, and that was only through luck and them not clearing the main theatre after the keynote on Friday.

    I want to hear big clear plans for solving this next year or I won’t bother making the trip from Brisbane again.

    1. I’m hearing from people who went today that there were a bunch more food trucks, so it’s great that they’re trying to fix the things they can. It probably helped that Friday was so bad, lots of folks would’ve brought their own food for the rest of the weekend.

  8. Attended today (Saturday) – no real problems at all. Arrived at 11am, walked pretty much straight in. Food queues were pretty standard length for most events, event queues were as long as you’d expect for a popular event that has limited seating, etc.

    Realistically you have to realise:
    * The experiences you list were for the first day of a first event for the first time at a new (for the event!) venue.
    * It’s goddamn busy
    * Multi day events are always like this on their first day

    Realistically, I think people need to look at it from a wider perspective. Yes, there were some waits, and there were some lines – it’s hard to judge demand, and I’d say there was a clear improvement today. To say ‘I WILL NOT BE GOING BACK’ is pretty over-reactionary and melodramatic, and I’d definitely reconsider.

  9. I went to both days, was there just after 8 to queue for the opening talk and the following q&a, was a long wait but worth it. Queued for the xbox announcement about 45mins early no prob there. Admittedly I didn’t goto anything in the smaller theatres the first day. Played some table top games, shot a lot of photos, played some demos.

    Saturday was better, got into the Childs Play panel by queuing for 90mins (they where late starting). Only disappointment was Gearbox, queue was full 90+ mins before it started, and Good Game panel again full 60+mins before hand, could of got to that one but damn I was working towards my stealth out of no where Settlers of Catan win :)

    All in all I’ve had a pretty damn good time, and will probably be back next year. They do need to work on lining up talks with appropriate rooms sizes tho. You can see on the twitter feed that some of the main room things still have space when they start but then you get the other theatres maxing out hours before hand.

  10. I am a veteran PAX goer, having been to East ’11, Prime ’12, and East ’13. I love the convention, and can’t get enough of it each year, for the expo floor, the friendly people, and the great atmosphere. I have not been hearing amazing things coming out of the AUS community, which is sad, but expected. It is their first year. Just like East ’10 was not the best conference, they learned from its mistakes and got a bigger expo hall (exponentially so) and made East ’11 one of the best PAX’s ever and the premier gaming convention in the US. Give them a year or two. It is like saying that the original generation iPhone sucks, so you wont wait for them to fix problems and add things. Give them time to check out more venues, and management options, and then give them a try in a year or two.

  11. First year PAX East was the same way. First time I’d been to a PAX and not been able to make it into a single panel b/c they got too full. (I’ve pretty much mostly given up on panels these days and enjoy the gaming rooms, expo hall, and concerts more.) Now, the next year they realized the troubles and went to a larger venue (though definitely not a *better* venue IMO, aside from being larger — amenities, accessibility, affordability and location are much poorer) where they’ve been every year since.

    So it seems that new PAXes go through the same growing pain. It’s hard no doubt for a new con to an area to justify the big venue until they’ve had a year at a small venue and proved that they are just too massive to fit. After all, PAX Prime started at a suburban civic center 20 minutes outside Seattle, until 2006 IIRC when it was wall to wall people and they looked to the big city for the next year. They’ve since overgrown that space — but there is no other space! so they have started to colonize surrounding space — hotel banquet rooms, opera houses, and now the city’s largest theater.

    TL;DR: they will certainly nail a larger venue for PAX Aus next year. It’s been the same with the other two locations.

  12. Looks like someone didnt do enough research into the line rides at PAX and how to handle them…

    This September, my wife and I will have 7 PAX;s on our belts and we both agree: If you are prepared properly (3ds, tablet, ereader, zombie dice, etc) its not an issue and can sometimes be alot of fun. Especially if you arent afraid of meeting new people.

    This year we even have little fold up stools!

    1. With all the whinging going on, i thought that my friends and i were the only ones that felt this way. I found that meeting people in the queues and streetpassing with people was one of the more enjoyable parts of the con :) We also had zombie dice!

  13. Sunday was good I thought, no waiting to get in, wandered around no problem – everyone courteous, got food within minutes and a seat at a table to eat it, and managed to get into the Penny Arcade Q&A just by wandering by at the right time – no waiting in line at all! That said, I deliberately didn’t attend on Saturday anticipating it would be madness, as with most weekender conventions I’ve attended. I reckon by next year they’ll have much of this sorted – the first year always has teething problems.

  14. Looking at it as someone who doesn’t go to PAX for the panels, the event ran great! Only had to wait in line for one demo (Total War) and that was a modest 20 minutes. The rest of the demos looked interesting enough but, just like at PAX Prime, weren’t worth a larger chunk of my time. The real show is meeting people, playing games (both the board & console game areas were very well set up), and having a good time among your own kind. Sorry the other elements seem to have hurt your experience!

    (For those commenting on food lines, day 1 was a mess as everyone tried to eat at lunch time–day 2 and 3 were much better spread out and as the vendors responded to the demand surges. Unlike the inner city PAXs there are no other food sources other than the vendors at the event; I thought they performed admirably and gave us some good fare.)

  15. I was stuck in an MCM Expo ticket queue for an hour or two earlier this year; I’d forgotten the art of carefully selecting my entry times. (MCM Expo lines are a good example of the insanity of these events; the queueing system involves a queue to join the queue to buy a ticket, which you can then exchange for the actual entry ticket. I think that last part is there so that a third queue can be inserted if necessary. This entire system takes place in a hall of comparable size to where the actual convention takes place.)

    MCM is more of an anime themed event; for video games over here there’s the Eurogamer Expo. I don’t recall Eurogamer Expo ever having massive hour long queues to play games; it’s certainly crowded (to be honest, I rather expect the Expo organisers to be strategically limiting the ticket supply), but I’ve always been able to play whatever I’ve wanted to. That said, the demo booths are fairly large; typically 20-30 machines playing simultaneously (4 Oculus Rift units sounds like the organisers were expecting indie game level interest).

    Having also been to music festivals… yeah, the line difference thing is weird. I’m not sure whether it’s a relative lack of experience (alright, I’m assuming there’s more industry experience running music festivals than fandom conventions), different setups (fandom conventions seem to often be hotel based, so maybe they normally find hotel access to be the limiting factor) or a deliberate attempt to throttle access for scarcer “human beings entertained simultaneously” resources.

  16. I had a very different experience at PAX than what is outlined in this article, but my big difference was I went to the con with intentions to board game and interact with other gamers that were attending. As soon as I heard there were wait times for the panels I figured I’d just leave it to chance whether I would get in on a panel (which I didn’t end up following up on anyway as I was having too much fun).

    I played a tonne of JSJoust without queuing at all and I played ~18 hours of board games with generally no waits on tables.
    I perused the indie games vendors with no problem.
    I watched games tournaments with no problem.
    I borrowed board games and played them with no problem.
    I would have liked to have experienced the occulus but the lines looked too big.
    I would have liked to sit in on a pane or two but the lines again looked too big.

    As for entry:
    on Friday @ 12 noon and walked straight in
    on Saturday @ 10:30am and queued 15 minutes before getting in
    on Sunday @ 11am and walked straight in.

    Food lines were huge on Friday, that was unfortunate, but every day after was fine, but I had brought my own lunch anyway.

    I feel like every complaint you had could have been avoided if you thought on your feet and were flexible with what you did at the con.
    It could definitely be bigger (and will be according to reports) and it would not have been a good experience if you were only there for the panels, but outside of that I think your article misrepresents the convention.

    I had an amazing time, you’ve just got to jump into what’s available, not bang your head against a wall and complain when it hurts.

  17. I couldn’t agree more with your article. The reason I got a 3 day pass was to see as many talks/panels as possible and I only ended up seeing 2, because of the ridiculously small theatres/halls they hosted them in. 2 hour queues for a 1 hour talk is asking a bit much. Especially when it’s wet and cold. Not my idea of fun.

    I can only hope next year they use a different location and learn from their mistakes. While the lineup was good, I hope to see some more large developers make their way out, so the line up more resembles its US counterparts.

  18. Teething problems young PAX attendees! Can’t expect things to instantly work perfectly on a first try, in a new venue, on a new continent. From things I heard, a lot of stuff went way differently compared to a US PAX. Little thing for example, the QR code hunt ran out of XP cubes, and then every other thing they stole from other areas to use as prizes. Doesn’t happen in the US from what I heard.

  19. We had no issues with queues and got into every panel we wanted to.
    Common sense would have removed all of your issues.
    If you want to get into the first q and a, which everyone there wants to see, then you get there bloody early and you wait.
    If you don’t want to wait then you don’t want to see it as much as you think you do.
    You were also at the wrong place or in the wrong queue because we had friends in the line 30 mins before it was scheduled and they got in.
    Not only that, you didn’t learn from your first mistake and you then complain about that.
    Did you think a con with 35,000 attendees would not have queues?
    Food wise – either pack a lunch or use your brain, leave the show grounds- walk about 50m around the corner to a shopping centre with Coles, a Bakery, 2 cafes and a fish and chip shop.
    Also using your common sense, when everyone is in a panel you couldn’t go into, that’s the best time to see things that usually have a big queue. The oculus queue that we joined we waited in for around 10 mins. Because we have brains. Thank god you won’t be there next year, less people to queue behind (or should I say infront of?)

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