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:
“This is queue at #PAXAus is redefining my concept of queues. I am standing in a parking lot in the next suburb.”
“#PAXAus queue is playing snake in the carpark. If it collides with itself the convention shuts down. http://t.co/seRN1uVBxB”
“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?