By the middle of the first day, photos and videos of PAX West had spread on social media. Missing were the massive displays for big name titles; console makers and major studios were all noticeably absent. The list of suppliers and the schedule of panels had shrunk considerably. Some online commentators were quick to ridicule and say they were glad they didn’t waste their time or money on the event. One corner of the internet had decided, just hours after the start of a four-day show, that PAX West was a dud.
They were wrong. The PAX West 2021 story wasn’t about the big actors who weren’t there, or the guest speakers who didn’t show up. Rather the opposite. The story of PAX West 2021 is all about the little guys.
India in the spotlight
Like many others, I approached PAX West with a little trepidation and caution. After all, there is still a raging global pandemic. Many studios and publishers have made the very reasonable decision not to attend the shows live. As a longtime player and a native of the Northwest, I have had the opportunity to attend PAX West for many years and have always taken the opportunity to withdraw from everyday life and immerse myself in in the world and culture of the game. Like many others, I wasn’t sure what to expect this year, or whether what was to happen at PAX would justify the increased time, expense, and risk involved in attending.
“Let’s go. We know why we’re here. You’d probably be listening to Kojima right now if it was a normal year,” joked comedy set Mega64, as she gave the opening speech at the Paramount Theater. from Seattle. It was true. The big names weren’t coming. When the show opened on Friday, September 3, it was confirmed: PAX was going to be considerably smaller. Gone are the huge Microsoft and Nintendo sections. It didn’t. there were no giant statues, no Bungie or Capcom mega-stands.
In their place were dozens of independent games, developed by small, passionate teams. Where Microsoft once was, you’ve found games like Captain ToonHead vs. Outer Space Punks, an absolutely insane VR tower defense-FPS game. Instead of giant LED walls, we had a fake shack that had been built in three brothers’ garage to promote their game. Blacksmiths Bay.
Niche retail booths, long relegated to the less-frequented upper area of the convention center, have now been given an entire wing of the main salon. Suddenly, BattleTech figures, custom 20-sided dice, themed skirts and scarves were the focus of attendees’ purchases. The top floor itself was now a large open space for board games. There were Magic the Gathering tournaments, games to buy and play with friends, and tables for people looking for groups to play with.
The panels were much the same. With much of the “star power” missing, this opened the door to some interesting new discussions. People filled seats (all separate and far enough apart) to hear talks about how to network at conventions or how to turn a Raspberry Pi into a retro gaming powerhouse.
The smaller scale also extended to PAX parties. There were no rented halls, clubs or bars to promote Cyberpunk 2077 Where Monster hunter world. Instead, there were more intimate gatherings, celebrating Queer Women of Esports or Seattle Online Broadcasters.
A different buzz
Word quickly spread about PAX’s actual offerings, and murmurs began to pile up about the short waits to play games and unique merchandise to buy. PAX attendees were always hungry to see and do things related to video games.
The folks at PAX West, it seemed, were there with a purpose. Queues began to form for games and shops. Attendance may have been lower than in previous years, but those who made the trek showed their enthusiasm. Visitors began to gather around games like Gurgling, an adorably spooky board game, with cheers erupting after competitive matches between conference attendees. Constant streams of new customers flocked to retail stores. Signs on specific gaming traditions or how to network at events are quickly reaching their COVID security capabilities.
The board game area has become a hub of activity. The action was constant and continued well beyond the closing time of the show itself. People took to Facebook to find additional players, and impromptu friendships, long a hallmark of PAX, continued to form.
The small PAX gatherings that had replaced the big PAX parties were now the center of the nightlife. People took to Reddit, Discord, and Facebook to discuss what was going on and where.
By the end of the weekend, attendees had reverted to their usual practices of lining up early and running to see the hottest matches in the living room. Except instead of running to see the latest Zelda title or check out the most recent one Destiny 2 expansion, people wanted an early chance to hang out with titles like the classic Doom-meets-Titanfall shooter Powerful turbo.
On Monday, as the show began to wind down, I began to informally check in with as many vendors and traders as possible to get their take on how the weekend unfolded. An employee at a retro game store told me they made more money on Saturday afternoon than they did during PAX 2019. Many indie developers I spoke to were there for the first time, delighted that the little project their siblings or friends had been working on was now being played all day by the PAX participants. I’ve heard stories of great success. Mid autumn, a supernatural roguelike with themes on the Asian diaspora and gentrification, sent an email saying that in just three days he had raised over 50% of his Kickstarter goal of $ 30,000. The sponsor of the Queer Women of Esports party told me they have a full house (COVID-safe) and an attentive, inclusive audience for positive educational discussions about sex at their event.
On the train back to Portland, Oregon, I reached out to ReedPop and Penny Arcade, the organizations behind PAX, to see the comments they had heard. They had this to say:
This Labor Day weekend, ReedPop and Penny Arcade hosted the first in-person PAX and the first major video game event in North America in 18 months, after canceling six consecutive shows for the health and safety of our community. We have strict health and safety guidelines in place, requiring either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test, with a mask required for everyone in the convention center. 93% of participants were fully vaccinated, with the community ensuring near universal compliance with our mask mandate.
The majority of our attendees told us that they had a great experience and that they understand the results given the ongoing pandemic we are all facing together. The majority of exhibitors also gave us their positive feedback on how the show was going for them. Everyone at PAX is convinced that as we set a new normal, many companies that our attendees know, love and hoped to attend will return, as they had originally planned to do a few weeks before.
The stories about empty spaces, walled up sections, and AAA’s minimal presence at PAX West are all true. Being disappointed on a smaller scale, or wishing it was more like PAX from days gone by, is a very valid way of feeling. However, the space left by the big players who left PAX has not been wasted. Smaller voices dominated PAX West 2021. Many were brand new, seizing opportunities that may not have existed in previous shows. Others had always been there, but were hidden or drowned by the titans of the industry. PAX was not empty. There was room, and the story of PAX West 2021 is the story of those who stood out and heard.
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