PAX in a pandemic: Why I liked this year’s subdued gaming expo better, even with the COVID-19 rules

Magic: The Gathering players duke it out on the 6th floor of the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle during PAX West 2021. (Thomas Wilde Photo)

A week out from the return of the Penny Arcade Expo, I’m still sorting out how I felt about it. It was less of a grand return and more a sort of careful reboot, which also happened to get rid of a lot of the cruft that the show had accumulated.

Frankly, even with the health restrictions, I think I liked it better this year.

PAX is typically a hallmark of the geek calendar in Seattle, and attracts exhibitors, vendors, artists, and fans from around the world to celebrate gaming as a hobby. Like just about every other event in the country, PAX got canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its organizers shifted it to a week-long virtual format last year, to some success.

This year, PAX went back to the Washington State Convention Center for a physical show, albeit one with limited attendance and strict safety precautions. A month after that initial announcement, it doubled down by confirming that the WSCC would require either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test for entry into the convention.

That month feels like it did some damage to PAX’s overall plans. The show felt sparse this year, with half the crowd due to limited capacity, and maybe a quarter of the typical exhibitors spread out for social distancing.

The 4th-floor Expo Hall in the WSCC is usually a stereoscopic hype blitz full of booths advertising the biggest new video games, but most of the usual suspects were no-shows at PAX West 2021.

Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Valve, and other companies on that level were all absent, which left the Japanese third-party studio Bandai Namco as the largest developer at the show. Even it only had one game to show: Tales of Arise, the latest installment in the long-running Tales series of RPGs, which came out shortly after PAX ended.

Superhuman Streetwear, a clothing company from Northampton, Mass., exhibits at PAX West 2021. (Thomas Wilde Photo)

The second-largest booth might’ve belonged to PM Studios, a Los Angeles-based publisher that offers a lineup of quirky games like The Friends of Ringo Ishikawa. One of its demos at PAX, a hyperkinetic cyberpunk hack-and-slasher with a completely unidentifiable logo called No Longer Human, might’ve been the best thing I played at this year’s show.

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Another surprise exhibitor was the new livestreaming platform Trovo Live, which made its first convention appearance at PAX West. Trovo’s audience share is little more than a statistical blip at the moment, but its parent company Tencent is one of the biggest players in the modern gaming industry. It’s worth keeping on your radar.

That does serve to illustrate the point, though. Most of the floor space at PAX West 2021 was devoted to indie developers, some of whom were showing off one-man garage projects or demos that were barely out of alpha.

In a more typical year, the 4th floor Expo Hall would be packed fat with the year’s biggest upcoming games, while the 6th floor would be crammed standing-room-only with indies from all over the world. Tabletop and VR exhibitors were usually set up in nearby hotel ballrooms, just to manage the space. It was sheer frenzied marketing overkill, and frankly, it got on my nerves.

2021’s show was, by necessity, a stripped-down version of the show, running on hand sanitizer and careful enthusiasm, where everyone seemed happy to be there but still not quite sure if it was a good idea or not. The all-volunteer crowd of Enforcers were on point all weekend, providing extra masks, helpful directions, and hand sanitizer to whoever needed it, and they took the health regulations extremely seriously.

Some of the long-time attendees I talked to, people who’d been hitting up PAX since its first show 2004, compared the PAX West 2021 experience to earlier years’ cons, particularly 2008’s.

People on the ground

“We’re providing a carnival atmosphere,” Lone Shark Games’ Mike Selinker said from inside a shark, “to try to entertain people who need it.” (Mike Selinker Photo)

Relatively few vendors showed up this year, whether they were local or from out of town, and all of them that I spoke to reported that they’d had a surprisingly successful convention.

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“PAX has been going great for us,” said Alena Alambeigi, the marketing director at Limited Run Games, which had a booth on the Expo Hall floor during PAX.

Limited Run, headquartered in Raleigh, N.C., specializes in releasing collectible physical editions of video games that are otherwise digital exclusives or long out of print.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” Alambeigi told me, “but this has been just as good as our last PAX in 2019. We did want to be safe, and we didn’t know how well PAX would enforce the health restrictions, but since I’ve been here, they’ve been great, and very strict.”

Whenever I happened to pass by the booth for Pink Gorilla, a Seattle-based retro/import gaming store, it had a long line of con-goers waiting to get in. It started PAX with a broad assortment of gaming-related plush dolls zip-tied to the walls of its booth, and by Monday afternoon, most of those plushies were gone.

“We never have a line like this,” said Paublo Smith, one of Pink Gorilla’s former owners. While he no longer runs Pink Gorilla, he often helps run its booth during Seattle-area conventions. “We’re set up where Sony’s booth usually is, and it’s been non-stop.”

“I think people are hungry for exhibitors, and there aren’t enough of them here. People have said, ‘We’re just glad you’re here. We don’t mind the wait.’”

Mike Selinker, president of the Seattle-based board game company Lone Shark Games, had a booth on the Expo Hall floor to give away dice and demo his game Lords of Vegas. “We’re happy with the sales we got, but they’re not really the point,” Selinker said. “We’re here to get people excited to be gamers again.”

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The play’s the thing

Con attendees play board games on the sixth floor of the Washington State Convention Center during PAX West 2021. (Thomas Wilde Photo)

“I came in here thinking this was going to be a Dumpster fire,” said Matt Zaremba, “but it’s not.”

Zaremba is the owner of Zulu’s Board Game Cafe in Bothell, Wash., which had two booths set up during PAX. 2021 was his 10th year attending PAX West, and his 4th as an exhibitor at the show.

“Last year sucked,” Zaremba told me on Saturday morning during PAX. “But this PAX went great, easier than it’s ever been. It feels a lot more like [the tabletop-only show] PAX Unplugged. People are just playing games.”

That was hard to miss on my trips through the WSCC. The Expo Hall on the 4th floor, where many of the vendors and game demos were, was often relatively quiet during PAX.

The 6th floor was mostly devoted to tabletop and card games, however, including a large library of board games that con-goers could borrow and try out, and that part of the show was surprisingly full.

That might be my biggest takeaway overall. Many of the people who seemed happiest with this year’s version of PAX seemed to be the ones who had spent their weekend actually playing games with one another. If your ideal PAX is one where you collect an enormous amount of pins and buttons while going around to see all the major new demos, this year’s show couldn’t help but be a disappointment.

On the other hand, if you wanted to simply get out for a while, meet some people you hadn’t seen for a while, and play some games, this was the convention for you. In the end, even with all the health measures in place, it felt like more of a “celebration of gaming” to me than 2019’s show ever did. This still doesn’t feel like any kind of normal, but the lower-key approach really ended up doing PAX some good.

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