I went PAX Aus 2017. Here’s some thoughts I wrote about it.
I used to run conventions. Or festivals. When I started they were conventions but now they’re all festivals or expos. But that’s a (boring) story for another day.
One of the fun things about running a convention is you get know everyone else running conventions (a very small group, a few dozen people really) and everyone gives each other tickets to their events. So you can network and borrow/steal ideas and catch up with each other because you’re all friends.
I say this for three reasons- one I want to caveat my PAX Aus 2017 write up with the fact I didn’t pay to go (aside from transport, accommodation, food etc) which definitely affects the way I viewed the event (as in, I didn’t pay to I’m easier to satisfy). Secondly I want to highlight that in the last few years I’ve been to over two dozen conventions/expos so at this point a lot of them blend in and they all become pretty same-same and uninteresting to me. And lastly I’m just bragging XD
With all that said, PAX Aus was pretty good and retained its status as my equal favourite convention in Australia (equal with SMASH in Sydney).
Which is particularly impressive given I’m not a gamer and don’t really like playing games. I own three boardgames (which I’ve never opened) and after buying a Nintendo 3DS in 2014 I’ve played a grand total of two games (both of which are updated versions of games I played as a kids). And the only PC game I play is Warcraft 3’s campaign every 18 months or so.
TL;dr- overall Pax Aus was pretty great/fine just like in previous years. But there wasn’t really anything that made this PAX particularly notable/different compared to previous ones. If you like gaming you should definitely go. If you aren’t a gamer, check it out once and then you’ll probably be fine for the rest of your life not going again.
The great thing about PAX Aus is its panel line up. In my humble/arrogant opinion the thing that makes or breaks a convention is its panels/workshops. The Expo floor is fine for an hour but after that you’re out of money and/or things to buy. Guests are fine I guess but I don’t see the appeal in getting a photo or signature of someone who’s ‘famous’. Particularly nerd famous. And all the games and activities and shit that are there to play you can do in your own time any day of the year.
But panels- this is a chance to hear about completely new, completely random, completely insane stuff from all over the genre of a convention from all sorts of perspectives (consumer, creator, industry moneymaker, educator, bitter old fan etc).
This was my third PAX Aus and like in previous years I spent about 80% of my time in the panel rooms. And I was pretty much at the event the entirety of it’s opening hours.
The panels were great as with previous years. Sort of. As with every other year I pretty much always had some panel I wanted to go to at any particular time of the day- either because it was something I was interested in or it was something super niche that seemed different or it just sounded fun/dumb/crazy. However in previous years I found myself often with 3-4 things on simultaneously throughout the whole event and would ditch a panel after 2 minutes if it didn’t grab me since there were three other things on concurrently. But this year there tended to only 1-2 things of interest on at any one time.
So it was a lot less frenetic which was good for my knees but not for my brain.
Also a lot of the panels appeared to be… I dunno… less organised than in previous years. Like some panels definitely had a heap of preparation into them and others had poor preparation has half the joke/fun. But there were a lot of things in the middle where people had had a great and idea and then thought their panel of 4-6 people could just impro some gold.
(Oh fuck yeah- side note but one of the great things about PAX Panels is that everything is at least 3-4 people, if not 5-6. With the exception of a few notable ones where the sole presenters did public speaking and/or audience banter for a living e.g. Penny Arcade people, Jesse Cox. So there is no ‘one person awkwardly lecturing the audience for an hour’ panels. At least none that I saw. And I expect it is purely an artefact of the high demand on panel time/space that they get to only put on the cream of the crop.
So of the panels I went to that, here is what I can remember almost a week after the convention:
Acquisitions Inc Live- I’ve since found out this is a bit of a flagship program of the Penny Arcade Team. At the time I had no idea what it was but it had a big queue and a 3 hour timeslot on the program so I figured I would check it out. Was a group of five people- two Penny Arcade people, a DM from I think Wizards of the Coast, Jesse Cox (who I know and really like from the co-optional podcast but had never seen his face so spent 15 minutes trying to place his voice) and… one other person. A lady from somewhere I think. Real descriptive XD. Anyway they were doing a D&D style roleplay session set in the Star Wars universe (also I love Star Wars). It was really funny and they had a great dynamic. The way they gelled and worked together really showcased what a functioning roleplaying group can do and reminded me of some of the hijinks that happened in the first D&D group I was a part of (and highlighted some real issues with the current one I’m part of).
An Evening with Jesse Cox- As mentioned above, I like Jesse from the co-optional podcast and this hour long panel was pretty fun. He bantered with the audience and then ran a stupid Street Fighter tournament where he gave out really dodgy prizes e.g. hentai decals, maid card games. And he ate a bunch of Australian food. Also he highlighted (by accident) that fairy bread (bread with coloured sugar) may be an Australia party treat but is also just like standard American bread (which has a fuck tonne of sugar mixed into it). Fairly fun panel for his fans but if you didn’t know him, I guess not that interesting
Dating Sims- there were actually two dating sims panels I went to but I can’t remember which was which. One was by the same people as in previous years (where I found out about John Cena’s Sexy Magical HighScool Adventure) called PAXmance and it was pretty ok. Not much different from last year I think. Although they did highlight a game called Dream Daddy which really makes me think I should play dating sims coz it’s fucking hilarious. The other panel was about Western Dating Sims (as opposed to Japan developed ones) and I think missed the start of it so the talking part was a bit lame. But they then played a dating sim where you were dating Tank Girls and the route they took had them basically getting dragged by a psycho tank girl to a bar and getting smashed even though they were still in highschool. And wearing uniforms. To be honest, I may have confused which dating sim panel played which game but they were both pretty funny games so who cares. Also one of the presenters at PAXmance was wearing sunglasses even though we were inside at 10:30pm which really irritated me for some reason.
Jurassic Park Trespasser- this was one of the panels that clearly had a heap of work put into it as the panellists had played through the whole (horrific) game and picked out enough pieces of footage to last the exact length of the panel to show the game, the story and the disaster it all was. Essentially was people talking about this super broken Jurassic park game that was released sometime around the Jurassic Park 2 movie (I think). And it was so broken- like the MC was a pair of boobs with a super wonky arm The enemies were different coloured raptors. You could avoid T-rex’s by walking around them. The physics engine was crazy broken. Guns were pretty terrible. Ah such a bad game. But great fodder for a panel.
Bethesda Trivia- I don’t play games so I definitely don’t know any game trivia. I especially don’t know as nuanced trivia as that about a specific publisher. Every time they went to a new round I was like ‘Oh I have heard of that game/franchise. It’s pretty good I think’. This was one of the panels where failed preparation made it great- like they had drawing round but couldn’t put the whiteboard in a spot where the people competing could see and had them drawing either impossible or stupid things (that being said one person correctly guessed ‘dog meat’ from Fall Out by a single dot being put on the whiteboard). And they had audio questions but the tech failed. And the quizmaster didn’t have answers for some questions. And they ran way over time so were just smashing through things at a comical pace.
The Great Debate- the topic was ‘watching games is better than playing games’. The teams were a bit stacked because it was two comedians (Laurence Leunig and Jordan from Axis of Awesome) and journalist (Rae Johnston) (all Australian) vs two international guests (Jessie Cox and I think Bernie Berns…) and… a journalist? (I have no clue who the last person was). Like the first team had both the comedy chops and local knowledge to really get the live audience on side. But in any case all six people made pretty good arguments for their case and were all pretty funny and/or informative. Despite my personal support for the ‘watching is more fun’ side, I reckon the ‘playing is more fun’ side won. But then the judge/host did a cop out ‘everyone is a winner’ which ruined it a little.
Censorship party- this panel was actually a bit of a political thing by the Pirate Party. And from the two pirate party members up on stage (a German girl with crazy hair and a geeky looking guy with long greasy hair), they’ve got a long way to go before their ideas go mainstream (to be clear- they were saying generally good things, but half the battle is getting people to listen to you and if you look weird people will switch off). The panel itself was fairly bleh. Some interesting discussion on where we draw the line on censorship vs good taste e.g. is censoring games like GTA that have you killing prostitutes an ok thing to do? But this was a panel where there wasn’t really any prep is appeared as they ran out of content/steam about 40 minutes in and then the convo shifted into copyright stuff for… reasons…?
Button Mashing and Joy sticks, sex in videogaming- I remember nothing from this panel but my notes say “was ok. Title is an ok pun too”.
Comedy Cavalcade- I went to the comedy show last year and really liked it. This year less so. There was one comedian from Townsville who I just can’t stand, couldn’t stand her last year either. They have a super weird laugh and I just don’t find their jokes (“oh aren’t country people dumb”) funny. Jordan(?) from Axis of Awesome did a poem which was a bit weird. Demi Lardner was ok, I’m not normally a fan but yeah she was funny. My favourite was Adam Knox but that’s because I know him from Filthy Casuals (the podcast). Was hoping to also see either Tommy Dassalo (also from Filthy Casuals) or Dave Callan as the closers as I feel they’re the only nerd comedians with enough profile/talent to headline a comedy show. But neither were there.
Omegathon Final- last year’s Omegathon final was a VR first person shooter and was fucking intense. This years was 3D frogger and pretty underwhelming. The gimmick was the control scheme was a balance board. It started off close but by about half way one person was pretty clearly going to win it. Not as exciting as las year but still a good atmosphere. But I did stop paying attention for the middle bit to do some forms/paperwork for a meeting so I guess that shows how much I was really caring about it.
eSports Unsustainable Bubble- I missed the first half of tis panel and I suspect if I’d seen it all it would have gone in the ‘good’ pile. Was interesting hearing from four different perspectives (player, team manager, publisher and event/tournament co-ordinator) on the good and bad parts of eSports as an industry and where they saw things going. In particular the dude from Team Manager (a guy from Legacy eSports) had some really insightful views on what needed to happen to make eSports really hit it big like normal sports.
League of Heels- looked dumb so I left after about 30 seconds. Apparently it was interesting. But I don’t really like wrestling.
Twin Peaks- never seen an episode of the show so checked this out “for the lols”. Was pretty good if you knew what they were talking about judging by the audience reaction. (For reference I did the same thing with the Gwent card game panel last year and enjoyed it, so I had reason to think checking out random niche panels on topics I know nothing about could be fun)
World of Tanks- take above review for Twin Peaks and replace ‘twin peaks’ for ‘World of Tanks’ and ‘never seen episode’ with ‘never played a game’.
Zelda Breath of Wild- take above but insert references to me not having several hundred dollars to drop on a Switch and Zelda, combined with me not liking games, so I haven’t played Breath of the Wild. But I did play half of Ocarina of Time and 30 minutes of Wind Waker when I was a kid and Zelda seems like a fun franchise XD.
Injustice 2 Comics panel- take above reviews but make them about reading comics and/or playing comic based fighting games. Also the writer guy on the panel came across like a bit of an arrogant prick (as an arrogant prick myself, I can recognise my kind easily). Also the two hosts (who I vaguely recognise and I think do a podcast or something called Periodic Table of Awesome) have schtick I wasn’t a fan of either.
Top Weirdest Games- six people talked about 5 games they thought were weird. Was ok. Nothing special. Given they had less than 2 minutes to talk about each game it was a bit rushed and didn’t get a lot of depth. Some interesting games highlighted but generally kind of meh panel.
Vidoegame Fashion- take the above about Top Weird Games and replace with ‘top bits of good or bad or terrible costumes in videogames’. Was ok but lacked direction as a panel. Also the main host seemed to like taking digs at popular characters e.g. Mario in a bit of a smug/snarky way.
GameSpot giveaway- last year this was what the Bethesda Trivia was: hectic, trivia-esque madness. This year it was kind of boring.
3 Minute descriptions- people try to condense plot lines of games/franchises into 3 minutes. Some were very funny, some less so. Mainly funny if you’d played the game/knew the plot in some detail. Also the panellists only had like one prepared each so most of the panel was the audience giving it a crack which resulted in a wild variation in quality. And people then nitpicked what had been left out which I guess it to be expected.
Heroes to Icons- I remember nothing about this panel.
Charity Auction- I love trash and treasure auctions, so auctions where people pay well above RRP for things aren’t my jam. Also auctions with less than 10 items are boring. Give me 80 pieces of junk that need to get sold in 30 minutes. That’s a fun auction. Charity is good though.
Retro game championship- missed the start, was a 1 hour tournament on old consoles. Ended up being an 8 year old kid (roughly) vs a 30 something year old man (roughly). The kid got stomped pretty bad- the old dude knew way more about the Super Mario Bros shortcuts. Dunno how they selected who was competing though. Also one of the consoles shat itself halfway through the final, fucking good ole reliable technology XD.
While panels took up 80% of my time, I did do other stuff.
Mainly that was watching speed running. In particular I watched bits of Lego Star Wars (which I played as a kid), Gears of War (which I’ve heard of but never played) and Hollow Knight (which I thought was Shovel Knight but it was obviously a different game). There were a bunch of other speed run games that looked interesting to see (some Metroid games, Uncharted, Spryo, Mario etc) but I can watch those at home on YouTube so I wasn’t super fussed about seeing them all.
The Expo floor held nothing of interest to me since I didn’t want to buy PC hardware or boardgames. I’ve heard a recurring criticism that every year there is less and less variety in vendors selling stuff and there is more and more people selling PC hardware. I haven’t paid a lot of attention to it but I do feel it’s probably true- every year there has been less and less that I look at for shopping, culminating in literally zero things this year. I have a suspicion this is a financial decision of who is willing to buy the space in PAX for the most amount of money so fair enough. And really I don’t know what people would otherwise buy while at PAX and/or what other things aren’t being sold other than niche merchandise. But meh.
The games places held no interest ether- I tried watching some eSport tournaments but got bored/confused pretty quickly. All the bright flashing displays promoting various games didn’t really work as I had no idea what the game was for or even what platform it was on (or if it was being sold or previewed or whatever). The only thing I did recognise was a Star Wars AR thing but the line for that was fucking massive so I didn’t even bother.
Also according to my gamer friends, apparently there was a huge push on ‘PubG’ and not enough other stuff. Fair enough?
The Indie Games I’m sure were cool but I didn’t really care enough to go look at those. I went real in depth on them in a previous PAX and was neither pleased or disappointed by it- somewhere in the middle. Ditto on the Pinny Arcade stuff, great for Penny Arcade fans but not me.
Played one tabletop game- Betrayal at Baldurs Gate. Was pretty fun to be honest, mainly coz I won. By doing nothing. There was six of us and four of them were killed semi-on-accident in a magic fight. I was closest to it and walked in, picked up all their loot and become too OP for the last living person to even consider fighting so casually waltzed off to complete the objective. But I can imagine that if I wasn’t the guy who lucked out in that scenario I would not have liked the game XD
Some broader comments and observations from a convention organiser perspective:
Really liked the move of the handheld area out into the end of the main hallway. It used to be in the main expo hall but putting it out there a) freed up expo hall space, b) filled in unused hallway space and c) had the chill out area (which is essentially what hand hold is) in a well ventilated area. Similarly the Pinny Arcade stuff was set up to occur in the main ticket queue hall after the big queues to get in were gone. I’d noticed in previous years how large and wasted this space was for most of the day so it was a good way to utilise it after the opening rush.
A friend made a similar comment about how the main floor space in the convention centre section of the building was quite barren (just a Jackbox game and dance game stage). But really it’s a manifestation of a common problem- 10% of your main stage events use 90%+ of the space, 90% use less than 10% of the space. So for most of the day both the main theatres and the outside floor area weren’t full and seemed empty. But there were a handful of times where there was a huge stage event on and in the hour leading up to it the convention floor was full of the queue lines. So I’m not that annoyed by the empty floor space in the area and/or can’t think how that space could be better used (or where else to put those massive lines).
I did like how they used one of the small rooms upstairs (too small to put anything into I suspect) as a queue overflow room.
I don’t like how barren Level 1 is. Essentially the ground floor and level 1 both access the main theatres. Which means that there aren’t any dedicated rooms on level 1 for stuff and for 90% of the events they put people through pm the ground floor to be closer to the stage. Which is fine, but it means that every single year Level 1 floor space is entirely underused and kind of shit. Like you go p the full floor of people on the ground and see nothing but a few signs the next floor up.
Personally I think the best thing to chuck there would be a chill out area. I dunno of you could put any permanent stalls there given the dimensions of the space and/or uncertain foot traffic (there is nowhere to really set up a permanent attraction/activity I think) but scattering chairs, tables and beanbags (and maybe a coffee cart) would fill it up and look much nicer. Alternatively move the Level 2 queue overflow into the space and use the current Level 2 room for something else. Or a combination of both ideas.
Also, and I realise there is zero things that can be done about this, but I hate how three panel rooms are within 50m of each other (plus the Diversity Lounge is in the same area and it hosts panel style events) but then one panel theatre is on a different level in a different building at literally the opposite end of the venue. My step counter loved that walking distance but my knees did not.
Convention food is always the same- overpriced and underwhelming. I think I sampled most of the food places over the course of the weekend and was not impressed by any of them to go back. Recommend taking snacks and/or drinks and/or some fruit in your bag when you go to a convention.
Also PAX merch confuses me. They seem to rapidly sell out of some key items on day 1 and have a heap of other stuff left over. But it’s always the same stuff every year- like hoodies are always critically understocked while some niche joke shirts are over stocked. I assume there is a reason for this but some more finely tuned stock ordering on merch would be a much more efficient money maker (i.e. buy more stock of the stuff that always sells out and less stock of the stuff that doesn’t for the next year).
The PAX Phone App was a really good too. It basically negated the need for me to find a convention booklet. Only issue with it was that apparently there was an updated version every day with changes to the schedule but it kept erroring out when trying to download it. So I have no clue whether I was looking at the correct schedule or not. I mean, things were generally on when and where I expected them to be for panels. The Speed running stage was sometimes about 30 minutes off but that looked more like a technical delay/overtime speed run problem. So yeah I dunno. Generally a good app though.
Bonus- one of my favourite things about PAX is how the size of it means that the nerd shit spills over into the rest of Melbourne. Like my friend and I were walking home to our dodgy AirBnB share house and there were these two normal looking cute girls who burst into a fairly big debate about which Dragon’s Age game was the best. Fucking awesome.
Bonus- I also want to highlight how much I like PAX’s continued stanc3 on not having any official cosplay stuff. Like they have a change room and allow other people to run cosplay stuff and obviously have cosplay there but there are no official PAX cosplay events/activities. I know the organisers have copped some heat on that from cosplayers who think they are more important than they are. But seriously the value proposition of cosplay is pretty shit- it doesn’t add much, causes a lot of problems and honestly distracts from actually cool/impressive/”important” stuff. More to the point, as the organisers have pointed out PAX is a gaming convention. Not a cosplay convention. Nor a pop-culture convention. It has a very specific focus and purpose- to celebrate and promote gaming. And while cosplay does have some overlap with the fan community of gaming, it otherwise a separate beast that doesn’t really belong at a gaming event in an official capacity.
Bonus/protip- if it’s PAX weekend, don’t go to any of the nerd bars e.g. Bartronica, Beta Bar. They’ll be fucking overcrowded and shit. They’re not actually that large in terms of floorspace. Go literally on 361 other days of the year and they’ll be great. I may write up something later about my limited experiences of going to nerd bars.
So yeah, in summary PAX Aus 2017 was fine. Great even. It does a lot of things really well and for my personal tastes comes from very far behind to be equal best convention in Australia. However I have no real urge to go back again in future. I wasn’t planning to go to this year’s PAX until about 10 days before the event when a work meeting got moved (freeing up the weekend) and a friend asked if I wanted to split accommodation costs with them for a Melbourne trip to do Pax Aus and MadFest Melbourne. And personally I doubt I’d pay to go to PAX, no free ticket is me not going. Particularly as there really was nothing at this PAX that made it stand out to previous ones… which themselves were also very similar to each other.
So like… 7.5/10?
If you like gaming and are a gamer of any sort, I would recommend going. If you’re not, maybe go for a day just to see if you like it… and then probably never go again because you’ve already had the exact PAX experience that people have every year.
Also if you’re just gonna go try it out- I’d recommend just going on Friday. t’s way quieter than Saturday so has shorter lines/wait times but still a full ~14 hours of programmed content (unlike Sunday which finishes at 6pm) so it’s the best value for time/money. And then if you really like it you still have the option to get passes for one or both of the other days (of they’re not sold out).
Also protip- if you’re going to buy stuff either buy it in the very first hour or the very last 30 minutes of the whole convention- the first hour is so you definitely get the thing(s) you want. The last hour is so you get good deals and big discounts on stuff that vendors don’t want to have to pack up and take home. That applies to all conventions/events!