The Penny Arcade Expo celebrates its fifth anniversary this year by completely taking over the 300,000 square feet Washington State Convention Center in Seattle. Started as a way to bring fans of the Penny Arcade webcomic together, PAX has grown from 3,700 attendees in 2004 to an expected 50,000 this year.
Even though the program officially runs from 2pm to 10pm on its first day, a Friday, those scant eight hours were packed with over twenty panels in satellite theaters where industry pros cover such topics as Video Games in Public Policy to the Speed Run Showcase, where clips of highly talented gamers complete difficult tasks at lightning speed. An appreciative and discerning audience audibly gasped and cheered as if it was a Sportcenter highlight reel.
The first night featured the keynote address, delivered by 2K Games' Ken Levine, who had a great year with the blockbuster BioShock. Ken told the “sad” story of his life, born to patents who made low attribute rolls in his creation, and became a child who lived in fear that his geek/nerd tendencies, a love for the movie Logan's Run and a crush on the Scarlet Witch, until he made fiends with people of 'his own tribe.' And how after he grew up and ventured into the real world alone, found a new tribe at 2K, and loves the fact that thousands more have found theirs at PAX.
Immediately following Ken's speech a curtain on stage was drawn back, and a sixty piece orchestra was revealed, who played about 16 bars of fanfare before the Gabe and Tycho panel theme song (the Rick Ross classic, Everyday I'm Hustling). The founders of Penny Arcade (real names Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik) came on stage to thunderous applause, and immediately they started to take questions.
The first fan announced the success of the Cross County Super Trip with a casualty count of only two tires.
A request for more hardcover versions of the compilation books was met with applause and a soft promise.
Tycho answers a request for a song with the original tune “If You Are Really A Woman” by the fictional band The Sex Generals.
A fan wants to know what happened to the Podcasts, and blame is cast between the two principals, before an admission that Tycho is largely at fault for their disappearance.
The audience is then “rickrolled” by an iPod wielding fan.
The call then goes out for the annual “Knuckle Crack” where the audience is asked to crack their knuckles in union, a creepy extended popping sound then reverberates through the hall.
A young lady asked for an appearance by Steve Wiebe from “The King of Kong,” and Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation at the next PAX, and Gabe and Tycho say they can try and make that happen.
The last question asking attendee wanted to highlight the Child's Play Charity (childsplay.org), and that the Pac-Man watch, a running gag in the strip was now in the possession of Tycho.
After hours at PAX brings a nearly all night “geek movie” fest and one of the convention's signature events, the concert, featuring The OneUps, Freezepop and geek troubadour, Johnathan Coulton.
The second day of PAX was the first full day that the show floor is on display. Over sixty exhibitors showed their stuff, including such diverse items as table top, collectible card, and role-playing games. Vendors also sold wares from Internet meme t-shirts to Japanese import toys and soundtracks.
The games, however, are the main attraction. It being just a scant few weeks since E3, a lot of the same builds were on display, but for the gamers at PAX the videos and screen shots from that industry-only event don't do them justice. And the developers know that the gamers who make the journey to Seattle each year are not just their core audience, but the kind of net-savvy superusers who shape opinions around the world.
Electronic Arts came to PAX in a big way, filling their own booth with new games and having their hands in numerous other titles across the show floor. On display were such titles as Mirror's Edge, the sci-fi action adventure that literally puts you behind the eyes of a free runner Faith, a distributer of outlawed information. The game has a sleek look, and controls to match, as just a few button pushes has the gamer moving over, under and through a landscape of skyscrapers like they've been doing it for years.
The hybrid life form simulation, Spore drew a big crowd to a nearly complete version that featured the first two stages, including the single cell stage who's game play shifts dramatically once you evolves legs and take those first shaky steps onto dry land.
Middle Earth is back (again) in Lord of the Rings: Conquest. The fantasy world that has spawned games in nearly every genre is back with it's version of the “Battlefield” formula with fighters, mages and archers, replacing soldiers, rocket troopers and snipers on some of the epic's famous battlefields. The demo has players trying to take down siege towers before the reached the walls of the White City. While the field is a chaotic Dynasty Warriors like mess, a bit a strategy is needed as the massive trolls guarding the towers treat the player less like an enemy and more like lunch.
The anticipated and heavily cross marketed (with both a prequel comic with art from Ben Templesmith and an another prequel animated movie) sci-fi survival horror game Deadspace was able to show some gameplay elements beyond the creepy atmosphere and the monsters that keep coming after you even after you cut them to pieces. In an infested engine room the player, in order to restore gravity and move on, must disengage you magnetic boots and push yourself off into the air, climbing the walls and cling to the ceiling to clear it of meteorites using a magnetic field projector in your glove that can also be used to slow down individual enemies that charge your way.
The respected developer Valve showed their four player co-op zombie survival FPS Left 4 Dead. The game drew a big crowd to it's frantic gameplay which absolutely demands that the four players work closely together to fend off hoards of aggressive zombies in a world overrun. They have to move quickly to stay on their feet, however they can revive each other if they are taken down, but they better have the others covering their backs, or they risk being torn to shreds on camera.
A PS2 era franchise gets a new lease on life with Red Faction: Guerrilla, set for release in February of 2009. Ignoring the weak follow, the new game continues the story of not-so-civil unrest on the planet Mars. Fifty years after the events of the first game, the heroes that charged in to save the day in the last game have now themselves become the brutal oppressors. Soon the revolution minded Red Faction is reborn to take the red planet back for it's people. The demo presented only the multi-player mode, but single player campaign promises to feature the next iteration of “Geo-modding,” the ground deforming action that made the first game a sleeper hit. This time it has been said that each individual element on the battlefield has been constructed piece by piece to fall apart realistically when destroyed. The game's lead designed described this factor as making the game “camper-proof.”
Finally, a game with a bumpy path to release, Velvet Assassin (formally known as Saboteur) showed a guided demonstration of its World War 2 stealth action. Based on the real-life story of WWII secret agent Violette Szabo, the game is very reminiscent of the early PS2 cult hit Escape form Butcher Bay with it's dynamic lighting and clearly defined stealth mechanic where the player charter is shrouded in a violet haze when hidden, eliminating the worry of whether or not she can been seen. Other elements, including a way to turn around a potentially lethal disadvantage makes this game a fresh look an overexposed video game setting.
Other major events at PAX on day two included another concert, this time featuring the Minibosses, the infamous “help make a Penny Arcade strip,” where insane suggestions are not taken with a grain of salt and presentations of major releases like Fallout 3, and a double panel of the new Prince of Persia and a look at the impressive African local of Far Cry 2, which will included what might be the most powerful stock level editor ever released.
I'm Tweeting from PAX at twitter.com/seth410.