Monday, March 14, 2011

The PAX East Fun Factory

PAX East was a fun factory.

That seems like a kind of jokey thing to say, but I mean it in a very literal way. PAX East was a tremendously enjoyable convention, and most of the reasons for that can be traced to how it's run and the decisions that went into it. From my perspective, those practices and decisions are in line with those that make for maximum efficiency in factory production. Or maybe network engineering.

First, there's a lot of "wasted space" including an entire HUGE room used only in the morning for standing in line. PAX East does not take advantage of all the space available to it.

But what looks like waste at first glance is really excess capacity, and very well managed capacity at that. It's designed to handle the maximum load, not the average load, and that's just good design. It means there's always room for things to happen, and that's important later. In contrast, when you have a con that uses all the space available, things break when something overflows or runs late. Problems cascade into the rest of the system. Excess capacity keeps that from happening.

Second, PAX has a strange schedule. There are only a very small number of events, and demand is such that the queue for one usually begins at least an hour before the event. That creates a lot of friction in getting into events, and seems like a terribe way to run a ship. But again, all is not as it appears.

The small number of events is absolutely a chokepoint, but the instictive solution (add more events) doesn't change that. It just creates more, harder to manage chokepoints. Instead, PAX East elevates the chokepoints, putting them front and center. The queues seem inefficient when compared to a ticketing system, but a little thought about that (including questions like when you would distribute tickets) makes it clear that they work quite well. If you _really_ want to go to a panel, you can do so. It will only cost you time.

Still, if that was all there was to it, I wouldn't consider it too much of a solution, so of course there's a catch. See, by elevating the chokepoint that the events represent, PAX implicitly acknowledges that not everyone can be entertained by the events, and so it is necessary that convention itself be entertaining enough (or provide the opportunities for entertainment) to keep people occupied. To that end, there are numerous resources that range from an old style arcade to a console gaming room to the aforementioned tabletop gaming area. This is where that extra capacity pays off because these places can support people seeking the "passive" fun of the convention (rather than the "active" fun of events).

For people who have gone to Gencon or another highly scheduled gaming convention, consider the comparison. If you don't have a scheduled event, what do you do (besides buy things?) I'm sure there are some answers, but I admit. most of my first answers had nothing to do with the convention.

There's another upshot worth mentioning. By limiting the number of official events, but providing excess capacity and tools for communication (like the PAX forums) it encouraged informal scheduling. It also meant that scheduling was the responsibility of the person or group running the event. From private invitations to the WOTC run events, these were not the convention's responsibility to schedule (though the convention did view itself as responsible for _supporting_ these events - a key distinction). A cynic might view that as a invitation or disaster, but it seems to turn out that empowered geeks self organize pretty well.

Not flawlessly though. That's where the last bit of magic comes in. By training and empowering their volunteers, PAX has effectively created factory foremen with its enforcers. Like foremen, they have the tools and the impetus to keep everything moving, and they do so with a smile (and let me give a brief shout out to Zuki and Meatshield). It's not that every problem they solve is a big one - most aren't - but the reality is that most big problems begin with a small problem that has spun up out of control. Putting enforcers in a position to make the small fixes means the big fixes are less likely to be necessary.

Now, these are just a few observations about how things were run. I'm sure others will occur to me, and there are others I completely failed to notice. But from these alone, I'm really impressed at the depth of capacity managment thinking that has clearly gone into things. There are a stack of things that PAX East seems to does wrong (Wasted space! Bad scheduling!) but actually does very right indeed.


  1. I had a mixed experience at PAX.

    It was tremendously fun and different while at the same time frustrating. It felt like the "line waiting" convention and sometimes getting there 30 minutes early meant missing other events and still not getting what you want because others were there 60 minutes before. They took away the normal frustrating of pre-registration for games at Gen Con and cooked it directly into the con itself. Which meant you were eager to try new things when you got tired of waiting on line. And there were plenty of new things to do. They purposefully minimized supply, while demand was incredibly high, and allowed emergent supply to mix things up.

    I agree, in a way, it's brilliantly designed. It's like in Mouse Guard a single character doesn't have enough dice to succeed at most things so they desperately need helping dice from their friends and thus teamwork becomes emphasized.

    Part of my initial disappointment was my own expectations. I love Dreamation but many of my good friends who sell games opted to go to PAX instead. For them, it's an amazing experience. It's affordable, demand for games is at a Gen Con level, the audience is young, excited and hungry for anything new, the demo space is huge, and the staff is almost unbelievably friendly and helpful. Plus a typical game designer at Gen Con might have 50 people attending their seminar. At PAX, 400+ people eagerly attend! I'd argue if you sell games, PAX is now the premiere place.

    But I don't sell games. Dreamation is typically a hanging out and playing games convention for people who are too busy to do anything other than sell games at Gen Con and PAX seemed to draw people away. PAX felt more like Gen Con, people selling were busy all the time and exhausted after hours. That said, I had an amazing time hanging out with strangers and meeting new people… almost effortlessly. Getting together a last minute indie RPG was disappointingly difficult but if I placed a board game on an empty table, within 10 minutes 2-3 random people would be sitting next to me asking, "when do we start playing?"

    But to be fair, my 1st day at PAX started with news of dead friends in Japan and not getting into 3 events I waited on line for (obviously completely unimportant compared to dead loved ones but it would have been a nice momentarily escape). So my frustrations are likely biased by multiple outside factors.

    PAX isn't Dreamation. If I went there with less expectations, I would have more quickly appreciated what PAX is. I'll go again, but next year I won't bring RPGs to run or any plans at all. If you're open to anything new, you can spend your entire time at the free play Tabletop Library playing dozens of new boardgames with many new cool people. And the ciptune concerts and old school arcades were a thing of beauty.

  2. Brilliantly said Rob. I will reiterate the importance of the poorly-named enforcers. Yes, there are VERY rare cases where a rule (please use the line) needs enforcing, but what these folks are is massively enabled and trusted just-in-time problem solvers. They've been trained like great GMs, to say "Yes, and ..." whenever possible.

    I'll also point out that the vibe -- something very hard to measure - is very different at Pax Prime. Pax east, to me, has felt both years like a celebration. The crowd seems a little older, a little less entitled, a little more incredibly happy to be there. Pax Prime -- again, one mans experience -- bristled with attitude and gamer-hipster angst.

  3. If you're suggesting they need event pre-reg for some things (panels, I'm looking at you), I am in agreement. Boy howdy am I in agreement. That you can't reliably plan out the events in which you're going to participate is a big problem for serious attendees.

    Part of this is an infrastructure problem. They're leaning too heavily on the Enforcers, who are awesome (I was one last year; *elbow-bumps*), but who are, at the end of the day, an all-volunteer force. They're ready to give their all at the event itself, but the decidedly non-sexy admin work that would come with pre-reg isn't something for which you can use volunteers successfully.

    Tangent: were you one of the people I talked to briefly after the GMs vs. Players panel? If you were, my apologies if I was cracked out & tired & didn't recognize you. :)

  4. Aw man, I wish I had known you were coming to Pax. You're one of the few people I would like to meet in the industry.

    I agree with your assessment of the con as well. The trick is that you need to prioritize what events you want to do and be willing to wait the time. The worst offenders though were the vendors (i.e. Star Wars) on that scale, rather than official events.

  5. PAX sounds awesome. I'd like to attend some year. I would love for Gencon to have a big open gaming area similar to that of PAX. That doesn't happen too much, now. Even if Gencon put out some tables in the halls (maybe with the renovations to the convention center this year?) and had them explicitly marked for gaming only so people didn't just cool their heels there.

    You can find open games at Gencon, but it can be hard. Rio Grande's room is always nice and you can play virtually any of their games, but it is rude to open up a game from another publisher that you brought yourself and play it in their space (don't do that people). The board game library is great, but you have to pay tickets to even use a table, because the assumption is that you're getting a game from the library (tickets!) to play. I don't begrudge any of that, really, but it would be nice to have space provided for friends, new and old, to sit down and play together without it having to be some planned thing. PAX wins in that category.

    However, I listened to a recent Game Gab episode from Myriad Games' podcast where they were talking with Steve Jackson about his PAX impressions. On the whole, he LOVED it, but he was kind of sad that the commerce and play areas were so divided. If they wanted to demo games, they really had to stake out tables in the open gaming area, but then, after they'd done the pitch of the demo, they had to send people with money in hand off to booth X or Y to shop for their wares. That may allow for too much time between pitch and purchase in his mind. While it doesn't sound like it hurt their sales, Steve wondered if it might have been a problem for other vendors or could be improved for future PAX's.

  6. Hey Rob,

    I just wanted to let you know that your paragraph about the Enforcers was discovered (not by me) and read aloud at our after-party to hearty and raucous appreciation. Thanks!

  7. @Lukas That deeply rocks my socks. I enthusiastically throw the horns for the enforcers.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.