Friday, March 18, 2011

PAX Vs the World

Ok, so in my universe there are only so many important convention. First, since I'm on the East Coast of the US, the cons on the west coast are pretty much right out. This is a shame because my favorite convention in the universe - Ambercon Northwest - takes place outside of Portland, and it also means the various Endgame minicons are of the table. So it goes.

There are also some smaller cons that I make a priority of, notably Dexcon and Dreamation up in New Jersey. I like the atmosphere, I like the people, and they're an opportunity to play, so they go in their own bucket.

But beyond those are the big deal cons, and historically they've been Origins, Gencon and Dragoncon. The classic advice is that you go to Origins to play (or to see people), Gencon to sell and Dragoncon to drink. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I've found it holds up.

When PAX (now PAX Prime) showed up, it didn't really shake things up too much. From my perspective as a tabletop gamer, it was mostly in a different sphere, absorbing the debris of E3. People came back from it with reports of an excellent convention and a broad range of nerdery, and that was nice, but didn't move my needle much. Even if it became a bigger hub for tabletop, its position on the West Coast put it out of my sphere.

But then came PAX East, and things got upended. People came back with stories of a geek mecca, full of video games and technology, yes, but also hours of fun for other members of the geek tribe. And Luke Crane and the Burning Wheel guys reported sales numbers in the Gencon range. I was super curious, as was Fred, so our trip up this year was sort of dual purpose. First, we wanted to go and have an awesome time (we did!) but we also wanted to know if this was something we might want to look at from a business perspective, maybe doing a booth or the like.

As a company, Evil Hat hasn't yet made any decisions, so don't read this as me speaking for that, but I definitely have some personal impressions.

When I can only go to one summer con, I will generally choose Origins. This is not much of a business decision. Origins sales are anemic and it's not a great place for a new release. It is, however, a wonderful convention for seeing people and enjoying their company along with excellent food and atmosphere. Gencon is more work - it's bigger and it's a better sales opportunity, but I find the time to sit and talk needs to be taken in stolen moments and out of the way corners. If I had a big new release, Gencon is probably the right choice for it, but otherwise...

Don't get me wrong. Gencon is a great experience. It's the biggest collection of the tabletop tribes I know of, and if you're willing to put in the work to deal with scheduling, then it can be an incredibly full convention of basically non-stop activity. It's got a great seminar track (maybe the best in gaming) and it's the place that gaming companies are likely to make releases and announcements. But it is very much the meeting of the tribes.

PAX East (and I presume PAX Prime) is a different beast. It's the convention of the broader geek nation, and that means less uniformity, but it also means fewer dividing lines. The people who come to Gencon and buy your stuff because they know it's going to be there. The people at PAX buy your stuff because they _don't_. They are open to the idea of your game, but not married to a lot of the baggage around it.

To me, that's pretty freaking fantastic. And it's a reason that, as a publisher, I definitely want to have some sort of presence at PAX, even if it's just one among many at the IPR booth. For all that it's a sales avenue, it is an even more powerful marketing avenue. We like to talk about growing the hobby and reaching new people, and I genuinely am unsure if there's a better way to do it.

But that's also scary. Thinking about showing games at PAX reminds me of exactly how much we take for granted when we sell within the established community. There's a lot you don't need to do when you are selling to the converted. And as such, there's a reasons that did well are the ones with a rock-solid demo-centric ethos (most notably Steve Jackson Games and the Burning Wheel folks). PAX is a con that gives you the chance to show that your game is awesome, but isn't going to take your word for it.

But all that's through the lens of a publisher. As a player and a nerd, I can't imagine skipping the next PAX. The fun is just there, lying on the ground, waiting to be picked up. At Gencon (and even Origins) I feel like I miss out on a lot of stuff because I'm not in the right place at the right time. PAX felt like all places and times were right.

Bottom line -PAX isn't going to replace Gencon anytime soon. The cons have different priorities and needs, and frankly, I think it would be utterly toxic to PAX to try to absorb too much tabletop. But PAX is raising the bar for Gencon and other big conventions, especially in terms of quality of experience, and it is shaping up as a critical marketing opportunity for game companies. Even if it doesn't go on your calendar, it's going to be the con to watch.


  1. Thanks! From a European, French-speaking point of view, I found your panorama review of US conventions very interesting.

    Here, from my experience, we have mostly two types of cons: big, trade-show style events (Festival international du jeu in Cannes, Monde du jeu in Paris, Trolls & L├ęgendes / Fantastique.Convention in Mons, Belgium) and smaller,. gaming conventions, usually organized by local game clubs. Is it about the same?

  2. "If I want to play RPGs, should I go to PAX East instead of Gen Con, Origins, or Dreamation?" It's a question I've heard quite a bit the last week.

    PAX East was absolutely AMAZING for:

    1. Selling games (Gen Con level sales with less cost, hassle, and broader marketing potential)
    2. Board Games (huge library, lots of people who want to play at a moment's notice)
    3. RPG 1-2 hour demos (the sales booths were demo machines)
    4. D&D (wizards had a steady stream of dungeon delves every 2 hours and full games every 4 hours)
    5. Video games (old and new, the classic arcade room was outstanding)
    6. Nerd music (nerdcore, chiptunes)
    7. Panels (with 30-60 minutes lines but worth it, and amazing marketing for the panelists)
    8. Partying
    9. An absolutely infectious atmosphere of energetic enthusiasm for all things nerdy

    But as someone who loves to play full session RPGs that aren't just D&D, PAX in my opinion as it is now, can't compete with Gen Con, Origins, or Dreamation. Not even close.

    If you didn't have games organized beforehand, aren't a known RPG mini-celebrity, weren't associated with a booth, or didn't go to great lengths to get a game started (walking around with large signs saying, "play X game with me" for 20 minutes)… playing full RPGs that weren't D&D or game demos was very difficult. For every person I heard pulled it off, I heard many more who gave up out of frustration and played a boardgame instead.

    I know a lot of people who got caught up in the general enthusiasm over PAX, confusing the success of selling RPGs with generally playing them, and then walked away disappointed. A few people warned me before attending PAX East for the first time but I was willing to take the risk. And ultimately, for myself, confirmed their experiences.

    That said, things will change. One of the reasons Dreamation is so amazing is because Kat and Michael Miller go out of their way to organize Indie Games Explosion for the convention. PAX wants to grow the Table Top area and there is some talk of trying to re-purpose the que and cafeteria areas for quieter gaming as well as trying to make organizing RPGs after the Expo Hall closes (6pm) easier. I don't know if this will happen by next year but I suspect they will eventually make organizing and playing RPGs a less trying experience.

    I mainly don't want people reading the general excitement over PAX to confuse the success of selling RPGs with the experience playing them at PAX. Selling might be at Gen Con levels, but for people like me who don't sell games, PAX is nowhere near the level of Gen Con, Origins, or Dreamation in terms of playing RPGs.

  3. Speaking as a PAX vendor, there are some very weird things about how PAX does its events that helps make RPGs the way they are.

    For example, PAX doesn't give out free badges for running games - all of the event GMs with free badges get them through vendors. In fact, pretty much all of the scheduled gaming content is done by the various vendors in tabletop gaming (and to some lesser extent the sponsors).

    This means that realistically speaking, every gaming company that wants to see their games has to either get a booth\demo table or get a retail partner who is willing to commit badges to the cause.

    For what its worth, I personally think a slightly fuller RPG slate would be a good idea for PAX (I was trying to put something together for this past year, but it didn't come together in time), so if you do end up wanting a retail partner, I'd totally be interested in helping set something up.


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