PAX Australia: Return of the Gamers

Welcome Home. Just this statement alone was enough to fill my body with the warm fuzzies. It translated to “Welcome home old friends – the gamers and geeks, the curious and creatives, the cosplayers and developers – we missed you.”

And we missed PAX.

PAX is the place to be for every kid who grew up and was put down for enjoying games. PAX runs right up to those bullies and kicks them into another galaxy. Not only is game enjoyment encouraged but it’s explored in detail, giving us game-loving kiddies from way back a chance to meet with other gamers from all walks of life and a place to celebrate those things that make us so timepoor and happy.

Australia, historically, has felt left out of geek culture at times, with staple conventions like Armageddon and Supanova filling the void when possible. PAX is a unique beast, giving us an experience like nothing we’ve ever had before – the kind of delightful convention goodness we could only hope to experience if we ever reached the shores of North America.

But now we don’t have to travel so far.

It was fairly obvious that this year was going to be bigger and better than last year, with the change in venue providing improved coverage for all things PAX. Gone were makeshift marquees, along with the harsh battle against the elements to get to that next panel on indie game design. Instead the Exhibition and Convention Centre opened the doors wide to allow for a more multipurpose use of space and theatres, and boy did it open those doors WIDE.

If you looked at the map I wouldn’t blame you for being a little confused. At first glance, it looks like a small bit of space for the queuing area, a little bit in the middle for PC and console gaming, with a bit at the end for tabletop gaming. How can it possibly accommodate even more guests than PAX did in 2013? But at a pause, and upon closer inspection, it becomes quite clear that it’s not just a bit of the building being used, it’s almost ALL of the building being used.

PAX had the HUGE main exhibition hall section opened up for exhibitors and gaming showcases, while panels were run in the theatrettes a short walk away. A nice, indoor stroll, where the wafting smells of pizza, hotdogs, and coffee every day kept the tens of thousands of gamers on their feet. I saw more than one person eating meat pies for breakfast, and that’s how it should be.

The organisers of PAX were quick to adapt to our taste in humour, and earned a massive amount of respect by organising an upgrade to the “hit the beach ball over the banner” game implemented in the queuing room last year. This year, purposely designed banners featured areas to score points, not for prizes but for funsies, stimulating the competitive streak in the eager crowd who were bursting to get inside. The theatres were given iconic names like “Dropbear” and “Wombat”, each filled with enough seats to fit (almost) everyone who wanted to listen to the fascinating guests talking about their craft.

All areas of gaming culture seemed to be represented this year. Fans of Bioware queued for Dragon Age: Inquisition for two hours, while Oculus Rift had queues just as long. League of Legends was such a big deal that you could hardly hear anything BUT the live commentary going on if you were within 50 metres of the booming stage. Indie game designers had more room to move, showcasing a vast array of every type and style of game you could imagine. Western Digital, Alienware, Corsair, and a multitude of gaming technology booths enthused the masses with giveaways and competitions with cool prizes to boost your gaming experience.

Cards Against Humanity completely blew away any expectations, with Enforcers turning away people from the queue because it was too long. They also had a juggling Uncle Sam on stilts. As you do. The staff working at the booth threw actual American pennies in the air, like Minties at a game show, while CAH designers eagerly shared the love of the product with excited buyers.

So many people were playing retro games on old PC monitors – because its way better when its old school – and many others battled each other via handheld consoles while seated comfortably on an ocean of beanbags. The miniatures crowd were at it from morning to night, and gave the chance for visitors to paint figurines if they didn’t feel like getting down to some epic battles. And just beyond that were the ever-growing crowds of tabletop gamers. Each person was manically borrowing resources from the towering Library of Awesome Games* (*what it should be called), and others were challenging friends to the games they just purchased from the multitude of booths.

The panels at PAX this year were something truly special, going above and beyond to improve and grow the gaming community with positive discussion. Panels discussing the importance of diversity in the industry for developers, encouraging people to discuss and think about the kind of games they want to support, information for starting your own game related career from scratch, how to develop a tabletop game with a solid foundation, and so much more.

The standout panels for me came from Boyan, producer from the epic show Tabletop who discussed very effectively what makes good game design, as well as everyone who attended and participated in the panels regarding equality and playing as a female character. There was so much respect and decency going on, which at times made me feel like my heart was going to explode (I’m a bit of a softie). The diversity room was also a welcome sight and I just wanted to go around and hug everyone who made it possible. To see the gaming community being inclusive and actually delighted by the people who want to be a part of it all was wonderful. There were so many panels I didn’t get to but desperately wanted to, and the organisers deserve much credit for my frustrations as I stared in sadness at my colour-coded Excel spreadsheet timetable with all the talks I couldn’t physically join. Unless I had a portal gun, or time-travelling Delorean.

It was also great to see the Bioware creatives make their way down from Edmonton to chat about the company (“SNACK-ATTACK!”) while simultaneously making many geeks in the room jealous to hear that they have a pub on the lower level of their building. And yes, they sometimes hold meetings there. When I watched someone produce a Collector’s Edition of Baldur’s Gate 2 for them to sign there was an audible amount of awe and excitement that rippled across the table. Hearing the developers get excited about us, the gamers, being excited… that was brilliant. That’s why they do what they do.

Friday night saw local musical geeks Tripod join forces with Paul and Storm, in a concert line-up that provided much laughter for the rest of the weekend. Especially so because we accidentally stole an extra USB drive from them that contained all their albums. Upon its return the following day they demonstrated their gratitude for our honest stupidity and had the honours of christening my new Paul and Storm t-shirt appropriately.

Cosplay highlights include a baby named Link who wore a Jayne hat (my ovaries exploded upon meeting him), a fantastic Lady Hawke from Dragon Age 2, Ramona Flowers, and the awesome Arnold J. Rimmer who saluted me with much gusto.

I don’t think PAX Australia could ever be the event that it was without the amazing Enforcers who volunteer their efforts to make the event what it is – they were super kind, helpful, hilarious, and just awesome to meet. A few days after PAX I encountered them “in the wild” and congratulated their efforts. They enjoyed the recognition so much so that they turned around and offered us some chicken (which they were having for dinner- it wasn’t like a live chicken had been brought to the games store). They are a total cliché, but far more real than a unicorn. If you ever see someone wearing their Enforcer t-shirt you should go up and shake their hand. And if it’s something you would like to do, ask them how you can be an Enforcer next year.

Because – and this was probably the best thing about the whole weekend – it was announced Melbourne would be the home of PAX Australia for five more years.

That’s five more annual celebrations for three days of epic gaming, cosplay, discovery, new friendships, panels, dancing and incredible sleep deprivation that still manages to pull you through and make you wish you had another three days ahead of you to do the whole thing again.

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