Went to PAX Unplugged. Came home. Ate a turkey. Thought about the show.

It was odd. Thousands of people showed up for the show and it seems to have been a success. But there were some strange things that don’t seem to be similar to other gaming conventions. As an exhibitor, I found the convention to be strange. As a gamer, I thought it was fun. As a professional attempting to network, I thought it was fantastic.

In the ramp up to the show, I wasn’t sure what was going on. PAX Unplugged didn’t have any preregistration for events, which seems to be part of the culture of PAX. Rather than having people register in advance and possibly not show up, they embrace the line where people wait and they make sure that seats are filled. While this works at the other PAX shows where they are seating scores of people in theaters, it doesn’t really work for a show where people are sit at tables of four or five.

This seemed to be evident with the lack of scheduled games and events on the PAX Unplugged website. Companies didn’t know how many people were going to be attending the show — we heard Saturday sold out in a day but Friday and Sunday tickets were still available up to those days. What did Saturday selling out mean? 250 attendees? 250,000?[1]

So companies didn’t know how many people were going to be there. And if they were able to do preregistration for events, they could have seen oh, my, they should offer more game slots. Or expand the number of people for the tournaments. Seriously, the tournament I was hoping to get in had slots for 16 players. The Games on Demand people had eight tables with about five of them full at any given time, according to the schedule they created before the show. When I went to get in line for one of two scheduled games, fifteen minutes before game time, not only were both already running but all eight tables were full of people wanting to game. Clearly, if Games on Demand had some indicator of demand for their games, they could have gotten a larger space or recruited even more GMs.

Perhaps Paizo did it best by taking to Warhorn to schedule all their gaming events.

So as to being an exhibitor at the show, this was a really strange event and not put together well. Aside from not being able to offer enough events to attendees, the convention was put on the same weekend as BGGCON, a well-established gaming convention (it debuted twelve years ago) in Dallas, Texas, a much more centralized and larger transportation hub in North America. This forced companies to split their efforts between the two shows.

PAX Unplugged also ran out of exhibitor badges.

That is maddening. There are two categories of attendees one knows a total number of before a show opens: special guests and exhibitors. Yet they had an excess of SPG badges and they ran out of EXH badges sometime between Wednesday and midday Thursday. Insane.

Here’s how it is supposed to work.

“Hi, I’d like to exhibit at your show,” you say. “I need six exhibitor badges with my booth.”

“Okay,” the convention person says. “I’ll just add six to the running total of exhibitor badges we need to order.” And they do.

I was chatting with another exhibitor that was wearing a Wristband of Poor Planning and she asked, “Does this make you irrationally angry, too?” Yes, fellow #TeamWristband member. Yes, it did.

Three main reasons:

First, without a large EXH badge, attendees at the booth couldn’t immediately tell you were a representative of that booth’s company. You’re just some dork that has a wristband attached to a lanyard.

Second, without that badge, you couldn’t check games out from the open game library. They had to scan the QR code on the badge, which I assume was associated with a certain person or company when the badge was picked up, and then you could check out a game. Luckily, when I went to the open game library, my friend Rob was there with his Media badge.

Thirdly, this was the first PAX Unplugged — it would have been nice to take home a show souvenier. Several of the people I spoke to keep their badges from past shows. Being able to keep one from a debut convention? That would have been nice.

But aside from these strange missteps, interacting with attendees as an exhibitor…well, it seemed for a large number of attendees, this was their first gaming convention, ever. We had a large number of people attending because it was a regional PAX event — I had friends come to PAX from Seattle instead of attending BGGcon just because of that.

 

Buying patterns for conventions tend to be light on Friday because three day attendees are looking at what’s for sale, then pick up on Saturday as they know what they want, and there’s a rush on Sunday for people looking for bargains. But with first-time attendees, we suspect that many saw an item they wanted and immediately purchased it, and wound up blowing through their expo hall budget and suddenly it’s late afternoon on Friday.

Also, a lot of money went to the PAX Merch Booths, which was surprising. I get that at the videogame-focused PAXes, where there really isn’t much to purchase in the expo hall, but I wasn’t expecting to see quite so many people walking around in PAX hoodies.

Given that, I feel that this convention should be more of a demo and play convention for exhibitors selling games rather than pure merchandise booths. Asmodee NA’s booths were just dedicated demo play spaces — they had nothing to sell here. Paizo and CMON had well-done large booths: several areas for play and demoing with a cashwrap in back for sales. The RPG company I was with really could have used a demo table in the booth for short demos instead of just tables with merchandise on display.

As a gamer attending the show, I was expecting to be stuck in the open gaming area most of the time. There were few events listed on the schedule and those that did had few slots available. Pre-registration would have fixed this: game companies can see that there’s interest in the few, small game events, and then add more to fill demand. As it was, game organizers were working on guesses and assumptions for how much to bring.

I doubt PAX ever will do pre-registration for events. I’ve heard Gabe and Tycho having a negative experience with how gaming conventions like Gen Con were run and prefer line culture and the open gaming they saw at other PAXes.

However, the expo hall had several booths that were just running full demos. It was easy to find a game in that hall, in open gaming, or visiting the game library. I played pick-up games, met friends to play games at tables, used the library, and played a demo or two at booths in the expo hall.

Finding pickup games was easy. Getting into scheduled events was difficult.

Also as a gamer/attendee, the app and convention book still sucks. It was user-unfriendly at the first PAX I attended (East in 2012) and continues to be a pile of garbage. Take Games on Demand for instance. In the app, the event was listed as an all day event called “Indie RPGs by Games on Demand”, which meant I couldn’t block out a 2-6 slot on Saturday. If it was on my schedule, it looked like the entire day of Saturday was taken up by a four-hour game I wanted to get into. There was a Dominion tournament scheduled with slots at 10, 11:30, and 1, but again, it’s just a single four-hour block in the app instead of three ninety-minute blocks.

The maps of the convention were useless: if you were in the area, you could easily find what you’re looking for. If you weren’t, the map didn’t tell you how to get from one area to another. Just looking at the maps, can you determine how to get from the Open Gaming Library on the second floor to the first floor’s theaters? Or maybe from one of the three RPG Dungeon rooms to the Diversity Lounge? Or even which side of the convention center PAX was being held in?

Or perhaps you wanted to use the Expo Hall map to find your favorite game company’s booth? Well, good luck because there was no signage to indicate which row of booths you were in.

But then again: finding games to play was easy. The Open Game Library was well-run.

The third experience I had at PAX Unplugged was as a professional graphic designer, looking to network. Honestly, I wasn’t expecing much. I had been to PAX East before. I had been to Gen Con. I was expecting those experiences to be replicated here: too busy at the booth to chat with fellow industry professionals; their booths too busy for me to interact with them. It was just the opposite.

With the expo hall attendance down considerably for those of us just selling a line or two of items, this meant it was a great show to be free to roam around and talk to people. I also assume companies held fewer business meetings here than at the other shows. When I dropped by a booth and a person I wanted to speak with wasn’t there, it was because they were off getting some water rather than in meetings all day.

So for getting able to chat with colleagues and potential clients, this show was great — the most rushed I felt was talking with Michael Mendes at Tasty Minstrel Games during teardown, but that was because the group of people I was with were heading to dinner. I’ve heard Origins was a great show for networking — I’d put PAX Unplugged up there.

  1. No published numbers have been released, but I’ve got feelers out there. I’d like to say in the high teens of thousands were in attendance, but if I get numbers, I’ll update this. []

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