How PAX is Adapting to COVID-19

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    When I was a kid, what I wanted more than anything was to go to the Electronic Entertainment Expo. E3 was like a sacred pilgrimage for gamers in the nineties; it was the industry event for video game developers and retailers. I always dreamed of the day when I’d be able to cover it as a journalist and see the crazy new games and announcements firsthand.
    Of course, that was a long time ago. Things have changed a lot for the gaming industry since then; E3 isn’t the big deal it used to be. In fact, the expo’s cancellation this year barely made waves--most developers and publishers are just hosting their own streaming events instead, which is the direction things have been moving for a few years now anyway. I no longer dream of attending E3; no, there’s a different convention that holds my attention these days: PAX.
    I discovered Penny Arcade--one of the longest-running and most successful webcomics around--in my teens, right around the time they started running their own industry convention: PAX, the Penny Arcade Expo. From humble beginnings in 2004, PAX has risen to prominence on the gaming scene, and it’s now one of the biggest conventions around for both video and tabletop gaming, with multiple cons a year in various locales. There’s PAX East, PAX West (also called PAX Prime), PAX South, PAX Australia, and PAX Unplugged.
    Unfortunately, there’s no PAX Kind Of In The Middle, Like Chicago Maybe, so I haven’t had the means to attend a PAX myself yet. However, to my surprise, that’s going to change this year… sort of.
    It was announced this week that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic (which is still a serious problem, people--wear those masks!), the PAX West that was to be held in September will not be happening. It’s not exactly cancelled, though. Instead, it’s morphing into PAX Online.
    PAX has, traditionally, been very good at making their events--panels, Q&A sessions, live D&D games, etc.--available online via Twitch and YouTube, but they’re really stepping up their game this year; Penny Arcade author Jerry Holkins has promised three channels of nonstop, 24-hour-a-day content for all nine (yes, that’s right, nine) days of this PAX event. That’s very impressive, to say the least.
    Another classic aspect of PAX is e-sports tournaments, but luckily, these too will be easy to transition into an online format--after all, ‘online’ is already how these things are played, right? PAX Online has promised that multiple tournaments will be available to interested gamers throughout the week.
    In a similar vein, community has always been an important part of the PAX experience. People like to socialize, make friends, and find new gaming groups at conventions like this, and the organizers of PAX want to take that into account in this online transition. They haven’t said too much about it yet, but apparently there will be special forums set up for PAX Online, as well as ways to find gaming groups over the course of the convention.
    Merchandise is, of course, a big deal at any convention, and PAX is no exception; they’re well known for having a distinct merch theme every year, on top of things like “Pinny Arcade” collectible pins. This year, with no physical merch booths, they’ll instead be making all those exclusive goodies available through Penny Arcade’s online store. It just makes sense, especially given that the company will need to recoup their financial losses from not selling attendance badges this year (PAX Online will be free and open to anyone with internet access).
    All of that is great news, but here’s what I’m most excited about: the games. PAX is and has always been a venue for developers to show off exciting new products, often in the form of game demos that you can only play at PAX. I would have thought that would be impossible to translate into PAX Online, but according to the event organizers, they’ve found a way to do it. Details are scarce right now, but apparently they’ve undertaken a huge project that will allow virtual attendees to download demos and play them at home. That’s a dream come true for me; I’m always reading about the cool new indie games that get shown off at PAX, and this year it looks like I’ll get to experience them for myself!
    Moving PAX to an online format was the right call this year. While it won’t be happening until September, the potential health risks even that far down the line are just too great to safely hold a convention of this size. I’m sure the die-hards who attend every PAX will be disappointed that they won’t get the experience they love this year; no matter how hard the folks at Penny Arcade try, it’s just not possible to fully replicate the experience of attending a convention. That said, they seem to be pulling out all the stops to make this event the best it can be despite the hurdles of transitioning online, and it has the added benefit of allowing everyone--even folks who normally can’t afford it--to experience nine days of pure gaming bliss. I can’t wait to check it out!

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