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PAX East 2014: Lackluster & Getting Redundant

I have attended every PAX East since the original in 2010, and this year’s PAX East was by far the worst one. The hype that surrounds it had gotten bigger year over year, and I fail to understand why after consistent years of decreasing importance to publishers, and expo hall growing in shops versus legit exhibitors and a continuing lack of decent panels. The worst part of this is that the tickets are sold months in advance of knowing who and what will actually be there.

Let me make a disclosure that I personally do have an issue with the Penny Arcade site after the site’s heads Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins shut down PATV and by-far the best forum for long-form gaming journalism, Penny Arcade Report, late last year just because they no longer wanted to be as big as they currently are (and cost talented people’s jobs because of it). The following is exclusively about PAX East and how it’s has become redundant to the gaming industry.

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Perhaps it was because none of the devs that held panels interested me, but it seems few people seem thrilled to share anything at PAX East in the last few years, even if a game was announced there. This year, Respawn had a panel and showed off the new modes and the first map pack for Titanfall, and Firaxis announced a neat futuristic take of Civilization, subtitled Beyond Earth, but I didn’t hear anything until I read it on my phone. And I was there.

One of the biggest issues with PAX East is timing. The con is a mere two-three months away from E3, and many exhibitors aren’t willing to take the time to make playable builds of upcoming titles this soon. This year’s PAX East didn’t have much other than betas of MMOs, MOBAs and it seemed the only new product from a publisher at the show was 2K and Turtle Rock’s Evolve. Evolve being the sole big game at the show meant that the line was consistently capped, so many con-goers had no chance to check it out. Most PAX East attendees were upset Ubisoft didn’t have much for Watch_Dogs, and in their defense its tough to make free-roam demos; but their booth did have Child of Light, The Crew (which didn’t get as much excitement from the attendees) and the just-released Trials Fusion. This has and will be never an issue with PAX Prime, who either get E3 builds or better ones based on a soon-to-be-released product.

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People were either not feeling what was there, or were upset that a certain publisher wasn’t there at all. Nintendo, Sony, Capcom and WB all decided to skip PAX East this year despite having big presences in the past. WB (whose booth a few years ago is pictured above) probably felt that Turbine, their studio located twenty minutes away in Needham, could handle it (and they did for the most part with their upcoming MOBA based on the DC Universe, Infinite Crisis); and Capcom felt that Machinima could handle a few consoles running Ultra Street Fighter IV. Though worse than not being there is being there with nothing to show, case in point Microsoft, whose booth consisted of games you can buy right off the shelf today like Titanfall, Dead Rising 3, Plants vs. Zombies Garden Warfare, and the Project Spark beta that you can currently enroll in.

Though PAX gets some big publishers on hand, they’re really known for the indies, with the highlight this year being Supergiant Games’ Transistor, though that sucker was just as capped as Evolve. I tried out some games that have been piquing my interest like A Hat in Time, Shovel Knight, Disco Dodgeball and the array of titles at Renegade Kid’s booth. And funny enough, while people were capping the line at the Oculus booth waiting to try out the Rift, I was at the Indie Mini booth trying one out within five minutes. It’s sad that the indie “Megabooth” is segregated in its own area like a ghetto because I know of many con goers who did not step into it because it was not the flashy showcase publishers like 2K and Bethesda had, and many of those games deserved eyes more than what Microsoft or Square-Enix brought.

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Another reason we haven’t seen the care that previous PAX East showings is the consistent downgrade of exposure. G4 had a good presence at the first few PAX Easts, but now the con is no longer going to get the TV coverage it had since the channel is all but finished. Even some big gaming sites have changed overtime, notably Joystiq, whose veterans have been slowly jumping ship. In fact, one of my favorite PAX memories was former editor Justin McElroy’s panel sponsored by his favorite cereal, Blueberry Muffin Tops. We got free samples of the cereal while trying out games like Disney’s Split/Second or getting free stuff that the staff gets for free (as an ethical policy, Joystiq never keep the stuff they get from publishers personally and give them out to fans). I still pick up a bag of the cereal here and there to relive the memory, and it is pretty darn good.

Even worse, these issues are going to seep into the newly announced PAX South in Texas. Taking place in January, right after the holiday season and during a time when companies are cutting back on these sort of costs to make their final quarter look better, PAX South is doomed to be just as or even more inferior than PAX East. I wholeheartedly believe that Texas deserves a con like PAX more than most regions of this country, but I’m afraid that they’re going to get the bottom of the barrel PAX experience because of the same reason PAX East has been going downhill: business.

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I originally thought I was just getting too old for conventions and that I’m expecting too much since the last few cons I’ve went to have felt underwhelming, but I was in the city a few weeks earlier for Anime Boston and had a blast. Unlike video games, which really focus on holiday sales and thus don’t start pushing their product until E3 up to launch, anime tries to release in the summer so that they can release their product within con season. Because of that, Anime Boston is the start of that push, right up to Otakon in August, and then leverages those titles again in the holiday season. That mixed with the positive upturn anime’s been getting since the crash in 2007-2008 thanks to hits like Attack of Titan (whose dub was showcased at Anime Boston) and the resurrection of Toonami on Adult Swim, I had a ton more fun at Anime Boston than I ever would have expected.

Of course there’s an exception to all this and you can have fun no matter what, and that’s going there for predetermined reasons; namely bringing your own computer to play with others, playing tabletop games, playing TCGs with your deck (Magic and the new My Little Pony TCG stole the show for tourneys this year), or enjoying the killer live concerts. Even with this article, I still had an easy out to enjoy myself and that’s to play my 3DS at the handheld lounge. This weekend netted my about 1,000 StreetPasses and allowed me to collect all the puzzle pieces to the two newest puzzles: Yoshi’s New Island and Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball.

Will I still go to PAX East next year? Probably because there’s certainly an itch of curiosity that needs to be scratched, but I’ll make sure to lower expectations. I really can’t expect much anymore during March-April for gaming news, and in all honesty you shouldn’t either. Even though there’s going a reason to go, perhaps it’ll be smart to save some money and skip the three-day badge, it’s no longer worth it.

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