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Aug212012

PAX Tips - A Beginner's Guide to the Penny Arcade Expo

The Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, WA can be a very daunting place for gamers that are attending for the first time. Although you'll probably have a wonderful time there regardless of what you end up doing, knowing a few insider tips can really help save you a lot of stress. This is an article of some useful tips that will guide you on your inaugural PAX journey. Although this guide is specifically written for PAX Prime, some of the more general hints also apply to PAX East. Rumor is that a third PAX may be added in the Midwest or Texas (I'd love one in Canada, but I'm not holding my breath), so these hints may be of use if you're heading there in the future as well. Some of the tips may seem obvious, but I'm sharing them anyways, because I feel they're rather important.

Bring Food & Water

This is a tip you can file in the "obvious" category, but many people forget or just don't consider it. When attending PAX, bring a backpack stocked with a water bottle and some snacks. Food inside and nearby the convention center has many drawbacks. It can be over-priced, lines are usually really long, and it's not guaranteed to be any good. Last year I planned out my day with not very much time at all between panels to stop and eat. The result was I finished each day famished, exhausted and parched. I will not make the same mistake again. It helps that I'm arriving in Seattle a bit earlier this year, so I'll actually have time to locate a grocery store.

Thanks to reddit user rainx5 for the excellent map of food available near the Washington State Convention Center. [Full Map]If you run out of food in your bag, or just decide you'd like to grab some fast food or sit down at a nice restaurant, reddit user rainx5 posted a fantastic map showing the locations of many fine eating establishments in downtown Seattle. It's even color coded - green for fast food, yellow for sit-down, and red for PAX landmarks.

Line Management

If you're heading to PAX, some line waiting is inevitable. When you're waiting to get into a panel, play a game on the show floor, or even to get into the convention, you'll be herded into a (probably massive) line. Some things are essential to consider to cut down your line time, and help the time spent in unavoidable lines go by faster. 

I'll start things off with the lines for panels and programming. At PAX, rooms/theatres are almost always cleared out in between events. You cannot arrive at a theatre early in the morning hoping to save a seat for a panel in the evening. As a result, the lines forming outside each room are only for the very next panel taking place. Usually these lines are let in the room about 5-10 minutes before the next panel starts. It is only then that you can start lining up for the following panel. (eg If the panel you want to see starts at 3pm, you will likely only be able to line up at 1:50PM, as this is when the line for the 2PM panel will be let in). In general, you'll want to arrive at least 1 hour before a panel begins if you really would like to see it. This won't guarantee you entry however. If a panel is based on a very popular game, or is being held in the main theatre, expect to line up for even longer. Last year we waited over an hour and just barely squeaked into the room for the Skyrim panel. However, we showed up to the PAX10 indie gaming panel as it was starting and still got seated. 

A line that has filled up and closed - not a happy site.

Lines on the show floor are a simpler, yet still difficult to tackle. Lines for the hottest triple A titles can be hours long, while you may be able to walk right up to some indie titles and play immediately. The developer of the game sometimes even walks you through it! I feel that these experiences are more special and worthwhile, but if you're a fan of a big franchise, you won't be able to resist the chance to try it out early. I found that the best times to line up for games was first thing in the morning, or as the convention is winding down on Sunday afternoon. If you arrive before the convention begins at 10AM and walk straight to the game you want to play, you can often get in to play with little or no line. This means you'll have to get up early and wait in the queue room, but at least you aren't stuck in line during the convention hours when you could be doing more worthwhile things. Last year I arrived at 8-8:30AM and found that this was early enough to get in fairly good line position. This means I got to try out games like Skyrim and Battlefield 3 with a 20 minute wait, rather than a 2 hour one.

EDIT: There is also an official PAX Lines Twitter account. It broadcasts very valuable information about the status of lines, including when they open, how many people are in them, and when they are capped.  @Official_PAX and @PAX_Tourney are also excellent sources of information on the fly. Thanks to Reddit user ladyofcorgi for the reminder!

We're Here for a Good Time, Not a Long Line

Lines at PAX are only boring if you want them to be. You are surrounded by thousands of enthusiastic gamers that love the exact same things you do. Strike up a conversation with your line buddies - it's like a Reddit thread or forum, but in real life (and without any douchebaggery!). I've found that PAX attendees are almost universally friendly. You can ask them questions without being labeled an ignorant idiot, and you can disagree in a discussion without starting a flamewar. There are also a ton of games you can play right in line. I'd highly recommend Zombie Dice from Steve Jackson Games as a good line diversion. Slightly more ambitious line gamers might carry a Magic: The Gathering deck or board game. The PAX volunteers often come around the lines and run fun activities and games, like charades and pictionary. Also, it's a great idea to bring along your mobile gaming device. It will be very easy to find other DS, 3DS, PSP and Vita owners to play multiplayer games with. Even if you just play simpler games on your smartphone, PAX is the perfect place to get download recommendations from other attendees. 

These PAXers would be way happier if they had brought something to do in line.

Always Have a Backup

Meticulous planning isn't necessary to make your PAX trip a success, but a quick look at the official schedule is certainly beneficial. When picking out what you'd like to see, remember to take note of what other programming is taking place at the same time. If you're unlucky and aren't able to get into the panel you want to see, there is always something else that may interest you. Hitting the show floor for a few hours is also always a valid Plan B.

Wear Your Shoes of +5 to Comfort

This may be another suggestion from the desk of Captain Obvious, but it is definitely worth stating again and again. Wear comfortable shoes and clothing to PAX! Even if you are planning to sit in panels all day, you will likely do a ton of walking. PAX is so large that it spans the entire convention center, as well as external events in nearby hotels and theatre venues. Also, check the weather. Even though the convention is inside, you will need to move from building to building, and you also need to get back home or to your hotel at the end of the night. Although late summer in Seattle is usually quite nice, the Pacific Northwest is infamous for its rain. Be warned, and check the forecast. Most of the convention center is air conditioned quite aggressively, but crowded panels can still get quite warm. Some lines, like the one for the Main Paramount theatre are outside without much shade. Dress in layers.

Seattle - city of rain. And wind. And clouds. But sometimes sun. Be prepared for anything.

PAX Swag

The Penny Arcade Expo is a great place to score a ton of free stuff that you can't find anywhere else. You can check out our previous article on PAX swag to see what awesome stuff was handed out last year. In the PAX Queue room, you can pick up a bag of free stuff from convention sponsors. By far the best item in the bag is the PAX program. It has all the critical PAX information you will need, and it's a very nice souvenir. 

Many booths will award you with a cool piece of swag if you try out their game; others will just throw stuff at you as you walk by. The best times to get swag are at the start of PAX on Friday, when vendors still have lots of swag left, or on Sunday afternoon when they are trying to get rid of what items remain.

Skyrim Dovahkiin helmets were among some of the cooler giveaways at PAX Prime 2011.

Don't get carried away with swag hunting. The memories of fun experiences you had at PAX are immeasurably more valuable than the bag of plastic whizbangs and doodads you'll surely collect. Please don't spend your entire PAX running around in an attempt to collect the most stickers, lanyards and extra large T-Shirts. Although lots of PAX swag is great, there is also a lot of crap there. Remember to judge booths based on how kind and knowledgeable the employees are, not based on how much free crap they shove in your face.

Stay Late

Although the exhibit halls close at 6:00PM, and the programming wraps up by 10:00 or 11:00PM, there is still a lot of fun to be had at PAX. The convention stays open until 2:00AM on Friday/Saturday for open gaming. Right near the main escalators there are many rooms devoted to playing various card and board games. There's even a massive library where you can rent out a game and give it a try. You can ask around to find people to play with, or try posting on Twitter with the appropriate hashtag (it should be posted near the gaming library). Open gaming is also a great excuse to hang out with people you have met in line earlier in the day.

PAX ain't over till the fat lady sings plays some board games. (photo by flickr user courtarro)

Assuming you have a safe way to get back to where you're staying, some late night gaming is a must for a complete PAX experience.

Keep Smiling

Did you think you could get out of this article without reading one super cliche tip? You thought wrong! Always remember to keep a positive attitude at PAX. When things don't go according to your plan, just go with the flow. Not making it into your favorite panel just means you'll be able experience something new and exciting. If my conventions always went according to plan, I would've missed out on meeting a ton of cool people, and never would've discovered games I love, such as Jamestown. Just by making it to PAX you're already extremely fortunate, and take comfort in the fact that there will be many more expos that you can attend in the future.

Thanks for reading; I hope that these tips help make your PAX experience as good as it can be. I must thank helpful people on the internet and at PAX for letting me know of many of these tricks. I'm not trying to steal your awesome insights, I'm just hoping to get the word out there. If there are awesome tips you'd like to share, don't hesitate to post them in the comments! The PAX forums and PAX Sub-Reddit are also great ways to get information and ask questions. Happy PAXing!

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