I should start by apologizing for the lateness of this post. My original idea was to update my blog every night with all the crazy festivities of each day of PAX South. Instead we ended up spending all day and evening (minus dinner out) at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in downtown San Antonio. That’s about 9am to midnight. The hotel wi-fi was just not up to snuff for uploading pictures, so I resigned to the occasional twitter updates and pics throughout the weekend.
Then on the way home I caught a whiff of the con crud/PAX pox. Then yesterday was my daughter’s birthday. So yeah, excuses, I got ’em!
But no more! It’s time to break down PAX South 2016, and my personal experience with this unique gaming convention.
I arrived in San Antonio, Texas Thursday Evening. It’s a four drive South by Southwest from Ft Worth. Despite timing it around rush hour I didn’t run into any traffic thanks to a sexy tollway that takes you completely around the gridlock that is Austin. It’s an easy drive, but a long one.
I picked up one of my best friends from the airport and we checked into the hotel, the Riverwalk Plaza Hotel. It was a few blocks West of the convention center, and we quickly found that we could travel along the actual riverwalk to go to and from our hotel and PAX.
We elected to grab dinner first at Whataburger, and met the great Leif Johnson! Leif is a freelance games writer whom I really admire, and chatted with on twitter. He was in town visiting family and was gracious enough to join us and hang out a bit. Very cool!
That evening I had learned of a pre-PAX party at the Geekdom, a tech/nerd friendly event center, which basically means a room with tables and chairs.
It was packed! We got there a little after 9 and already all the free beer had been consumed, and everyone had settled in to various tables and board games. It was cool seeing so much gaming going on, but intimidating in such a close space!
Thankfully we found some friendly folks and an empty table opened up. We played some games of Sushi Go, a fun little deck-drafting game, before calling it a night. We were tired from traveling and looking forward to a busy weekend.
The riverwalk is a beautiful little area of downtown San Antonio, lined with lots of restaurants and night life. During the morning hours on our walks to the convention center it’s eerily calm and quiet, with only the occasional jogger running past.
We saw very few PAX-people that took this scenic route, but when you go back up to the surface streets, it was absolutely packed full of excited nerds and geeks! In fact, we actually missed the entrance the first time and walked all the way to the rear entrance of the convention center before doubling back.
We met some more old friends in line directly in front of us. Lots of local Texas people come to PAX South – it’s awesome having a large gaming convention that you don’t have to fly several hours to get to!
I had zero issues getting my media pass and getting inside, and we went directly to the Keynote Speech, hosted by game designer veteran Cliff Bleszinski. The middle-aged designer once known as “CliffyB” is still a gregarious personality, full of profanity-laced tirades and celebrity name-dropping bravado. But he’s also a veteran businessman and a savvy social critic, and made for a really fun and insightful speech.
From there we ran up to the 2nd floor to get in line for the Gaming in Education panel. The majority of my freelance writing is done for Pixelkin.org, and this panel couldn’t have been more relevant to promoting games as a positive force. Middle school teacher Ashley Brandin performed an excellent and highly academic one-woman panel on the benefits of applying gaming concepts to the classroom. Look for my breakdown of the whole thing in a few weeks!
After that it was all abut the Expo Hall. I had front-loaded my appointments so my Friday was completely stacked full of games and interviews. I used zombies to kill other soldiers in Moving Hazard, made tough choices in Stories: The Path of Destinies, and had a lengthy conversation with the Product Manager for Black Forest Games while we mowed down goblins in Rogue Stormers. I also had a nifty backroom meeting and co-op session with Grey Box and their upcoming free to play spaceship arena shooter Dreadnought.
In between one-on-one with developers and PR I also walked around a bit, stopping at a few booths to play a game or ask questions. Some of my appointments took a full 30 minutes or more, while others I was able to jump in, play the game and talk to a representative in far less time. Talking to enthusiastic indie devs instead of PR reps was a particularly delightful experience.
Note, stay tuned for future articles about the individual games I played!
They close the Expo Hall at 6pm, so we went back out to the riverwalk and got a bite to eat at a simple Texas-themed diner. Beer and quesadillas, is there anything better? Okay, how about returning to the convention center for all the board games you could ever play?
PAX boasts a really fun tabletop area where you can simply check out a game from their library of hundreds to play with friends or even strangers. I had met several old friends there and we were ready to unwind and play some games. Still, complex games after an exhausting day of PAX can be a bit tricky, and we’d learn our lesson the next day (Five Tribes is a pretty neat game, though).
We attempted to meet at a place near the convention center for breakfast, but it had a line out the door. McDonald’s breakfast it is! I had some morning appointments but thanks to the efficiency of the PAX staff, I was never worried about getting anywhere or lines taking too long.
Saturday was an even longer day, with only one short break taking us away from the show floor – the Firaxis XCOM 2 “Mega-Panel.” With XCOM 2 releasing only a few days away there wasn’t exactly a lot of new information they could share. Instead they focused on the modding tools they’re incorporating via Steam Workshop and the designer of the beloved Long War mod for 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
Unfortunately it was incredibly boring. They went into the highly technical, under-the-hood aspects of modding, and soon half the audience was nodding off (a dude behind us was literally snoring). We got no actual live gameplay. At the very end they treated us to the opening cutscene, which was neat to see on a big screen. But quite the disappointment overall.
After that it was back to the Expo Hall. Throughout each day we’d grab lunch whenever we could, and they had food areas set up everywhere, which was nice. The food was about as you’d expect, overpriced and pre-packaged, but hunger is the sweetest sauce.
Saturday was about half appointments and half just walking around exploring. I had an extended interview with Mike Rose of TinyBuild, who graciously introduced all four of their new games at the show floor, one of which had only just been announced the day before. The Dallas Society of Play had a booth of several indie devs from my stomping grounds in the DFW area, including Polyknight Games’ flying explorer InnerSpace and Fermenter Games’ co-op twin-stick shooter Neighborhorde.
Color Thief was a delightful puzzle game of manipulating colors, while Knight Squad featured eight player arcade action as we all chased after the grail while killing each other. Silly fun local multiplayer games was a major trend that kept popping up, and these games showed especially well on a crowded show floor with plenty of eager gamers ready to play.
I finally got to try VR for the first time! Marble Mountain is an unofficial remake of the original Marble Madness. You guide a small ball through a series of environmental hazards. The HTC Vive added a remarkable level of immersion, and I only felt the effects briefly during the exciting moments when the marble rolled quickly down or rocked past on rails.
I also got to meet up with Pixelin writer, frequent podcaster, and all-around badass Simone de Rochefort, where we promptly nerded out over the games we saw.
Once again we left for dinner after the expo hall shut down, and we ate on the riverwalk. More Tex-mex? Why not. We returned and played several more board games that evening, because board games!
With all my appointments finished and having seen most of the games being shown, the last day was all about tabletop board games.
PAX South has garnered a reputation as being particularly indie and tabletop gaming friendly. Board games were everywhere on the show floor, being demo’d as prototypes by hopeful designers and being sold by big and small vendors.
One of the coolest areas was the PAX South Indie Tabletop Showcase.
This area was home to half a dozen indies that had won the right to be included here by submitting their games to a judging panel. There was a neat variety including a word-card game, a dungeon-themed bidding and auction game, an asymmetrical dungeon-crawler, a tactical card-battler, and abstract color-matching tile placement.
Board games are in a really cool place right now and I’m a big fan of getting people together to play games at the table. The Indie Showcase showed off a lot of cool new ideas, at least two of which I quickly ran to Kickstarter or Gamecrafter to throw in my support.
Board games can also take a while to actually play, especially if you’re learning. Sunday went by quickly, even when some designers gave us a fast-track demo (shout-out to the friendly guy demo’ing Pirate Den – you were awesome!). I felt like I could have spent twice the time and seen and played even more games, but time marches on and 6pm hit soon enough. After yet another tex-mex dinner on the riverwalk (at least we went to a different place each time), it was time to bid farewell to San Antonio.
I didn’t quite see everything but I did see almost everything. I spent the majority of my time at the Expo Hall, which was admittedly exhausting. PAX is actually a lot more than just the show floor, with the PC and console freeplay rooms, concerts, handheld lounge, tabletop tournaments, PAX Arena, etc.
I dabbled in a few things just to see what they were, but ultimately none of it really held my attention the way talking to indie devs or playing new games did. With the big exception of the tabletop area, which is deliciously open until midnight on the first two days!
PAX South 2016 was an absolute blast. I’m incredibly thankful that Texas has its own Penny Arcade Expo and that I could combine a business trip with meeting and hanging out with friends. I definitely plan on attending next year!