With PAX East 2011 over, it’s time for a recap and wrap-up post on just what happened these weekend, what great games are lurking on the horizon, and what it was like going to one of the greatest gaming conventions in the country. Here’s a long version of my entire experience at PAX East 2011.

 

Thursday

The Journey…

For me, like many others, Thursday was primarily my day of travel. I also have class on Thursdays, which usually means I drive north for about an hour and fifteen minutes to Somerville, NJ and then take mass transit into Newark. Since I had to continue to Boston this time, I had to do things a little differently. I left in the morning to catch the 9:52 R5 out of Lansdale into Center City, Philadelphia, about an hour train ride. From there, I had to almost immediately transfer to the Trenton line for 45 minutes or so and then take the Trenton transfer to the Northeast Corridor into Newark. A short light rail subway ride and a two block walk had me on campus.

Since the Bolt schedule was pretty limited out of Boston as far as buses that could feasibly get me into Boston at a reasonable hour, I had to schedule my ticket on the 5:00pm, meaning I had to take the train from Newark that put me at 34th St. (New York Penn Station) by 4:48, meaning I had to actually leave class a little early. Sorry, research methods, I do apologize. All of that successfully got me to the Bolt stop where I actually got on the 4:30 bus that was leaving a half hour late. They had extra seats, so they loaded a good number of 5:00 passengers, myself included.

On the bus, I had a pleasant seat buddy, Victoria, who was a human rights student at Pace. After maybe five minutes of playing my new copy of Pokemon White, I also learned that I had a cool across the aisle buddy. His name was Jesse and it turns out he was heading to PAX East as well, albeit just for Friday. He does freelance video editing and videography, so maybe check out his stuff if you’re interested in that sort of thing (currently a redirect to his YouTube page, but soon to be his website).

Enter: Pokemon

The bus finally got in around 10:00ish to South Station in Boston, just a few blocks from my hotel, the Intercontinental Boston. I dropped my stuff off and it worked out that I had just enough time to join up with the ongoing Pokemon-themed bar crawl a few T stops away. I met up with my roommates, checked in with my team leaders to get my new Team Yellow button, and had a few drinks at this insanely crowded sports bar.

This is also where I met up with Team Green, who were apparently on the challenge where they had to buy shots for the opposing team, us. I met several cool people, among them Amanda and Anthony whom I actually got to hang out with at least once a day every day of convention. They’re great folks and I knew that being able to befriend new people over something like a Pokemon bar crawl was the first real indicator that I was really back at PAX East.

Several drunken Pokemon trades back at the hotel and a few slices of Domino’s pizza and I was out like a light.

Friday

Birth of the Plague

I neglected to mention that on Tuesday I was clearing my throat all day, culminating in a pretty lame cough by Tuesday evening that made me pick up some Mucinex and zinc from the CVS on the way home from class. It only got worse Wednesday and my doctor that afternoon told me there was really nothing he could do about it because I was already being medicated for polyps and I already had an infection that antibiotics had 4x been unable to combat. Whatever I had, whether it was symptomatic of the polyp issue or its own cold picked up from my travels in New York City and Newark, I was stuck with it so Mucinex and zinc were my only options.

Anyway, when I woke up Friday morning I felt like death. I hadn’t planned on going to the early stuff because I honestly didn’t really know who the keynote speaker was and I felt like it might be a good idea to sleep in a little bit and meander into the exhibit hall after I was well rested. Well, waking up feeling like the walking dead can inhibit one’s propensity for sleeping, so I decided to muster up the energy to rouse myself, shower, get dressed, and get my butt to the convention center.

Sometimes things just work out for the best even when it seems like they haven’t.

Waiting for the shuttle, I met more cool people, including the lovely AJ Glasser from GamePro, who was also sick (feel better!). She was super pleasant to talk to, even sleep-deprived, unfed, and ill, so that meeting alone would’ve made getting up early a worthwhile decision.

However, one unplanned decision leads to another, so my morning’s serendipity wasn’t done yet.

Arriving at the Expo Center…

The Boston Convention and Expo Center (BCEC) is gargantuan. As our shuttle drove past the main entrance to the shuttle entrance, we passed massive steel columns that had to have been constructed by the Titans themselves (the pre Greco-Roman deities, not the football players). I mean, this place could have eaten the Hynes and still been hungry it was so huge.

I got inside and I was immediately disoriented. I’d never even been to this part of Boston, never mind this colossal convention center, plus I was sick and sleep-deprived so I wasn’t in the best state to navigate new places. After asking a few Enforcers, the squad of volunteers who do the bulk of the work to make PAX happen, where to go I made my way to the main information desk to pick up a temporary Friday pass. Somehow in my packing frenzy on Wednesday, I had managed to remember everything but that little plastic pass that had been tacked to my cork board for weeks. I was able to get a Friday pass, but nothing that could help me for Saturday or Sunday so I had to get my 3-day pass overnighted by the ever-helpful and amazing Nadja, my personal savior for getting things taken care of so quickly.

After all of this mess of navigating, figuring out my pass situation, coordinating shipment of my 3-day pass, and scrounging up a ridiculously overpriced banana and danish, I got into the queue line on floor zero for what I thought was the keynote speech. It was still only 9:30 and things started at 10:00, so I figured I would see the keynote and stick around for the first Q&A with Gabe and Tycho.

See, last year the queue room was all one big zigzagging series of lines. One huge line led to the Main Theater and the other significantly smaller line led to the exhibit hall. This queue room was similar in that there were two lines, one of which I believed would lead me to the Main Theater on the 3rd floor.

The queue room at 9:30am on Friday

Surprise!

At 10:00, the line finally opened up and we started moving like nerdy cattle. I was expecting to move as such for quite a while on our trip to the third floor for the keynote, so I was surprised when all of a sudden the line dispersed into the exhibit hall. Oh snap, I was going to miss the keynote and the Q&A because I had been in the wrong line! Crap!

This is what the exhibit hall floor looked like BEFORE it got crowded

Oh hey, look, a Portal 2 booth! So that was where I went first.

And that was how my morning started. The exhibit hall was an enormous set of displays for games, hardware, and merchandise and it was an absolute joy to get lost in it for the day. It would take me quite a while to give adequate attention to every game I played, every company representative or booth attendant I talked to, and every awesome experience I had and I will do so eventually, but this bus ride is only so long.

For now, let me just say that I checked out a hilarious Portal 2 character video demo that featured J.K. Simmons as the voice of Aperture’s founder, a great Warp demo from Trapdoor that came out of nowhere, demos for Fallen Frontier from Moonshot, Orcs Must Die from Robot, Swarm and El Shaddai from UTV Ignition, Kart Rider Rush from BlockParty/Nexon Mobile, Smuggle Truck from Owlchemy Labs, Battle Block Theater from Behemoth, Machine Gun Jetpack from Halfbrick, Slam Bolt Scrappers from Fire Hose, Shoot Many Robots by Demiurge, Skulls of the Shogun, and Firefall from Red5. I also got to try the amazing Cintiq tablets by Wacom, hardware that instantly made me feel like an artist despite a distinct lack of recent drawing experience.

Somewhere in the mix while I was at the Behemoth booth, I actually got to meet Dan Paladin and Tom Fulp, creators of Castle Crashers, Alien Hominid, and the upcoming Battle Block Theater. Since they were doing signings, I promptly bought Red Knight and Blue Knight figures and got both of them signed. It was pretty surreal seeing the creators of one of my favorite games and one of my favorite gaming artists, then talking to them like totally normal people.

Dan Paladin (left) and Tom Fulp (right) doing signings at the Behemoth booth

Free Entertainment at Lunch

It was about 3:00 before I realized I hadn’t eaten since that diminutive little danish and banana at 9:30, so I grabbed food at the super overpriced chicken fingers and fries stand next to the Rock Band freeplay stage. It was something like $12 for chicken fingers, fries, and some caffeine, but when I sat down to eat in front of the stage I was treated to something unique, hilarious, and highly entertaining.

Plants vs. Zombies vs. Rock Band

Yes, Plants vs. Zombies vs. Rock Band. See, Pop Cap had four folks dressed up in PvZ outfits, including two sunflowers and two zombies, and they would send them out to various parts of the show to promote the game. What better way to promote PvZ than to get up on stage in front of everyone eating lunch at that location? I don’t remember what song they did, but it was definitely a fun sight to see sunflowers and zombies on stage playing Rock Band. At lunch, I also met someone with a really well done Pokemon cosplay, Jeannette, who turned out to be a pretty cool person.

 

Jeannette in her fantastic Pokemon cosplay

After lunch, I went back to the show floor with Jeannette, took a few pictures of her cosplay for her before we went separate ways, and perused a few more games. I eventually grabbed a delicious but expensive pulled pork sandwich, met up with Nick, one of my roommates for the weekend, checked my bag and headed upstairs to queue up for the concert with The Protomen, MC Frontalot, and Metroid Metal. The show was awesome and I can’t recommend seeing these guys enough to anyone who’s never been exposed to their music or performances. Nick was so enamored with Metroid Metal that he was already listening to it the next night.

A brief pit stop at the open-late food court for a droopy chicken caesar salad, including watching some guy do a great job on Everlong at the Rock Band freeplay stage in the wee hours of the morning, a short shuttle bus ride, and I was in bed and asleep around 2:30am.

Saturday

A Slow, Hungry Morning

Saturday morning was the morning where we had to wait for my 3-day badge to arrive at the hotel. It was overnighted at the fastest possible rate, so it should’ve gotten there pretty quickly. There was a little mixup where the front desk called the room to say mail had arrived, but then Kat went down to get it and it was magically not there, nay, it never had been there according to the people she spoke with, but it was eventually sorted out after another phone call or two and another trip to the front desk so it all worked out.

We decided to walk since we were leaving around 11:30 and the shuttle service stopped at 11, so we planned on stopping for breakfast at a place Kat and Alix had heard about. When we showed up, however, it was closed. In fact, it’s closed on all weekends. Who runs a food establishment, one of the only such food establishments in the area, a block from a major convention center and isn’t open on weekends?!

So we went next door to Dunkin Donuts, who were completely out of donuts.

This is what hunger looks like, mixed with despair

Ravenous, I made my way to the convention center solo, with the sole immediate purpose of finding nourishment. It came in the form of an overpriced cheeseburger and fries, neither of which probably did very happy things to my digestive system. So it goes.

I did some more wandering on the exhibit hall floor for a while, catching up with some of the various company reps and booth attendants to get more information about things that I played on Friday. This was also where I got a real chance to check out Firefall, which makes me really want to assemble a new desktop PC.

The afternoon is kind of a haze, but I know that intended on going to a development panel of some sort that ended up being cancelled, so I found myself wandering into the Main Theater to see the folks from Rooster Teeth talk about their new work on Immersion and the next season of Red vs. Blue. I gotta tell ya, those folks are pretty damn funny and seeing them made me realize that I really need to get caught up on my Red vs. Blue viewing. Last I checked, I was only partially into Season Two, which is probably a crime in some states.

After Rooster Teeth, I decided to grab dinner. On my way there, I saw Bruce, a guy I know from college marching band, and we briefly got to chat. He recommended the chicken burrito for dinner which, in retrospect, was easily the best food I had during the show.

Of course, I ate in front of the Rock Band stage again. How could I not, knowing what sorts of sights one might see there?

More Musical Mayhem

First up was this really awkward, somewhat large guy who apparently wanted to sing. That’s usually not that weird, nor is it necessarily a bad thing, but this guy chose to sing, “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette. Terribly and unironically. It was so awkward that I both got video (link may not work) of it and bonded with Amanda, a different Amanda than the one from Team Green, over the whole experience.

Right before I was done eating, yet another crazy group got on stage, this one consisting of Big Sister and Big Daddy cosplayers from Bioshock. While Big Daddy didn’t exactly play drums so much as he moved mechanically in an attempt to make contact between sticks and the drum heads, it was still pretty awesome to see it in action.

After dinner, Amanda and I were joined by her husband, Jim, who had just finished up in a Magic tournament down in the table top area. We all headed upstairs to queue up for the second musical event, featuring Video Game Orchestra, Paul & Storm, and Jonathan Coulton.

Preceding the concert, however, was Round Three of the Omegathon competition, an event that happens every year and pits a selected group of attendees against each other over several elimination rounds. Last year featured things like Mario Kart, Tetris, Geometry Wars, and an epic round of classic NES games for the finale. This year included Katamari Damacy, Bananagrams, Jenga, and Operation, plus a final round I didn’t get to see. However, since this was the Omegathon, not a board games tournament, it was uber Jenga using blocks several inches thick and about a foot long. It was a pretty intense round and it actually lasted about an hour before VGO came on.

After the spectacularly good VGO, Amanda and Jim had a drive to make at the end of the night so they decided to call it for the evening. Chance had it that several of my new friends were in the same place at the same time, so I actually had the good fortune of trading Amanda and Jim for Amanda and Anthony from Team Green. Paul & Storm were an absolutely hilarious riot and Jonathan Coulton was great, so it was another successful concert evening.

However, the shuttle line was intense after the show got out at 1:45am, so I had to walk back to the hotel. It’s not so bad to walk that distance when you’re awake, but after the second long day of standing up most of the day, being relatively poorly fed and poorly rested, and remaining sick it was a very unpleasant experience. I didn’t get to sleep until 4:00am, factoring in Daylight Savings Time, so I was miserable.

Sunday

Miraculously, I woke up Sunday morning around 9:00am with only snoring roommates as an alarm. I had originally intended to go to a panel session on game mechanics and game theory at 10:30am, but with the previous night’s misery I wasn’t sure I could make it. Still, being awake I managed to muster up the willpower to get dressed, get my things together, and get on the shuttle, so I did make it to said panel, which ended up being quite good. The next time I get some spare time to check out academic books that aren’t required, I very well may take a look into game theory.

Afterwards, I got lunch at the food court, an overpriced hot dog and Pepsi, and ended up running into Bruce again when I was looking for a seat. There was one empty chair at their table, so I sat down and joined them to catch up on what was going on for them with the show. We talked about the show so far and the awesome cosplays we’d seen and I espoused Slam Bolt Scrappers for the thousandth time.

After lunch, I made my way upstairs to the Q&A with Gabe and Tycho, the creators of the Penny Arcade webcomic. The Q&As are always entertaining and this one included several hugs, a Penny Arcade tattoo, the Simba-fying of someone’s prosthetic leg, and a ludicrous number of signings for people who probably didn’t realize that there was a signing-specific event happening right after the Q&A.

Legendary Board Games

I had about an hour to kill after the Q&A before a panel called “Start Your Own Damn Company” with, among others, some of the folks from Fire Hose, the makers of Slam Bolt Scrappers. In that short time span, Amanda texted me to let me know that she and Jim were checking out a new Steve Jackson game and that they were wondering if I wanted to join them. I love Steve Jackson games, so I decided to go for it, squeezing in a quick game before my panel.

The table top gaming half of the show floor

The game turned out to be the expansion to Revolution!, which I last saw when it was being demoed at the store in West Chester by their traveling SJG rep. With that easily being one of my favorite board games, I had to play. If we were quick, I should be able to make it to the panel, too, I thought. It was a fantastic game, with me being the only one to have played before and all of the other players being fast learners, and we were moving at a pretty quick clip, so I was having a blast.

Then, out of nowhere, an older gentlemen in one of the Steve Jackson Games polos wanders over to our table to check out our game. I don’t look up right away, since there are lots of SJG reps patrolling the area, but my ears immediately perk up when I hear, “How are you doing, Mr. Jackson?” I looked up and, lo and behold, standing right there watching me play one of his games was the legendary Steve Jackson himself. Wow.

I missed my panel by a few minutes, but even if I had the choice to do things differently I would’ve still played Revolution! with my new friends and met Steve Jackson. It’s experiences like that that you can’t prepare for, but you also can’t replace and won’t forget. It’s really experiences like that that are the defining moments of what makes PAX the event that it is.

Somewhere in here, I also got to talk to the girl walking around wearing my favorite of the several distinctly different Ezio cosplays I had seen. Ezio’s one of my favorite gaming characters and this girl had done an amazing job with her costume, so I had to ask some questions. Her name’s Jemma and she’s from Elder Geek, a gaming website. Also, she made her entire costume by hand. Be amazed.

There are boots, too, but she wasn't wearing them at the time

Serendipitous Conclusions

Having free time that I didn’t plan on, I thought I could either watch the final round of the Omegathon or I could make one more sweep of the exhibit hall floor. I remembered how long Jenga took and I decided to take a more active role in my final hours of PAX East by checking out the exhibit hall one more time.

One view of the immense exhibit hall

On the show floor, I stopped by the Outland display and got a chance to talk to the booth attendant, the fantastic Amanda Brockman. She’s an aspiring 3D animator, among other things, and she has a Tumblr if you want to check out what she’s done so far, too. Again, I realized I’d never have even had that conversation if my plans went as I originally intended them to, so I was lucking out left and right.

Then I ran into Amanda and Jim again by the El Shaddai display completely on accident. The show floor was thinning out, so I suggested we head over to play Slam Bolt Scrappers together. The display was just emptying, so the Fire Hose guys were more than happy to let us have a round together. Since no one showed up right after us, we even got to try a cooperative Boss Battle round after our versus round, something I hadn’t seen any other attendees get to do in the several times I walked by the SBS booth.

Just when I thought I was done and I was going to start making my way to the exit, I ran into Amanda and Anthony again! It was great to get a chance to say goodbye to them before I left , seeing as I probably wouldn’t have seen them otherwise, so I was again thankful for the random fortune I’d stumbled upon. In retrospect, I probably should’ve gotten a lottery ticket or something.

Then, one final burst of good luck happened when  I wandered over to the aisle of three of my show favorites: Fallen Frontier, Orcs Must Die, and Skulls of the Shogun. Nobody was playing Fallen Frontier, so I had a chance to try it out a second time. It turns out that game actually gets way more awesome on the second go-around, so now I really can’t wait for it to come out. Then, talking to the Robot devs for Orcs Must Die, they told me that they had extra hats and asked me if I wanted one. Naturally, I grabbed one, a nice navy blue one-size with the R logo on the front that I’m sporting right now on my journey from Boston to Philadelphia.

After the show, I got to meet up with my lovely friend and Boston native Sarah for delicious Thai food and hot chocolate. We ate and caught up, then I got back to my hotel to pack, medicate, and pass out.

All in all, what an awesome weekend! Thank you to all of the developers, representatives, and booth attendants who entertained my myriad questions and business card exchanges, all of the enforcers for making it an awesome show, and all of the new and old friends I got to talk to and spend time with at my favorite convention to be a part of. I had a wonderful time and I can’t wait to go back this time next year. PAX 2012, you can’t come soon enough.

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