When it was announced last April that the popular gaming convention PAX (Penny Arcade Expo) was expanding to Texas, it seemed only natural. Until seconds later, when gamers learned that it would land in San Antonio, not Austin or Dallas, cities that have plenty of video game studios to support such an event.
It turns out that there were good reasons to hold the event, a large three-day convention called PAX South, down River Walk way, and the event appeared to be a big success. Droves of gamers filled nearby parking lots and took over the streets near the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center from Friday to Sunday, many in cosplay mode, dressed as gaming icons, superheroes or Japanese animation characters.
Before the event was over, Jerry Holkins, the co-creator of “Penny Arcade,” the web comic strip company that birthed PAX, promised it would be back in San Antonio around the same time next year and could grow for years to come. That would be alongside the other conventions in the company’s hometown of Seattle and in Boston and Melbourne, Australia.
If PAX were just another gaming convention, another place for companies such as Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo and others to peddle digital entertainment to fans and press, it wouldn’t warrant much attention. But PAX is focused on the experience of being a gamer, whether it’s of the video sort or people who play tabletop games such as “Magic: The Gathering.” It’s highly social and encourages groups to form and tribes to be established. It’s friendly and feels nonthreatening; some parents I spoke to who were attending with their kids or teens said they were surprised by how safe and organized it felt. Passes initially sold for $60 for the whole weekend, about the same price as a single new video game.
“Penny Arcade” as a comic is ongoing and has been since 1998. It became an empire with merchandise sales, Web videos and outside art projects. But its biggest achievements may be Child’s Play, a charity for children’s hospitals, and the PAX conferences, which seem to keep pace well with what gamers want out of a fun weekend.
There were areas where gamers could check out, for free, board games to try out or classic console video games to play with friends all day in a massive hall filled with screens, tables and chairs. Alongside anticipated games including Nintendo’s update of “Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask” for the upcoming redesigned 3DS XL system and the action team game “Evolve,” there were less well-known indie games such as “Dungeon Defenders 2” that attracted their own crowds. News was made as an expansion pack for the popular game “Guild Wars 2” was world-premiered on Sunday. At night, geek-music concerts were held. Marathon card and board game sessions went on until midnight in an enormous area set aside for those players.
Austin was well-represented not only by Dell’s Alienware division but by a large number of industry folk on panels and even a satellite event for the upcoming game “Star Citizen” held at the Aztec Theatre on Friday. That game has raised $70 million and counting from fans and is expected to be released commercially next year.
Mike Krahulik and Holkins, the founders of Penny Arcade and better known as their cartoon names Gabe and Tycho, hosted several hilarious, profane and surprisingly emotional Q&As. In the first, on Friday, they spoke about their working relationship and how their work and gaming habits have changed since they became fathers. They also revealed that one of the reasons PAX South came to San Antonio instead of, say, Austin, is that PAX goes where there are no existing major game conference.
Holkins told me later that there had been talks with the purveyors of Austin’s biggest game conference, Rooster Teeth’s annual RTX Expo, about combining forces, but instead PAX decided to go where there’s not already an event like RTX. In addition, Austin also has South by Southwest Gaming coming up in March, a Classic Game Conference in July and the indie showcase Fantastic Arcade in the fall.
As it was, the Rooster Teeth crew were on their own packed panel Friday in which members of the team wore sombreros and answered questions from audience members about their popular slate of Web shows including “Red vs. Blue” and “Achievement Hunter.” Their booth on the expo floor drew a continuous line of fans wanting to interact with the company’s Web stars.
As noted by Holkins and Krahulik in their Q&As, there are a few generational shifts happening in gaming that were well-represented at PAX South. Younger gamers are making celebrities out of YouTube and Twitch network players, preferring at times to watch others preview or play games than to pick up a controller themselves. The huge crowds around the Twitch booth, where live broadcasts were streaming directly all weekend, were a testament to its popularity. At one point, Krahulik noted, they were drawing a smaller crowd at their own autograph signing than next-generation gaming icons such as Mark “Markiplier” Fischbach, a wildly popular YouTube video star.
Gaming has also gotten more mainstream and more inclusive. PAX South had a dedicated diversity lounge, and it appeared to draw many more women than a typical tech or gaming conference. Panel programming included one featuring five women who work in human resources at Austin game companies including BioWare, Gameloft, Battlecry Studios, Arkane Studios and Certain Affinity. They spoke about the slow but steady progression toward getting more women and minorities into the games industry and retaining them as they grow into leadership positions at these studios.
But despite good vibes throughout the conference, it was hard to forget that last year was a terrible one for many gamers. An online controversy dubbed “GamerGate” spread toxic arguments online, especially on Twitter, and showed that there are ugly corners of the Internet that insist on being heard. Some Tweeted throughout the conference about GamerGate and it was frequently referenced in panels, if not mentioned directly.
In an opening presentation on Friday, gaming personality Geoff Keighley stopped short of using the word “GamerGate” (which, when used on Twitter, is not unlike summoning the titular troublemaker from “Beetlejuice”). But the audience knew what he meant when he said the past year had him questioning whether he wanted to be associated with gamers, many of whom were being revealed to be combative and misogynistic online.
Holkins told his crowd that the increasingly frequent PAX conventions are not a place for that. “Every two months, I come to this show and that’s not what I see. We’re here to do it right,” he said.