PAX Australia is a thing now, apparently. I should know – I was there. For the very first time, PAX has been held in a country other than the US. Melbourne, Australia was the chosen location, with the three day convention taking up residence at Melbourne Showground for its inaugural showing.
It was quite a show.
From minute one, PAX Australia established that it was a show about people. The opening keynote speech was from Ron Gilbert about creativity. Gilbert explored his creative journey from excited ten year old with a programmable calculator to providing personal Monkey Island walkthrough sessions to Steven Spielberg at LucasArts. Touching, funny, and very personal, Gilbert set the tone for the rest of PAX – humans with a common interest sharing.
And the rest of the panels were equally engaging. From Penny Arcade Q&A and draw a panel sessions, and walkthroughs of creating cutscenes and the music of Killer Instinct, to Geek Parenting and whether fake geeks exist, the panels (if you could get in to them) covered a huge breadth of culture. The four theatres were constantly catering to a stream of fascinated people, eager to learn more about their interests and participate in creating the dialogue that identifies the PAX audience.
The main show hall was a noisy affair, busy with keen, excited people exploring the latest new thing. Comics, anime, and merch were being trafficked at the various stalls representing King’s Comics, Popcultcha, and Madman. Plenty of big tech companies had representatives spruiking gaming peripherals to the masses, allowing hands-on demonstrations and giving away prizes. There was vast laser tag arena at the back of the main hall, with a steady stream of players lining up for some fun times.
And yeah, there were games.
Strangely absent from the showroom floor were many of the big-name publishers. In attendance were Ubisoft, Nintendo, Tecmo Koei/Konami, and, err, that’s it really. Microsoft was limply showing the Xbox One console for a handful of hours a day on the showroom floor, with two main stage presentations, but had no games or hands-on opportunities. A number of individual games had booths, such as World of Tanks, Rome 2 Total war, and League of Legends. Saints Row 4 was also in attendance, clandestinely ferreted away behind thick black curtains. But no Actiblizz, EA, 2K, WB, Squeenix, or any other big names were present, which struck me as unusual in a year of massive next-gen releases.
But the space left by the big publishers was resoundingly filled by an onslaught of terrific indie devs. And, just quietly, that’s brilliant. Maybe 20 or so great games spread along the sides of the main hall, some with their own small booths, most with just a poster and a couple of laptops or iPads. All had constant lines of PAX-goers, waiting to be walked through the game by the creators themselves. To my great regret, I was unable to play all the games on offer, but every one I did get my grubby little mitts on was rather great. We’ll have a full write-up of my favourites soon, but everything I did get enough time to play was unique and interesting.
Further out in the venue was the big top, which housed a range of retro consoles and games, a massive beanbag relaxation area, the tabletop gaming area, and a number of food stalls. Experiencing games from yesteryear was a nostalgic thrill, and a great opportunity for those whippersnappers too young to know the joys of a real game. A variety of games were on offer, with free tutelage, although it’d be fair to say the most played game in that room was Magic The Gathering. Big top chillouts made sure plenty of tired attendees could recharge and catch up on their Street Passes.
Right on the periphery of the showground was the PC freeplay area. Con-goers could sit down with a top of the line machine and spend 45 minutes having fun in the various virtual worlds available. There was also a BYO area, where punters could connect up their own rigs for good times.
Each night was capped off with great concerts by Protomen and MC Frontalot, and screenings of documentaries like Reformat the Planet and Minecraft: The Story of Mojang.
A few rough edges did try to mar the overall shine of the show, however. Getting to and from the showground was a tedious affair, with nowhere near enough public transportation on offer – especially in the inevitable Melbourne weather. Trams and trains were filled to capacity, when they were running, which was not often enough. Once you were in the show, the facility was entirely packed out. If you wanted to see a panel, you needed to begin lining up about an hour before the panel started. Every single panel was packed to capacity, with people being turned away. PAX enforcers did an admirable job to keep lines orderly and to ensure those who couldn’t get in the door weren’t wasting their time queuing pointlessly, but they were fighting an uphill battle. The Melbourne Showground venue was clearly pathetically underequipped to deal with the volume of people.
PAX Australia’s few shortfalls are not entirely attributable to the PAX organisers. The space and transport issues can be ascribed to teething problems. Rumour has it that next year PAX Australia will be held in a different venue, although that’s still a way out. Public transport is squarely on Connex, Melbourne, and the Victorian government, who failed to provide sufficient numbers of trams and trains at reasonable times. And don’t get me started on Myki. Hopefully a change of venue (if it happens) and some more experience with handling public transport schedules will clear those issues right up for next year.
The lingering impression will be one of overwhelming community. All were equal on the con floor, in their love for their pastime. Gamers, anime fans, cosplayers, children, parents mingled and met in PAX, experiencing the welcoming and friendly atmosphere. Whether it was taking pictures with a particularly great cosplayer, or playing games with beachballs in the main queue to enter in the morning, I can honestly say I did not hear of anyone behaving in anything but a friendly and considerate way.
Colour me thoroughly impressed.