Tuesday, October 9, 2012

PAX Crunch

I went to PAX East this year. It was my first PAX and I had a really good time.

A Brief History of PAX

For those who don't know, PAX stands for Penny Arcade Expo. It was basically started out as a pretty normal gaming expo, though it was obviously run by the guys who do the "Penny Arcade" comic and also included tabletop gaming rather than just focus on video games. Even so, there were plenty of gaming expos and conventions, and there still are, so it wasn't all that big for the first couple years. However, in 2007, there was a bit of a power vacuum.

You see, in 2006, the most popular gaming expo in quite possibly the world, E3, had a serious problem that got a LOT of coverage. Specifically, Nintendo's new system (later called the Wii) attracted a lot of attention, resulting in a massive line that required attendees to wait several hours to get a chance to use it. Some would wait for hours and then leave empty handed.

I should note that this is partially speculation on my part, but basically, I'm thinking that a lot of the gaming media got really cheesed off. They were there for their jobs and it's difficult to cover a lot of different games and platforms when you have to spend an entire day just to try out one system. And to make matters worse, the system in question was the talk of the town and if they DIDN'T get a chance to try it, they would disappoint their editors and readers.

So for the 2007 show, E3 changed to being a press-only event. They figured non-press gamers could just get coverage from the attending press and the G4 channel.

The gamer backlash at the time was huge, but E3 didn't backpedal until a few years later, so the damage had been done. While E3 still exists to this day and is still definitely a big deal and attracts a big audience, that audience has dropped and continues to drop.

The reason is because while E3 was finding itself, PAX ate their lunch. In 2007 while E3 was shrinking, PAX was growing. In a way, E3's dedication to the press and the companies reaffirmed PAX's dedication to the gamers themselves.

They moved to a bigger location, attendance grew exponentially, and by the time E3 started welcoming regular gamers again, the gamers had already found a new love.

Then in 2010, they expanded to have a PAX on the East Coast, aptly named PAX East.

So now that we're done with the history lesson, back to my story.

Go Westin

I went to PAX East 2012 this year (nicknamed PAX Easter since it took place on Easter Weekend).

However, the experience wasn't... perfect. Some of the panels were too early, traffic was nuts, parking was expensive and difficult unless you took advantage of valet, and the shuttles were slow and crowded.

As such, I decided to make a concerted effort to get into the Westin for next year's PAX East. Since the Westin is directly attached to the convention center, staying there would basically get rid of all the problems I had this year.

I knew this would not be easy. I did some investigation and found that in 2011, the hotel announcement first showed up in the Penny Arcade forums and the Westin sold out within 24 hours. So I started camping out the Penny Arcade forums.

Yesterday, my diligence paid off. Within about 2 minutes of the hotel page going live, I managed to snag a room at the Westin for myself, my brother, and two of my friends.

The Westin (and the Seaport which is another hotel within close proximity that is highly sought after) were sold out of two-bed rooms for the full weekend within minutes. They were completely out of two-bed rooms within a few hours. By the end of the day, they were out of everything.

Later that day, they also released Registration.

Now, I wasn't as crazy about jumping on this since last year I didn't get my 3-day passes until December. Granted, they sold out not long after that, but still, it took them two months.

This year, they sold out around 5PM today. Yeesh.

Carrying Capacity

While I'm personally in pretty good shape for the show at this point, I know that a lot of people were pissed that they couldn't book the Westin for the full weekend or perhaps even at all simply because of bad timing. Even people who were checking the forums got screwed over simply because they weren't fast enough.

There was also a debacle earlier this year regarding PAX Prime (the original one) where the 3-day passes sold out with hours and the rest of the 1-day passes sold out within a week.

While obviously PAX East isn't having QUITE as big a problem as that, selling out of 3-day passes in two days when the previous year took two MONTHS is a pretty notable uptick.

The problem is, PAX has grown beyond its carrying capacity. It was growing exponentially until they started selling out and couldn't move to a bigger convention hall.

And it's not like these events take place in small convention halls. Both can carry somewhere between 70,000-100,000 attendees. They don't even bother to count how many attendees they have anymore. And maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think there's a bigger convention hall in Boston other than the BCEC, and even if there were, they're committed to the BCEC for the next few years.

They have started to open up new PAX's, starting with PAX Australia next year. Maybe as that trend continues, there will be enough of the burden spread out that it will relieve the pressure on the existing PAX's, but considering how a lot of die-hard fans like to go to BOTH of the current PAXs, I don't know how much this will actually help.

Scalp the Scalpers

The people who complain about not getting badges (and to a lesser extent, decent hotels) have two primary reasons for their displeasure. The first is scalpers.

They believe that the main reason they don't get badges for PAX is because scalpers jump in and buy them up by the hundreds so that they can sell them via eBay at exorbitant prices.

This is probably true to an extent, however I don't think it's really THAT big a problem. Badges are restricted to 5 per mailing address, so while scalpers do exist, the process of purchasing several badge bundles is time-consuming and requires a lot of work to pull off without being obvious and leaving tons of digital fingerprints.

Additionally, it was revealed (though I can't seem to find the source) that the average number of badges sold per person for PAX Prime was less than 2, so the majority of the purchases were for just 1, which a scalper would not do.

So yes, scalpers probably didn't help, but they weren't the biggest source of the problem and anything that Penny Arcade can do to stop them would only inconvenience everyone else.

Countdown to Clusterfuck

As I said earlier, I found out about the hotels (and also registration) through the forums. This is standard practice. The forum admins will alert the community first and then it will go up on Twitter shortly thereafter. It isn't posted on the main Penny Arcade page for a much longer time.

So one of the major complaints from the people who didn't get badges was that there should be an announcement for when these things go on sale. That way they can clear their schedules and prepare their budgets for the release.

While I agree that the initial release for forum members seems a little elitist, it's really not. Anyone can view the forums, you don't even have to join, and you can't get e-mail notifications for new or updated posts anyway, so there's no advantage to being a member. You still have to be watchful and ready.

As for why they don't announce it first? Well, I should think that's fairly obvious.

I mean, do you REALLY think having an announced date and time will make it EASIER to get a hotel and a badge? If anything, it will just make it significantly harder.

Even with just the forum members (and those connected to them through social media) booking hotels, the service was slower than death at first. If there was an open announcement, the server would be crushed, there would be a severe risk of overbooking, and supply would run out even faster. This is probably the WORST way to handle this problem. It might SEEM more fair, but all it does is discriminate against people with slower Internet connections and potentially cause problems that will sell more badges and rooms than are actually available.

But really, these are just complaints that spring from frustration with a supply that simply cannot match the ever-growing demand.

What Can We Do?

So if you get screwed for PAX East 2013, don't give up hope completely. You might still be able to snag a decent hotel room if you go directly through the hotel's website, you just won't get the discount. And you can also use the other hotels if you don't mind a short commute every morning. As for badges, well, you CAN buy badges from scalpers on eBay, but buyer beware and make sure you can spot a counterfeit.

Also, while 3-day badges ran out today, you can still buy single-day badges for each day. It's about $35 more expensive, but it's probably cheaper than the markup from a scalper and the single-day badges probably won't run out for at least another week.

And yeah, try harder next year to avoid the situation. When October rolls around in 2013, start checking out the forums every morning. When you find out that hotels/registration go live, don't assume that everything will sell out at about the same rate as the previous year. Don't put it off until later just because you think you have more time.

What Can Penny Arcade Do?

So here's a better question. What can Penny Arcade do about this supply/demand problem? They can't change venues (and it probably wouldn't help anyway), they can't cram more people into these venues, and they can't really stop the scalper problem in a way that would actually make a real difference.

Well, I'm starting to wonder if PAX is going to need to change its form to really make a significant difference, and I have a few crazy ideas that might help a little.

PAX Festival

So right now PAX takes place over three days. What if it took place over six? Make it a big festival.

Now, there are a lot of problems with this, but in a way, those problems are exactly what would make this alleviate the problems.

First of all, hotels and badges are expensive. Assuming badge prices stay about the same, a six-day badge would cost around $140-$175, and a 4-person room would cost around $1200-$1500. Also, not everyone can take off an entire week for work.

In other words, most people wouldn't be able to attend the entire festival. And in a way, that's the point.

If you can't make it to the Friday-Sunday events, you can still make it for Tuesday-Thursday, which would probably have a lower demand.

Personally, I'm not SUPER fond of this idea, but the idea of a week-long PAX sounds wicked cool, even if I couldn't attend all of it.

PAX Expansion

So PAX Prime and PAX East can't take place at different venues, and it probably wouldn't help anyway. Fine.

Why not have it take place at more than one convention center?

PAX already has shuttle systems for bringing attendees to and from their hotels, why not use that shuttle system to ferry people to another nearby convention hall with other events occurring?

Obviously, timing is a factor. If you have one panel at one center and another at the other center, you'll probably need a few hours to account for travel time and the giant lines.

The other big problem is that even if there are two convention halls, there's no way they can guarantee that the attendees will evenly distribute between them. It's possible that they could separate the two venues as two different expos. Maybe have the expo hall in one and the tabletop/BYOC gaming tables in the other.

Doing it this way would not only allow them to sell more badges, it would alleviate some of the pressure on the popular hotels. If the convention center with the expo hall was closer to Hotel A and the convention center with the BYOC table was closer to Hotel B, then people with different priorities would favor different hotels.

I understand that no matter what, it's going to inconvenience people, but people are already getting inconvenienced and that number will only keep growing until PAX expands somehow.

The Future of PAX

Penny Arcade has often talked about how they one day expect to no longer be the ones organizing or running PAX. That it will take on a life of its own and be organized and controlled by the community itself.

I don't know how likely that is, but it's a pretty crazy thing to imagine. In the not too distant future, multiple convention centers and many streets are reserved for the Great PAX East Festival. The Protomen will play at the Hatch Shell and the attendees will all pack together on the Oval, followed by a fireworks display as Mike, Jerry, Robert, and their families watch from afar knowing that the Enforcers and their democratically elected PAX Monarch have everything under control.

How much longer after that until they riot and turn the center of Boston into a sovereign nation of the gamers, by the gamers, for the gamers?

What madness hath we wrought?

In all seriousness, though, I find it difficult to imagine that PAX will get much bigger unless something changes in some big way. They can't just find different ways to sell the same tickets. And if PAX stops growing, it will never evolve in the way that Penny Arcade seems to hope it will.