Last week wrapped on the very first PAX Online. Penny Arcade Expo has been a staple of the gaming community for ages. With the current cancellation of the larger game conventions, taking it online was a real “the future is here” moment. Seven months ago, PAX partnered with Steam to do a thing, but it ran tandem to the actual PAX that was going on at the time.
There was a lot to take in, but at the same time, there really wasn’t. If this is the future, conventions are going to be a much different role than before. We’ve been to PAX (PAXes, PAXII?) before, but never like this!
I’m currently preparing to sell my house and move into a new one. Why is this information relevant? Because I was able to attend events from the comfort of my home, or phone. Between painting and packing, I was able to listen to a presentation on Ghostrunner. I went to my first panel ever, which featured the voice actors of Overwatch. I did this mostly while driving back and forth to our storage unit. I sent out inquiries while going for a morning jog and followed back up later in the day.
Even better, the meat and potatoes of these events for press are the games. For hands-on game demos, teams simply sent us the demo directly. We could do things like have a guided playthrough on Discord, but I preferred a solo approach.
What is really interesting is that the game content is now evergreen. Most of these games aren’t coming out right away. This means I can play them, let my thoughts ruminate, and come back again to see if my feelings change. It gives a much less rushed, real-world feel to the whole thing. There also aren’t any lines or crowds to slow you down. I like it.
So PAX Online’s social aspects mostly happened on Discord. It was a lot to take in. It was overwhelming in a disappointing way. One of the big things about conventions is having something you were booked for catch your eye. While the online format of a convention works for going at your own pace, it isn’t fun to skim through three hours of a stream to see if something looked cool. It is exactly the opposite of what I hoped for.
Pax Online featured a media lounge for press. It was OK but was mostly filled with people chatting about games or content. That and there were a few select individuals that seemed to exist for the sole purpose of bragging about things. I don’t care about the fact you got five copies of this game, I’m trying to talk about Cris Tales. In fact, it was more fun to join channels and just talk to randoms excited for certain games. Even with that level of accessibility, there was an emotional disconnection. Gauging someone’s reaction to a panel or game didn’t feel organic.
Personally, it was great for specifics. The problem with that is you can look up almost any game in development and get almost the same experience with research. There are trailers all over YouTube, developer site feature info dumps, and online discussions on places like Reddit that can provide basically the same information. PAX Online felt cool, but it also felt redundant.
The big, fat, question mark
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the 10-day event that was PAX Online. The highlight was spending an hour with a bunch of random people playing Among Us over Discord chat. In a vacuum, it was a neat experiment. Can it or will it replace the real thing though? I highly doubt it. I could, however, see PAX Online set the framework for the future of online conventions.
If the event had featured a bit more interactivity or a better virtual space, I’d be all about it. It’s a bit more extreme of an example but in June, Devolver Digital released Devolverland Expo on Steam. It is a silly FPS that has you visiting booths to check out new Devolver Digital games. If there was a hybrid of PAX Online and an experience like that, it would be perfect. Maybe?
PAX Online’s setup was a lot more about having a specific space to talk about games and have discussions around games. Most of the actual media content was handled outside of the Discord channel or via email. Many times I found myself clicking links to Twitch streams or YouTube videos. I’d call that internet surfing with extra steps.
Overall, I think we need to see more online conventions that push the limits of innovation. It will certainly be a lot healthier and safer. It would be great for those that can’t make it to an event or lack the funds to attend. At the same time, I don’t see this being a 1:1 replacement either.