Penny Arcade Expo draws game makers, fans

Two heavily armored, gun-toting super soldiers encounter each other in the crowded halls of the Washington State Convention and Trade Center.

  • Tuesday, September 9, 2008 10:38am
  • Life

Actress Jen Taylor

Two heavily armored, gun-toting super soldiers encounter each other in the crowded halls of the Washington State Convention and Trade Center.

They each bear a striking resemblance to the Master Chief from the “Halo” video game series. No violence erupts, no chase ensues. The two simply nod to one another as they pass.

It’s a bit like two motorcyclists gesturing to each other in silent acknowledgment of their shared passion.

Such is life at the Penny Arcade Expo, or PAX, in Seattle. Everyday folks, some dressed as their favorite game character, could meet fellow enthusiasts and come face to face with game creators.

The center recently played host to console, table top, and PC gaming fans from all over the world. In its fifth year, PAX 2008 continued the expo’s pattern of roughly doubling in size from the previous year. What started out as a relatively small get-together has transformed into one of the largest conventions of its kind.

For game developers and fans alike, the rapid growth was not a surprise. The traditionally large Electronics Entertainment Expo, or E3, has pared down in recent years, going from hosting tens of thousands to an invite only summit in Los Angeles. The format change had a significant effect on fans eager to catch early glimpses of upcoming titles.

“You had all these gamers going, ‘Now where do we go?’ ” asked Sean Harris, marketing coordinator for Redmond’s DigiPen Institute of Technology.

The answer, it turned out, was PAX, the brainchild of Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik. The pair gained a loyal following with their popular online comic strip, Penny Arcade, which frequently focused on video games and the people who enjoy them.

With numerous game studios and publishers located in Seattle and throughout the surrounding area, Harris said it’s no surprise PAX continues to draw bigger crowds each year.

“Redmond is the second largest gaming development area outside of Silicon Valley,” he added.

Several of the area’s largest companies set up shop in PAX’s exhibition hall, giving fans a hands-on look at upcoming titles.

At Nintendo of America’s booth, the emphasis was on their industry-leading Wii console. With its lower price point and unique motion-sensitive controls, the Wii regularly slots above Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3 on monthly sales charts.

Several games on display utilized the Wii Balance Board, a bathroom scale-like peripheral that first appeared alongside the Wii Fit exercise game.

“We have a lot of options for the balance board now,” Nintendo of America Public Relations Manager Eric Walter said.

At one station, players used the board to control a skateboard in Electronic Art’s upcoming “Skate It”. In “Wii Music”, the board can be used to control foot pedals on a virtual drum set.

“It just goes to show, when you put your mind to it, what you can do with the balance board,” Walter said.

Sony, who has a game development studio in Bellevue, showed off several titles for their PlayStation 3 home console and the PlayStation Portable system.

Exhibitors also gave fans a chance to try out the PSP-3000, a hardware revision of the PlayStation Portable. Changes include a built-in microphone and an improved screen that, according to Sony, featured improved glare resistance and richer colors.

At Microsoft’s booth, the emphasis was on upcoming Xbox 360 games like “Fable II”, “Project Origin”, and “Lego Batman”.

Perhaps their biggest draw was a multiplayer demo of “Gears of War 2”, a sequel to the 2006 title that pitted humans against a subterranean enemy.

“It’s very fun. I’d recommend it to anyone,” PAX attendee Tomas Mendez said after trying out the game.

A fan of the original, Mendez said his time with the under-development sequel left him impressed.

“I’m definitely buying this,” he said.

PAX also allowed smaller studios a chance to show off their titles.

Bellevue-based Torpex Games showcased “Schizoid”, a title available for download on the Xbox 360’s Live Arcade online service.

The game, which earned favorable reviews upon its July release, earned a spot on the PAX 10 audience choice ballot for top independent games.

Fans also got a chance to meet the people behind memorable game characters.

At the Kirkland-based Bungie Studios booth, more than a hundred attendees waited in line for a chance to meet actress Jen Taylor.

Despite her work in theater and voicing characters in games from “The Matrix” to “Mario Kart”, it’s Taylor’s performance as “Halo’s” Cortana that many fans associate with her.

From the lines of fans seeking autographs to the hundreds of others who took part in tournaments throughout the weekend, it’s evident the video game industry has struck a chord with people of all ages.

In one clear example far from the hectic exhibition hall, a parent could be seen waiting near the center’s entrance as his son explored the crowded halls of PAX. To help pass the time, the man found a chair outside a small deli, took out his cell phone and started playing a video game.

Philip Palermo covers the video gaming industry for the Auburn Reporter.

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