06 September 2011

PAX Prime 2011

Note: This post is about a week overdue. There was just so much to write about and my time was taken up by so many other things that it was difficult to find time to write. But here it is, so please enjoy!
As many gamers know, Seattle hosted PAX Prime 2011 this past last weekend. It was a time for gamers of all creeds and backgrounds to come together to see and play new games, and celebrate general geekdom and camaraderie. The convention has been hosted by the folks at Penny Arcade for many years now, but of all the years they've had the convention, I personally have never had a chance to go. Partly because I would miss the ticketing deadlines, or, more likely, I just didn't have the money for a plane ticket, hotel, and tickets to the event. Fortunately, this year was different and I managed to score tickets for myself and Ashley - and what a great year it was to go for the first time!
For Ashley and I, the trip would be the first time ever visiting the home of the world famous Space Needle, and it would also be the first time going to PAX. It was a vacation that I had planned since April of this year, and one that both she and I were very excited to know we had finally been able to clear our schedules for. I've heard and read from other people who have gone in years past that it was better and more engaging than the previous industry record-holder entertainment expo, E3. And as Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik have said, "It is the convention that should have been but never was." Previous attendees have said that there is so much to experience at PAX that no single visit would never be enough - even if you attended all three days. And how right they were, but I will attempt to convey our experiences here after the break (or if you're reading this from Facebook or RSS, click through to read more).
(tl;dr folks - click here)

Day -1 - Wednesday
Besides buying tickets early and requesting time off, planning items for actual trips has never been a particularly strong skill of mine. It is no wonder then why the day before our flight I was in a panic.
Wednesday was like any other Wednesday for me - I woke up early and drove to work and got off at the same time I normally do. However, when I arrived, as I walked into our apartment, I announced, "Freak  out mode activated!" There was a lot to do to prepare for our early-morning flight and subsequent days almost a thousand miles from home.
It was a frantic rush to pack the previously empty luggage bag, trying to plan my clothing and necessities around the geeky and vacation-related activities we would involve ourselves with. We tried to anticipate the things we would need, relinquishing some items to save space and money as we tried to only use 1 piece of luggage for the both of us. In fact, we opted to forgo our laptops in favor of my tablet and her netbook as we both felt they would be sufficient to get us by in a pinch while we were gone.
In the end, we managed to stuff our luggage with near bare-necessities, figuring we could by other things like water when we arrived. At shortly after midnight, we finished packing and retired for the night for a little more than 4 and a half hours before we would wake up and leave for the airport.
Day 0 - Thursday
We woke up around 4:45AM to take quick showers, get dressed and put last minute things in place before we left. We gave our kittens enough food and water for the duration we would be gone, and left sufficient instructions to help Ashley's family get by while they house-sat. My parents arrived shortly after 7 in the morning and we promptly said goodbye to our cats and loaded the car and began heading to the airport.
We left quite early in anticipation of morning rush-hour traffic on our way to the Ontario airport, but thankfully traffic was relatively light and we arrived with plenty of time to spare. Shortly after our arrival, we checked into our flight and bid farewell and thanks to my parents. The lines for security were non-existent, and we walked over to a restaurant near our gate to grab breakfast while we waited the hour or so before our flight boarded.
At around 9:30, our flight began boarding and we settled into our seats next to the wing on the right side of the 737-400 that would be taking us. Not long after that, our flight took off and we were now on our way to Seattle-Tacoma Internation Airport (SEATAC). I should mention here that this was the first time either Ashley or I had ever recalled traveling by plane.
During our 2-hour flight, Ashley kept busy by reading and taking notes for her classes and I browsing the Internet gratis on my tablet. It was actually quite amazing how I was able to keep in contact with most of my friends and family while traveling almost 400 miles per hour and keep tabs on the world's events using a tablet on an airplane. As I understand it (and am constantly reminded), such capabilities were unfathomable prior to my birth - nay! - prior to the year 2000. Back then, being able to place and receive phone calls in-flight was the great communications-during-air-travel achievement. But, I digress.
Shortly after 12:30PM, we landed at SEATAC, disembarked and began heading to pick up our baggage and figure out how to get to our hotel downtown. Once we had our baggage in our possession once again, we went in search of a taxi, which we found, and sped up the I-5 toward our hotel a block from the convention center where PAX would be (and has been) held.
We figured that we'd check into our hotel and begin roaming around the area since it would be one of our only days that we'd really be able to go exploring; our time would almost certainly be taken up exclusively by the expo for the next few days. We began walking to the illustrious Pike Place Market, a hotspot known by many for their multitude of shops and restaurants. We decided that we wanted to try something new, and though Ashley had already had it, I wanted to try the clam chowder from Pike Place Chowder, a restaurant renowned for its delicious clam chowders. And delicious it was. Having never had clam chowder before, we picked the perfect place to have it, and I admit I will probably never have a bowl that tastes as good ever again (unless, of course, Ashley wants to flex her culinary muscle and make it herself, to which I can say will probably taste even better, if that was even possible - but, of course, for her, is). After our short session making orgasmic grunts and moans at the deliciousness of our cups of clam chowder, we wandered around the corner and found the original Starbucks coffee shop.
Now, for those who know me well, they know that I don't particularly like Starbucks since their premium coffees are usually overly-bitter and/or they do not know how to properly make a White Mocha Latte. However, at this shop, the original shop, I received a delectable coffee that I hadn't had since I worked at Vons many moons ago and the Starbucks barista there knew how to make it just the way I liked it.
We continued to wander around the area, making note of the local hotspots and restaurants that we could visit during the next few days. We stopped at a drug store to pick up water and some snacks that we most certainly would need to keep us going. Finally, we got back to the hotel room and relaxed, preparing ourselves for the onslaught that is PAX Prime the following morning.
Day 1 - Friday
It was 6:45AM and our alarms went off. For some, this would be an unearthly hour to be rising, but being used to waking up daily at around 5:30, it wasn't very difficult. And to add to the ease of the hour, we both were excited as a child would be on the morning of a trip to a theme park. We couldn't wait and I could barely contain my excitement.
We arrived in front of the Washington State Convention Center (WSCC) annex, where HaloFest would be held and took our place near the front of the line at around 7AM. Included in the line were a few people who had dressed in their cosplay costumes. As time approached 10AM, though, many more people joined our ranks and a handful of them were in elaborate Halo-oriented costumes, including many Spartans, a Cortana, and a UNSC soldier. While in line, we met a family who was there who were veteran PAX goers, and they too were excited for HaloFest.
10AM finally arrived and the doors promptly opened. We streamed through the threshold and quickly took the escalators to the 3rd floor where HaloFest was being held. When we entered, we were greeted with the real working Warthog used in the Halo 3 live-action teaser trailers. There were tons of other Halo-related memorabilia. But, I had urgent matters to attend to: it was revealed on Major Nelson's Podcast that they would finally be releasing official plush dolls of Grunts from the Halo universe, but they were going to be in very limited supply - 5000 would be made available and only sold at PAX. I had to have one. Or three (which was the limit per customer). So I did.
After my shopping was finished, we walked around HaloFest, taking copious amounts of pictures with all the cool stuff they had. I even had a chance to play some Squad Battle on Penance, a new multiplayer map for the upcoming Halo: CE Anniversary Edition. We even managed to score some awesome Mega Blocks sets that they were giving away for free! After around 2 hours, we decided to head out, grab some lunch and head over to see Wil Wheaton's talk at a theater in the Sheraton a few blocks away.
After grabbing a simple sandwich, we headed to the Sheraton, eating along the way. We arrived at the queue room where everyone would be lining up for Wil's talk, and thus began the worst part of our PAX experience. From my understanding, Wil's talks are one of the most popular events during PAX, and so hundreds of people come to see him. However, the lines start fairly early and the queue room begins to fill up quite quickly, so we have to "make ourselves smaller" in order to accommodate everyone. However, there is a problem with this, and it isn't the fact that its somewhat against fire code regulations: it gets hot, muggy, and people's personal space feels crowded and when that happens, people get claustrophobic and agitated. Thankfully nobody began a fight, but Ashley and I did feel very crowded-in and were getting very agitated having to wait 30 minutes with little to no airflow in standing-room-only-shoulder-to-shoulder conditions. Thankfully, though, the 30-minutes-that-felt-like-an-eternity finally elapsed and we quickly moved into the theater where the talk would be held, comforted by the air conditioning and increased space we were now granted.
Wil was a little late to his talk and a group of PAX Enforcers tried to entertain the crowd, which was actually quite amusing, especially when the kid of the family we met earlier that morning at the line for HaloFest was super excited and tried to be involved in everything. Finally Wil arrived and began his talk. It was great to hear his stories of general geekdom and gaming and why they're so important, and how different the experiences of today are versus the time when he was a kid. His talk definitely summarized much of my opinion of my experience of PAX Prime: it was a celebration of being passionate about what we love, and there was nothing wrong with it, and we should get together, like we were at PAX, and celebrate it, defying the negative and often incorrect stereotype that geeks were not worthy of praise, showing to the world that we were the most accepting community he's ever had the pleasure of being a part of. The hour Wil spoke was too short, in my opinion, and time was up before I knew it. I believe everyone who attended had a great time. I would definitely attend his talks again next year if I go to PAX again (which I would like to), but firmly believe that his talks should be held in the largest theaters where more people can attend and appreciate the great things he says.
We left the theater and moved on to the main expo floor, briefly checking things out before heading to the Unicorn Theater where Major Nelson and his possé would be performing a live recording of their Xbox-related podcast. There were tons of things to see and experience and we saw a number of people dressed in great cosplay costumes. Of course, I took pictures.
As time got closer to 6:30PM, we made our way to the Uniccorn Theater and lined up about an hour beforehand to make sure we had good seats during the live recording. At shortly after 6:30PM, the show began. It was a very light talk, not too heavy on Xbox-related talk, but they did talk about some of the great things they found on the expo floor, which helped give Ashley and I direction as to what we probably should check out since we literally were wandering around the expo floor without concrete direction. I should take a moment to say that we should've probably grabbed a show program and map before heading to the expo floor as it would've probably helped, but they did not hand them out at HaloFest, so we were, quite literally, flying blind and based on what information I managed to scrounge via Twitter (when AT&T was working) and Guidebook. During the podcast recording, Anthony Daniels donned his famous C3PO garb and joined R2-D2 to give away a special edition Star Wars Xbox 360. It was actually quite amazing and I was happy to have been there for it.
When the podcast ended, Ashley & I were famished and headed to The Cheesecake Factory across the street from the convention center and managed to get a seat where we would be able to eat. It was a chain restaurant that we had also never been to before, and figured that it was as good a time as any to try. The food was pretty good too.
At the end of the night we walked back to the hotel and decided that our day was through. The expo floor closed at 6 and there were only a few after-parties, but with all the things we had done, we were exhausted and wanted to be rested and prepared for the next day's craziness.
Day 2 - Saturday
Our second day of PAX was not nearly as crazy as our first day since we did not have a schedule to adhere to for things to attend. We spent the day perusing around the expo floor, checking out the new and just-released games for various platforms, and also admiring the meticulous craftsmanship of people's cosplay costumes. We visited Xbox, Playstation and Nintendo booths, as well as booths for games like Deus Ex, Dead Island and other AAA-title releases. We also visited the much-smaller-but-equally-entertaining indie developers who showed off their titles for their games on various platforms, and even saw some breaking through and showing off titles for tablets, which may have been a first for PAX. Perplexing to me, however, is the fact that Rovio did not have a presence at PAX, which I thought they would considering their Angry Birds game is on nearly every mobile entertainment platform and the PC.
We also took the opportunity to snag some more merch, including a Penny Arcade jacket and PAX shirt and a sack-boy from the Little Big Planet games. Toward the end of the day, noticed that Felicia Day had arrived and went to take pictures and get an autograph with the actress and online-video-entertainment duchess. In line for Felicia, I ran into Laura Massey a.k.a. Lollip0p, an Xbox engineer and member of Major Nelson's podcast possé and took a picture with her.
Before long, 6PM rolled around and the expo floor would be closing. We returned to our hotel to drop off our swag and get ready for dinner, which we had shortly afterward at the Hard Rock, another first for us. When we were walking back to the hotel after dinner, we spotted Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day crossing the street in front of us, and I took the moment to be a paparazzi and took pictures of them walking past Ashley and I. I thought it was quite amusing that all the geeks around them didn't notice them there, or either that they did and were too shy to approach them. Then again, they were probably decent people and left the two of them alone so that they could enjoy life as normal people and not the celebrities they were - at least that's what I hoped people would do.
As a last-minute decision, Ashley and I decided to attend a Paul & Storm and Jonathon Coulton concert at the Paramount Theater about a block from our hotel and managed to get some of the last seats in the theater in the nose-bleed corner of the theater - literally the last row of seats up against the back wall of the theater. Despite being so far from the stage, it was actually great seating as we were able to see nearly everything and everyone in the theater. Being there reminded me of our time at W00tstock in San Diego, and the concert and experience was just as enjoyable.
We left the concert shortly after Jonathon Coulton finished playing his "Mr. Fancypants"/"Still Alive"/"Want You Gone" mashup and just as he started playing "Re: Your Brains" since it was getting late and we were planning on waking up very early in the morning for the Halo 4 panel the next morning and that day's festivities.
Day 3 - Sunday
4:30AM - our alarms go off. We were exhausted. Snooze. 4:45AM, our alarms go off again. Okay, we'll get up.
We dragged ourselves out of bed so that we could be near the front of the line at the Halo 4 panel at the main theater - the same theater we were at the night before. We arrived and were part of the original first 20 to be in line at around 5:30 in the morning. The sun was just rising and the sky was finally getting lighter. We stayed in line for 4 or so hours, waiting excitedly for the chance to hear any little tidbits we could about the upcoming Halo game. When 9:50AM finally came, the crowd had grown significantly and we began to move into the theater for our seats for the 10AM presentation. Ashley & I managed to get theater floor seats  in the center isle in row 7.
We were soon joined by the team at 343 Industries who would be the speakers at the Halo 4 panel. The excitement to hear anything about the sequel to the fantastic franchise and discover any little tidbit we could of the fate of Cortana and Master Chief was palpable. The speakers talked about the many different challenges they were currently facing with the new team that was formed to handle the new trilogy, as well as the challenges that they were tackling with trying to formulate a new story as well as trying to keep the franchise pure. Although we did not get any new glimpses into the worlds we would be exploring in the not-too-distant future, Ashley and I did come out of the talk having learned a little bit more about where some focus of the stories would be as well as the setting for the stories, and it was satisfying.
The end of the Halo 4 panel marked the end of our PAX journey. In retrospect, ending our PAX experience with a Halo 4 panel seemed fitting since our time there began with it. As the chapter in Halo 3 was titled, our journey returned "Full Circle:" we began PAX with HaloFest, and ended our time there with Halo 4. But at the end of the panel, we quickly transitioned to the crowning event of our vacation in Seattle.
About a week before our trip, I had the idea of visiting the Space Needle, a grand symbolic structure from 1962's World's Fair symbolizing our push for space exploration. (Aside: as I write this, I find it a bit ironic that we would visit the monument that stood to symbolize our government's quest to explore space, as it was not long ago this year that the Space Shuttle program ended, marking the end of our government-sponsored presence in space). I realized that you could get a reservation to eat at the restaurant at the top of the needle, which I tried to get a dinner reservation for but had to settle for a lunch reservation due its popularity and limited availability. I made a lunch reservation - one of the last available - and at the end of the panel, we began to make our way to the Needle for it.
We arrive quite a bit earlier than intended, but it allowed us to explore a little of the area around the Needle, including the Experience Music Project (EMP) and the "CityCenter" area around it. Before long, our reservation was available and we made our way to the revolving restaurant at the top of the Needle.
The view we had from the restaurant was amazing. Ashley & I had been at the top of the Stratosphere tower in Las Vegas before, but we had never a) been to a restaurant at the top of a large tower, b) been to a restaurant at the top of a large tower that slowly revolved offering a continuously changing panoramic view of the surrounding area, and c) been to a revolving restaurant at the top of a large tower that offered a view of a city we barely knew and the beautiful bay that it existed next to. The food was fantastic, service impeccable, and the view provided made our visit one of the top experiences of my life. Besides the incredible time we had at PAX, our visit to the needle was the perfect end to our visit of a very beautiful and welcoming city.
Conclusion (tl;dr-ers, start here)
PAX was amazing, Seattle was welcoming, and our time was very well spent. There were so many awesome things that you could see and do at PAX it was mind-boggling. All the talk that there would be so much to do that you wouldn't have time to do it all are absolutely true. In fact, during my time at PAX, I only was able have time to play one match of Halo Anniversary Edition. The rest of my time was dedicated to joining a few panels, walking around and browsing the expansive and densely packed expo floor and just briefly seeing all that there was to PAX. I know now that my future visits to PAX will probably include more involvement and participation in actual gaming, but for my first time, I wanted to see what it was all about, and it was quickly made apparent to Ashley and I that there was so much to be had. And the people, man, the people. They were great. Never in my entire life have I been somewhere where people from such diverse backgrounds joined together by a loose bond have been so friendly and nice. I think that in-and-of-itself made PAX. If it weren't for the great people that were so friendly and helpful not only to me but even each other, PAX would probably be just another E3 - an industry event with little in the way of a true community. All-in-all, I recommend to any geek and/or gamer to make time in their busy lives to make the pilgrimage to PAX, either of the Prime or East variety - it is well worth the time and money in gold.
Finally, I'd like to thank all the people that made our trip so enjoyable and relaxed. To the airports: you made our first air travel experiences easy and relatively stress-free and I thank you. To Alaska Airlines: though your coach seats were a bit cramped, you made our first journeys in the air comfortable and quick and I thank you (especially the free WiFi - that was a very nice touch). To the Roosevelt Hotel: thank you for your hospitality and making our stay in Seattle carefree. To the people of Seattle: a tremendous Thank You for your hospitality, patience and helpfulness to us as we aimlessly roamed your city as possible huge tourists. To the Enforcers at PAX: Bravo; despite the legions of people in nearly every corner of the great event, you all made the experience friendly and wonderful and ensured that everyone had a great time and I Thank You tremendously for your volunteered time. And finally, to everyone at Penny Arcade: Words cannot express my gratitude for not only creating the incredible community you have made, but also creating this absolutely incredible event that is open to the public. You most certainly have raised the bar so high for other events that I believe PAX will be the event that people will want to go to over other conventions. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!
Update: I figured I'd post some of the pictures I took during the event, so I've embedded small slideshows of each day below the sub-heading for each day. Enjoy!

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