When I first heard rumors of PAXUnplugged I grew stupidly excited. Having attended PAXEast on several occasions, Unplugged offered a chance to enjoy all the moments of PAXEast that I wanted without the crowds that a video game convention draws. I was beside myself with anticipation. And I waited, and waited, and waited for anything to show up on the PAXUnplugged website. It took forever; not just because of my longing and anticipation, but details of the convention were scant on the website until a month or so before the show.
Now that it's over? PAXUnplugged still holds the promise of what I was looking for. There were bumps in the road, but that's to be expected at an inaugural expo. Let's take a few moments to review the experience.
Let's start with the positive first, as this is where the memories are. The whole experience was fantastic, but there are a few things that need to be called out specifically.
This was the first year that I worked a PAX as an Enforcer. For those of you without experience at PAX, Enforcers are the boots-on-the-ground for the convention staff. They act as line wranglers, info booth workers, entertainment, and as exhibitor assistants. It was the latter that I did this year, and I have to say I was unprepared for 10 hours a day on my feet. I've worked as a volunteer/security staff at other conventions and I'll have to say that this is the first time wearing a Con Staff shirt that I experienced zero attitudes from those around me.
More than that, it was hard to find anyone that was the least bit rude. As with any large gathering of geeks and nerds, you have your socially awkward and those that are standoffish. You run into a few booth vendors that are not as engaging as you would hope they would be. But overall, everyone around was quite nice and approachable. Celebrities that did signings stayed long to finish their lines; I saw Satine Phoenix stall at a booth to spend time with fans, and the entire Waffle Crew chilled in the food court and greeted anyone that came along.
The attendees were fantastic. More than a few stopped to just chat and finding a conversation when you wanted one was never a problem. It was also wonderful to see a number of ALLY and GAYMER ribbons attached to badges; these could easily be picked up in the Diversity Lounge.
At PAXEast, I've had trouble finding food. The Convention Center has a food court, but getting out of the convention center leaves you in the business district and much of that is closed on the weekend or after hours. Without a car, it can be difficult to find your way to delicious noms. PAXUnplugged solved this with the Philadelphia Convention Center! Step out on one side, and you have Panera, a burger place, and Reading Terminal with all sorts of options inside; step out on the other and you're literally looking at the start of their Asian section of the city with all the wonderful little restaurants and karaoke joints.
Beyond what was within walking distance, though, you have the standard options for delivery. Looking on Yelp! and Grubhub from the hotel room meant never having to leave for dinner if I was too tired... and at least twice I was too tired to do this. If there was one thing that could be improved on, it would be the food options available in Freeplay. I do miss DragonCon for having PapaJohns just wander around offering pizzas they brought over.
The Expo Hall is where I spent most of my time. I had five exhibitors I was assigned to help and had some nice conversation with all of them at one point or another. The floor had a rather good showing of vendors available and unlike my experience with PAXEast, I never witnessed a true blockage. The flow of traffic might stall for a moment, but it was quick to move on. Oddly enough, I found this to be even truer on the sold-out Saturday. It's like the press of bodies kept the traffic moving even more.
The exhibitors had everything from soon-to-be-released games to established IPs. You could find RPG products, trading card games, board games, and everything between. Among the more surprising merch I noted on the floor? Furniture. The trade of geek furniture is picking up and everything from gamer chairs with RPG Manual holders built into customized gaming tables with room for flat screens and speakers was available.
It was a learning experience for all involved too. Anyone offering a new game had demo space in their booth. Some of these stayed steadily busy (such as Chaosium's Khan of Khan's display) while others were outright crowded and never lacked a series of players (see: Archon's Eschaton). There were even demos for games not available at the Expo (Muse and Fog of Love, for example).
If you were a tabletop gamer, PAXUnplugged was likely a very positive experience. If you were an exhibitor, there were some hiccups. And if you were a roleplayer? Then you probably developed a strong dislike of the RPG demo experience.
Line culture, as it's been called, was a huge part of the RPG play experience at PAXUnplugged. If I heard one complaint consistently, it was about this. There was no way to pre-register for any of the RPG play demos, and the queues for the signup sheets filled up extremely quick. One story relayed to me had a person getting in line early, being near the front, and then having the line moved to a new queueing area and finding themselves suddenly at the end. More than one exhibitor bemoaned the lack of space and the frustration with scheduling demos.
There were also hiccups with Reed and the facilities they managed. There was no free wifi on the expo hall floor (or wifi at all unless you turned your phone into a hotspot). The carpet was not rolled out in the aisles of the expo hall floor; signage was missing, etc. These were all small things that could be easily overcome, but they added towards some negativity in the experience.
PAXUnplugged has some growing to do, and the initial year or two will be painful. Having an experienced group behind this convention eased many of the starting troubles and made the convention run as smoothly as it did. But experienced as PennyArcade may be at running a gaming convention, this one hit a few snags. They'll work them out and the Expo will continue to improve over the next few years.
I would highly reocmmend going if you have an interest in tabletop or RPG play. It's worth the trip.