Saturdays are usually the busiest day of any PAX, and PAX Unplugged was no exception. The queue line was non-existent by the time we arrived on Friday, but it was a different story on Saturday. We found ourselves being shuffled along with a massive crowd in a manner similar to other PAX conventions. The herd was funneled down a long hallway to a large open area that was carved into lanes, and then all the way back up the same hallway to the Expo Hall entrance. This, unfortunately, blocked entry to the Merch Lite booth in the front ‘lobby’ area, which is the only booth where the special edition Pinny Arcade pins are sold. I had no choice but to join the mob in order to pick those up. Side note for other media types: unlike PAX East, there was no separate media entrance. Also, the media lounge does not have lockers.
My personal favorite panel at every PAX is Make A Strip, where Mike Krahulik draws a Penny Arcade strip live while he and Jerry Holkins answer questions from fans. Years ago, they would set up microphones for fans to line up at to ask their questions live, but these days they take submissions before the show and read them from printed cards. Although the Philly show’s main stage was much smaller that Boston’s, we still had no trouble getting a seat. Highlights from the panel include Mike and Jerry talking about the different ways in which they play with their kids, and Mike going on a small rant about organizational issues at Gencon. When asked if PAX Unplugged was a ‘real’ PAX, Jerry explained that since the tabletop area has been present at the other conventions, he’s felt like this wasn’t even an inagural show, but the continuation of something that already existed. This echoed my day one impression that Unplugged had the same atmosphere as the tabletop area of other PAX Expo Halls.
It was still remarkably easy to navigate the Expo Hall, even with a denser crowd. At PAX East, we regularly get stuck in traffic jams around various corners and near booths where lines for activities have wrapped around their entire perimeter. Enforcers at East constantly ask people who have stopped to try to watch something at a booth to keep moving, but I didn’t see a single instance of that at Unplugged. However, as no booth was really set up to accommodate lines for game demos, we had to kind of just stand near a game we were interested in and wait for an opening to sit down. These demo setups could use a little more organization, and might impact how easy it is to get around in future shows. My wife pointed out that the entire event feels a lot more relaxed, as it doesn’t feature the hundreds of screens and flashing lights of its video game-themed counterparts. This makes the environment a lot less noisy, as well. If you’ve been to other PAX conventions and experienced sensory overload, Unplugged’s analog nature is far less likely to overwhelm you.
I should also mention that there are a lot more options for food at this event. Although the Philadelphia Convention Center has a couple of small restaurants in it, Reading Terminal Market is directly across the street. That’s where most people went, as the market offers practically every kind of food you could think of. We’ve gone to Kamal’s Middle Eastern Specialties two days in a row now for their excellent veggie falafel wraps. The downside is that the market is very popular with the locals, so the place is absolutely packed once the lunch rush kicks in. This means that you can still get that shoulder-to-shoulder crowd experience of other PAX conventions at Unplugged, it’s just across the street when you want food. You can, of course, go anywhere else in the city to eat (Chinatown is a couple of blocks away), but the convenience of Reading Terminal Market makes the crowd situation tolerable, in my opinion.
We got to see a lot of games, talk to a number of people proud to show off their work, and spent some time in the Free Play area with friends. We’ll be following up with info on the games we saw, and impressions of day three later this weekend.