If you consider yourself a gamer and are familiar with the Internet, then the chances are good that you’ve visited Penny Arcade at least once. The creation Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, the comic and accompanying news post have become an incredibly popular stop on the web for anyone interested in gaming. Everyone from young gamers to the actual designers making games checks into Penny Arcade to read a great comic and see whatever else the creative duo has to say. Both Krahulik & Holkins and their fans themselves have been realizing the immense popularity of their website, so what better step to take then to host a convention for the fans? After all, at all of the events that Krahulik and Holkins have attended in the recent past, whether they’re comicons, anime conventions, or even E3, they’ve drawn a huge crowd.

That brings us to the first annual Penny Arcade Expo (PAX). Let me fill you in if you don’t read Penny Arcade. PAX is a convention organized Krahulik, Holkins, and “their people.” It’s partly a miniature E3 and partly just a big gaming party. The great part is that it’s for their fans. Anyone and everyone is invited. Now to anyone who has been to E3, PAX will obviously seem comparatively small. However, I was impressed by just how well everything has been put together, especially since this is the very first PAX. They have special industry guests for panel discussions, an exhibition room where companies like Microsoft and Ubisoft were showing some things that weren’t even on the floor at E3 or have been updated since then. Then they have an awesome set up of console games with tons of systems and TV’s where attendees can play some games and meet people or enter tournaments and win prizes. Then there was another large room set up with PC’s where people could do the same thing. There was even an area for tabletop gaming./>

To compare the two again, E3 is a big industry event for companies to build hype about new projects and to observe the reactions of the attendees. However PAX is a gathering of a bunch of people who all share an enthusiasm for Penny Arcade and some form of gaming, and the whole expo is primarily for all of us to hang out and to have fun together, and perhaps see some things that we might not have been shown otherwise.

There were all kinds of tournaments from Halo to Mario Kart; Double Dash!!. There are tournaments going on all day, and anyone can sign up to play for prizes providing there are still spaces open. Then there is a very special tournament called the Omegathon. Twenty lucky attendees were randomly selected to compete in the ultimate tournament for the ultimate prize. During both days of the convention, the contestants are competing in six different gaming events. Some get eliminated in each round until there are just two contestants left to compete in the final challenge, which is still a secret. They’re competing for a truly awesome prize � a gaming collection that includes many different systems, games and accessories worth around $20,000! You should definitely click the link and check it out. It’s pretty amazing.

Aside from all of the gaming going on, there are some interesting presentations and panel discussions that occur in a theater that, unfortunately, the convention organizers have discovered is too small. So many people were interested in the various industry panels and presentations that many who wanted to were not able to get into the theater.

Yesterday (Saturday), there were five different events held in the theater. The first was a State of the Industry panel. Panelists included Andre Vrignaud, Director of Strategy for Xbox Live, Jeff Kalles, Producer at Nintendo of America, and more. The discussion started with questions selected from readers prior to the show and then there was also portion in which the panelists answered questions directly from the audience. Although none of the panelists revealed any huge secrets, it was all very interesting to anyone who cares about the games industry. The professionals on the panels represented what many of our favorite game companies thing and revealed some behind the scenes information on why companies sometimes do the things they do. It was also pretty entertaining as each of the panelists made jokes and jabs at each others’ companies. The discussion focused on what we think video games are today and what they might be in the future. Potential problems and hopes for the future were discussed. The ESRB, retailers, publishers, and more were all subjects of discussion at one point. It was really interesting to see what the different perspectives were from the different panelists. It was also interesting to listen to the questions asked by the crowd. There were a few duds, but Penny Arcade fans make for a pretty sharp audience.

The next event was a Q & A session with Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, creators of Penny Arcade. To kick things off they showed their first-ever animated episode of Cardboard Tube Samurai. Needless to say, everyone was pretty excited. If you don’t have any idea of what I’m talking about, then you obviously don’t read Penny Arcade that much, but trust me it’s cool. After revealing the cartoon, Krahulik went on to say that they will probably creating more animated features soon. Again, the audience (including myself) posed some pretty great questions overall. Some of the things discussed were how this whole Penny Arcade thing got started, to how they came up with the idea for certain comics, to what they simply thought of game X or issue Y. While it was interesting enough to listen to their answers to the questions, the event was kept really entertaining by the wit of Krahulik and Holkins. There were many instances in which the crowd burst out in laughter during that hour. Some of the more interesting info revealed was that Penny-Arcade.com will have a new design soon. There are also more special projects on the way. There special projects in the past have included comics created for the marketing of games such as Splinter Cell and Far Cry. While they will probably have more projects similar to that in the future, the Penny Arcade guys also revealed that they have created significant in-game content for the upcoming Brothers in Arms. Suffice it to say that Penny Arcade continues to grow. From what they said, it seems like fans will have several special projects to watch out for.

Penny Arcade is certainly not the only gamers’ humor site out there. Another of the most popular sites is Red vs. Blue. The people at RvB create a cartoon using Halo on the Xbox to animate the hilarious story of two small squads sent by the Red Army and the Blue Army to battle for supremacy in a useless box canyon. First, a special introduction video that was created specifically for PAX was shown. It’s tradition of the RvB crew to create a special video to show at an event that they attend. After the hilarious intro, the audience enjoyed a screening of the complete first season of Red vs. Blue. A panel with five members of the cast then followed. The cast of the show is also the crew. Although they don’t all have the same duties, they write, voice, animate, and produce the show. When I say animate, I am referring to their process of using the Halo (Xbox) to act out what happens in the show. This form of animation is called machinima. It’s an interesting and in many ways difficult way to make a cartoon show, so the audience had a lot of interesting questions about how the show is made and where things are going in the future. Naturally, the RvB guys were pretty humorous as they discussed the answers to the questions.

The industry professionals were back for the Development Process panel. This panel followed the same format as the other. There were pre-selected questions from Penny Arcade reader emails, and then the audience was allowed to ask away. One of the biggest issues touched on is that games are costing more and more to make, and like some other industries, independent or amateur developers are having a harder time breaking through. Again, the discussions were interesting and there were several funny moments.

In the exhibition hall Microsoft was showing off Jade Empire, Mechassault 2, Forza Motorsport, Conker Live & Reloaded and Kameo. Of course, the big day will be tomorrow when they demonstrate Halo 2, and for the first time allow members of the general public to play it. In particular, I spent a good amount of time checking out Conker. Unlike at the E3 show floor, a single player demo was available for play. Fans of the original will be happy to hear that it looks and plays great. The war level was the one demoed. So far, it seems almost exactly the same as the Nintendo 64 version, but that’s not a bad thing at all. Ubisoft showed Rainbow Six 3 Black Arrow, Myst IV, Splinter Cell 3 and more. nVidia demonstrated their video cards using Doom 3. Warner Bros had the Matrix Online available for play, Vivendi had Men of Valor and NC Soft showed off Guidwars. There were also tabletop game demonstrations and even a booth that sold lots of yummy Japanese candy and posters, figurines, and CD’s.

Stuff still goes on all night. Musical performances started at 8 pm. The Minibosses, Optimus Rhyme, MC Frontalot all performed last night. I really wish I could have stayed for the concerts, but I couldn’t. Tomorrow Conney Linn will play Final Fantasy piano arrangements. The convention didn’t even close over night. Although the exhibition hall closed at 5 pm and won’t open until 10 am today (Sunday), the gaming rooms are open all night and will stay open until the convention finally ends at midnight on Sunday.

I certainly had a fun day at PAX. As someone who has attended E3 for the past three years, I can’t say that I was blown away by anything. It’s kind of what I expected � a party for fans of Penny Arcade. However, there is definitely a fun atmosphere at PAX. It’s awesome that I can hear some great, interesting discussion about how games are made and ask questions to important industry professionals, and then afterwards, go play an hour of Halo with some fellow gamers or hook up with someone else to play Game Boy Advance. Tomorrow I’ve signed up for a tournament. I highly doubt I’ll win anything, but I know I’m going to have fun. I am eagerly looking forward to tomorrow’s panels and another day of gaming with Penny Arcade fans. Of course, everyone’s excited for tomorrow because we will get a chance to see and play Halo 2. Halo 2 was not even playable on the show floor at E3 (though we at CVGames did manage to get some time with it for a bit). So, it’s pretty amazing that Microsoft and Bungie are both confident and nice enough to let public play what is definitely the centerpiece of Xbox’s holiday lineup.

Alright, I need to catch some sleep so I can tell you about Day 2 tomorrow!

By Andrew Thivyanathan – 08/29/04

Screenshots for PAX Day 1