October 1, 2020

Interview: How Penny Arcade took PAX online, and what it means for the future of the popular event

Penny Arcade co-creator Jerry Holkins
Penny Arcade co-creator Jerry Holkins. (Penny Arcade Photo)

The Penny Arcade Expo, better known as PAX, has become a major fan convention and games industry event since starting in the Seattle area in 2004, spawning sister events around the country and on the other side of the world. Like every other American convention this year, however, the flagship PAX West convention in Seattle has been forced by COVID-19 to change things up.

Instead of sticking to the usual 4-day schedule, PAX’s organizers Penny Arcade and ReedPop are currently offering PAX Online, a nine-day, 24-hour revolving virtual convention, held as a combined show with the cancelled Eurogamer Expo (EGX) event in London. First announced on June 16, PAX Online combines live streams, chatroom panels, a Discord chat server, and downloadable game demos to provide a PAX-esque experience to attendees still stuck in quarantine, with a 24-hour events schedule for insomniacs and overseas viewers.

While it’s not the first convention this year to switch to an online format, PAX is unusual in turning the virtual con into an opportunity rather than an inadequate substitute for the physical convention.

The show is free to attend, with no registration fees for streamed shows via Twitch or access to the PAX Discord. Organizers say this year’s PAX is funded by selling merchandise to attendees and charging exhibitors for “floor space” in the digital expo.

We had the chance to sit down for a conversation on the third day of the show with Jerry Holkins, a.k.a. Tycho Brahe, the writer and co-founder of Penny Arcade, and Ryan Hartman, Penny Arcade’s long-time director of events and a part-time dragonborn paladin, to discuss what’s changed, and what hasn’t, by taking PAX virtual. This interview was conducted via Discord chat, and has been edited for both clarity and to remove the solid 10 minutes we spent talking about old ’90s soft drinks for no adequately explored reason.

GeekWire: So how’s the con going on day three for you? Better than usual, worse, entirely different?

Jerry Holkins: As one of only three people who has been to every show, I’m surprised at how “show-y” I still feel!

Ryan Hartman: Man, so different on my end.

JH: Yeah, Ryan is basically in the Matrix.

RH: The day-to-day is less because I’m not running around dealing with in-person stuff. So it’s just staring at screens making sure everything is running and talking to one of eight tech people.

But the lead-up was way different than a normal PAX, and I want to say harder, only because there were so many new things we were doing. I have been doing PAX for a decade, I can build a convention blindfolded at this point, but there were so many new hurdles and challenges because it’s something we have never done.

But I loved it, because just like I was saying, I’ve done a decade of conventions. Getting to do vastly new stuff, solve new problems, think of new things … that was very exciting. But also stressful, because it’s outside the comfort zone.

GW: When did you first start planning to make the switch to an online show? It seemed like most of the ReedPop-run shows [like Emerald City Comic Con] were slow to react to COVID in general.

RH: Well, that was part of the stress, because there were so many variables going in. I mean, usually we are dialing up the planning for PAX West right around the time of PAX East. [PAX East ran Feb. 27 through March 1 this year in Boston.] It goes all year, but really ramps up in March.

GW: Ah, so right around the time ECCC was dealing with this.

RH: I mean, in March/April, COVID was just flaring up, no one knew what it was going to be, so we were holding out hope that by September, we would be able to do something. The format kept shifting based on new information and what our capabilities were.

If we knew in March what we knew now, it would have been easier, but the constant changing and uncertainty really added to the difficulty of putting it together. That being said, the team did an amazing job. I’m always proud of our PA/Reed squad on these events, and for this one, I’m like weeping tears of joy. They knocked it out of the park.

JH: They first had to invent a digital park to knock it out from.

RH: Exactly.

Ryan Hartman, left, Director of Events at Penny Arcade. I didn’t ask about the falcon. (Source: Ryan Hartman)

GW: How did you end up stretching the whole thing out across a week like this? What led into that decision?

RH: It came out of the realization that we weren’t pinned to the normal show constraints anymore. Initially, we were looking at doing PAX Online during PAX West’s dates, the end, but we realized that, wait, we don’t have a building contract, don’t have vendor contracts. We aren’t really pinned to anything. We can move dates, move times, go crazy with it.

Then, when it became apparent that PAX Australia wasn’t going to be able to happen, or EGX, we sort of folded them in as well and came up with the 24-hour model.

JH: 24 hours does have a precedent at PAX, technically.

RH: That is true.

GW: Technically?

RH: That was one of the early jokes. We are going back to our original PAX roots.

JH: Yeah, first year.

RH: I think we even used that in some marketing. The first PAX [held in August of 2004 at the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue, Wash.] was a 24-hour event. The doors never closed.

JH: Bawls energy drinks featured prominently.

GW: So what ended up on the cutting room floor due to the switch to a digital convention?

JH: For my schedule, not much. I tried to maintain a lot of tentpole stuff I’ve been up to since 2004.

RH: Yeah, we tried to really maintain the content that would be at a normal PAX: a lot of the internal panels we put together, and events.

JH: We even added a couple of things from our new loves, like friendly video golf competition or some sim racing.

GW: A ‘friendly’ golf competition, against goat enthusiast Gary Whitta.

JH: Against maniacal human Satan, Gary Whitta, and his reeking, grotesque imp.

[Holkins has been regularly challenging Whitta, screenwriter and host of the virtual interview show Animal Talking, to afternoon matches of PGA Golf 2K21 on the Penny Arcade Twitch channel.]

RH: I had a dream of utilizing the Penny Arcade studio and having consistent hosts throughout the show. It was all planned out, but the new summer COVID spikes put a fork in it.

JH: Ryan was nice enough to give me a spot on the PAX2 Twitch channel for Tuesday night, literally scheduling it the day before the show. [laughter]

RH: Yeah, the benefit of being able to stream everything from home has opened some new doors on stuff like that, which is great. That’s not one we probably could have done at a normal PAX West, but it will be really fun.

JH: I’m the only one who thinks so, but I think PGA Tour 2K21 is just built for streaming.

RH: Look. Kids love golf. It’s undeniable.

JH: People have been asking for Acquisitions Intoxicated at a PAX, and there’s a lot of challenges involved in that. This would’ve been the time!

RH: Yeah, well, that goes back to the studio.

JH: Interstate liquor laws be damned!

RH: Had we been able to use the studio, that would have slotted perfect.

GW: On the pretext that things will go back to closer to normal at some point, what are you going to take away from this virtual convention to the next physical one? How will an Actual PAX look now that you’ve done a virtual one?

JH: Oh, now you’re never gonna shut him up. You done did it now.

RH: There are so many variables that are in play with society at large right now, y’know. But yeah, assuming at some point there’s a vaccine and we get back to normal, I’m anticipating our first show or two on the “other side” will be a hybrid, with a heavy emphasis on the digital learnings we’ve made with this show.

[Meanwhile, Holkins quietly fires up PGA Tour 2K21 in preparation for a scheduled livestream bout with Whitta, forgetting for the moment that we can all see via Discord that he’s started playing a video game.]

RH: And like I said, I’m clinging to the studio. I think that would be a fun bridge between the in-person and virtual. This Discord we made has been a huge hit. I would love to implement it every show, if possible.

But beyond that, yeah, we’ve been thinking. What does a queue look like? What does loading a theater look like? What does an expo hall look like? We have ideas and plans.

GW: I wonder how far we can take all of this before American telecommunications structure burns down.

RH: Yeah, I wonder how long multiple stress points can stay under pressure. So much is predicated on a vaccine coming through. I’m just refreshing my news feed every morning like, “Any updates??”

JH: Can I get any further questions via email? I feel bad, but I have a thing!

GW: I can see you’re in PGA Tour, man.

JH: …exposed. I haven’t even started yet!

RH: This is a big panel. You don’t want to give Gary bragging rights.

GW: I can let you go now, but I’ve always wanted to ask you this. We’re old enough to remember the days when Dungeons & Dragons in general was, if not exactly underground, at least seen as a somewhat weird hobby. Now you guys are playing Acquisitions Incorporated for people live, in a popular stream and formerly in packed auditoriums. How strange is it for you to see D&D go live like this?

JH: Well, I think we always knew it was really cool. There are a lot of reasons why it look a long time for other people to also understand it was cool, but it’s weird to think we might have been a little ahead with the live games at PAX.

RH: I think it’s phenomenal, but my approach is also different from Jerry’s. Growing up, I played traditional card games all the time, and I remember in our hobby shop, people played D&D, but I wasn’t into it as much because I loved comics. So I played the Marvel Super Heroes RPG.

My first real time playing D&D has been with Jerry on the C-Team. I never played RPGs much as a kid because they weren’t competitive enough. I needed Magic, and the Vs. System, and the Star Wars collectible card game. I needed a clear winner.

JH: The irony, of course, is that D&D started as a competitive game!

RH: Yeah. I love D&D now, though. It’s just collaborative storytelling. It’s like a writer’s workshop every game.

GW: It’s great how many well-known actors have turned out to be old D&D nerds now. It seems like a switch got flipped at some point and now it’s cool, somehow.

RH: Yeah, it’s been fun to watch.

JH: “Cool” has always been a frontier.

PAX Online is running now through Sept. 20.

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