When I finally manage to pull him away from working the floor on the final day of PAX Prime in Seattle for our scheduled interview, it’s clear that Guy 'Yug' Blomberg relishes the chance to finally sit down.
“I got a pedometer; one of these Nike FuelBands,” he begins as he relates the experience of four 10-hour-plus days on his feet, back to back. The day prior, Blomberg racked up 23km by simply walking around the premises of the Washington State Convention Center and going about his job. He forgets his total for the Friday – opening day – recalling only that it was higher.
Blomberg is the communications and content manager for Penny Arcade Expo Australia, of which the inaugural convention took place six weeks ago in late July. With the two other PAX conventions based in Seattle and Boston, it was also the first international transplantation of the PAX formula. As a convention that’s made its mark as a special and particularly consumer-friendly one, this placed a lot of pressure on Blomberg, formerly of Gameplanet Australia and creator of the videogame-themed Mana Bar cocktail bars, to deliver.
Anecdotally, the thousands that witnessed PAX Australia for themselves considered it to be an overwhelming success. Even still, Blomberg readily admits that the show encountered one or two hiccups, mostly owing to first-show teething problems. But his biggest fear for PAX Australia was that its key differentiator – its atmosphere – may not survive the trip across the Pacific Ocean.
“We can build and we can get the exhibitors in, we can create the infrastructure and the panels and the content and everything like that,” he says. “But at the end of the day, what makes PAX PAX is the vibe and the attitude of all the people that are there. That whole spirit of community; that was a thing that we worked really hard to try and foster and build and encourage.”
It turns out that he needn’t have worried. As he’s learned now after observing multiple PAX shows culminating in his very own, it’s the event’s consumer focus that cements its unique atmosphere. In fact, it’s precisely this that starkly distinguishes it from the media and retailer trade shows. You can almost imagine the sigh of relief Blomberg likely sounded when Penny Arcade founders Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik commented that the Australian show truly felt like its American counterparts.
“PAX is, I feel, it’s much more of a festival vibe,” continues Blomberg. “It’s more about tailoring the show to the people that are coming. They are the priority, the fans and the community. And as long as they support it, you’ll find that the exhibitors and everyone else, they want to be here.”
While publishers, small studios, merchandisers and others do indeed take the opportunity to promote and peddle their wares, PAX is more about like-minded hobbyists socialising than it is about fueling media and retail hype: there are areas filled with bean bags that are dedicated to those who wish to chill out with their 3DS and Vita handhelds; entire rooms are set aside for punters to play tabletop games with friends and strangers alike; cosplayers fill the halls in droves, happily posing for snap-happy passersby; and there are dozens of panels focused largely on videogame community issues and how fans can attempt to break into the industry they love.
“I think the best moments you get out of a show like PAX are, weirdly enough, when you’re waiting in line for something and you just start talking to the people next to you,” explains Blomberg. “And because you’ve all got similar interests, you find yourself very quickly getting into very passionate discussions about stuff.”
Blomberg’s on the ground at PAX Prime 2013 largely to observe and soak in how the veteran team at Seattle goes about running such a large show. Now that the trademark spirit is in place back home, he hopes to refine some of the rougher edges he couldn’t have realistically anticipated. Even with the Penny Arcade brand behind it, many factors made PAX Australia very much an unknown quantity. With the first show under his belt, he now knows what to look for and what aspects of PAX Prime might plug some of the Australian show’s shortcomings.
“I’ve seen a lot of stuff over here in terms of the different areas and set-ups, how they run their theatres and panel sessions especially. There’s a lot for us to take back about that,” he says. “The entire time I’m here, in the back of my head always is ‘PAX Australia. PAX Australia. How would something like this relate to Australia? How would we get this to Australia? How would this translate?’ Even things as simple as the console free-play areas and seeing how they strap down the consoles, like, ‘That’s really interesting. They use this particular type of fabric’.”
It seems that most of PAX Australia’s teething problems can be attributed to underestimating the impact of the numbers for the sell-out event, with many scheduled events unable to accommodate the interest. “I can tell you right now that we’ve definitely learned a lot from this year, and things like much bigger panels and theatre spaces, more panels, addressing food vendors and ATM lines,” adds Blomberg. Nothing’s official, but it’s understood that a larger venue is high on the agenda for the follow-up show.
The Australian show wasn't entirely free of controversy in the lead up to its debut, either. A proposed panel called "Why So Serious?" originally set out to answer the question, "Why does the game industry garner such scrutiny from outside sources and within?" It added, "Any titillation gets called out as sexist or misogynistic and involve any antagonist race other than Anglo-Saxons and you’re a racist. It’s gone too far and when will it all end? How can we get off the soapbox and work together to bring a new constructive age into fruition?" As one commentator put it, the submission was at best tone deaf, and it was changed shortly thereafter, but not before it drew a swathe of negative attention to itself and to the convention that had promised to house it.
"It took a while for the story to really gain traction, I think," says Blomberg. "I remember getting a revised panel description from the [panelists] and updating it before I went to sleep, not super-concerned. When I woke up, I was heartbroken. I felt really bad for the guys who had created the panel as well – they got misrepresented I think, no one really reached out to them for a comment, which I thought was strange considering they were all journalists themselves."
As the story developed, Penny Arcade artist and co-founder Mike Krahulik set out to explain the panel submission process and while doing so, made an off-the-cuff transphobic remark. The narrative around PAX Australia threatened to be derailed.
"It annoyed me because people were making assumptions about PAX Australia, a show that hadn’t even happened yet," says Blomberg. "Plenty of people responded, myself included, but I think at the end of the day all that mattered was the response from the people who actually went to PAX Australia – and it was unanimously positive and inclusive."
Aside from absorbing PAX Prime and taking things back for round two, another aspect of Blomberg’s presence at PAX Prime is to tee up prospective appearances for next year, and things are already looking up. Stories of the inaugural PAX Australia’s success have already made the rounds within the industry.
“The people that I’ve talked to are, like, ‘Oh yeah, PAX Australia; heard it was really successful. I knew a couple of guys that went. Way more people turned up than we expected for Australia’.” While stopping short of announcing a ballpark date for PAX Australia 2014, Blomberg did divulge that it “won’t be in July” this time. He contends that the proximity to June’s E3 trade show in Los Angeles made things far more difficult for his event than they needed to be. “It was tough on publishers to have their games playable at the show that early,” he explains, adding that publishers rarely allow for the code available to the press at E3 to be made accessible to the public so soon afterwards.
Securing local partners was also a major hurdle, purely because they weren’t familiar with the show and what made it special, says Blomberg. Since the proof is in the pudding, it’s a concern he can now confidently relegate to the backseat.
“The guys in Australia, they’ve been to E3, they’ve been to Gamescom and things like that,” he begins. “But they don’t tend to go to PAX, PAX being a consumer-focused community show, not an industry business-to-business show. Now that PAX has happened, and they all came down and checked it out, they get it now.”
Thankfully, the tricky first PAX Australia was bolstered by the unequivocal support of some major players from the US, including BioWare, Gearbox Software, Oculus Rift and more.
“I think Rooster Teeth is a great example; they’ve never missed a PAX right from the very first,” continues Blomberg. “For them, as soon as they heard about PAX Australia, they were, like, ‘Yeah, we’re going. Of course we are. It’s another PAX’.”
As we formally conclude the interview, Blomberg leans back and sprawls across his leather seat, cherishing a few final moments before he’s back on his feet for the second half of the day. He can see the light at the end of the tunnel as far as PAX Prime 2013 is concerned. But for his second stab at PAX Australia – now with the added bonus of precious experience and hindsight – his work is far from over.