The Games Begin at PAX East, A Seattle Transplant Uniting Gamers and Developers

3/25/10Follow @wroush

The largest gaming expo on the East Coast, this weekend’s PAX East festival, will be preceded by what’s likely to be the biggest party the Boston gaming scene has ever witnessed, tonight at Microsoft’s New England R&D Center in Cambridge, MA.

A packed house of 800 guests is expected at the PAX East “Made in MA” bash, organized by the Mass Technology Leadership Council (MassTLC) and sponsored by AMD and Microsoft. The event is intended to celebrate the $2 billion cluster of companies in the video game and online game industry in Massachusetts. Many of these companies will be exhibiting at PAX East (but some won’t—and therein lies another story).

PAX East itself, the first PAX event outside of the conference’s home city of Seattle, is expected to attract a sold-out crowd of 60,000 gamers to the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. Local officials are hailing the consumer-oriented expo—the creation of Seattle-based Penny Arcade, whose online comic books, forums, and videos have a big following in the gaming community—as a confirmation that the Boston area is home to a critical mass of both game players and game builders.

“It’s huge for us,” says Jason Schupbach, creative economy industry director for the Massachusetts Office of Business Development, a wing of the state government’s Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. “This will be the biggest gaming conference on the East Coast, and it’s a nice affirmation of what’s already going on here, and of the work the local gaming industry has done to build their community over the past 10 years.”

As part of an initiative Schubpach helped organize, all of the Massachusetts-based companies exhibiting at PAX East will have special “Made in MA” stickers on their booths. And there’s a plan for representatives of local gaming companies to wear “I Work in Massachusetts” pins to the event.

But as large as it will be, the expo won’t be all-inclusive. Some local gaming companies are shying away from the event, out of concern that small- to medium-sized local developers will be drowned out on the exhibit floor by the free-spending giants of the industry, such as Electronic Arts and Take-Two Interactive, maker of the Grand Theft Auto series.

Foxborough, MA-based Quick Hit, for example, considered exhibiting at PAX East but ultimately decided against the idea. Last fall the company launched an online football game incorporating elements of role-playing and strategy games, such as the ability to assemble teams of players based on real-life football stars. To attract crowds to its booth, Quick Hit wanted to bring in ex-NFL athletes and coaches for product signings, according to Samantha Smith, the startup’s director of communications. But there was a flag on the play.

“When you have companies like Electronic Arts and Harmonix and Take-Two exhibiting, we felt we needed something big to stand out and draw the crowd appeal, but that was really frowned upon by the PAX staff,” Smith says. “They felt that PAX is really about gamers interacting with games, not about celebrities and personalities. That’s their prerogative—they’ve been doing this for six years, and they’re trying to keep a certain feeling—but we felt like if we didn’t have a standout for Quick Hit at a show dominated by bigger developers and publishers, it became less interesting.”

Quick Hit will, however, have a table at tonight’s “Made in MA” party. While it’s certainly part of the pre-PAX festivities, the Microsoft-hosted event also will be something of an anti-prom.

“All of the local companies are going to be there—it’s a chance for all of the people who aren’t exhibiting at the show to exhibit at tables,” says Schupbach, whose office supported MassTLC’s work—along with the MIT Enterprise Forum’s New England Games Special Interest Group and the Boston Post Mortem game industry association—to organize the event.

Participating in the free MassTLC event was a “no-brainer” for Quick Hit, says Smith. “We want to be seen in the community as one of the up-and-coming developers and to have an audience of our peers, so we signed right up for that.”

The party at Microsoft is also a chance to build up the region’s vibe as an exciting hub for gaming activity, says Schupbach. “We were talking about organizing panel discussions or appearances by the governor or the mayor, and the community said, ‘Nope, we want to have a party,’” he says. “We need to have people feel like there is something special going on here. That’s how the entertainment business works.”

One of the big local game companies that will have a major presence at PAX East is Turbine, maker of the online role-playing games Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online. The company is renting a 20-by-40-foot booth on the exhibit floor—the same size as the Microsoft Xbox booth and the 2K Games booth—and will send 250 employees over the course of the weekend (almost 80 percent of the company) to staff the booth and roam the exhibit floor.

“We’ve always been a big believer in PAX, because it allows us to get in front of our players and potential players,” says Adam Mersky, Turbine’s director of communications. “GDC and E3 are important conferences, but this is really the most important. I can understand the concern about feeling crowded out—there are some big players there—but we have been up against some of the biggest companies in the world, and our booth always fills up.”

Immerz, a Cambridge startup developing a gaming accessory called Kor-fx (it’s essentially a wearable woofer, as I explained in an October 2009 profile) will also have a 10-by-10-foot booth. Immerz showed off the technology at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, but PAX East will mark the first time that gamers will get some hands-on time with the device.

And perhaps to counteract perceptions that PAX East will be dominated by the gaming giants, the expo’s organizers have set aside a portion of the exhibit floor for the Boston Indie Showcase, a collection of small local gaming companies, individuals, and organizations that have developed new or experimental game titles. These include Dejobaan Games (which makes a game called AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! — A Reckless Disregard for Gravity), Firehose Games (Slam Bolt Scrappers), the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Lab (Dearth, Waker), Keith Morgado (Turba,) and Marc ten Bosch (Miegakure).

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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