SEATTLE--The fourth annual Penny Arcade Expo kicked off today in Seattle with thousands of attendees descending on the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in Seattle. This year's festival is a landmark for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its sheer size. The expo has seen steady and impressive growth since it began in 2004, with a modest gathering of 3,300 attendees and 11 exhibitors in Bellevue, Washington. This year's show is an order of magnitude larger than last year's, which boasted a then-impressive 19,500 attendees and 24 exhibitors. Estimates for this year's show put it at 30,000 attendees and 55 exhibitors. However, despite the exponential growth, this year's festival id still managing to stay true to the vision of Penny Arcade creators Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, who hoped to offer a unique, inclusive event for gamers of all types.
The festival opened today at 2 p.m. with a massive line of attendees queuing up to pick up or purchase badges for the show. Attendees had a wealth of activities to attend, as the day was packed with things to do and see spread out over several floors at the convention center. Actor, blogger, and gamer Wil Wheaton gave this year's keynote address to the masses in the afternoon shortly after the floor opened. One of the central areas is the exhibitors hall, where an estimated 55 exhibitors ranging from game publishers such as Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft to tabletop retailers such as Fantasy Flight Games to local retailers such as Pink Godzilla are on hand with wares on display or for sale.
While many of the publishers were showing off versions of games we've seen at E3 or Xbox Live demos, a few were actually giving the public access to titles they'd never had the chance to play before. Nintendo offered up a two-level demo of Metroid Prime 3: Corruption for the Wii as well as a localized version of The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, DK Jungle Climber, and Flash Focus for the Nintendo DS. Microsoft and Sony showed off their E3 lineup, which the public had yet to try for themselves. Atari showed off an all-new version of its upcoming Godzilla fighter for the Wii. Eidos let the public get its hands on Kane & Lynch for the first time, and Ubisoft debuted playable Haze. Harmonix was even on hand in their own booth with a ministage and Rock Band, which boasted the longest line at the show. While the bulk of it has been covered by the press, the playable games are a treat for the crowd who are eager to try out the latest and greatest.
However, games aside, an equally significant component of PAX is the myriad of panels and game tournaments that take place throughout the show on different floors of the convention center. Attendees are given the option of bringing their own PCs to game in one area, while the other gaming areas feature a smart assortment of the more popular tabletop and card games, in addition to the console and PC gaming options. Central to the tournament experience is the Omegathon, a massive multipart tournament that's essentially a marathon of game competitions that draws on an eclectic mix of titles. The competition is spread out over the course of the show and started today with tabletop classic Jenga. Saturday will find participants competing in matches of Calling All Cars, Quake III, and Karaoke Revolution. Sunday winds up with Puzzle Quest and a mystery game that will be sprung on the finalists. In addition to all the daytime activities, Friday also featured evening fare such as movie screenings of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children and The Last Starfighter, as well as live music from Freezepop, Oneups, Optimus Rhyme, and Neskimos.
The crowd at the event is an impressive cross-section of game players that run the gamut from your standard archetypes to everyday folk. A number of families were even seen making the rounds. The whole spectacle is made all the more impressive by the fact that the impetus for all of this is a Web comic that started in 1998. To add to the event's low-key appeal, Holkins and Krahulik, as well as other notables on hand, are around freely mingling with attendees.
All told, the first day of the festival got off to a strong start. Despite the significant increase in attendance, the festival seems to be retaining its intimate feel.