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A giant and mostly friendly crowd will descend on downtown Seattle for the next four days — yes, four days this year — in various forms of dress for an annual tradition in the world of games: the Penny Arcade Expo, better known as PAX, but now officially designated PAX Prime.

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If you’ve never witnessed this spectacle, it’s one of those things you should experience at least once. If only you could get a pass.

I’m an occasional gamer, not a hard-core enthusiast like many of the attendees, but PAX has a special place in my heart. I was there literally at the beginning, as newspaper reporter back in 2004, covering what was then a relatively small weekend event with a few thousand people at Bellevue’s Meydenbauer Center.

Two year later, I happened to document one of the most legendary events in PAX history, the impromptu “All Hail The Ball” game in the Meydenbauer Center lobby. Listening to the roar of that crowd, it was clear that something big was happening.

Now the event routinely reports attendance of 70,000 or more, completely with glitzy booths from the major game companies at the Convention Center in downtown Seattle. It’s part of a global series of PAX events that now includes installments in Boston and Australia, plus a dedicated game developer conference, PAX Dev, held in advance of PAX Prime in Seattle each year.

Yes, the crowds have become hard to navigate. Forget about getting wireless service downtown this weekend. But for the most part PAX has managed to maintain its unique vibe and special character.

pax3If you’re attending for the first time, you owe it to yourself to attend one of the free-for-all Q&As with Penny Arcade’s Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, better known as their alter egos, Gabe and Tycho) the artist and writer behind Penny Arcade, the webcomic that started it all. The community that has grown up around the work of these two guys is impressive and inspiring, and it’s on full display at these sessions.

My personal favorite session remains “Pitch Your Game Idea,” a.k.a. the American Idol of video games, which provides a glimpse into the creativity, irreverence, passion and humor of people who are serious about playing games. (That’s taking place at noon on Sunday this year.)

Other highlights this year include a keynote this morning by game designer and developer Peter Molyneux, best known around these parts for his former role leading Lionhead Studios for Microsoft.

But the real highlight each year is the games — thousands of them, just waiting to be played. If you’re going, have fun. If you didn’t score a pass, you should try next year. In the meantime, GeekWire will be there documenting the scene over the next few days, so check back for coverage … assuming we can find a reliable wireless connection.

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