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long line at PAX
Long lines are everywhere for gaming talks and demos at PAX. (GeekWire File Photo)

When the doors of the Washington State Convention Center open next Friday, PAX West will be welcoming gamers to its show for the 15th year. I’ll be back for my 12th show — but I’m not nearly as excited about it as I used to be.

I hope I can find something brand new and interesting this year that doesn’t require me shoving anyone — but based on my recent experience, that doesn’t look promising.

PAX is a true rags-to-riches story. It was founded by the creators of the Penny Arcade comic in 2004. It was a big risk. Those involved shelled out large amounts of personal money to get it off the ground. But it paid off.

The first show was small, but a success. It barely filled a floor of the Meydenbauer Convention Center in Bellevue. But attendance doubled and so did the interest of game publishers. When the show moved to the Washington State Convention Center in 2007, it didn’t fill the entire fourth floor, but any remaining vacancy didn’t last very long either.

Now it’s a behemoth that fills the entire convention center; portions of the show are even held off-site at nearby hotels. And the PAX brand has expanded to include shows in Boston (PAX East), San Antonio (PAX South), and Melbourne (PAX Australia).

I personally witnessed the huge growth of the show. I first attended PAX in its second year as an exhibitor, doing public relations for an independent developer. Later, I attended the show as a member of the press. Throughout those years, I organized and spoke on a number of panels.

Recently, I’ve been attending the show as an everyday gamer, and that experience is where I’ve lost interest.

PAX West is now the largest gaming fan event in the U.S. Each year a slew of publishers and developers crowd the halls vying for gamers’ attention.

In its early days, the show was a huge opportunity for smaller publishers and independent developers to get their games in the hands of gamers.

But now big publishers dominate PAX — and what they show off is never surprising. The only games you’ll see are those that have been announced for at least a year, and sometimes longer.

Indie games played a huge role in the first years of the show and it was easy to find something unique and interesting. Unfortunately, the voices of independent developers are now largely muted due to a lack of space and long development times can make their games get stale by the third year you’ve seen them.

I never spend much time looking at the big publishers because there’s rarely anything innovative there. Because of this, I’ve focused my attention on the Indie Megabooth (and Minibooth) in recent years.

When I elbowed my way around that space last year, I was very disappointed. I saw a number of games that had been on display the previous year and some even for the past two years. The sixth floor, which is another place you can snag a look at some indie games, was also dominated by games I’d seen the previous year, many of which had already been released.

If I’m going to navigate the chokehold of people, I want to see something new. That said, I’m sure I missed something new and interesting simply because I couldn’t see over the people surrounding me and not moving. The crowd of people can at times have you standing still in the middle of the aisle, unable to move forward or back without quite literally shoving people out of your way.

The Indie Minibooth is even worse. There, developers are given a tiny amount of space to get their game on display, and they don’t even get to push their work for the duration of the show. The whole space cycles out to new developers after two days.

This year 69 games will be on display in the Indie Megabooth and Minibooth. Of those games, only 19 are brand new, but an additional 48 are showing off some type of new content in their games.

But the Indie Megabooth is just one part of the problem. The PAX 10, which are a specially selected group of indie games, has a tiny space as well. Meanwhile, big companies such as Square Enix and Ubisoft have massive amounts of space sometimes that isn’t utilized for anything more than making things look nice. Some tweaking to how the spaces are split up could give independent developers (and the people who want to see their games) room to breathe.

That’s not to say that PAX West is all bad. The Expo Hall is just one component to the show. The programming, contests, and concerts remain fun, giving the show back the life the Expo Hall has sucked out.

There are also some changes coming. This year, the show plans to move all tabletop gaming offsite, freeing up space on the lower floors of the convention center. They haven’t said what they’re doing with that space yet, but hopefully, it will allow some small developers to get their games in front of more people.

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