This past weekend I attended the second annual PAX East. Held in Boston, PAX East is an offshoot of the tremendously popular PAX Prime, a convention held every year by the Penny Arcade team. Both events draw huge crowds of gamers, with genres to suit every taste — from tabletop to indie to blockbuster.

On long bus ride north, a friend and I were chatting when I brought up the blog series I’m writing for the Game Center. “What should I write about next?” I asked him. “There’s so much to choose from.”

As a former classmate who’s been in the industry for closing on two years and who has the launch a major console title under his belt, he’s a great target when I need to bounce ideas off of someone. His answer didn’t disappoint.“Well, you were saying how strange it is that last PAX East you were just a fan, but now a year later you’re actually in the industry,” he reminded me. “Talk about how that changes the experience. I’d want to read that.”

Too perfectly reasonable to pass up!

It should be noted that first and foremost, PAX East is a fan convention. To compare videogame conventions to foods: E3 is an ultra-luxury banquet on the company dime, GDC is a feast of cultural dishes that exercise your palette, and PAX — especially the younger PAX East — is all candy and dessert. The ultimate goal isn’t to do business or crack esoteric design conundrums; it’s to celebrate game players.

PAX East may not have as much to offer industry veterans – except to the extent that they’re fans at heart – but it does address the desire on the part of gamers to enter the industry. Quite a few panels were geared towards just that, and on the first day alone there were panels with titles like: “What Are Your Career Options?”, “Making It Happen!”, and “Resumes that Rock.” Nerdy guys and gals would line up, sometimes over an hour in advance, to sit in on sessions that featured advice on breaking into game development.

One panel had a title that immediately grabbed my attention: “Here Be Danger: Turn Back Now Before the Game Industry Eats You Alive.” Hosted by Jason Della Rocca, Founder of Perimeter Partners, the premise was to expose all the less-than-cheery problem areas of the industry, particularly those that tend to get glossed over. Though (thankfully) not quite as depressing as it could have been, Della Rocca spoke candidly about common pitfalls to which newcomers fall victim.

Probably the most rampant misconception is the belief that a passion for playing videogames translates seamlessly into an aptitude for making games. Love for videogames is a prerequisite for a job in the industry; it’s not a marketable skill, let alone a point of differentiation. In Della Rocca’s words, “passion doesn’t count for anything.” After all, everyone’s got it.

He also cautioned against taking jobs in Quality Assurance believing it will open up some magical, moonlit path to the job you really want. “You should build experience for the things you actually want to do,” Della Rocca advised, rather than automatically defaulting to QA. I think this point has particular significance for those of us entering the job market in the current economic climate. We’ve been conditioned to feel grateful for landing any job, so finding one in the game industry (whatever the position) comes across as nothing short of a miracle. As tempting as it is to reassure ourselves that we’re willing to take a temporary role to get to get out foot in the door, we’re the ones responsible for our own career choices. There will be no wake up call letting us know that it’s Officially Okay to start pursuing the things we want.

Another panel I found especially compelling was “The Digital Game Canon,” held in the IGDA Dev Center at the convention. Moderated by Christopher Grant and with Jon Gibson, David Gibson, Chris Melissinos, and Henry Lowood as panelists, the session focused on the preservation of videogames as cultural medium.

To provide a quick summary of the subject, videogames are woefully under-represented in archival libraries. Whether through lack of proper cataloging infrastructure or outright neglect and disposal, the historical artifacts of digital games (assets, source codes, specific builds) are rapidly evaporating. Though this doesn’t directly relate to “getting into” the industry, the topic spoke to me on three levels: firstly as a novice history buff, secondly as a life-long gamer, and thirdly as a new game designer. What role does a player have in preserving the history of games that they have known and loved? What responsibility does a a game designer bear in making sure their creations are remembered, somewhere?

Dr. Henry Lowood, a Stanford University professor and the Chairman of the IGDA preservation SIG, was not only incredibly knowledgeable but managed to address the urgent (and frankly daunting) topic with a tone of measured optimism. Unlike other mediums such as film, Dr. Lowood explained, there is much less of an internal culture supporting the preservation of game history. Despite the relatively short time in which digital games have become a mainstream part of the entertainment diet, decades worth of history are already in danger of being lost. Administered by the Library of Congress, the Preserving Virtual Worlds project is one initiative working to make sure that as videogames charge ahead we aren’t simultaneously forgetting their past. If you’re really craving some academic reading during your Spring Break, you can also take a look at the initial report done by the PVW project.

Lastly, PAX East wouldn’t be a proper gaming convention without plenty of upcoming games on the show floor. Of the games that I played in the Exhibition Hall, my stand-out favorite was Firefall.  An online, team-based shooter, Firefall is aiming to bring a free-to-play experience to core gamers. There are plenty of great write-ups about the gameplay (I really liked this one at TenTonHammer), but what really made me take notice was that it’s being tagged as a social game.

There are a number of factors that contribute to the player collaboration in Firefall. From a hardware perspective, the graphics are styled more closely to the cartoonish flavor of World of Warcraft than the hyper-reality of Modern Warfare, which will enable players to enjoy the game without needing top-of-the-line rigs. With heavily customizable battleframes, players can also switch between a third-person and first-person view, which should attract people from across the shooter genre. Of course, team-based coop and combat are also the bread and butter of the Firefall experience. The class system encourages friends to take on different roles when playing together in small units, and there are special combo moves that players can team up to preform if they’re playing different classes. Polished off with a persistent open world, Firefall looks to be a promising addition to the social game ecosystem.

If You’re Interested in the Industry, Go to PAX East.

I highly recommend attending PAX East to anyone who’s both a fan of gaming culture and aspires to make games one day. If you’re following the NYU Game Center it’s likely that you already live in the area, and PAX East is easily the largest convention of its ilk on this coast. Best of all, where you can spend thousands to secure E3 or GDC tickets, a 3-Day PAX East pass will only run you about $50. Lodging, transportation, and food definitely add to the bill (not to mention swag), but it’s still a pittance in comparison.

As far as beginner friendly game industry experiences go, PAX East has been a blast two years running!


Nicole Leffel is a recent NYU graduate and active member of the Game Center community. After a successful internship at social games startup FreshPlanet, she joined the team as a full-time game designer. Now she spends her days happily entombed under a mountain of flowcharts and spreadsheets.

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