Don’t get me wrong; I love PAX. That means I love the idea of uniting gamers at a convention that’s all about them. And PAX has done a great job of ensuring that publishers and the suits don’t muscle into those conventions too overtly, and that the focus remains on players and creators.
But I’ve long thought that the relatively light tabletop dimension of PAX could be expanded, and so was very pleased when the Penny Arcade crew announced PAX Unplugged, a con devoted entirely to tabletop experiences.
It’s an idea that’s been long in the making — a natural expansion of the direction PAX and Penny Arcade has been moving for years. And it's a model that’s been successful for decades for conventions like GenCon, but the official role of Wizards of the Coast in hosting GenCon has meant that there’s an overriding commercial focus.
So the concept of PAX Unplugged is a natural union of a lot of my favorite things about gaming and about these sorts of gatherings, and above all it needs to retain that focus on bringing gamers together and retaining a sense of the purity and fun so intrinsic to the main PAX cons.
But there’s a great deal of potential for PAX Unplugged to be more than just a place for fans to get together and play games. Like the main PAX cons, with their creator panels, PAX Unplugged offers the possibility for indie board and tabletop RPG creators to take a stage they’re rarely provided in other venues. Even at the other cons, where the focus is much more heavily on video games, tabletop creators don’t have a guaranteed audience the way they will at PAX Unplugged.
The importance of being able to present your ideas, have a dialogue with the sort of players that will inevitably be your customers, and even send up trial balloons, playtest ideas and refine your systems can’t be overstated.
One of the most important resources PAX Unplugged can offer indie creators is a large and expert audience to provide feedback for their game. There’s no such thing as an open beta for tabletop games the way there is for, say, Steam products, so it’s very difficult to find a platform where you can reach hundreds or thousands of interested (and, let’s face it, highly opinionated) fans to serve as a crucible in which to perfect your game.
And, while it may be difficult, a con like this will give indie creators a broad platform to test whether your core game has merit commercially, or if they need to scrap their work and go back to the drawing board. It’s not a pleasant outcome, but in the long run it can save a lot of toil and heartbreak.
But there’s another, more subtle and positive advantage of being able to present your game to a large audience. Seeing people playing your game and getting feedback can be really affirming after you’ve been toiling away in isolation. When you’re working alone or with a small team on a project, and the only contact you’re able to make around your work is in the cold and impersonal online space, you can lose the thread of what you’re doing, lose motivation, start being unable to see the forest for the trees.
Seeing groups of real human beings playing and enjoying your baby, the project you’ve poured so much of your time and heart into, can be critical for motivating you to continue creating.
And then there’s the obvious advantage of a convention like this, similar to the sense of community it engenders amongst players: networking. It allows creators to connect with each other, and creates a fertile hotbed for the exchange of ideas (or the blossoming of new ones). It gives creators a forum to exchange wisdom earned from practical experience, can spawn new partnerships, or even inspire new people to pursue their own creative endeavors, build their own tools and games.
Just bringing this many creative, passionate people together in the same space is a recipe for invention and imagination, and one of the most important functions of conventions like PAX for communities that normally exist mostly online or in scattered nodes all around the world.