PAX 2006 packs 'em in

GameSpot hits the largest Penny Arcade Expo yet to soak in the sights, sounds, and smells of the three-day gamer celebration.

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BELLEVUE, Wash.--Mike Krahulik (aka "Gabe") and Jerry Holkins (aka "Tycho") of the popular Web comic Penny Arcade started their eponymous game show in 2004. Since then, the Penny Arcade Expo has mushroomed in size, growing to an expected 17,000 attendees for this year's show, which took place over the weekend. That's nearly twice the size of last year's PAX.

Bellevue's Meydenbauer Center, the show's home since its inception, was bulging at the seams this weekend, and at times it was hard to move around the venue due to the crowds. Anticipating further growth, Penny Arcade has announced that next year's event will be held at the Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle, which should help. But the close quarters in Bellevue this weekend didn't do anything to dampen the festive mood: Gaming events, tournaments, and presentations came thick and fast, and spirits were high.

Packed to the brim with games in the final stages of development, the PAX exhibition hall is one of the cornerstones of the event. Though some attendees were no doubt disappointed to find that Nintendo's booth featured only DS systems and not the company's next-gen Wii console, the goods on display seemed to soothe any hurt feelings--the booth featured prerelease versions of anticipated games like Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis, Yoshi's Island 2, Elite Beat Agents, Mario Hoops 3-on-3, and Final Fantasy III.

Meanwhile, just across the way, Microsoft had a row of demo kiosks flanking a "living room," where attendees could sit in armchairs and sample upcoming releases. Xbox 360 games on tap at the show included perennial pick-up-and-play favorite Geometry Wars, Enchanted Arms, Splinter Cell: Double Agent, urban action game Saints Row and hardcore motorcycle sim Moto GP 06. The Games for Windows booth was one aisle farther down, featuring Company of Heroes, Age of Empires III, and quite a few PCs set up to run Lego Star Wars II, which drew enthusiastic interest from attendees.

Other exhibitors included Red Octane--whose playable demo of Guitar Hero II was a crowd pleaser--and Turbine, showing Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar, the latest expansion pack for Asheron's Call, and Dungeons & Dragons Online.

The staffers at Seattle's Pink Godzilla, the lone game retailer on the show floor, had their hands full. At times the crowds were so thick around their booth that it was impossible to get anywhere near it, but later in the day things opened up a bit, and we were able to ask about their impressions of the show. Halfway through the show's second day, Pink Godzilla co-owner Nathan Paine gave his impressions of the show, saying, "I haven't even gotten to see it...it's been complete insanity."

Paine had to stay in his booth the whole show, catering to the strong demand for the import titles that are his store's specialty. Paine said the top sellers at the show were Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, the Bit Generations games, Rhythm Tengoku, and manga-based racer Initial D for the PSP.

With all that inspiration in the exhibit hall, it's no surprise that the "Pitch your own game" panel discussion drew a packed house. Ably emceed by Christopher Erhardt of Digipen, the panel featured two other industry pros: Popcap's Eric Tams and Jeff Kalles of Mobliss. The three of them gave sardonic, sound-bite-heavy reviews of hopeful attendees' 30-second pitches, describing a genre-mixing, airplane-combat-with-spellcasting title as "Harry Potter meets the Red Baron," and rejecting another concept as "Dance Dance Kung Fu." Both "Back to the Future Racing" and "Shoot the Cowboy" also failed to net the panelists' approval. At the same time, though, they provided sound advice to the audience of budding game makers, explaining the development or licensing obstacles that would prevent their games from being successful.

After the fast-paced panel wound down, Erhardt spoke warmly about the experience. "I loved it...we give them a friendly environment [to learn about game design]." He pointed out that for someone working in game development as a career, "it's wonderful to have the chance to sit down with your audience and have them give you your just deserts," a reference to the enthusiastic audience participation during the event.

Comparing PAX to the Tokyo Game Show, Erhardt summed it all up by saying, "It's a chance to let our hair down and have some fun."

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