Q&A: Penny Arcade's Robert Khoo

Biz dev boss at Penny Arcade takes us behind the scenes on Day 1 of the Penny Arcade Expo.

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How sweet it must be to be in the Meydenbauer Center today in Washington state, where more than 17,000 attendees are expected to attend the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX).

Does that make PAX bigger than E3? We asked the group's business manager, Robert Khoo, to tell us what it feels like to be 3 years old and "in the spotlight" among gamers who call Penny Arcade home.

GameSpot: Hi, Robert, thanks for taking the time to chat even though you're so busy with final PAX preparations. Congratulations on all your success with this event--heck, even though it's only in its third year, PAX now dwarfs E3!

Seriously though, how big is PAX now? What was your final attendee count from last year, and how many are you expecting this year...and do you think the demise of E3 as we knew it will affect game firms' interest in participating in events like PAX?

Robert Khoo: In 2005, PAX had already reached, in my opinion, "crazy-big" status. Last year we had over 9,500 people show up, and this year we're looking in the range of 17,000-plus. The craziest part is that we stopped preregistration right about the time when the ESA made their big E3 announcement, so your guess is as good as mine as far as how that affects day-of attendees. Catch me on Sunday and I'll let you know the final outcome. From the exhibitor perspective, the demise of E3 has definitely put us in the spotlight. We've already started to receive applications for PAX 2007, and changing venues and tripling our space will definitely help.

GS: We see that you've expanded the venue considerably--or rather, are using space at a few hotels to supplement PAX's old digs at the Meydenbauer Center. What are you going to do with that extra space that you couldn't do last year?

RK: The fact that tabletop gamers traditionally play for days without sleep and the Meydenbauer Center would be closed during the evening made the decision to put all the tabletop activities at the local hotels a no-brainer. Plus we've got shuttles running every two minutes back and forth between the venues, so from an attendee perspective the convention will still seem pretty seamless. We also added another large theatre for additional panels and roundtables like "Breaking Into the Industry" and "Make a Game for Under 10 Grand," trying to stick to topics that would resonate with the hardcore audience.

GS: On the PAX Web site, there's a mention of a "Friday secret announcement." Without letting the cat entirely out of the bag, can you give us a hint about the nature of that announcement?

RK: The only thing I can say is that it's 100 percent fan service and I'm in love with the project.

GS: There's a healthy exhibitor list--it looks like PAX 2006 has even more robust industry support than last year. But we noticed that although both Xbox and Nintendo are sponsors, Sony is absent. Did you approach them about exhibiting, and what was their response?

RK: Both parties wanted to make it happen, obviously, but we sold out of exhibitor space in February. They just got back to us a hair too late this year, but we're already in talks for them in 2007. They'd be a fantastic addition to our lineup.

GS: Speaking of your sponsors and exhibitors, give us the inside scoop on the show floor--is there anything there that you're especially excited about? Is there anything playable here that's otherwise not available to the public?

RK: I don't want to play favorites (Guitar Hero II, Splinter Cell Double Agent, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Fury...), but to answer your second question, every title on the floor is otherwise not available to the public. That's what seems to make PAX as a consumer event so unique--the publishers realize how important the hardcore audience is, so they come out to the show floor swinging.

GS: Given that you're the PA business manager, I'd like to ask a few questions about the business side of things. Game company stocks have been lackluster lately, as the console transition hits software sales. Does this kind of environmental factor affect your business at all?

RK: Absolutely. The macrochanges in the industry affect each and every player in my opinion, no matter how small or large. The game industry is still in its volatile growth stage, so while it matures and the consolidations continue, everything from the people we work with to the types of games we see on shelves change. Each mature industry eventually consolidates to what, 3-4 major players? Terrifying. But even though we're a very small fish in the media space, we differentiate ourselves with offerings like PAX, so don't think we're just twiddling our thumbs in the meantime. :)

GS: A follow-up to that question: What are your fears for the business? From an outside perspective, it seems like PA's growth is unstoppable. Is there anything that could upset the applecart?

RK: Like I said, we're still incredibly small, and it allows us to adjust to market disruptions [and the like] if we need to. So I'm not really "afraid" in that sense of anything external. It's my true belief that if Gabe and Tycho continue to be as honest and, well, real, as they've always been, we'll continue to gain new readers and grow the business.

GS: Penny Arcade has a couple of distinct businesses: the licensed merchandise that you sell at ThinkGeek, the graphic novels, ads on the site, and dedicated comics for various game launches. Are there any new business directions in the works for the PA empire?

RK: Even though it's not a "business" venture, I don't want you to forget about our annual charity, Child's Play. That no doubt will be our lasting legacy, and is really the final centerpiece to the year for us.

As far as growing the PA empire... Let's just say a few big things are in the works, with one of them announced on Friday with a few other surprises in the upcoming year.

GS: Finally, when you talked with GameSpot at last year's PAX, you said that an East Coast PAX was in the works for 2008. Can you tell us anything about how that's progressing?

RK: I'm working on it.

GS: Thanks, Robert, and best of luck for a successful event.

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