The twin Penny Arcade Expos held each year on the East and West coasts may not be the largest video game shows in the world, but they could be the ones powered by the most passionate fans.
The twin Penny Arcade Expos, held each year on the East and West coasts of the US, may not be the largest video game shows in the world, but they could be the ones powered by the most passionate fans.
One of the reasons those fans are so passionate is because the people behind Penny Arcade, which started as a webcomic about video games and has since blossomed into a fan-fueled gaming empire, pay attention to what their followers want.
In this case that means more PAX in more places. Starting next year the show, which started as a two-day event at a Bellevue, Washington convention center and now attracts more than 140,000 people to its two public showings of all things gaming, will launch an Australian expo.
Robert Khoo, president of operations and business development for Penny Arcade, insists the ever-expanding reach of Penny Arcade and its shows is less about extending the brand and more about "making people happy."
"We want to continue doing PAX for as long as people want to come to them," he told Polygon. "People have this misconception that I'm an empire builder, but the reality is I'm just here to maximize happiness. Fans, attendees, employees, mine ... it just happens that building the PAX empire also makes a lot of people happy. We're pretty okay with that."
While Khoo declined to say when or where next year's Australian PAX debut will be, he did say that it will absolutely happen and that it won't be a one-off.
"We're planning on doing PAX Australia forever, assuming people want it," he said.
The plan is for the show to be very similar to the shows that currently run in Seattle and Boston. That means it will likely feature back-to-back panels, concerts, an expo floor packed with video game offerings and places for people to get their hands on all forms of gaming from arcade machines, retro and modern consoles to tabletop, and miniature gaming.
"Content-wise, it'll be identical," Khoo said. "We have a really good base formula for what makes a PAX, but size-wise, we really won't know until we launch. We can (and have) scaled a PAX experience to anywhere from 3,500 people to tens of thousands, so no matter what, we'll make it work."
Khoo, who has family in both Perth and Sydney, says he visits Australia ever few years, but that the decision to test PAX internationally first in Australia was driven by video game fans, not the druthers of any one person at Penny Arcade.
"I'd say it was a collective decision, but I suppose the true answer is that gamers down there decided," he said. "Even though their numbers may be smaller in population, their passion for gaming is insane. Retail titles cost $100 plus and they still buy them? Crazy! Can we all agree this is crazy?"
Khoo said the idea of doing a show in Australia first popped up after they noticed how much of their merchandise was being shipped to Australia. Both PAX East and PAX Prime also share surprisingly high attendance from both Australia and New Zealand, Khoo added.
"After a few more years of due diligence we realized how many hardcore gamers actually lived there," he said, "and over time all the pieces slowly came together."
But planning a show in Australia brings with it a number of challenges, Khoo said.
"We thought the cross-country planning was tough for East ... this is a whole new animal."
The biggest challenges?
"Spiders," he joked. "Spiders and planning a show that is quite literally on the other side of the planet. We've got a great team in place on the ground right now, but it's still challenging making that work logistically. We thought the cross-country planning was tough for East ... this is a whole new animal."
While Australia will be Penny Arcade's first show outside the U.S., it sounds like it won't be the last.
Already the organization is looking at possibly doing a fourth show somewhere in the U.K., another fan-favorite request. But it may be awhile.
"Doing the due diligence for expansion takes a long time, and it takes very little for us to get cold feet on a particular area," he said. "I'm sure it'll happen eventually. Just give it time."
While expanding to Australia, the Penny Arcade crew is also extending their main Seattle show by a day. Both, Khoo hopes, will help alleviate a demand from gamers that the shows have yet to meet.
Tickets to PAX Prime and PAX East routinely sell out in days. In theory, creating a new show allows people to go to their local flavor of PAX instead of traveling, but so far that hasn't worked. Instead super fans of the group end up going to more shows.
"Getting passionate people in a room celebrating the thing they love? That's a powerful experience..."
Khoo and his team are looking at how they can squeeze more people into Boston and Seattle while expanding their efforts to this first international show, but ultimately something has to give.
I ask Khoo if he's worried about weakening the brand of PAX with so many options.
"Given the demand and speed of badges selling out, I'm not too worried about brand dilution — people want to go to this show," he said. "However, I am a bit concerned about us killing ourselves from doing them. Our expansions are very calculated, and everything needs to be just right before we pull the trigger on it. How many of these can we do a year? I'm not sure, but I'm 100 percent confident we can add PAX Australia to the mix without getting run ragged from it."
Khoo is just as confident that the show will be well received in Australia, despite its U.S. roots.
"Our mainstream cultures have differences that make them unique, but I truly believe we speak the same language in regard to game culture," he said. "You and I have both gone to shows all around the world, and even though there are differences from event to event, getting passionate people in a room celebrating the thing they love? That's a powerful experience that I think transcends a lot of cultural differences."
Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.