Penny Arcade comes to town

Three days of gaming, game culture, and gaming

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In response to a request from the audience, Penny Arcade creators Mike Krahulik (left) and Jerry Holkins arm wrestle. After an overly dramatic minute, Krahulik won.
Jessica J. Pourian—The Tech
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Upstairs, PAX provided a number of computers to play games like Battlefield II. The Penny Arcade Exposition, a videogame convention, ran from Friday to Sunday.
Jessica J. Pourian—The Tech

“My gravy trainnnnnn!” exclaimed Jerry Holkins, co-creator of Penny Arcade after losing an arm-wrestling match to co-creator Mike Krahulik at a Q&A session at the Penny Arcade Exposition last weekend.

“That’s my drawing arm,” Krahulik complained, shaking his arm. Krahulik — known as his cartoon alter ego Gabe online — is responsible for drawing the comic while Holkins, who is known in the strip as Tycho, writes the comic.

Over this past weekend, nearly 60,000 gamers attended PAX East, a huge video game exposition put on by the writers of the popular web comic Penny Arcade. This convention marked the first time that the Penny Arcade Exposition made it to the East Coast. It is usually held in Seattle during the late summer.

Running from March 26 until March 28 in the Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center, the convention featured plenty of new games and demos, humorous panels, and several concerts. Game developers from all over the country, including MIT’s own GAMBIT lab, had a chance to show off their games to the crowds.

Concerts on Friday and Saturday nights included the Video Game Orchestra, Metroid Metal, MC Frontalot, Paul and Storm, Jonathan Coulton, Protomen, and Anamanaguchi. During the Q&A session with the Penny Arcade creators, fans begged for a CD of the Video Game Orchestra’s performance and a DVD of the entire convention.

“It’d be so awesome to have a DVD of this,” one attendee said.

At the Q&A session, an incredibly dramatic opening sequence of flashing lights and deep bass introduced the two creators, who stood on stage dressed in t-shirts and jeans and opened up the floor for questions.

One attendee remarked on the influence that Mike and Jerry have in the gaming industry, bringing up the Ambassador Award the two recently won at the Game Developers’ Conference.

“Do we have that power?” Holkins asked.

“Is this where I take the sword from the stone? Become king of all kings?” Krahulik said.

Questions ranged from asking if the two creators would ever consider bringing Nathan Fillion as a guest speaker for PAX (they suggested everyone in the room tweet him personally), to what to do if you find your dad playing the sex minigame in God of War 3 (“I’m sorry for your trauma” said Krahulik), to advice on getting married and moving in together.

“We can’t even manage our own lives,” Holkins said.

One woman stood to ask a question and began to cry. “I spent the better part of my childhood in the hospital,” she said, as she began telling the audience about how playing N64 used to take her mind off her pain. A number of people had already thanked Penny Arcade for running Child’s Play, a charity that donates video games and toys to children’s hospitals across the country. When she heard of this charity, she knew how much it meant to those children.

“I just wanted to thank you guys personally,” she said. The entire auditorium rose in applause and Krahulik jumped from the stage to give her a hug.

Other heartwarming moments from the talk included when Holkins tried to give a man an Intel Core i7 processor as a prize. The gift was in return for some custom PAX themed trading cards that man had created and presented to Krahulik and Holkins. The fan shook Holkins’s hand and returned the present.

“I’m just gonna give this right back to Child’s Play,” he said to warm applause.

The entire second floor of the convention center was taken up by the main exposition which featured companies like EA, 2K Games, Rockstar, NVIDIA, Microsoft, AlienWare and Wizards of the Coast. Many people could be found playing Nintendo DS, sitting on the sides of the expo.

The Prince of Persia: the Forgotten Sands booth kept a large crowd around at all times, and crowds flooded to the screening area for Red Dead Redemption, an old Western action-adventure game created by the developers of Grand Theft Auto. Mafia II and Bioshock II were also popular stations, along with Skate 3 and Dante’s Inferno.

The MIT GAMBIT Game lab ran a large booth at PAX displaying two of their games, Dearth and Waker. Stephie Wu ’10, a researcher in the MIT GAMBIT lab, was busy teaching attendees about Dearth, a cooperative game that requires players to coordinate to destroy the monsters chasing them.

“Every game we make has a research objective,” she said. “In this case, our objective was to study the way humans played in two player mode to further our computer players’ AI in one player.”

Asked if she had gotten a chance to explore PAX herself, Wu laughed and nodded.

“It’s pretty cool,” she said, “lots of swag, could definitely pick some up.”

Upstairs, PAX featured several rooms full of computers and consoles for free-play and tournaments. In addition to rooms for the standard Halo, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Counterstrike, and Rock Band games, there was a room setup for Steel Battalion, a fancy mech pilot game with an incredibly detailed control console. Of all of the gaming rooms, this one was among the most quiet: occupying the room were the players with the most intense expressions.

Due to the high attendance this year, when PAX East returns next year it will move to the considerably larger Boston Convention and Exhibition center.