How To Make The Most Of A Convention Experience

This article was originally published April 20th, 2016.  It was updated to prepare for PAX East 2017.

PAX East is how Sprites and Dice got started.  Jon and I were finishing up the Saturday night concerts, and we had been talking all day about how great it to be in an overwhelmingly fun and positive environment.  These conventions host more than 60,000 people, and when you realize they are all coming together in the name of having fun, it can be a pretty phenomenal realization. 

A lot of the negative talk you read about games in online comments, and unending debates about review scores just seem to fall away; people go to the PAX conventions to enjoy themselves, which is what gaming is all about.  That attitude is what gave us the seed to put our heads together and write about what we enjoy, and to talk about how games can matter to the people to play them.  In some ways, PAX East is the torch we come back to every year to stoke the fire brighter and hotter going forward.

 

We’ve been going for a few years now, and every year, we manage to find newer, better ways to enjoy the convention experience, to make the most of the frenetic three day event.  Every year, the group we go with grows a little more, and new friends come along to see what the big deal is about these large scale conventions.  Every year, we find ourselves giving out some of the same tips to these friends, attempting to prepare them for what is to come.

So here: we’ve put together a small list of ideas that have worked for us in the past.  We hope that in them, you find something that helps make your convention going a little more fun.

#1: Before Everything Else, Take Care Of Yourself

This point gets put at the top, simply because it can be the one that’s often forgotten.  My first time doing a full PAX East (2011) involved me driving to Boston on Friday for 4 hours, after a day of work.  We stayed until after 1:30 AM at concerts and free play gaming, going to bed by maybe 2:30 AM, then we woke back up before 9 AM to try and get to Saturday early.  We stayed there until again, 2 AM, and then Sunday morning, we again found ourselves getting up around 8 AM to leap back into the fray.

This might work for some people.  For others, this would kill them.  I was able to hold out just fine, living off a buzz of caffeine and adrenaline and youth, but my friend had just recently had surgery for an illness before the expo.  He ended up calling out of work for most of that week afterwards.  Sure enough, after we got back to our homes in New York, basking in the fading glow of non-stop fun, the rest of us got a cold, or flu, or some sort of problem from just wearing ourselves down too damn much.

PAX East has done a great job in the last few years making sure the concerts and the show itself ends a little sooner, but you need to make sure you follow your own schedule of needs, not just maxing out convention center time.  Maybe on Saturday, you wake up at the crack of dawn to get on the queue line, but on Sunday, you sleep in a little, deciding not to rush.  Friday night concerts might be the ones you are looking for, but on Saturday night, it might be time to head back to the hotel early to catch up on sleep.

While you are at a convention, remember to eat.  I’m not just talking stuffing pretzels or chips into your mouth either: find a place to sit down with some lunches you packed for yourself, hopefully with some protein and real nutrition, or hit up a food court for something more substantial.  Last year, there were food trucks parked outside the convention hall, and it might be a good idea to step outside the center for a few minutes and get food elsewhere.  Jon got food poisoning a few years ago once, and now brings healthier snacks with him to make sure he doesn’t end up spending a day in the restrooms instead of the show floor.

Because Jon didn't eat well, Jon got food poisoning.  Jon was able to be mocked all of Sunday because of this.  Don't be like Jon.

Also – and this might be counter-intuitive for some of you – don't overdo it on the caffeine!  Mountain Dew or Monster Energy drinks might be the drinks of choice for many nerds, but if you start giving yourself an IV drip of that stuff, you are going to crash, hard.  Same with sugary snacks. For myself, I find the excitement of thousands of people in the same place is more than enough to keep me going full tilt.

Fortunately, at PAX East, they use the size of the convention hall for your benefit.  There are areas set aside to crash in, filled with plush bean bag chairs; don't be afraid to visit the AFK room that's staffed by Take This! in order to take a breather.  The food courts can get packed, but tables near the tabletop section can be open for you and your friends to sit down at and take some time off your feet.  Take time for yourself to recharge during the long days, hang out with friends, or even take a small nap if you can.

#2: A Little Preparation Goes A Long Way

Conventions usually give out guidebooks as you show up to the ticket booth or queue line, but in the 21st century, you can find the schedules and event list online before that point.  Even better, there can even be companion apps.  If you don't have the Guidebook app, get it now!  It has all of the scheduled panels and events on it, and even lets you build your own schedule; you can program it to ping you with reminders, so you can make sure you get to the events you want on time.  It also has the expo hall floor map on it, which is the only place I’ve seen it so far.

The guidebook, as well as the programs at the Expo, will have a map.  Take a good look at it, and find where it is that you really want to go ahead of time (This is an old one!)

Speaking of the Expo Hall, this massive hub of activity will be absolutely packed for every minute it is open.  Lines are going to pile on for AAA games, and you all know that the Nintendo booth is going to be swarmed with people wanting to try the Nintendo Switch console.  there are hundreds of games and booths to see inside of it.  Take a look at the map early, and look up the developers you are curious about seeing there.  Check out their twitter and social media pages, and you can get a hint of what to expect.  You might find out that they are demoing a game you really want to play, or are giving out a T-shirt that you really want in your collection.  A great example of this is Robot Entertainment: in 2015, they were giving out Orcs Must Die scarves, based off their hit series of games.  They announced it the week before on social media, and so that was the first place my friends and I ran to, to both try out the game, and also get some unique loot.

Other companies like Gearbox have started to announce specifically what they are bringing to the convention hall, and so now is the time to browse the internet to see what booths might be worth waiting on for your particular interests.  SuperGiant games announced a brand new game last year, Pyre, and it had two hour long lines to play.  They'll be back this year, and you can be sure the lines will be just as long.  Knowing what you are looking for on the expo hall floor ahead of time can do a lot to improve your experience.

Some small quick tips?  Wear comfortable shoes and clothes.  You are going to be on your feet for hours every day that you are at a convention, so don’t make it harder on yourself.  I’ve seen some cosplayers really nail some amazing set ups in the past, but then seen them limping later after being in combat boots/heels all day.  If anything, get some gel soles for your shoes, and your feet will thank you.

Bring something to play while in lines.  You are at a nerd convention: no one is going to judge you for playing some Pokemon while in line.  In fact, you might just get some fun competition or conversations started up based on what you are playing.  I know that every year I bring my 3DS, I leave with 600-1000 new street passes, so that’s a hilarious little mini game.  Also, if you are using electronics of any kind during a convention, bring your charger.  During those little pockets of downtime, you can refuel a little.  I know Jon and others bring a battery pack for their phone, just so they can snap pictures and take notes on it all day long.

Finally, bring cash.  Sometimes, credit cards fail, just because convention vendors are using mobile software to upload their purchases.  It’s faster, and also can be a way for you to monitor your expenses.  It’s easy to keep using a card, while if you have a physical manifestation of how much money you are willing to spend, you can try and pace yourself more instead.

#3: Be Flexible

This isn’t supposed to take away from #2, but trust me, your plans are going to fall to pieces.   Your hope to go see a Mass Effect panel might end up being dashed as you find out that the line for getting in maxed out an hour before it even started.  You might have just managed to get to get to the front of a line to play a AAA demo, and your phone reminds you that a panel you wanted to see upstairs is starting.  You might find out that the Expo Hall line for Bestheda Studios is – and it’s been this way for years – over three hours long.

Just remember, this?  This is the queue line of over 10,000 people, rushing into the Expo Hall right at 10:01 AM.  You might not see everything you wanted to.

Roll with it.  Be willing to change your plans.  Ask yourself if waiting on line for three hours to play a demo and get a particular free item is worth it; for some people, it might be.  For others, you could probably spend your time better running to the booth next door with only a ten minute line, or no line at all.

Something that I’ve been doing since PAX East 2013 is mapping out the floor, and checking off which major booths I want to see.  I get there early before the convention opens, and wait on that massive queue line…which is an experience in and of itself.  As the doors open, my friends and I rush out to that particular booth we’ve agreed on, and try to get in before the lines during the convention get too long.  Sometimes it works, and you end up seeing a game without having to wait.  You walk by later, and you see that there’s now a two hour line for the rest of the day.

Other times, it doesn’t work.  In three years of trying, I've never managed to get to see the Oculus Rift, because the line was capped within seconds.  However, that’s how I found out about Lichdom: Battlemage. We turned, saw a cool looking game with no line and a cool shirt give-away, and jumped on it instead.  We were treated to a demo by the developers, and then 15-30 minutes with their game, playing it ourselves afterwards.  They had an amazing set up, and we would have missed it entirely if we weren’t willing to change our plans.

#4: Don’t Be Afraid to Explore

A quick tip?  You might want to leave the expo hall floor at mid-day for a while, rather than marathoning through.  There’s a few reasons for this: first, getting to the food courts right around 6 PM is a nightmare of lines as thousands of people leave the show floor.  Secondly, the Expo Hall can become incredibly claustrophobic just because of the sheer amount of people inside of it.  Instead, use this time to explore.

Don’t be afraid to wander around and see new things, or try something different.  Around 12 PM is when the Expo Hall lines seem to get to their worst, so that’s when I try to find new things without lines.  It’s how I found Undead Labs back in 2013, and found out about State of Decay; it was definitely worth wandering through the smaller booths for.  Keep an open mind: everyone knows what the big games are going to be for the year, you go to a convention in part to find the hidden gems.

The smaller booths will often give you a chance to play and try things out much faster than waiting on the massive lines for some AAA games.  Trying something new for five minutes might be worth more than just waiting to try the newest edition of your favorite franchise.

Check out the Indie Megabooth!  This is the hidden gem of modern gaming conventions.  It's almost 100 games, all packed into the space of just 2-4 of the large AAA developer booths.  The developers are right there, and are excited to talk about their game.  You can go online here and already see what they are presenting.  Also, around the megabooth are rows of more indie games as well which are unaffiliated with this group, and you can get lost in the maze of new material.

Of course, the indie section can get crowded too, and don’t be afraid to venture outside of the expo hall floor.  The tabletop zone on the first floor has vendors and game developers there as well, usually in a much less cramped space.  Going there during peak hours can be a great way to try something new with friends, while sitting down and relaxing.  It’s how I got Jon and my other friends to try a miniatures game like Super Dungeon Explore, and now that’s a game we try to play every year back home.  Panels are often something that some people just don’t see a reason to go to, but every year, I find one that I can pop into, just to sit down and listen to something I wouldn’t get the chance to elsewhere. 

Part of the fun of PAX East and other conventions is just how much stuff is there, and how you can get exposed to ideas or games you wouldn’t normally take a second look at.  Try something new, and you might just like it.

#5: Share The Fun

Speaking of sharing, remember that a convention is a convention because of the amount of people there.  Remember that what makes a convention so special the fact that you are suddenly in a space with thousands of others that share your interest.  I’m serious when I say I don’t need caffeine or alcohol during the event, because the buzz I get just from all the excitement around me is more than enough.

Waiting on line for a game?  Why not talk with the people around you?  You might find some new friends to try playing League of Legends with, after deciding if Volibear or Malphite is the better tank while in line.  Is there a game you want to try out, and they need teams of five at a time?  Be willing to jump in with people you don’t know.  Say hello, and be open with them as you try and crush another team of strangers in a demo.

The tabletop area is absolutely massive.  Plenty of space for you to try out one of their demo games, or try something out you just bought with friends.

Talk with the game developers.  Again, it’s the people that make a convention great, and part of that is you actually get to see the people who have spent countless hours creating the things we love to play.  I’ve found myself enjoying games more if I know some of the personal touches that were put into it.  After several years going to PAX East, I can actually recognize some faces behind the games I like, of people I follow on twitter, and we greet each other excitedly.

Finally, go to the concerts!  I remember being really, really confused the first time I saw that there were concerts at a convention.  I thought people went just for the games and trying out new ones; I couldn’t have been more wrong.  The Protomen are an experience, not just music.  I’m not a fan of rap, but I go to MC Frontalot every year, because my friends loved him…and now I love his humor too.  

A perfect example to sharing an experience would be Bit Brigade.  Bit Brigade is something Eric’s covered before, and after seeing them twice, I now find myself eagerly awaiting their Friday concert this time.  When I first saw them in 2014, they speed-ran through the original Zelda: the band played the music, and as their on-stage player got a piece of the Triforce, cheers went up, they played that musical sting for picking it up, and several people in the audience held up their hands in a triangle for solidarity.  It was cute.  By the time he picked up the last piece of Triforce, every person was holding up their hands with that stupid symbol, screaming and cheering during the final fight with ganon.

There is so, so much still to cover.  The Omegathon sounds like it would be a boring watch, but four thousand people shouting and screaming while people compete for a free trip to Japan or Germany is hilarious.  In 2013, we ended up watching people play a game of 3-foot tall Jenga for over an hour.  It became an epic battle, one where my friends picked favorites of who they wanted to win. 

You probably had to have been there to understand exactly why this was so much fun.  ...It probably had to do with all of the naughty jokes people kept yelling out at the stage.

There are rooms filled with just televisions and game systems, waiting for you and your friends to sit down and relive playing the original Smash Brothers together, or maybe trying out the absolutely ridiculous console set up of Steel Battalion.  You might find out about a developer party that’s going on in downtown Boston, and suddenly you are off trying something new after the expo hall closes.  Monstercat is hosting a pre-party the night before that'll be filled with music, while the Westin Hotel usually has hundreds of people sitting down with strong drinks and great board games to start the weekend right.

There is something here for everyone.  No matter how much I try and prep and plan, there’s always more than I can see in a full three days.  There’s always something that exceeds my expectations, something that lets me down, and something that surprises me as my new favorite thing.

Above all else, go.  Have fun.  Remember the spirit in which conventions like this were made: for gamers like us to gather together, revel in our interests, and know that there are thousands out there that share them.  If this is your first time, I am genuinely excited for you, and hope that it blows you away.

It's almost here....are you ready?

PAX East 2017 is right around the corner: if you are going, I hope to see you there, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I surely will.