How To Make The Most Of A Convention Experience

This article was originally published April 20th, 2016.  It has been updated to prepare for PAX East 2019.

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 in online comments, the unending debates about review scores... it all just seems to fall away. People go to the PAX conventions to enjoy themselves, and isn't that 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 re-ignite what we love about the hobby.

 

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 out of what's now a four-day event. Every year, 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 you find something that helps makes PAX East 2019 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, went to bed by maybe 2:30 AM, and then woke back up before 8 AM to try and get to Saturday early. We stayed again until 2 AM to enjoy some free-play arcade, and then we again found ourselves getting up around 8 AM Sunday morning 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. The Saturday night concerts might be the ones you are looking for, but on Friday night, maybe that's the 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! 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. Pace yourself! If you do, you'll enjoy what you do get to see a lot more while you are well rested.

#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's now a dedicated companion app that's been improved every single year.  If you don't have the PAX Mobile app (iOS, Google Play), get it now!  It has all of the scheduled panels and events, and it 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 a searchable floor map, which is probably more valuable than gold when you are lost inside the convention center.

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The PAX East Show Floor is massive; its nearly impossible to see everything in four days. Here's a link to a bigger file of the show floor, or download the app to get an even better look.

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 immediately. There are hundreds of booths to see, with my last estimation showing over 350 different vendors. Take a look at the map early, and look up the developers you are curious about seeing. Check out their twitter and social media pages, and you can get a hint of what to expect. You might find out what they are demoing, 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. We got some unique loot, and got to play an awesome game.

Companies like Square Enix have already announced what they are bringing to the convention hall; now is the time to browse the internet to see what booths might be worth waiting on. Knowing what you want 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.

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If you see a booth that's crowded but looks really fun, make a plan to come back at a less busy time, like early next morning or later on Sunday.

Bring something to play while in lines.  You are at a nerd convention: no one is going to judge you for playing the Nintendo Switch while in line. In fact, you might just start some fun conversations based on what you are playing. I've seen people bring easy to set up card games while waiting for concerts or panels, so there are a lot of options. 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 can be way too easy to keep using a card, but if you have a physical manifestation of how much money you are willing to spend, you can try and pace yourself a lot easier.

#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 an announcement by Gearbox might end up being dashed as you find out that the queue line for getting in maxed out an hour before it began. 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 cosplay panel you wanted to see upstairs is starting. You might find out that the Expo Hall line for Oculus VR 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 nearby that has 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 that I can guess are going to be packed. On at least one day, I make sure to get there way before the convention opens, and wait on that massive queue line; that's 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.

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There are lots of events that spring up that aren't on the main schedule. Last year, I entered a tournament for a brand new board game called Master of Wills, and had a blast!

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 games like 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 hands on demonstration right after. They had an amazing set up, and we would have missed it entirely if we weren’t willing to change our plans.

Sometimes however, plans are just going to fall through. Be willing to take a break. Missing just one booth or one event isn't going to make or break the entirety of the convention. Sometimes stepping out to get a breath of fresh air or to get some food lets you reset and do something new and exciting. Speaking of...

#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. If you ever feel that way, use that time to explore, looking for less crowded areas.

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, 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. This year it's hosting over 75 games, all packed into the space of just 2-4 of the large AAA developer booths. The developers are often the ones handing you the controller, excited to talk about their game to new fans. They even have a list online so you can already see what they are presenting, and we've already written about some of them. Also, the space around the megabooth are rows of unaffilated indie games. It's a maze of new material that you've probably never heard of before.

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. Of course, remember the free play areas! The tabletop area has a massive library of games to rent, and upstairs there's rooms stacked with large TVs and gaming consoles. If you've come with friends, spending an hour relaxing in that environment with people you know can really feel fantastic.

Panels are often something that some people just don’t see a reason to go to. Every year however, I find one that is outside of my usual interests, just to sit down and listen to something I wouldn’t get the chance to elsewhere. It gives you a chance to take a breather from the constant pulse of the show floor, and might let you find something new and exciting too.

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. You go to conventions like this to try new experiences, not just games.

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.

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

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. We've 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. 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 you can get just from all the excitement around is more than enough.

Waiting on line for a game? Why not talk with the people around you? Is there a multiplayer game you want to try out, and they need teams of four 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. Are you a cosplayer? It's not uncommon for cosplayers to meet up and wander the expo hall together for photos, taking the time to exchange information and build up new friendships. Are you a fan of a podcast like What's Good Games? They have a panel that also serves as a meet up for their fans.

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.

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.

A Few Final Questions, With Answers!

I've realized that there are some specific questions that a lot of brand new PAX-goers end up having. This is not an exhaustive list, but we hope that it helps! If you have a question that isn't already on here, let us know, and hopefully we'll get around to adding it to the article.

What Do I Do With My Bags?

Two important points here. The first is that yes, there is a coat check at PAX East. Multiple, in fact. A lot of people arrive in Boston before their hotels let them check in, and they bring their baggage to the event. After getting through security, you can queue up and get your coat and things checked to make it a lot easier to wander around the massive convention center. However, I should warn you how long the lines are. At 10 AM, the line for coat checks can be pretty daunting, and don't get me started at how massive they are right at 6 PM when everyone is trying to leave the expo hall floor all at once.

Yes, they have coat checks, but just be warned that you'll lose a bit of time checking in and checking out.

Are There Things To Do Outside The Convention?

Oh yes. Honestly, one of the best things about an event like this is how it spills out into the surrounding city. Pre-PAX and Post-PAX meet ups are something of a tradition for a lot of veterans of the convention, and they can be an absolute blast. A lot of them end up giving a more intimate experience, or at least a more focused one than just going out onto the show floor.

I've been very fortunate to find a compilation for 2019, and its actually mind boggling how much else goes on outside the convention center. From what I can tell, Bethesda isn't going to be on the show floor at all this year, and is instead hosting its own event on Friday night. An event I try to go to myself every year is the Pre-PAX board game night that takes place in the attached Westin hotel. It's free besides the drinks you can order, and there are a lot of chill people. Its a great way to ease into the convention mindset.

What About Food?

First off, you can bring food into the convention center through security. More importantly, you can also pack yourself a water bottle. Its a long standing tradition to bring a crate of snack bars, trail mixes, and other goodies with you to your hotel for the weekend, and use those as ways to keep costs down during the weekend.

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Secondly, there is food inside the convention center, but as we said before, it might not be worth it for the price. I've gotten some food for a decent price before, but five bucks for a pizza slice feels wrong to me. Don't be afraid to leave the convention hall for food, because Boston has quite a few good restaurants within walking distance. Even better, PAX must put out a beacon for food trucks, because the garden to the east of the convention center is packed with them. The food you can get there is expensive, sure, but its absolutely delicious, and worth a lot more bang for your buck.

Are There Places To Relax?

A question I see all the time is from people who want to check out a convention of this scale, but are nervous that the crowds will cause their anxiety to skyrocket. While the expo-hall floor itself can become incredibly congested, the convention hall in Boston is an absolutely massive place. There are a lot of places to go rest up without ever having to leave. Checking out panels is a good place to rest up while still getting some unique content in, and while some are crowded, many others will have plenty of space. Going to the AFK room has been a life-saver for me in the past; they have places to charge your phone, refill on water, and even talk to licensed counselors if your anxiety or stress is something you need to worth through.

A huge part of PAX can be knowing where to be to get the most fun without feeling overwhelmed. The best times to be on the show floor are usually before noon before the crush of people gets too bad, and then 4-6 as people begin to trickle out to other areas. Conversely, I love going to the tabletop section or panels between Noon and 3pm, because it gets me off the show floor.

How Bad Are The Lines?

The lines to get through security have been known to be incredibly long and congested. Getting to the convention right at 10 AM sharp is a recipe to get stuck on one that goes on for a long, long time. If you want to get into the show floor right at 10 AM, you are going to want to show up at least an hour in advance, both to get through security, and then get into a reasonable place in the queue-line. Again, this is what the Nintendo Switch is for. Another way to get through fast is by just not bringing a bag with you - it can cut down on the stress of entering by a large margin.

Should I Shower?

Yes. I know its a joke that's left over from the start of the stereotypical gamer, but it still holds true. You are going to be packed into a place with 60,000 other people! Besides, this sort of goes with tip #1 - self care makes the whole event a lot more fun.

Reddit Submitted Suggestions!

After posting this on the great reddit.com/r/PAX, I ended up getting people giving their own resources into the thread. First off, there's this amazing 'swag guide' by Megaferret777 that they compile to help them find where giveaways are going to be. Secondly, there is a MUCH more comprehensive guide than this one made by Elfich47. It goes line by line in terms of tips, subway suggestions, snacks to bring, and even how to deal with con shock. While this article is supposed to be a primer that tries to get you thinking about how to prepare, this guide goes into the nitty gritty. Trust me, go ahead and check it out.

Get Ready To Party!

There is something at PAX East for everyone. No matter how much I try and prep and plan, there’s always more than I can see in a full four days. There’s always something that exceeds my expectations, something that lets me down, and something that surprises me to become my new favorite game. These are all good things; I go to PAX to explerience something I can't at home, and I am thankful every time I can.

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It's almost here. Are you ready?

PAX East 2019 is right around the corner: if you are going, I hope to see you there. Hopefully, you'll enjoy it as much as I surely will.