The PAX Freeplay Area Needs A Facelift

The PAX Freeplay Area Needs A Facelift

It’s the heart and soul of not just PAX Australia, but PAX all around the world. It’s the tabletop and freeplay area, the place where gamers from far and wide come to share their passions, discover new ones and relax in an area far away from the merchandise and corporatised nature of the rest of the exhibition hall.

So why does one half of that, the freeplay area, look so uninviting?

PAX can be neatly split into three parts. First is the convention centre, where gamers of all ages, shapes, perspectives and cultures come to talk, to listen and share ideas about gaming, the people who play them and the industry that envelops them.

The second is the flashy exhibition hall, the area that, until PAX made its presence known at the showgrounds in Melbourne’s Flemington, Australians were most familiar with. It’s the least PAX part of PAX, the part where vendors spruik their wares, where publishers display their pet projects and where indies scramble for foot traffic. It’s flashy, in the way major booths often are. It’s colourful. It’s corporate.

The third area, the tabletop and freeplay section, is supposed to be the counterweight. If you want to relax while still enjoying a casual game, it’s the place to do it. There are beanbags. There’s pinball machines. There’s retro consoles. There’s casual tournaments and freeplay sections for PCs. There’s Warhammer. Warmachine. Magic: The Gathering. And then there’s board games; so many board games.

It’s supposedly the heart and soul of PAX — and yet, the visual contrast from the corporate, manic nature of the exhibition hall to walking to the freeplay section is painfully stark.

That’s not true of the people, of course.

But the contrast is impossible not to notice. The plain, caged white barriers of the freeplay area sit a distant second to the warm, vibrant colours of the convention centre and it’s panels. It even feels shut off and unwelcoming juxtaposed against the bright, flashing LEDs of the exhibition hall, with the blaring sounds of AAA trailers and the eye-catching banners of indie games from Australia and abroad.

As you continue further through the hall, however, that clash begins to fade, until you eventually reach the din echoing from the board games and tabletop games. By design, the slightly is more open, albeit a bit crowded. Tables are always in high demand, the area is filled with the sound of dice and plastic figurines being rolled and placed, and the smiles.

So many smiles. It’s warm. It’s friendly. It’s PAX.

Then you walk back towards the freeplay section, past the Magic: The Gathering area and the various board game vendors, and that feeling starts to dissipate. There are still smiles, and still sounds, but the warmth has vanished, replaced with a feeling of emptiness.

It’s not like the enforcers, organisers and players don’t make the best of it. There are children running around playing consoles older than some of their parents. There’s a delight on their faces that screams pure, unbridled joy.

The mass of people queuing up for Fallout 4 trailers, waiting with hands aloft for a free vendor t-shirt, carrying bags of swag from Wargaming or Sony or some other major publisher — they should be in the freeplay area, interacting instead of queuing, smiling instead of hoping.

What the freeplay area is missing is a degree of window-dressing, a dash of colour here and there, a change in design. The first PAX was much maligned, and for good reason: getting to and from the location was a significant problem, particularly when the weather was poor and public transport was limited on the weekends.

Queues for panels began two or three hours in advance, not because of popularity but due to a sheer lack of capacity. And the showgrounds weren’t well equipped to handle the wind and the rain, two things Melbourne is well equipped to supply plenty of.

But those teething issues have now been sorted. PAX organisers are already making plans four years in advance. Perhaps as part of those they should add some colour to the freeplay section, removing the plain walls or at least re-painting or re-imagining them in a way that befits the unbridled pleasure of what happens within.

The freeplay section needs a facelift, and PAX owes it to the enforcers, suppliers and the fans milling around to give it the touch of TLC it deserves.


  • I will agree that the Freeplay zone is rather bland. But while I would like to see some more colour in the area, I also like the sterile white as a way to rest my eyes after hanging around neon lights for the last hour.

    • I tend to agree, as an older gamer now, I found the change of pace, face and lower noise levels a welcome respite before heading back to the show area for another round. But it could be a little less bland I guess.

  • I really didnt enjoy PAX this year.

    1 Hour lines for games coming out in a week.

    1/12 hour line for untangled when there was 10 people in the line.

    3 hour wait for VR when we arrived at 830 am, then it being booked out for the day by apparent press reservations.

    Panels were the same as the year before.

    Most fun was the street passing

    • That sounds rough. For me, the good parts of PAX are really good, but the bad parts are a real turn-off. Great atmosphere, lots of fun, but queuing, limited capacity, convention food all make it less enjoyable.

      • Pro tip for next year – go out on to the promenade to eat. Boat Builders and Meat Market will keep you fed well (if not necessarily healthily) for the duration of the event. A bunch of the restaurants along their offer discounts for PAX attendees too, and for good reason. Apparently Meat Market sells more burgers during PAX than they do for the entire rest of the year combined.

        • Yeah, we did a Meat Market lunch on Friday. $20 for burger, chips and drink, and we didn’t even use the 10% discount.

    • I showed up on the Sunday, having paid for nothing, to walk up and down the lobby gawking at costumes and StreetPassing like crazy. Sure, I missed out on all the demos, events, exhibitors and free play area inside, but I also missed out on the queues and having to pay money.

    • I really find that it’s best to avoid most of the exhibition hall, with the exception of the indie section. The wait-time to pay off ratio is never worth it. Some panels can be fun, but again, they’re rarely worth queuing for. I just turn up after everybody has gone in, and sneak in the back if there’s still space.

      Most of the fun is catching up with people, playing some board/video/card games together, etc.

      And 3 days solid in the convention itself is definitely too much.

  • Like the previous year I found it was nice going into that ‘bland’ area to get away from the sensory overload of the rest of the place.

  • I know what you mean about it being bland but the thing to remember is that it’s all things provided for free by the community. The only things PAX provides are the tables and tvs. So they can supply more right? Except that would limit visibility to the items that are volunteered and the enforcers are required to keep safe.
    The area looking like it does means it’s easy to see what people are doing. Is that shitty kid trying to draw on that console? Is that guy trying to peel off the sticker from that controller and put it on another one? The enforcers can see it all from behind the desk. I worked it last year and not being cluttered was the most helpful part.

    Ultimately more window dressing doesn’t add much to the experience and makes things more difficult for everyone involved

  • God I am glad I didn’t pay for my PAX ticket this year.
    It felt so weird, people paid money to have hardwear companies try and hawk shit at them, it was like a trade show…
    Long lines for nothing new. People acting like insane zombies for free shit.
    Even the tabletop area was mostly shops trying to sell shit.
    What was the point?
    Panels? Nearly all of them read like an excuse to have a panel or do the same thing we did somewhere else.
    And enforcers I’m gonna come out and say that 90% of them are kinda creepy

  • Alex have you got any idea how much work it is already to get the freeplay area up and running in the short amount of time enforcers get? Sure some are easier than others, but from someone who worked PC Freeplay for the first 2 years of PAX (I took this year off), it’s a shite load of work and if we had to worry about making things prettier we’d never get it finished in time.

    Yes I’m a little biased, yes I feel I worked in one of the hardest to setup and maintain areas of PAX and so yes… I’m a little pissed at this article…

    • The enforcers who set up and pack away the PC areas put in heroic efforts to get everything ready in the time available.

  • That’s some good insight into the amount of work required to set it all up.

    In addition, you can understand that the freeplay area has no way of making any money, so there is always going to be less spending on it. The exhibitors want to go and make their booths look good because it is good marketing.

    The free play section though, you don’t get anything back financially, except maybe getting more people to come back to PAX because they had a good time.

    Bottom line though, as long as people are enjoying themselves in the freeplay area, that’s the most important part.

  • I have to say that you may be right that it is bland and not very flashy… But PAX doesn’t really do anything but supply the space, they out source to Community LAN organisers from LANs such as respawn, mpu, sogc, sgl who enforce to help set up all the PCs donated by sponsors (approx 200-250) not only physically but with all the software preloaded! They do testing on all machines, set up the network and run tournaments as well as security and people management, time management, troubleshooting for any problems that arise.
    It would be nice if PAX threw some money at the free play area… Or maybe if sponsors wanted to really market their products they would also throw some stuff towards free play.
    But at the end of the day, all we can do is make suggestions. It’s up to PAX themselves whether they decide that the free play area needs upgrading or not.

  • Its like you are trying to scramble for something negative to say about PAX. God knows why the ill intent, but freeplay is distinctly different for a reason.

    Bring on the drab greys as a retreat from neons and flashing lights. The simple tones and simple layout over the maze of sound and color.

    This article looks and reads like the dribble from the pages of a Stephanie Meyer book.

  • “It’s the least PAX part of PAX” what? You mean the Expo hall, the X in PAX, is the least PAX part of PAX? WHAT?

Show more comments

Comments are closed.

Log in to comment on this story!