I’m standing in a tiny store at PAX Australia. It’s a narrow hallway with shelves maybe 3 meters high and 10 or meters deep, and they’re filled with board games. I looked around, scouring the shelves for names we recognise more than anything else, until my mate spies something.
It’s Machi Koro, a game where mayors race to complete their town. But the back of the box is missing something. So we walked out, headed to the freeplay area, picked up Machi Koro, checked it out and ended up buying the game and expansion over an hour later.
That moment? It’s PAX in a nutshell.
You know what the real advantage of being on the “inside”, being a part of the gaming industry is? You get to try things before they’re released.
That was something that was open to everyone. Before pre-orders and digital distribution, that was the way you got people excited. Make a good demo. Get it on a demo disc. Maybe even release it online if you were brave enough. Or go the old-fashioned route of shareware.
We don’t get that anymore.
Demos and previews are gated behind subscription services. They’re given away as tickets to major conventions and events. You could pay hundreds of dollars and still not even be guaranteed to get a go of a 15 minute demo that could be six months old or more.
Try before you buy is now a privilege, a luxury for those who want to pay in advance.
PAX certainly feeds into that. You’re paying to get in, after all. But the sheer variety helps mitigate the feeling of being sold to.
And then there’s the opportunities where you don’t have to pay.
Something you see indies doing a lot more of these days is selling merchandise. They often don’t have a product that’s ready to sell. So they get into the pin trading game. Print t-shirts. Offer plushies. Bundles with other games. Candy.
And it works. A huge element of PAX is the impulse purchase. Developers have gotten a lot better at taking advantage. The Surprise Attack booth would let you buy one of five titles for $10 a pop.
You could get a bundle with all the games, but the $10 a game was genius. It meant people could spend 10 or 15 minutes with a game on the show floor – the full game, in many instances – and then walk away with a Steam key minutes later.
It worked a treat for Orwell. Orwell isn’t the type of game that really does well on a show floor. It’s slow. It’s methodical. There’s a lot of reading. It looks like you’re reading a database. And it’s not visually flashy.
But people loved it. And if they liked it, they could immediately take home the full game (or what’s available and all future episodes, in the case of Orwell) minutes later.
But the system is also fair to consumers. You’re often dealing with indie games with full access to their developers, who are all to happy to tell you everything you need to know, completely frank about where their game is and what they want it to be.
It’s refreshing. And it helps get you past buyer’s remorse, since the impulse to buy is directly based on the full version of the product. It’s not a pre-order on The World’s Best Trailer. It’s not a pre-order based off a Kickstarter description – although there were quite a few games that were either in the process of a Kickstarter, or about to launch a campaign, that you could play before deciding to support.
There’s also the bit where you can play something and not have to spend a cent.
My friends and I did this with The Networks, a game released this year about bidding for TV shows and stars as you built ratings for your own cable network. The premise seemed fantastic, and the description on the back of the unwrapped box seemed tailor-made for our tastes.
But thanks to the Machi Koro experience, we figured we’d try before we buy.
Thank fuck we did.
The Networks turned out to have far too many phases. The general idea is that people bid for shows, stars and ads over the course of four seasons, with players getting one action per turn to choose what they want.
In principle it isn’t hard to understand. But the information isn’t laid out as cleanly as it could be. There’s also a lot of elements that require explaining, and the network cards (special actions, basically) don’t come into play until the second season.
There’s four or five seasons in a game. We only finished the first.
It’s the sense of discovery.
You wander around the tabletop area, the exhibition hall, or the show floor. It might be the tens or hundreds sitting down outside the main theatre waiting for another game of Jackbox. It might be a bizarre board game you’ve never seen before. It might just be a shiny set of dice.
It’s things you normally wouldn’t see, things you normally wouldn’t be able to touch and play with.
That’s been lost a little bit of late. Demos usually come out after a game has released. If it’s available beforehand, it’s because you’re paying for it either through a pre-order or some form of monthly payment.
PAX reminds me of a time that we’ve lost, a time where customers were respected just that little bit more.
That doesn’t mean vendors and manufacturers aren’t baying for our money any less. It just feels a little bit fairer at PAX, which is reason enough to go next year.