5 Major Publishers Gave PAX Aus A Miss This Year, But Nobody Seemed To Mind

5 Major Publishers Gave PAX Aus A Miss This Year, But Nobody Seemed To Mind

I had questions going into PAX Aus. Details surrounding the show, like a timetable for its panels and even final confirmation of the vendors on its Expo Hall floor, were scarce until only days before it was set to open its doors.

When those details did begin to come through, one change leapt right out: the Expo Hall floor would be missing five of its biggest booths. The Big Three — Nintendo, PlayStation, and Xbox — would not have a presence in the Expo Hall for the first time in the Australian show’s history. Joining them, Ubisoft and Bethesda.

Bethesda in particular was a bit of a blow. Now under the Xbox umbrella, Bethesda appeared to steer clear of anything that would remotely connect it with PAX. The publisher that, for years, had dominated the Queue Room with activations and photo opportunities, would instead host an off-site event on the other side of the Melbourne CBD. Bethesda, a company so ingrained in the PAX Aus experience that people still joke about its excessive over-playing of John Denver’s ‘Country Roads,’ didn’t even mention PAX in the press release announcing its off-site event. Only Melbourne International Games Week, of which PAX is a part, came up.

It seemed like something had happened. Speculation was rife. Were the booth prices too expensive? Had the pandemic changed the way these publishers viewed direct-to-consumer events like PAX? What would their absence from the floor mean for punters?

For its part, PAX Aus seemed concerned about these questions too. Organisers appeared to hope that punters wouldn’t notice these glaring Expo Hall omissions until they hit the floor on Friday. Maps usually displaying the names of each booth owner were blank this year. Instead, a small legend below the map detailed who was who. It meant you had to go looking. To a certain extent, you had to piece the show floor together yourself, rather than have the guide give it to you straight.

It felt like something was up. These felt like indicators of a show that might be coming together at the eleventh hour, and doing its best to disguise that.

And then the doors opened on Friday morning, and none of it mattered.

Welcome home

In beaming neon, “1090 days since last login. Load save?” asked the electronic sign outside the Melbourne Convention And Exhibition Centre as morning punters flowed into the building to pick up their passes. It’s a knowing wink to what had become known colloquially as The Last PAX — the 2019 event that occurred only five months before the outbreak of COVID-19 changed the world as we knew it. The sign would change, cycling through pre-prepared crowd-pleasing one-liners (“I’m Commander Shepard and this is my favourite PAX on the Citadel”) and some old favourites (“The reason your IT guy is ‘out sick’”). Before we even entered the building, PAX was presenting us with a mix of the familiar and the new.

As I sat in the Crown-side lobby at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre on the Friday morning, waiting for Ruby to arrive, I could tell the vibe was back. People with a shared interest, bumping into one another for the first time in god knows how long, excited to be around each other again. It’s been said plenty of times before that the attendees bring PAX with them to the show, and take it with them when they leave. It’s true, you can feel it.

The Expo Hall, absent the Big Three (Five?), was more open than in previous years, with wider lanes between booths to keep foot traffic moving. It wasn’t perfect — there was still crowding further down toward the Tabletop section, and the PC hardware makers were still blasting ear-bleeding noise from their booths — but it was a better and more spacious floor plan than the show has had in years, because it didn’t have to accommodate five giant AAA booths and the queues they generate.

This isn’t to say major publishers weren’t still represented. Sega and Square Enix enjoyed huge crowds. The Final Fantasy XIV booth appeared to be well and truly mobbed across all three days, throwing new players at end-game raids and giving out prizes to those who kept their heads above water. Sonic Fronters‘ first public showing in Australia also attracted quite a bit of attention, with fans keen to see how Sega’s open-world Sonic game would set itself apart.

But it was the indies that stole the show. Into the vacuum left by the major publishers stepped one of the greatest crops of independent talent Australia and New Zealand has ever produced. Games like Gubbins, A Halloween Valentine, Dark Web StreamerDredge and Schroedinger’s Cat Burglar all stood out for their originality and presentation, while recent releases like Justice Sucks attempted a kind of second launch after the first was impacted by the death of Queen Elizabeth II last month. (You’ll hear more from Ruby about that particular story later this week.)

Local heroes Massive Monster sold out of Cult of the Lamb merch on the first day of the show but were never short of people stopping by to play their world-beating game.

Devolver Digital brought only two games to its very comfortable booth space this year — Anger Foot, a game about giving people a good kicking, and Gunbrella, a noir-punk action-adventure game about a woodsman on a quest for revenge armed with an umbrella that is also a gun.

Moving forward

No one seemed to notice, or care, that the Big Three weren’t there. In an industry that is almost entirely absorbed in the goings-on of the AAA world, this was a hugely important moment for ANZ independent space. Without the distraction of the industry’s biggest names and the long queues they create, punters descended on the indies because they had something they could play.

There is a special energy that is generated by playing a game while the people that made it hover nervously nearby. You can speak to the creatives while you play, ask them questions, hear their stories and receive tips and tricks in real time. The average punter can’t get that experience almost anywhere else but PAX, and most AAA booths hire armies from specialist events companies like Magnificent Nerds to staff their booths. They’re knowledgeable, certainly, but they aren’t the devs. This year, almost every booth with a playable game had a dev attached to it. That a provides a direct and immediate connection to the art that most players never, ever receive. I think that’s really special.

And it leads to an obvious question: do we need the big names at PAX anymore? If you’d asked me on Thursday last week, I’d have probably said yes. Now, I’m not so sure. For these larger publishers, I’m sure they’ve been asking themselves similar questions. Have things changed during the pandemic? Is it easier, or more cost-effective, to rely on Direct-style online videos to drive pre-order hype, or is there still a benefit to attending a consumer trade show like PAX?

Hard to say for sure. Most of the Big Three still had some kind of presence at or around the show. Xbox had Bethesda running its expensive off-site event. PlayStation set up a Horizon: Forbidden West photo op in the hallway and flew in former SIE president, now head of Indies, Shuhei Yoshida, to present the Storytime keynote address. So it’s not like they were completely gone, which suggests hesitation. Maybe this was all borne of an abundance of caution, a desire to see if the first PAX Aus in three years would materially change the vibe or level of interest in the show.

I think they have their answer. Not only is the show as popular as ever, but they also missed a trick by not being there. Worse, nobody seemed to mind that they chose to skip it. A surprising result on every possible front.

And now, my sweeping conclusion: I liked it better without them, and I hope they consider moving off-site next year too. There’s an argument that this will contribute to the E3-ification of PAX Aus. If you don’t know what I mean by that, E3 is an event with so many satellite events that it has become a show where everyone is “at E3” but rarely at the Los Angeles Convention Centre where it is held. There’s a version of PAX Aus, as it moves into its second decade in Australia, where the entire Melbourne CBD becomes its playground and the Convention Centre merely the nexus around which everything else revolves.

And maybe we’ve just seen the first step in that evolutionary chain. Who knows? The company that organises PAX Aus, ReedPop, is also now in charge of E3. Maybe it tracks that these shows would become more alike over time.

Come back next year, and we’ll find out together.

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