Tabletop-centric PAX Unplugged announced, set for Nov 2017 in Philadelphia

Acoustic covers still up in the air

Today, during PAX South 2017, Penny Arcade announced PAX Unplugged, the latest in its ever-expanding series of Penny Arcade Expos. As the name suggests, PAX Unplugged will focus on tabletop gaming, taking the community-forward nature of your average PAX and applying it to the house that the Monopoly Man built. Unplugged will take place in Philadelphia, PA and will run from November 17-19, 2017.

“This show is borne out of demand. The industry as a whole is asking for more,” Ryan Hartman, Penny Arcade’s Director of Events and Soldier: 76 main said in a phone interview conducted earlier this week. “This is our chance to throw new things at the wall. This is gonna be a PAX, it’s gonna have a PAX feel, it’s gonna have our vibe and our fingerprints all over it, but [Unplugged] has its own spin and flavor. It’s not a cut and paste of other shows we’ve done.”

“It’s on-brand for a gaming convention, because we’re going to play around with that space,” Penny Arcade co-founder and Zarya main Jerry Holkins said. “My suspicion is that because Unplugged is a different beast, we’re going to learn a thing or two there that we can bring back [to the other shows.]”

Between the regular Acquisitions Inc. game, as well as the tabletop areas found in each video game-focused PAX, Penny Arcade’s enthusiasm for tabletop gaming has never been in question. However, there’s always the question of logistics. PAX has traditionally been a place where the general public can get their hands on E3 demos, or even some exclusive first looks. But in those cases, game demos are rarely longer than 30 minutes, and ostensibly require enough space for a game station and one person.

Hypothetically, if Wizards of the Coast were to offer public demos for some hot new D&D expansion, that requires a sizable table and space for a few participants. Plus, some tabletop games would take a while to demo, potentially exacerbating PAX’s already sizable line problem. Hartman did make a salient point that I hadn’t considered: running a tabletop convention meant they didn’t have to worry quite as much about power and internet, so that could potentially free up space.

Hartman expects that game companies will be mostly providing truncated demos, but space is something they aren’t currently worried about. “I think for the size and space we have in our first year, I think we’ll be pretty good,” Hartman told us. “The good thing you find, being in the convention business, is that a lot of these spaces are malleable and they’ll conform to your will and how you want to set them up. There is consideration on our part, and we are in the midst of putting the final touches on how we want to lay this show out.”

“In terms of convention space, malleable is right. There are convention spaces that you wouldn’t even know were malleable because the air walls just look solid. You have a sense of the internal geography of these spaces, but in a lot of cases, they’re designed to unfold,” Holkins said.

There’s also the matter of the ever-expanding PAX empire. Three and a half years ago, Mike Krahulik, the other co-founder of Penny Arcade, found himself at the center of a major games industry controversy. Krahulik posted a handful of tweets that one could describe as “misinformed,” if one was feeling extremely charitable. Many pundits and developers were understandably feeling less than charitable, resulting in Gone Home developer Fullbright pulling its anticipated debut title from the show and multiple calls for PAX boycotts.

I don’t bring this up to shame anyone — I’m writing this article ahead of time, but barring any unforeseen horrific accidents, I’m at PAX South right now. Krahulik apologized, not just for the transphobic comments, but for his often “vengeful” behavior, and the company has been relatively controversy-free since then. Rather, I bring it up so you have some context.

In his aforementioned apology post (and in this other apology post), Krahulik spoke about distancing Penny Arcade from PAX. “It’s outgrown us and it belongs to the gaming community at large now not just PA fans. Someday I expect to attend a PAX and not even be recognized,” Krahulik wrote. “During the Q&A at PAX Prime we actually talked about slowly removing ourselves from the show over the next few years. We’ve been doing it for a decade now and I’m happy to step out of the way and let the show grow without me rather than in spite of me.”

Although we didn’t speak with Krahulik during our interview and were unable to track down the PAX Prime Q&A in question for corroboration, Holkins spoke about winding down Penny Arcade as a media “empire” during the final days of The Penny Arcade Report and PA TV. “Child’s Play and PAX have lives of their own, now. They’re vital, and they need an obsessive level of care,” Holkins wrote. “We will do everything in our power to ensure that these things outlast us by a wide margin. But I don’t think I want to ‘grow my business’ anymore; I sort of want to do the opposite.”

Right now there are five different PAX events running, if you include PAX Dev. PAX Unplugged will be the company’s sixth yearly event, so I was curious if Penny Arcade was still interested in making PAX feel like its own thing, or even potentially selling the name to organizing partners ReedPop.

Although Hartman and Holkins had positive things to say about ReedPop (“They’re awesome to work with,” Hartman said), it seems like Penny Arcade isn’t quite done with PAX. “We have the four pillar PAXs, we have this cool direction with Unplugged, so I still find the space really interesting,” Holkins said. “Eventually, I’ll be too old to do this. [PAX] will have to be passed on to people we trust, but we’re not done working on it yet.”

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Mike Cosimano
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