I’m at PAX this week, and I got to thinking about some recent conversations I’ve had in the forums. I realized that most people probably don’t know anything at all about the media experience at these events, and some readers may be interested in having that veil peeled back a bit for them.
Have you ever wondered what that yellow PAX media badge means, what it takes to get it, or how it changes your experience at the event? Well, this might just be the article for you. I’m taking you on a tour through a typical weekend of attending PAX as a member of the press.
Attending PAX South with a media badge starts several months before the event. If you watch the PAX website, you’ll see the ticket sales go live. Below the ticket sales is usually a section that says media on it, but it notes that registration hasn’t opened yet. A few weeks after ticket sales go live, the media section updates to allow media to register. There’s a short webform to fill out so that they can confirm your credentials, and they usually ask for a letter from your editor on company letterhead.
I’m not sure how many people use the webform. I don’t think I ever have. As it turns out, our editor knows the media folks at PAX, and I’ve also been attending so many years myself, that a quick email is all it usually takes. Once I’ve gotten confirmation from the PAX folks that I’m good to go, I pretty much just put it out of my mind.
I might get another email or two from the PX staff with updates around media access, but they’re mostly comms dark from that point forward. I will get an email a week or two out confirming that I can pick my badge up starting the Thursday before the event and giving me the location, though that’s all pretty standard at this point and if it deviates at all year-to-year, it’s not by much.
The biggest difference between attending PAX as a regular attendee and attending as a member of the media is that your email address gets added to the list of attending influencers, which is then distributed among the various public relations companies. It starts as a trickle, but by the end of December, I’m usually getting a ton of emails each day from PR companies that have games at the event.
Most of the emails follow a standard format. They start off like a standard press release, telling you all about how cool the game to be released is, and then end by giving you their booth number and demanding you quickly schedule an appointment to get an interview. It doesn’t matter how popular or unknown the game is, the emails will nearly always imply that their interview slots are passing quickly, and demand you schedule as soon as possible.
This is where I start planning my PAX weekend. Most of the emails are misses in that they’re games I don’t really care that much about, or are games early enough in development that there’s not much research to be done. I rarely schedule interviews unless it’s a big game and I really am worried about getting a slot. Just because I don’t schedule an interview doesn’t mean the email is a fail, because I do make note of any games that stand out to me. I’ll compile a list of booths I want to make sure I stop by, and then I’ll do a little research on the games that I can.
Sometimes, if I’m interested enough and the game has an alpha or beta, I’ll sign up for a key. I’ll even drop a little cash and buy my way in if that’s the route and it looks like a game I might like to cover more than once. In those cases where I can get some game time, I’ll play a bit and get a feel for what I like about the game and what stands out.
In some cases, I’ll just watch some streamers play the game or watch a few YouTube videos while also looking around at the game’s website and forums. Occasionally, this early research will cause me to lose interest in a game, but that’s not common. It’s more common that I’ll find players complaining about some aspect of the game or find a design choice that I find odd or interesting, and those go into my notes for the potential interview.
Attending the Event
Attending the event usually starts the day before. I like to avoid the crowds and pick up my badge early. The lines can get bad enough that it’s worth the extra trip to the convention center. The badge pickup location is the same for media and regular attendees, though there is a dedicated media ticket booth. If you don’t get your badge early, you stand in line just like everyone else, until you get towards the front where the lines spit into the different badge types where you’d line up in the separate media line at that point.
The night before the first day of PAX, I try to review my notes to remind myself of the games I was interested in and what sorts of questions I had for them. I typically have a fair idea of what I’m going to write about, so I’ll also start a couple articles and have them roughed in. That way, I can make basic changes based on how the interviews go, and already know generally what screenshots I’ll be asking for from the game.
PAX South does operate a little differently from other media events I’ve attended. With PAX, media folks get access to the floor an hour earlier than the general public, but only on the first day of the event. My first stop is always the greenroom that’s set aside for the press. They have secured storage and staff to watch over everything, so I drop off my laptop and whatever else I don’t want to carry to the floor. We usually have a separate place that we all line up apart from the general public and then they open the doors and we get to walk in to wander the PAX floor for that extra hour.
I try to walk the floor once to see what all is there and what catches my eye. I make note of the big names that are likely to draw a crowd and look for the specific booths I have on my list. Once I have a good feel for the floor, I head for the booths that I expect to be the busiest and that are also high on my list. I work my way through games in a prioritized list, though I don’t often do interviews at that point. I’m trying to get hands on games before the crowds get going, and then follow-up with interviews later.
After about three hours of walking the floor and trying out games, I usually have something in mind for an article. I’ll take a break and head up to the media room where they have power and wifi available to start working on articles. If I have enough to complete an article, I’ll try to get one out pretty quickly. Otherwise, I fill in what I have for several to be completed later and break for a late lunch.
The afternoon walk-through is where the badge starts earning it’s place again. If I wanted to play games, I’d have to wait in line just like anyone else, but I’m usually looking to talk to developers more than play the games. The second foray onto the floor is when I specifically seek out the smaller studios/games that I was interested in, but don’t expect to be so packed that I can’t get a little time on the keyboard myself. The yellow press lanyard stands out, which allows me to get attention from the staff quickly, and I usually have someone approach me as soon as they see me heading their way.
I usually have interviews scheduled for the second day of PAX and spend the day going from the greenroom to interviews and back. Nearly the whole day is wrapping up and finishing articles, and occasionally heading to the floor to see if someone can help me with a press kit (usually a thumb drive with videos, screenshots, logos, and some literature on the game in question). If I’m looking for a specific screenshot, the booth staff can call back to their office and ask someone to send it to me.
I try to leave the third day as open as I can. If I have nieces or nephews in town, or anyone else who might want to go check out PAX, this is when I’ll get them a one-day pass and take them with me. I’ll pick up a few interviews occasionally and sometimes find a title I’d missed and want to learn more about. Otherwise, it’s a pretty light day and I try to keep it that way.
You might think that being press is a bigger advantage when it comes to the parties and other events outside the convention center, but I haven’t really found that to be the case. There have been a few times where developers rented hotel suites and invited press to come demo a game, and in those cases you usually get some swag and they’ll offer to buy dinner or have stuff setup on a table for you. It’s typically pretty tame, though.
The bigger events are pretty open to anyone from everything I’ve seen. The press advantage is that the PR companies make a specific effort to ensure you know about it. There’s usually an exchange of notes in the greenroom as media folks catch each other up on which events they plan to attend. When you get to the events, the PR folks driving it will make sure you get your VIP wrist band, but the reality is that everyone’s getting the same band.
Depending on the party, the size of the crowd, and the funding of the event, prizes and swag is nearly always handed out. Sometimes the swag goes to everyone, and sometimes they’ll do a drawing or party game to pick who gets what. There will always be game art, pamphlets, and hired “ambassadors” to help promote the game.
The “deepest darkest secret” about attending events like this, is that it’s really pretty boring. For the most part, members of the media aren’t any different from anyone else attending the event, and that’s really a good thing. These events are good in that they give us a chance to talk to a lot of different studios at one time, but it’s also good to leave some room open for the new up and coming talent that maybe hasn’t gotten their bona fides yet.
I know there’s this sense of secrecy and elitism around the media at events like PAX, but for the most part the mystery is seriously exaggerating the coolness factor. There are a few events that don’t go that way. When I went to LA for the Ultimate Empire Showdown event SOE threw to promote PanetSide 2, they paid for my flight, my hotel, meals, and not a small amount of very good scotch while I was at the event(Thanks, Smed!). There was a roped off VIP area, which is where I met John and Jenna Bain for the first time, and SOE went out of their way to make sure press and streamers felt elite at the event.
That experience is the exception rather than the rule, though. In reality, even most of those special events are boring stretches of briefings by the publishers and developers followed by frenzied writing periods attempting to race the new information into an article and get it posted as quickly as possible. If that sounds like work to you, then you’ve got the right idea. It’s also typically work that pays far less than our day jobs.
I can’t speak for all writers, but I suspect I’m speaking for most when I say I don’t do this for the money. Frankly, there really isn’t any in it. While there are occasional events that net you some cool swag or a little pampering, they’re few and far between, and so that’s not really a consideration either.
I write these articles because I really like games and the business of making them. I enjoy learning about how they’re financed and managed, and all those other business type things that are too boring to write about. I also enjoy seeing them developed from the ground up and watching them turn from a storyboard of ideas into something we can all play. That’s why I write about video games.
I hope this glimpse into the world of high-flying game journalism has been fun for you. Let me know if you enjoyed it. I have a few other ideas in mind along the same lines and I’d like to know how interested you all would be in this sort of thing. If there’s something you’d like to know that I didn’t think to cover, fire away. I’ll keep an eye on the comments and reply as best I can. For now, I need to punch out. I have a lot more PAX-related stuff to get through before I can call it a night!