PAX Prime is an overwhelmingly awesome gaming expo held each year in Seattle. We attended in 2010 to promote Path of Exile (a few days after its announcement), but quickly learnt that it would have really helped to have a booth to attract journalists to. This year, we returned with a booth and a stack of 2400 Closed Beta DVDs to give to fans.
Path of Exile had just entered Closed Beta a few weeks beforehand, so we had a pretty stable build of the game to demonstrate. The PAX build was the 0.9.1 Beta version with a few small changes. We removed the per-account character limit and set each of the character classes to start at a different place in the game (with pre-set items and skills) so that players could jump right into combat. We set up six computers for fans to play on and had a video of B-roll footage of the game playing on one of the large monitors above the booth.
Creating our first booth was an incredibly difficult and (relative to our daily development costs) expensive endeavour. We had a 20x10 foot space to work with and wanted to fill it with computers and gamers. We mocked up some designs and settled on an array of six computers, with one of them semi-reserved for journalists to use.
We knew that we'd have to make the booth eye-catching from a distance so we commissioned a large hanging sign and installed two television sized monitors at the top corners of the booth to show both live and pre-recorded gameplay footage that would hopefully attract people from across the expo.
The stands that we rented for people to play on had barely any room for a keyboard, let alone a mouse. They also looked really scratched and unprofessional, so we had to improvise to create a reasonable playing surface.
Our solution was to glue and clamp large wooden planks to the flat keyboard stands and then drape black felt across the playing area. This create a sturdy surface that endured the 144 manhours of gaming that were inflicted on it over the weekend.
Once the playing surface was sorted out, the rest of the booth came together quickly. Erik rigged a set of Path of Exile banners to the back wall using an arcane combination of dark magic and string. The game was installed on each of the six computers and thankfully worked flawlessly with the server software we had brought with us from New Zealand in a linux virtual machine.
After two days of set-up, we had everything in place. We vacuumed the carpet, straightened up our chairs/drapes and took some photos of the booth before thousands of gamers stormed through it over the weekend.
Ever since we started planning our presence at PAX, we knew that we wanted to give away DVDs with copies of the Closed Beta on them. We budgeted to give away 800 DVDs on each of the three show days, which worked out to one disc per person after they played on one of our demo machines for several minutes. We enforced the rule of asking people to play first so that we only gave discs out to people who were genuinely interested in the game. Once word spread that we were giving out copies of a free game, the crowds became thick.
It was really exciting talking to members of our community who turned up to see the game. After watching them wait for access patiently on the forums, it was very satisfying to hand them a Beta DVD and see their glee as they played the game on our demo machines.
Having worked on the game for almost five years, holding a physical DVD in our hands felt pretty amazing. We don't plan to release the game as a boxed retail copy (it's a digital download), so these DVDs might become collectable in a few years.
The show was much more successful for us than we had predicted. We constantly had long queues of people eager to play the game, and received almost universally positive feedback from gamers who tried it out. Many journalists were very interested in talking to us and we amassed a giant stack of business cards.
Some of the fans asked great questions that resulted in really interesting discussions about the design philosophies. Our favourite was "What does hardcore mean to you?" which prompted an explanation about how we've designed Path of Exile to reward skilled players who are willing to take risks with their characters and try interesting combinations of skills.
The rest of the show is a bit of a blur to us. It was so crowded that we were really only able to visit other booths during the exhibitor-only hours (before and after the show opened each day), which meant we didn't get much time to play all the awesome games on display.
We did get a chance to meet and chat to a variety of awesome people such as Tycho (from Penny Arcade), Notch (of Minecraft fame), Richard Garfield (creator of Magic: the Gathering and a PoE Alpha tester) and the guys at Runic Games, Riot Games, ArenaNet and Hi-Rez Studios.
With the expo over, we made the slow trip back to New Zealand to rest our feet, recover our hearing and continue work on the 0.9.2 Beta patch.