When you've been at something for two decades and only keep getting bigger and better, you know you're doing something right. Otakon has come a long way from its humble beginnings in a Days Inn in Pennsylvania, exploding from a humble gathering of 300 or so to a horde of nearly 35,000 otaku taking over its current home in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. In fact, the convention has gotten so large that Otakorp has already announced a move to Washington, D.C.'s more spacious convention center for 2017's edition, despite some sentimental reluctance.
Otakon celebrated its 20th anniversary in style, for sure. They brought in a smorgasbord of huge guests like Cowboy Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe, world famous composer Yoko Kanno, and various animators and directors from recent blockbuster hits like Sword Art Online and Oreimo. Along with these guests came announcements of new titles like Watanabe's Space Dandy, and the world premieres of Oreimo's final episodes of the 2nd season as well as the English dubbed version of critically acclaimed film, Wolf Children.
Having only been to one previous edition of Otakon the year before, I don't have a lot to compare to, but this year's absolutely topped the last both in numbers, events, and sheer enthusiasm. It felt like there was even more cosplay than ever, particularly from fans of shows like Attack on Titan, which allow you to participate in army uniform without necessarily representing a specific character. Despite the larger crowd, I did not feel any real degradation of foot traffic, especially once they organized the unfortunately narrow sky bridges into one way lanes. Speaking of which, organization is Otakon's strong suit. While there will always be some hiccups and confusion in herding so many cats, I was still impressed with how most lines were handled, both for registration and panels. My only annoyance was discovering the huge rush for 18+ bracelets for Frday night's more racier affairs. I feel like that could have been addressed at the same time as registration (where you have to present your ID anyway) to alleviate those lines, especially when that was only a prelude to waiting in yet another line to get into the event. Besides that though, everything started on time for the most part and all of the staff was very courteous and helpful, always willing to take questions and find the answer for you.
When you arrive at Otakon, I highly suggest you take a look at the schedule (and download Guidebook if you have a smartphone) and plan your attack. There's way more things to do than there is ever enough time to see (which is not a complaint, but a sign of a great convention!). At any moment there's at least 4 anime showing in video rooms and multiple panels, Q&A's, and workshops to boot. You also have to account for how popular an event is going to be and factor in getting early to secure your spot, so there's going to be a lot of concessions made. Personally I was happy catching some of the smaller fare and avoiding some of the world premieres with their 2 hour long waits. I started off my schedule on Friday with a viewing of Otaku No Video, a comedic anime from 1991 that inspired Otakon according to its members' lore. It wasn't hard to see the connection as it traces a similar meteoric rise for a small band of otaku who take the world by storm and eventually construct their equivalent of Disneyland. I also caught showings of stuff like Hunter X Hunter and New Hurricane Polymar. Panels wise I found a lot of variety as I attended ones about Lolita fashion, sports anime, and the real of a manga artist. My favorites though involved reminiscing about the early days of anime in America with I Love the 80s: Anime Edition hosted by Mike Toole and the Anime Industry Before Times panel hosted by special guests who were founding members of such greats as AnimEigo, Animerica, ADV, and more.
Needless to say, there's no excuse to be bored at Otakon! Even if none of the anime or panels happens to be your thing at a given time, just wandering the halls and seeing all the cosplay is entertaining enough. Of course there's also a huge gaming room open all day long with a wide selection of arcade and console machines and software both old and new. I checked out Hatsune Miku Project Diva F with a real arcade controller among other rare Japanese imports, and tons of other rhythm music games like DDR, Rock Band, and Dance Central. And then there's the shopping, with both Artist's Alley and Dealer's Hall jam packed of goodies. My only complaint about the latter is that many dealers seemed to be working from the exact same stock, so there weren't many rare finds to be had, but that could also have been the fact that I didn't get in the first day. The good side of that is it made it easy to comparison shop and find the best deal if you were willing to put in the leg work.
And for those moments where you absolutely have to step out of the convention and get a breath of fresh air, the Inner Harbor is there for you with entertainment options like the many display ships in port, from submarines to tallships like the U.S.S. Constellation. You can even take a water taxi and get out on the water. There's of course plenty of food options in the area that run the gamut of low cost chains and food trucks to fancier fare like the great Spanish tapas restaurant I ate at on my last day. Hotels are a bit tricky and can be expensive for the weekend but they are mostly clustered around the convention center for easy access to and from Otakon. If you're looking to save though it might be cheaper to stay near the airport and take the light rail in, but I'm not as familiar with the viability of that option. I was skeptical about Baltimore at first, but it's found a place in my heart after two years there. A fondness has grown between the convention and the city and you can see many of the locals actually enjoy having us around. It's a shame it will be moving on in a few years and I have no doubt it was a difficult decision for Otakorp.
Otakorp has also created a spinoff convention in Las Vegas that starts this January 2014, so if that's closer to you it may be worth a look as well. Just keep in mind it'll be going through some first con pains, but I have confidence in this crew considering how well they've done with their first baby. Anyway, I had an amazing time at my second Otakon and look forward to doing it all again next year. There's a reason why this con has been so successful and made to the 20 year mark, and I hope you will join us out there next time, because despite everything else I mentioned, it's the people and the friends you meet that really make it great!
Since the latest PAX Prime sprawled out over an extensive four day span, I'll do my best to condense my experience. A couple of years ago I exchanged words with a BioWare employee who compared the convention experience to summer camp. In many ways, we look forward to it, it's a great chance to catch up with some of our friends we don't see the rest of the year. But conventions are also exhausting, and as much as we don't want them to end, we also want to go home. I think the latter part cannot be stressed enough as we rolled into our fourth day.
Four days was good in a lot of ways, though. As a person expected to fit in seeing as many games as possible while also enjoying the other amenities of a convention, four days meant I had way more time and less stress when planning what games I would see. Unfortunately, the convention still only allows one hour of early access for media on only the first day, which is just not enough time to see everything. I unfortunately missed Titanfall during the media hour by about ten minutes. I won't be able to tell you guys about that game, because the wait was four hours long, and they weren't making media appointments or allowing media a chance to get hands on without waiting the four hours. I just had too many other appointments and games to see to wait that long, sorry! I was disappointed at no presence for Rockstar, but given the fast approaching release date for GTA V and the fact that the first three days of release broke entertainment sales records, I'm sure they were more focused on making sure the launch was smooth sailing. One of the biggest draws this year was getting to see the Xbox One and PS4 in person. I guess that was neat, but really, they just looked like consoles. I used to work in a bank, and I'd have tens of thousands of dollars in my drawer every day. It never phased me, though, because I didn't think of it as money. I knew it wasn't mine, so it didn't excite me the way someone handing me ten grand in my home would make me feel. I guess that's how I feel about previewing consoles as opposed to owning one, especially given that the demonstrations and libraries at this point are limited.
Watchdogs also had one of the longest lines there, but playable demos were not available. Instead, we filed in to a theater to see a live presentation of gameplay as two presenters played competitively using a console and mobile device. The goal of the mobile device player was to obstruct and distract the console player from reaching their goal. She did this by sending out helicopters, utilizing police, and even changing parts of the city to create new road blocks. This presentation allowed Ubisoft to not only stress the importance of dynamic gameplay, but also show us how it could be manipulated. One of the features of the game that they mentioned but could not fully demonstrate was the ability of the player to make game affecting choices. The player can choose to escalate or downsize their role in conflicts throughout the game. Each decision and its impact on the citizens within the game influences the perception of the main character, which in turn changes gameplay. I'd really like to see how these consequences play out.
The next booth I managed to hit up was Bethesda. They were showing Wolfenstein: The New Order, which boasts the same brutality and well-aimed aggression of the original, just this time with way more heavy machinery. The Evil Within was not on display, but the trailer was broadcast frequently, and the swag included a pin for it. The main attraction at their booth was the playable demo for Elder Scrolls Online. I have to say I'm really impressed by how much Bethesda promoted the game at many conventions this year. While we didn't get a beer garden at PAX Prime, we did get a free food truck (if you wanted to stand in the line) and free Ben and Jerry pints of ice cream. All of the offerings were done in Nirn style, such as Sweet Cream with Khajiit Sweet Bites and Nirnroot Pickles.
As far as getting my hands on the game, I did! And it helped ease a lot of the fears I previously had, such as the game feeling more like a generic MMO clone. I can state as a fan of the series and also a person who has played way too many MMORPGs, this is not the case. I was fortunate to get a full hour of play time, and this allowed me to get quite far in the quests available to me. First, character customization is brilliant with great attention to detail and allowance for many body sizes and types. No matter what class you are, you can use any type of weapon and armor. Aside from needing to scroll back a bit in how the environment responds to players (meaning you can't knock all the stuff on a table across the room anymore) the scenes are intricately detailed and have all the same feel of playing Elder Scrolls games. Even the way quests pan out feels much like the quests picked up in earlier ES games. Even the beginning area quests were varied and extended beyond simple fetch or kill quests. Another thing that has me excited is the fact that PVP is confined to Cyrodiil. This is probably necessary due to the fact that there are no separate servers for things like RP and PVP.
I also had a chance to play the new Pikmin 3, which reminded me of my advancing age. Given that it has been a good nine years since the release of Pikmin 2 on GameCube, my attempts at playing the game using Wii controls was sobering at best. The preview showed gameplay very similar to previous games, with a seemingly greater focus on developing and implementing some solid Pikmin-corralling strategy. Getting my hands on the 2DS helped break previous conceptions on how huge the contraption appeared online. The system has quite a good feel in the hands, and seems much more ergonomically sound than the previous clamshell bodies. Also, it's much sturdier for the rough and tumble little ones. A playable demo of Pokemon X/Y was right next door, which is still something that can excite me despite my towering height and age over the rest of the players. Enhanced care for Pokemon is a great new feature, allowing the player to interact using treats, petting Pokemon, and even using facial expressions to respond to the game. The Indie Megabooth was filled with exciting and varied games. One of my favorites was the game Foul Play, which showed a lot of creativity and humor. The gameplay is a basic side-scrolling brawler with unlockable combos, but the story pulls in a new type of audience. As in, a real audience. Life in this game is monitored not in hit points, but in audience excitement. You play as a retired adventurer on stage, reenacting some of your most daring feats along with a cast of actors. The better your combos, the happier your audience, and the more points you get to unlock cool bonuses. I even had a chance to attend the Indie After Party and meet the creators of Foul Play and Hotline Miami. And that's really one of the best parts of the convention experience. PAX allows not only media and industry, but regular gamers a chance to meet game creators and hear the enthusiasm and story driving these titles.
I saw a lot of panels, which was hard on my tailbone due to the chairs there being so darn rigid. I'm honestly not sure which was more sore by the end of the convention, my ass or my feet. But there were so many panels dedicated to social issues this year. I didn't even manage to catch all of them, but from what I did see, there is a growing community of people involved in bringing social awareness to game culture. This is fantastic. In previous years at cons, I have given my contact info to people, expressing my desire to delve into these topics. This has always been met with a cautious acceptance. I think we all had this notion that nothing would ever change because people kept reverting to the age-old "but this is just the way gamers are" excuse. This year, however, despite hecklers at the Political Correctness in Gaming panel, and despite Mike from PA still not "getting it" in many ways, I was so fortunate to meet and have a few small jam sessions with some of the most brilliant and innovative gamers I've met. I was also fortunate enough to cry for an hour at the Take This Panel, which focused on the hardships of dealing with mental health issues as gamers. The panelists were all people who worked within the game industry and were brave and open about their histories with anxiety and depression. The Take This Project is all about providing support for gamers who may struggle with these same issues, though it is important to note that this group cannot replace seeking professional assistance. This was one of the best panels I have ever attended, hands down.
That's not to say the other panels were not also excellent and hard-hitting. Panelists for the other panels ranged from military women, tabletop gamers, trans* gamers, gamers of color, and much more. These are people who are not only finally getting to speak about their experiences, but they get to do so in front of an audience that is attending these panels and actually listening. And when I handed my card to these panelists and told them how I want to help advance geek culture, I was met with palpable enthusiasm, acceptance, and encouragement. I feel that the end result of these panels was creating more allies, and at the very least causing some of the audience to reevaluate how they previously viewed these issues. And that is really saying something. That is the true power of a convention like PAX. It's terrible that so many of these amazing people will not be attending next year due to the inability of PA to provide any meaningful understanding of their tenet of inclusion and safe spaces.
I don't want to end this on a down note, so I want to stress again how fun and fulfilling most of my PAX experience was this year. I'll be back at PAX next year, running a panel on these very topics if I'm lucky. I'll be gearing up even more excitement about fun games, an ever-evolving industry, and amazing people who have too long spent the majority of their time on the sidelines. Be sure to check out the gallery below to see some of my amazing action shots.