San Diego Comic-Con International (SDCC): Started in 1970, grown so large that LA is trying to convince it to move venues. It began as a comic book convention and now encompasses video games, movies, TV shows, non-comic books, toys, and just about any other genre of pop-culture or media you can think of. It’s commonly referred to as a geek Mecca, and is now used as a testing ground by Hollywood for their upcoming shows.
Highlights: celebrities galore, a huge exhibit hall, huge amounts of swag, loads of cosplayers, and—lest we forget—comic books.
Downsides: enormous crowds, massive lines, lack of focus, and loads of cosplayers.
Penny Arcade Expo (PAX): Born in 2004, the brainchild of Penny Arcade’s Gabe and Tycho, and focused on gaming: video games, computer games, and tabletop games. It became so popular that this year PAX East was introduced—and its first-year attendance was greater than PAX last year.
Highlights: glimpses of upcoming video games, a huge board game library available for check out, watching people play D&D live on stage.
Downsides: convoluted convention center, long lines to play video games, snarky remarks from Dragon*Con attendees who think their convention is better.
Which is better? If you were forced to choose, which one would you attend? This year, Dave Banks and I were lucky that we didn’t have to choose—we went to both. (And Dave actually attended PAX on both coasts.) We had a chat to settle this Great Geek Debate: Comic-Con or PAX?
Dave Banks: OK, so Comic-Con—overall impressions?
Jonathan Liu: Well, this was your first time, right? It was my second, but the last time I went was 2005. I really enjoyed Comic-Con, but was more than a bit overwhelmed by the sheer size of it. There were so many panels that I REALLY wanted to attend, and the number I actually attended was much smaller.
DB: How many people attended—do you know offhand?
DB: OK, 140,000—about twice PAX. I’d say that at Comic-Con there was this underlying theme of “go on, move, go see something,” whether it was a panel or something on the exhibition floor.
JL: Yeah—there’s so much to see, just on the exhibit floor, that you feel like if you don’t keep going you’re going to miss something.
DB: At PAX, you could sit down for a couple hours and relax and play a game.
JL: And I think probably that feeling has been building with Hollywood’s presence there—
JL: —you never know which TV show or movie is going to be the Next Big Thing, and you could have been there at the start.
DB: The other thing is that—although I didn’t attend anything in the big theater at PAX this time—I did in Boston. There was a feeling of camaraderie and oneness with other attendees, even when you were in a room with 10,000 others. There’s a lot of common ground at PAX. And 100% less eye-stabbing.
DB: People were a lot more polite at PAX. Everyone was just so happy to be there.
JL: I think that feeling of camaraderie depends on which panels you attend, too. There were some panels at SDCC where I felt like the audience wasn’t really interacting with each other. But one, the” Quick Draw!” panel, was getting a lot of audience response, even though it was a huge audience. It was cartoonists (like Sergio Aragonés) having to draw cartoons on the fly.
DB: I feel like, at PAX, you can approach just about anyone and strike up a conversation. Such a feeling of community.
JL: Yeah. I think there’s definitely a sense that most people are there for the same thing, whereas at SDCC people are there for so many different reasons, which may not intersect at all.
DB: SDCC has movies, TV, tabletop, comics, videogames, cosplay. It’s trying to be too much. Plus, it doesn’t have a unifying face for the event, like PAX does with Gabe and Tycho.
JL: Well, do you suppose it’s a problem that SDCC wanted to take on too many things, or that too many different things wanted to invade SDCC?
DB: Probably both, but it doesn’t really matter.
JL: I wonder what would happen if the mainstream started getting interested in PAX—would Gabe & Tycho fight to keep them out? Or do they really have much to do with the management of the exhibit hall, etc.?
DB: Well, you know what I said during our panel at PAX — within 18 months, video game sales will double the sales figures of Hollywood movies. I don’t know why everyone isn’t trying to get into PAX instead of SDCC.
JL: Maybe they are. If you look at the attendees numbers for SDCC, it’s a pretty steady growth—it’s not like it just happened one year. I wonder what the numbers are like for PAX since it started.
DB: PAX has had steady growth too. But if you look at this year’s game conferences, E3′s attendance in 2010 was 45,600. PAX in 2010: 67,000. PAX is blowing away E3. I don’t know about GenCon or the others.
JL: And that’s only counting PAX Prime.
DB: Right. PAX East was another 55,000.
JL: But I think in order for PAX not to become the next SDCC (assuming they don’t want to be), I think they have to be very selective in who they allow to exhibit, how many badges they sell, etc.
DB: Probably. I wonder if my view is skewed because I worked my butt off at SDCC and I was so worn out, and I pretty much played and hung out at PAX.
JL: Right — and that’s certainly a big difference, the fact that we went as media for SDCC and as panelists for PAX.
DB: But I walked out of PAX — and PAX East — feeling euphoric, like I had the best time of my life.
JL: I didn’t feel that burden of responsibility, like I have to actually sift through these 300 emails I get from anyone and everyone asking for my attention. I would have liked to try some of the panels at PAX—I think that’s the one thing I kind of missed. Because even though I culled my schedule so much at SDCC, I ended up skipping pretty much all of the PAX panels (except ours) in favor of playing games. Which—don’t get me wrong—was awesome.
DB: Think about at SDCC all the “big stars” being ushered around back hallways under guard. And then—comparatively—at PAX, right after the Acquisitions, Inc. panel—what many called the best of the weekend, Wheaton, Kurtz and everybody just kinda walked away to their next thing. No pretension. No big deal.
JL: That, and I think they can rely on most PAX attendees to respect their personal space, whereas at SDCC you know even a minor celebrity is going to get mobbed.
DB: Yeah — definitely a different feeling at SDCC.
JL: Not that we didn’t geek out over Wil Wheaton ourselves when we ran into him.
DB: IN A VERY POLITE WAY.
JL: Good thing we’re awesome. 🙂
JL: One thing I didn’t like about PAX—and maybe this is because we didn’t have media passes, but it would be true for most attendees—is that it felt like there wasn’t much of a chance for me to try out some of the newer videogames. I mean, I didn’t really want to stand in line two hours to try Halo Reach, particularly because I knew I wouldn’t last 10 seconds against most of the other players there.
DB: I read something on the PA boards, which I took to heart: if I’m going to buy certain games and play them in a month or two anyway—why should I lose two hours (or more) of my PAX to wait in line to play them when I can find something more obscure where there’s no line.
JL: I wish everyone else thought that way, too — because I’m one of those guys who isn’t going to buy the game, so this is probably my only chance to play it. That is, until the next generation Xbox comes out, and then I’ll finally get a 360 and play all those decade-old games.
DB: Late adopter!
JL: That’s me. Which is partly why I was so surprised that I enjoyed PAX so much, but it’s because there was that huge tabletop gaming component. And even though I really love books and comics, while I’m at SDCC I don’t actually sit and read much—I just collect things and gawk and try to process it later. At PAX, I got to discover new games and play them.
DB: Well, another aspect is that I can play a game — say, Halo — and it’s going to be largely the same there as at home. Because video games are more of a solitary pursuit, even when playing with others via Live or another network. I can’t go pick up Castle Ravenloft and play whenever I want. Well, bad example—it has a solitaire variant. Let’s say Wasabi instead.
JL: Right. And for me, it was a rare chance to actually play games against adults and lose a lot. I mean, not that these high school kids and college kids at my game nights don’t beat me sometimes, but usually I’ve played the games much more than they have.
DB: You didn’t lose that much.
DB: And I like TV and movies a lot. I just felt so far removed from them, opposed to the fun I had at PAX. Much of SDCC is passive, whereas PAX revolves around interactive experiences.
JL: Right. PAX is by definition more interactive, more engaging. Although I’m sure SDCC is more exercise. I think I walked several miles every day.
DB: True. I walked a lot in Seattle too, but not nearly as much.
JL: And when it was time to leave PAX, you just went out the door. At SDCC, you had to stand in line just to leave.
DB: PAX had half the people, but, really, half the space.
JL: Although that has to do with the venue as well as the crowds — the San Diego Convention Center is just not an easy location to get out of.
DB: Think about security too. There is such love for the enforcers — they’re all volunteers and have really good attitudes about everything, and at SDCC they are just hired people.
JL: Yeah. I mean, you have the guards checking badges at the door at PAX too, and they’re just hired people too.
DB: Right, but not so many of them.
JL: But SDCC doesn’t have official SDCC helpers walking around on the floor, entertaining you while you stand in line.
JL: So — would you do SDCC again?
DB: Probably not for a year or so. I just didn’t enjoy it that much. I mean there were really cool moments, but I just felt like I was being pushed all weekend—by crowds, vendors, everybody. But — if I have my way — I won’t miss another PAX for as long as I can.
JL: I feel similar — I think SDCC is pretty draining to do every year, but I’d definitely go to PAX again if I could.
Ok, sorry for misleading you. There really wasn’t much of a debate at all. Although Comic-Con is the bigger event, PAX turned out to be a lot more fun for both of us. Don’t get me wrong—I had a lot of fun at Comic-Con and discovered a lot of great new books, and I’d love to go again … just maybe not next year. But PAX — I’d go to PAX next week if they had one, and Dave feels the same way. Partly it’s the (slightly) smaller crowds, but largely it’s because it’s an event that is still run by gamers, for gamers, whereas Comic-Con has grown so large that it includes too much. If you’re considering one or the other, ask yourself this: would you rather stand in line for two hours to play a video game that isn’t out yet, or to get an autograph from an actor? Or, would you rather not stand in line at all and spend a weekend playing board games?
What do you think? What’s your favorite convention? Take our poll, or leave a comment below.