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Big Download Interview: Robert Khoo on Penny Arcade Expo 2008

It started in 2004 simply as a way for fans of the popular web based comic strip Penny Arcade to get together, talk about and play games and have fun. In 2008, the Penny Arcade Expo has grown by leaps and bounds and is now the largest single gathering of people for a video/PC gaming event in the US. Organizers have predicted that 45,000 people will attend PAX 2008 in downtown Seattle from August 29-31 and considering that pre-registrations for the event have already exceeded the total attendance of 37,000 for PAX 2007 that 45,000 figure might turn out to be conservative.

So why has Penny Arcade Expo grown so much in both attendance and importance in so short of time? Big Download got a chance to chat with Penny Arcade's business head Robert Khoo to find out more and get a little more info on the just announced plans to host an east coast PAX event in 2010.

First, when "Gabe", "Tycho" and you came up with the idea for Penny Arcade Expo did you have any idea that the event would turn into this kind of show with this kind of attendance?

Our approach to PAX has always been about throwing a giant party for the community, so we always knew people would be keen on the concept. But at the same time, I don't think anyone could have predicted the growth would have happened so quickly. Every year we count our blessings as far as attendance doubling annually – we know that type of growth can't go on forever, but we're enjoying it while it lasts.

Is it still true that you guys have no marketing budget for PAX?

We spend zero dollars in marketing and advertising.

How hard is it for you guys to get major game publishers to attend the show? Is it difficult or has it become easier over time?

In 2004 it was all about knocking on as many publisher doors as we could (and honestly I think we did pretty well by snagging Microsoft, Ubisoft and NCSoft that first PAX), but fast forward five years and we've got a hall over 15 times larger, 10 times the number of exhibitors and we sell out nearly 6 months before the show. So yeah, it's definitely gotten easier.

Music is one of the biggest features of PAX. How has this aspect of the show evolved over the years?

It's always been tough to please everyone on the musical front given how much talent there is and how short the concerts are. Out formula has always been to try and keep the staples of the show like Frontalot and the Minibosses and try to rotate other bands in and out. PAX East Coast will definitely give us an ability to flex the variety a bit more.

You have announced that you are expecting 45,000 people to attend this year and that's likely to be a conservative number. Is it getting harder to coordinate the event to still be geared to the fan with all of these people attending?

It's getting harder logistically, but it's not any more difficult from the first year as far as content goes. What's great is that we really don't feel like we're broadening the programming – it's always been catered to the hardcore gamer... there's just MORE of it each year.

We've heard that you don't really encourage booth babes to be hired by exhibitors for PAX. Is this true and if so why do you have this policy?

The policy, one of a few that most shows would consider "odd," states that those that work at your booth can't just be hired models. They have to understand the games and need to have the ability to engage with PAX attendees on that level. It's a win-win in our opinion – exhibitors have knowledgeable reps that understand their games talking with their most loyal and information-hungry fanbase and attendees aren't wasting their time trying to get (mis)information out of some mouthpiece.

What sort of activities will you have at PAX 2008 that are new to the show this year?

I think what you're going to see this year are publishers doing a few more things that in the past were really only reserved for media and those in the industry. For instance, I know that Ubisoft, EA, Bioware and Bethesda are all doing some pretty slick things in the main theatre – publishers are understanding just how important the hardcore gamer is, and honestly, it's great for everyone involved.

How has the city of Seattle been to work with since PAX is going to be a huge event for the downtown area when it is running?
Seattle's been awesome... of course we've sold out nearly every hotel in downtown at this point, so I'd imagine that may have something to do with it.

Do you feel that PAX helps Seattle's economy and if so do you see area businesses helping out more in the future?

Every year we get some sort of report from the city estimating the economic impact the show does – I believe it was somewhere around $15 million for the entirety of the 2007 show. (I have to stress though, WE don't get that – that's everything from meals to hotel rooms to taxi cabs, etc.)

PAX is geared toward gaming but do you see it going the San Diego Comic-Con route covering all aspects of pop culture?

Absolutely not. Comic-Con is a huge success for what it is – a media show. PAX is about gaming culture and the community that follows it – that focus is what's led us to where we are now so there's no real reason to mess with it.

Has planning for PAX 2009 started already and if so can you give us a hint about any expansion plans for the mothership show?

Every year the philosophy is to cut what doesn't work and do more of or fine tune what does. One thing for 2009 I can tell you is that we'll be getting more space!

Recently you guys announced plans to team up with Reed Exhibitions to launch a east coast version of PAX. How important was it for you to expand the show to be held for east coast gamers?

I would say the "When are you doing an East Coast PAX" question gets asked more frequently than any other, so it was really a no-brainer for us. We actually tried to shoot for 2008 and were doing site visits and working with local governments but realized we just didn't have the manpower to pull it off, hence the partnership with Reed.

Is the plan to hold the event sometime in the spring and if so do you think PAX East could become a place for game publishers to make some major announcements since they typically hold their major press events in April and May?


Finally how do you guys stay grounded and make sure that PAX is for the fans first?

I'm always surprised by this question, because honestly this is probably the easiest part of the entire show. We're a company of hardcore gamers, so everything we do, whether that be content programming, green-lighting exhibitors or even something as indifferent as managing lines, goes through the "is-this-fun-and/or-interesting-to-us" litmus test. Tons of stuff gets cut, but by opening day, what emerges is something that hopefully people will find compelling from start to finish

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