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A move to help Boston level up

Video game makers hope growing expo will help raise industry’s profile in region

Workers prepared the Penny Arcade Expo at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. Workers prepared the Penny Arcade Expo at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. (Photos By Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / March 11, 2011

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This weekend’s Penny Arcade Expo, also known as PAX East, could elevate Boston’s reputation as a major center for video game development while providing three days of thrills for more than 60,000 fans of video, card, and board games.

Several of the biggest game companies at the sold-out show, at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center this weekend, have Massachusetts roots.

Harmonix Music Systems of Cambridge, creator of the Guitar Hero and Rock Band music games, will be there; so will Turbine Inc. in Needham, maker of The Lord of the Rings Online; and Irrational Games of Quincy, which produced the best-selling adventure game BioShock. PAX East also provides a major venue for smaller companies to show off their wares, some of them local.

“It will certainly have a positive impact because it’s a huge show and it shines the spotlight on the whole area for several days,’’ said Jon Radoff, chief executive of Disruptor Beam Inc., a new company in Somerville that’s creating games for the social network Facebook.

The weekend show is the East Coast version of PAX, a gaming convention launched in Seattle in 2004 by comic strip artists Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik. When PAX East made its Boston debut at the Hynes Convention Center last year, more than 52,000 people turned up, far more than the facility could easily handle. Since then, Holkins and Krahulik have agreed to hold the show at the much larger Boston Convention and Exhibition Center through 2013.

James E. Rooney, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, said his agency is trying to negotiate a long-term contract that would make PAX East an annual Boston tradition.

“It looks like it’ll become the largest electronic gaming show in this country’s history,’’ said Rooney, predicting that PAX East will become larger than the show’s Seattle edition. “It looks like it’ll just continue to grow.’’

Rooney used the show to support the convention center authority’s argument for expanding the center to handle bigger events, the subject of a study being prepared for Governor Deval Patrick. PAX East attendance has been limited to 21,000 visitors per day, forcing show organizers to halt ticket sales on Tuesday.

PAX East cofounder Holkins said that Boston is exactly where he wanted the show to be. “We preferred the Hynes Center, with the option to grow into the BCEC, over anything we saw anywhere else — New York included,’’ he wrote in an e-mail. “Plus, every time I’ve been to Boston, I’ve loved the town. . . . I felt at home there immediately, and I am not a person for whom such things come easily.’’

Highlights of the show will include the first public showing of “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning,’’ a new video game from 38 Studios LLC, the company founded by former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling. Last year, Schilling agreed to move his company from Maynard to Providence in exchange for a $75 million loan guarantee from Rhode Island. Still, Schilling will debut his game just a couple of miles from Fenway Park. “This is our backyard,’’ Schilling said. “Probably won’t have a more captive audience.’’

Yesterday, at a conference sponsored by MIT’s Sloan School of Management, local gaming executives said the publicity from PAX East might offset Boston’s limitations as a venue for game development.

Disruptor Beam’s Radoff at first called Boston “one of the best places in the world where you can start a company,’’ but then complained about the scarcity of investment capital.

“The financing environment just kind of stinks here for financing a consumer products company,’’ he said, adding that it was hard to find suitable workers. “There’s not a lot of serious reasons you’d start a game development company in Massachusetts.’’

Ken Levine, creative director at Irrational Games, griped about the lack of a state program to provide tax credits to video game developers, although a bill to provide such breaks is currently before the Legislature. Levine said that the state’s attitude toward the gaming industry “goes from a hostile to a benignly ignorant environment,’’ and added, “We’re really on our own.’’

Still, Robert Ferrari, vice president of publishing and business development at Sanrio Co.’s video game operation in Boston, said the popularity of PAX East could increase the political clout of developers. “I think it’s going to have incredible impact,’’ he said.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

PAX East
Today through Sunday at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center
Attendance: 63,000 in total (show sold out).
Features exhibits from dozens of video game developers, as well as makers of card and board games; debuts of new computer games; conferences with gaming experts; and “nerdcore’’ music concerts.
Game-play areas allow visitors to compete against each other.