Con-sequences

Just had Pacificon (ConQuest) 2010.  Where to begin with the problems?

Let’s begin with getting something important out of the way.  When ConQuest moved to its present location, I had low expectations.  I hated its previous location and mostly hated the Clarion, too.  Though, occasionally, I’d enjoy the con.  I quite enjoyed its first year in Santa Clara.  I did some different things, some interesting things, some things I wanted to do.  Hasn’t been that way since.  And, to a significant extent, that’s my fault.  I’ve grown tired of cons in general and, especially, the local cons.  Too much been there, done that.

However, I want cons to succeed.  I have fond memories and I’m still a big fan of Gen Con.  I could be more of a fan of local cons if I made an effort.  So, I’m going to list some problems in the order that they come to mind and what should be done about them.

1.  Respect

ConQuest is notorious for not caring about its gamemasters.  Few years ago, there was a huge RPG problem.  There’s no priority sign-ups for GMs (or, maybe there is!, see below about lack of organization).  This year, I submitted a game.  I found out I was running something only because I asked a friend who put me in touch with a friend of his who forwarded my questions to people and who let me know that he thought things were okay … the day before the con … because not once did anyone who was actually responsible for my game request ever contact me.

Annoying GMs is not wise.  Yes, there are plenty of people who take advantage of the system by running trivial stuff to get in for free or who don’t show up or whatever.  But, you need people to run games.  Why?  Without enough people running, you don’t have enough events – without enough events, there’s no real value to the revenue sources to attend.  I understand that giving away entry for someone only contributing 6 hours to the con is not terribly cost effective, especially when a number of people might be gaming the system.  I’ll get to economics later, though.  Here, I’m more concerned with communication, and the like.

2.  Professionalism

I’m going to throw organization in here, too.  The website and booklet schedules are horrid, being virtually unreadable as to what events are happening, when they are happening.  Then, nobody bothered to tell me what the sign-up process was nor did anybody check to see if I was running my game.  Besides the obvious, not tracking who is doing what for how many people leads to GM flakiness and misapplication of resources.

I heard that a 20 player (I joked that was 75% of the con attendees) LARP had no GM.  The person who was supposed to do it was the same person who flaked in a previous ConQuest.  My games are often poorly attended, so I can see a lack of desirability of scheduling my events, but the flakes of the world need to be eliminated as they ruin people’s experiences.

The con booklet was cheap.  I understand why it was cheap – cons are not the path to monetary gain.  But, besides being poor marketing, the cheapness of the con booklet also came with a lack of information.  Nowhere did I see where it was explained how to sign-up for stuff.  In order to know that the California ballroom, where open gaming was moved to on Monday, was the same room as dealers, miniatures, boardgames, one had to read the summary of where stuff like miniatures were at.  The map was tolerable to me, since I knew where everything was likely to be, but it’s stunning that in Silicon Valley, in a nerd hobby, that you can’t get someone to put in parantheses or some such what the hotel’s names of the rooms are.

What do real conventions do?  They have searchable schedules on their websites.  They index events so that you can find them in the booklet.  They mark useful features on maps.  They explain how the convention works.  There was some sort of “free market”.  I never found out what that was, though I assume it was a flea market where the space was free.  They track who runs events and how many people play.  They banish flake GMs.  They market intelligently.  They try to grow segments.

Funny thing.  Someone was supposed to run a dead CCGs event, advertised bringing B5, Anachronism, and Lord of the Rings.  Of course, he didn’t show up.  Perfect metaphor?  Fantastic prank?  Whatever it was, it meant I did no scheduled events at the con.  I had an event no one showed up for.  I ran an event for people I knew.  I played 2.5-3 hours of a boardgame, which I enjoyed, run by someone I’ve known for a long time and whom I can game with on any Tuesday.  I played one match of Type P, a format I’ve essentially lost all interest in.  I played two games of Ultimate Combat! with someone who had no interest.  In total, I spent maybe 9 hours gaming/running games.  Why did I bother going at all?

3.  Money

Do I truly know what it takes to make money running a con?  Having never run one, I might be talking out of my ass, but maybe I can put my Masters in economics to some use.

Local cons grew up on RPGs.  Maybe miniatures and wargaming were important, too, but whatever.  There were no CCGs, no LARPs once upon a time.  And, maybe there wasn’t much in the way of boardgames.  RPGs are not cost effective, certainly not how local cons do them.  Sixish people taking up a hotel room for 8 hours is low return.  I have no interest in getting rid of them, so I’m kind of happy people don’t care that much about the lack of value. 

But, there are things that have value.  Pacificon had the West Coast Boardgame Championships – good.  LARPs – probably good – one hall for hopefully 20+ people for around as long as a RPG.  CCGs, though, were shit.  They are shit at DunDraCon, too.  Even at KublaCon, it’s dropped off immensely, and Kubla came out of Manafest, a CCG convention.  Now, CCGs ditched cons, not the other way around.  CCGers were often only at the con to play one particular game and didn’t want to pay the con price when CCG events could be easily held at either game stores, halls, or hotels (for major events).  Okay, CCGs don’t particularly want to be at cons.  That doesn’t mean cons should ignore the tremendous value of CCGs.  While few CCGs might produce 20+ person tournaments, any 20+ person tournament was three times the number of people for a RPG in barely more space in half the time.  Niche CCGs that get 4-8 people?  Lot of them can be played in a tournament in 4 hours.  Better to run one RPG in 8 hours or two CCG tournaments with comparable players in the same time period, taking up the same amount of space?  How about how limited events require people to spend money, which might make the dealers happy?

But, one says, the CCGers don’t care.  So, make them care.  What is the real value of a con?  I can play boardgames probably 5 times a week in the area.  I can play CCG tournaments for a particular CCG probably weekly.  I was playing RPGs at least weekly for a while and about average that.  The value of a con is in what you can’t do otherwise. 

EVENTS and not just events are what we are looking for.  Specialty events – there’s a reason that RPGs still have such a following at cons – many RPGs are hard to find players for.  Okay, Magic has its timetable for championships that often won’t sync with a con.  Make up events that sound special.  Games Caucus used to do a free Magic tournament – I ended up with 2-3 starters and various boosters from one of them (an amusing story I should find a blog post for).  For all of those struggling CCGs and those that aren’t, make sure you have some sort of championships.  Give interesting prizes.  Have interesting rules.  One of the greatest losses was when the L5R crowd stopped doing Kotei at cons.  Sure, screaming banzai annoyed people not into it, but it provided energy, passion, excitement.  Even Kubla, where it still feels like stuff is happening, I don’t get any energy.

Someone might argue “Hey, what about boardgames?  People are playing those.  Those are cost effective.”  Sure, and I can play boardgames nearly any day of the week.  Yes, they are doing fine at the cons and boardgames are really the hot place to be these days in tabletop gaming from everything that I see, but how many more people could you get if you made events special?  How about, how many more people could you get if you actually made an effort to match people’s interests?  There are boardgames I’d be willing to try, but instead, I just hung around people I knew who were content to play Battlestar Galactica and Arkham Horror, two games I don’t hate, but that I also care nothing about playing ever again.

Make everything seem important.  Then, maybe people will consider it important.  Then, maybe they will show up.

I feel like the cons are dying.  Now, that could be because I can’t seem to get into RPGs I want to play and there are no CCGs anymore.  But, I’m questioning why I even bother going to some of these cons.  The primary value I’m getting is seeing people I rarely see.  That’s fading as people move on.  Maybe, it’s just me.  I’ve aged.  I have that strong been there, done that element.  I game a lot more outside of cons.  I game a lot more of games I want to play outside of cons.

As usual, I’m sure I’m forgetting some key points, but I’ve lost steam on ranting, and I think I hit enough of the points.

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3 Responses to Con-sequences

  1. Azel says:

    *Sigh*, I miss gaming… But even during my high point, when I would get into cons for free (because I had to work at one of the retailers), I found cons very hit or miss due to a lack of professionalism. In a way, it almost seemed as bad as an underfunded high school putting on a drama production — someone had the master plan, but it was chaos behind the stage.

    What I always thought would have been a good idea for conventions was business cards. That way people who would travel many miles could network by handing out business cards to people who they clicked with. I’m sure plenty of people already carry their own business cards, but the idea of “gaming” business cards that specified name, preferred contact info, and preferred games sounded good to me. Maybe a print-up of a page of 8 cards that are printed with the con’s logo, cut out, and handed to you with your ticket?

    I am curious how do you define worthwhile event packages. Are we talking about interesting pre-constructed scenarios? Or special one-of-a-kind prize packages (local artisan crafted VTES edges)? Or perhaps just straight up valuable prize content? Or maybe even interconnected prize offerings (win L5R CCG and with a choice of X boosters and/or L5R RPG module support)? Basically just brainstorm what interesting rules and packages and see what attracts people?

    In my convalescence, I think I’ll draft a con prospectus just to get some event planning practice. It’s been ages since I’ve used those skills I learned at school. I’m sick of being sick, so this should keep my mind off of things! One day I will show my results for constructive criticism… after the surgery.

  2. Brad says:

    I suspect the decrease in attendance at Pacificon/CQ this year is d/t the poor economy. My understanding is that volunteer slots were scarce (Kevin’s situation), probably for the same reason. I was disapointed that there were fewer hard-core wargames events than in previous years. Also, the SNAFU regarding your VTES game, surely depressed attendance at that event. I normally go to all your tourney’s at con’s, but this year, I wasn’t psyched to play as I didn’t find out about it until late, and then, built a crappy deck on Friday morning, not at all looking forward to playing the dreck deck.
    That being said, I did greatly enjoy the con. Unlike you, I don’t have the opportunity to play games whenever I want. I’m limited to solo play (about an hour a day max) and once or twice a month. Con’s, for me, and I suspect many others, are a chance to play for four days. Also, even though I generaly game and hang out with the people I see monthly, I get to spend more time with them, and to also play with folks I rarely see or who are new.
    I like the flea (free) market, dealer’s room and just the chance to get away from reality for a long weekend.

  3. Brandon says:

    I was watching a documentary on the effect of chain bookstores like Boarders on independents and it reminded me of what you said about game stores. Before online retailers were very good at selling games, game stores could be almost as inefficient as they wanted. They could lose money on stuff, over-staff, and be generally bad at sales. Once competition hit, those who couldn’t really behave in a businesslike way went out of business. Those that want to survive must face reality that they are likely to have their prices undercut and need to offer more than just product.

    Maybe gaming conventions are the same way. Maybe they were so used to being one of the very few recognized meccas for gaming that they failed to adapt, failed to address the question, “people can play games elsewhere, why should they play them here?”

    I like your idea about unique prizes for CCGs(and other games, for that matter). When I went to a commercial LAN party years ago, I was impressed with the involvement of companies trying to promote and sell their products. Food was also available, helping people get the most of their time at the LAN party. There are a lot of things that can be done. Like White Wolf/CCP, we’ll see if or how cons adapt.

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