Category Archives: Conventions

Gah, Origins!

I only just looked at the Calendar and discovered that Origins has snuck up on me.

I love the summer conventions, but since the birth of my son, it’s been simply impractical to try to go to both Origins and Gencon. Each one represents a week away form my wife and kid, and what’s more, a week of extra parenting duty for my wife. So far as I’m concerned, she’s a saint to put up with it for one convention, and she already put up with it for PAX-East. So, given that, I face the annual decision of Gencon vs. Origins, and I almost always choose Origins.

This is a fairly idiosyncratic choice. Gencon is absolutely bigger and more important. If you’ve got a product to launch, Gencon is the place to sell it. If you need to professionally network or see things you’ll see nowhere else, Gencon is the place. Origins is simply not as big a deal (though it’s still a pretty big deal), but that’s part of the appeal for me, and that’s doubly true this year. This Origins, I’ve got nothing to sell. No new releases to promote, no booth to man – I’ll be going as a civilian.

Now, I could talk about a lot of fine differences in culture between the two conventions, or wax rhapsodic about the food available at Origins, but the reality is much simpler for me. At Gencon, I do a lot of stuff and see a lot of people, but at Origins, I actually get to talk to people. That’s huge. Other things like playing games or seminars are a lot of fun, and I’ll seek them out, but the heart of any convention for me is any time I get to sit down in a circle with a handful of people who are passionate about games and just shoot the breeze.

So, anyway, I’ll be there. I’d tell you to look or me, but I’m an overweight white guy with a beard and glasses, so I tend to blend in like a ninja in this highly specialized environment. But if you do happen to find me, say hi. I am not hard to get talking.

Anyway, that means I need to go into this weekend with thoughts of packing. I put an unreasonable amount of thought into my choice of bag for the convention floor, but dammit, a man must have priorities!

PAX Vs the World

Ok, so in my universe there are only so many important convention. First, since I’m on the East Coast of the US, the cons on the west coast are pretty much right out. This is a shame because my favorite convention in the universe – Ambercon Northwest – takes place outside of Portland, and it also means the various Endgame minicons are of the table. So it goes.

There are also some smaller cons that I make a priority of, notably Dexcon and Dreamation up in New Jersey. I like the atmosphere, I like the people, and they’re an opportunity to play, so they go in their own bucket.

But beyond those are the big deal cons, and historically they’ve been Origins, Gencon and Dragoncon. The classic advice is that you go to Origins to play (or to see people), Gencon to sell and Dragoncon to drink. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I’ve found it holds up.

When PAX (now PAX Prime) showed up, it didn’t really shake things up too much. From my perspective as a tabletop gamer, it was mostly in a different sphere, absorbing the debris of E3. People came back from it with reports of an excellent convention and a broad range of nerdery, and that was nice, but didn’t move my needle much. Even if it became a bigger hub for tabletop, its position on the West Coast put it out of my sphere.

But then came PAX East, and things got upended. People came back with stories of a geek mecca, full of video games and technology, yes, but also hours of fun for other members of the geek tribe. And Luke Crane and the Burning Wheel guys reported sales numbers in the Gencon range. I was super curious, as was Fred, so our trip up this year was sort of dual purpose. First, we wanted to go and have an awesome time (we did!) but we also wanted to know if this was something we might want to look at from a business perspective, maybe doing a booth or the like.

As a company, Evil Hat hasn’t yet made any decisions, so don’t read this as me speaking for that, but I definitely have some personal impressions.

When I can only go to one summer con, I will generally choose Origins. This is not much of a business decision. Origins sales are anemic and it’s not a great place for a new release. It is, however, a wonderful convention for seeing people and enjoying their company along with excellent food and atmosphere. Gencon is more work – it’s bigger and it’s a better sales opportunity, but I find the time to sit and talk needs to be taken in stolen moments and out of the way corners. If I had a big new release, Gencon is probably the right choice for it, but otherwise…

Don’t get me wrong. Gencon is a great experience. It’s the biggest collection of the tabletop tribes I know of, and if you’re willing to put in the work to deal with scheduling, then it can be an incredibly full convention of basically non-stop activity. It’s got a great seminar track (maybe the best in gaming) and it’s the place that gaming companies are likely to make releases and announcements. But it is very much the meeting of the tribes.

PAX East (and I presume PAX Prime) is a different beast. It’s the convention of the broader geek nation, and that means less uniformity, but it also means fewer dividing lines. The people who come to Gencon and buy your stuff because they know it’s going to be there. The people at PAX buy your stuff because they _don’t_. They are open to the idea of your game, but not married to a lot of the baggage around it.

To me, that’s pretty freaking fantastic. And it’s a reason that, as a publisher, I definitely want to have some sort of presence at PAX, even if it’s just one among many at the IPR booth. For all that it’s a sales avenue, it is an even more powerful marketing avenue. We like to talk about growing the hobby and reaching new people, and I genuinely am unsure if there’s a better way to do it.

But that’s also scary. Thinking about showing games at PAX reminds me of exactly how much we take for granted when we sell within the established community. There’s a lot you don’t need to do when you are selling to the converted. And as such, there’s a reasons that did well are the ones with a rock-solid demo-centric ethos (most notably Steve Jackson Games and the Burning Wheel folks). PAX is a con that gives you the chance to show that your game is awesome, but isn’t going to take your word for it.

But all that’s through the lens of a publisher. As a player and a nerd, I can’t imagine skipping the next PAX. The fun is just there, lying on the ground, waiting to be picked up. At Gencon (and even Origins) I feel like I miss out on a lot of stuff because I’m not in the right place at the right time. PAX felt like all places and times were right.

Bottom line -PAX isn’t going to replace Gencon anytime soon. The cons have different priorities and needs, and frankly, I think it would be utterly toxic to PAX to try to absorb too much tabletop. But PAX is raising the bar for Gencon and other big conventions, especially in terms of quality of experience, and it is shaping up as a critical marketing opportunity for game companies. Even if it doesn’t go on your calendar, it’s going to be the con to watch.

PAX Downsides

Given the number of wonderful things I’ve had to say, I should probably give a little bit of airtime to the problems with PAX. There weren’t many, but they are worth mentioning.

I’ve mentioned that food was a little rough. There were actually decent options if you wanted to leave the convention hall, but who would want to do that? Most of the choices were expensive and of dubious quality, but the funniest bit was in the extra food court. I think there had been a last minute attempt to bring in more food options, setting up a new food court down at the lower levels in another of the huge rooms. It was a good idea, but I would guess that the available options were limited, as the food trucks they’d rolled in were all basically carnival food. Thus, we gained $5 pizza slices, fried dough and ice cream. I’m hoping that next year they’ll have more time to plan and maybe bring in some real food trucks, assuming Boston _has_ food trucks. I don’t actually know if it does.

It is also a convention of lines. Lines for events, and lines on the expo floor. If you want to see something, you are going to wait in line. If you’re in one of these lines, especially towards the back, this kind of sucks. The problem is that I’m really not sure what the alternative is. Every model of pre-scheduling or smart-ticketing I can think of has exploitable loopholes, and this is exactly the crowd to exploit them.

Booth babes. I had not been expecting to see any booth babes on the floor based on what I’d read about the show, so I was a little surprised to see some. That said, they were mostly inoffensive. The ones selling hardware seemed knowledgeable and weren’t too overdone. The costumed ones handing out bags were in high-quality, in theme, non-skimpy costumes. The Duke Nukem ones were kind of shameless, but I can only complain so much – it’s Duke Nukem, the FPS with full functioning urinals. I’m not expecting a lot of class. Also, frankly, you had to wait through a hell of a line to get anywhere near the Duke Nukem booth babes, so all in all, fine. I think my sole objection were the ones mixing drinks at one large open booth, in large part because the announcer was REALLY pushing the booth babe-ness (“Talk to our girls! It’s not like real life! They WANT to talk to you!”). So, points off for that, but only so many. It’s worth some credit that it was so obnoxious because it was so anomalous.

Lastly, Boston wasn’t ready for the crowd. One thing I dig about Gencon is that all the surrounding businesses know that they’re getting an influx of nerds. We’re mostly well behaved, but we want to do strange things like play games in bars. Indianapolis knows there’s money in this, and is very friendly towards is. Boston was taken by surprise, but given the size of the convention, I hope they adapt quickly. This year, I felt like we were seen as a disruption to the business travelers, and that’s never much fun.

OK, so there are the complaints. All in all, they come to a very small pile compared to the awesome, but I felt like it would be unfair not to vent a little bit.

Lessons Learned For PAX

While I had a fantastic time, there are a few things I need to think about in terms of handling differently.

  • I envy the hair. Fred’s very blue hair made him easily identifiable and findable, and had I not been paired with him, I suspect it would have been much harder to hook up with people. Being an overweight guy with a beard and glasses is not quite the camouflage it is at Gencon, but it’s still not much of a distinction. Worth putting some thought into a readily identifiable flag of some sort.
  • I need a lighter kit. My Leverage kit (only ran once because I had no juice beyond that) was way too heavy and large, demanding a backpack. Inconvenient, but addressable with better planning.
  • Bags are ubiquitous. I’d been a little worried that carrying a bag would be inconvenient, but about three-quarters of show goers either had their own bag or were carrying one they’d picked up on the expo floor. So, no problem with that. Just need one well suited to the con. Cross-body vertical bags seem the best compromise, and I must give a nod to Logan Bonner’s enviably awesome bag in this regard.
  • The lines are long, and you need to bring something along with that expectation. A portable game system (like a DS) is probably a good choice, but line-friendly games (like Zombie Dice) can work just as well or maybe better.
  • If you see something on the expo floor on the first day and think “maybe” then assume it will not be there when you get back. Make your purchase or make your peace.
  • This was not a cheap con to attend. Hotel and food were both non-trivial expenses, made a bit worse by the fact that the area very clearly had no idea what it was in for. However, the con was right by a T stop (Boston’s metro) and things don’t start in the morning until 10:00, which suggests that this would not be a hard con to attend remotely, probably saving a few bucks.
  • I need to figure out how to pack sandwiches. Lunch was the meal of doom, since it generally meant choosing options inside the convention center, which ranged from “Overpriced and ok” to “Disturbing” to “Carnie Food”. Breakfast and dinner were fine, but lunch needs a plan.

The PAX East Fun Factory

PAX East was a fun factory.
That seems like a kind of jokey thing to say, but I mean it in a very literal way. PAX East was a tremendously enjoyable convention, and most of the reasons for that can be traced to how it’s run and the decisions that went into it. From my perspective, those practices and decisions are in line with those that make for maximum efficiency in factory production. Or maybe network engineering.
First, there’s a lot of “wasted space” including an entire HUGE room used only in the morning for standing in line. PAX East does not take advantage of all the space available to it.
But what looks like waste at first glance is really excess capacity, and very well managed capacity at that. It’s designed to handle the maximum load, not the average load, and that’s just good design. It means there’s always room for things to happen, and that’s important later. In contrast, when you have a con that uses all the space available, things break when something overflows or runs late. Problems cascade into the rest of the system. Excess capacity keeps that from happening.
Second, PAX has a strange schedule. There are only a very small number of events, and demand is such that the queue for one usually begins at least an hour before the event. That creates a lot of friction in getting into events, and seems like a terribe way to run a ship. But again, all is not as it appears.
The small number of events is absolutely a chokepoint, but the instictive solution (add more events) doesn’t change that. It just creates more, harder to manage chokepoints. Instead, PAX East elevates the chokepoints, putting them front and center. The queues seem inefficient when compared to a ticketing system, but a little thought about that (including questions like when you would distribute tickets) makes it clear that they work quite well. If you _really_ want to go to a panel, you can do so. It will only cost you time.
Still, if that was all there was to it, I wouldn’t consider it too much of a solution, so of course there’s a catch. See, by elevating the chokepoint that the events represent, PAX implicitly acknowledges that not everyone can be entertained by the events, and so it is necessary that convention itself be entertaining enough (or provide the opportunities for entertainment) to keep people occupied. To that end, there are numerous resources that range from an old style arcade to a console gaming room to the aforementioned tabletop gaming area. This is where that extra capacity pays off because these places can support people seeking the “passive” fun of the convention (rather than the “active” fun of events).
For people who have gone to Gencon or another highly scheduled gaming convention, consider the comparison. If you don’t have a scheduled event, what do you do (besides buy things?) I’m sure there are some answers, but I admit. most of my first answers had nothing to do with the convention.
There’s another upshot worth mentioning. By limiting the number of official events, but providing excess capacity and tools for communication (like the PAX forums) it encouraged informal scheduling. It also meant that scheduling was the responsibility of the person or group running the event. From private invitations to the WOTC run events, these were not the convention’s responsibility to schedule (though the convention did view itself as responsible for _supporting_ these events – a key distinction). A cynic might view that as a invitation or disaster, but it seems to turn out that empowered geeks self organize pretty well.
Not flawlessly though. That’s where the last bit of magic comes in. By training and empowering their volunteers, PAX has effectively created factory foremen with its enforcers. Like foremen, they have the tools and the impetus to keep everything moving, and they do so with a smile (and let me give a brief shout out to Zuki and Meatshield). It’s not that every problem they solve is a big one – most aren’t – but the reality is that most big problems begin with a small problem that has spun up out of control. Putting enforcers in a position to make the small fixes means the big fixes are less likely to be necessary.
Now, these are just a few observations about how things were run. I’m sure others will occur to me, and there are others I completely failed to notice. But from these alone, I’m really impressed at the depth of capacity managment thinking that has clearly gone into things. There are a stack of things that PAX East seems to does wrong (Wasted space! Bad scheduling!) but actually does very right indeed.