Thursday, July 07, 2011

Origins 2011

I have been doing a lot of traveling, attending the (fifth?) annual UK Game Expo in Birmingham, England, and the 36th annual Origins Game Fair in Columbus OH.

I attended some of the very early Origins, and have been going again since 2004, but I skipped it last year. That was to save money, and because the convention seemed to be "diminishing", with some well-known game publishers not coming and the number of exhibitors contracting. I don't go to conventions to play games, I go to talk with people, especially people in the business, and to conduct some seminars. The attendance at Origins peaked at nearly 15,000 unique visitors, but in recent years it's in the 10,000s despite addition of an inexpensive day ticket for people who only want to see the exhibits/vendors. Contrast GenCon at 27,000; the relatively new UK Game Expo had about 2,500 unique visitors this year. WBC is over 1,500 and PrezCon over 600, but those are entirely different kinds of conventions, "tournament conventions". Many people say that Origins is a game-playing convention, but there are few tournaments. This year my impression was that there was less gaming going on than two years ago, and certainly the convention occupied a smaller part of the convention center than in 2009 and earlier.

Fortunately I found plenty of interesting people to talk with this time. Unfortunately, I had problems with my seminars. For three years before 2010 I had given seminars about game design at Origins. This year I put in for four one-hour talks instead of two longer talks. My schedule was as I requested in the master event list at the end of April, but when I arrived at the convention on Friday morning and checked the printed list, I found that instead of one seminar Friday, two Saturday, and one Sunday, I was listed for one Friday and four Saturday (including a second session of the one on Friday). The times of two had been changed, and the date and time of a third had been changed.

This was very annoying, and I have reason to believe someone who wanted a game design seminar track changed my schedule unilaterally. I'm still trying to get to the bottom of this.

There were also little mistakes. One attendee told me their ticket said my talk lasted three hours, even though there was another talk in the room the next hour, and even though I had another one two hours after the first. Another had a ticket for a 7 PM start to a seminar (one she'd paid for) but the actual starting time was 6, so she and other people missed an hour. My general impression from my experiences, and talking with others, is that the convention organization/administration was not as good as in the past.

In the end I did the seminars as listed, as they didn't clash with any appointments I had made, and had good turnouts, several dozens each time. Four hours of talking loudly enough to be heard in a large room might be daunting for some, but my experience as a teacher makes it tolerable, though it was NOT what I wanted to be doing on Saturday.

There were fewer free seminars than in the past. The "War College" puts on quite a few seminars that charge $2-8. I don't quite approve of paying a substantial sum to attend a convention, then paying more to attend parts of the convention, so I don't go to these.

I attended a few of the free ones. Dennis Pipes from Texas gave a very practical talk about DMing (refereeing) RPGs ("GM Mastery"). Even at 9AM (not a gamers' sort of time) the attendance was good. (One of my seminars was moved to 9AM, and attendance was good, so maybe 9AM isn't as bad as it used to be.) James Ernest of CheapAss fame, who has had 150+ games published, talked for an hour about how he goes about design (which is very different from how I do it, not surprisingly). Then he, Mike Selinker, Ken Hite, and Dominic McDowall-Thomas (Cubicle 7 RPGs) had a panel discussion about game design. Ernest and Selinker have been involved in video game design as well, and told lots of interesting stories. I also sat for a while in one of Ian Schreiber's seminars (Ian being the other person who consistently does game design seminars at Origins).

There was not much of a teacher's track this year, and teachers are now charged more than half price, rather than free. One teacher attended most of my talks because she's trying to design an educational game about spending money wisely. At one point I was talking about stuff you don't want to put into 21st century games, and one was math--people don't do math in their heads (if at all) very well any more. "Heavens," she said, "it's all math!" referring to her game.

If there was an art show this year--I saw a list of artists--it had gone somewhere where I didn't see it. Nor did I check out the many RPG sessions, which as usual was away from the convention center's main section.

Speaking of "not free" there was a boardgame room that cost extra (and a not-for-free war room somewhere that I never saw). I guess the extra cost was from access to a game library? Except there was another room where people played boardgames, with a library, that was no extra cost. I didn't get it, in the end. At any rate I was allowed into the boardgame room to watch, and spent more than an hour watching Defenders of the Realm being played one evening. This is a cooperative game, physically attractive, but I'm not sure there was much to it for the length (evidently more than two hours). Pandemic's virtue is that it's quick.

Origins continued to exhibit striking demographics. There were very few black people, few obviously Hispanic (though I don't think that means much), and a minority of women. But it seemed as though women were more numerous than in the past. I did my typical unscientific survey, sitting at the entrance to the exhibit hall and counting people. Which showed me that the percentages haven't actually changed significantly (females decreasing, perhaps!). But my sample space isn't really large enough to make this a highly reliable survey.

23% female
3% black
(including two people who were both female and black)

24.8% female
3.5% black

28.5% female.
zero percent black

I spent a few hours talking with Robert Mosimann of Excalibre Games. He bought the company decades ago, but was not an active publisher for a decade. He is back now with four games, reissues of well-known games of the past. One is Ancient Conquest I, which provided a little of the inspiration for Britannia. There's also The Conquerors by Richard Berg, A Mighty Fortress, and Battle for Stalingrad by John Hill. Pieces are the typical half inch printed-in-rows arrangements of the "wargame ghetto" as I call it. The boxes have a slick surface that should wear much better than typical cardboard. The rules are printed on high-quality slick paper. And the boards are printed on heavy coated paper. The prices are very reasonable, lower than I'd expect. Robert only had printer's proofs (which look just like the printed game) at the convention, and expects to get the actual shipment of games in a few weeks. He sells through Decision Games (Strategy & Tactics).

I also talked quite a bit with Travis Worthington of Indie Boards and Games. They publish Resistance, which I've watched being played quite a bit. It is a brilliant solution to the two major problems of Mafia/Werewolf, that a non-playing moderator is needed,and that players are eliminated. If you like this kind of role-guessing game, you should look into Resistance. I was trying to find solutions to these problems, and after seeing Resistance I stopped.

There was the usual quota of exhibitors who were obvious self-publishers. Typically these people come with one or two games, full of enthusiasm, and find that attendees aren't nearly as enthusiastic. (Even if the games are really good, there are SO many games coming out that it's hard to get attention, especially in comparison with the big publishers.) They are rarely back the next year because they lose a lot of money on the experience. This contrasts with the UK, where there are no big publishers, so the little ones (if well run) can get attention and prosper, and come to the Expo every year.

I don't know who won the Origins Awards, I'm sure that information is available elsewhere.

Rumors about Scheduling
I heard some rumors that I'll pass on. One is that Origins will be moved to the end of May, and combined with GAMA's trade show that has been in Las Vegas earlier in the year. This will bring some big companies that don't attend Origins, such as FantasyFlightGames and Wizards of the Coast. That will offset the influence of Mayfair, by far the largest exhibitor thanks to the space they rented for demo games. (One exhibitor estimated Mayfair had $50,000 worth of space.) When I first started coming to this Columbus version of Origins, there were several large exhibitors (Wizards and Wizkids come to mind); now Mayfair is the only really large one. (Hasbro ignores these conventions. They're in a different market.)

It's always hard to judge how sales are going. Origins booths are pretty expensive, I'm told, as much as Essen with its over 100,000 attendance, which is a reason why some publishers don't come. Publishers are happy to break even. But the people I talked to thought sales were not good.

Why would Origins move to another time? Rumor has it that GenCon is moving to early July, not immediately but in the future, something to do with unavailability of the Indianapolis Convention Center. Indianapolis and Columbus are only 168 miles apart as the crow flies, and my guess is that the majority of attendees at these conventions come from withint 200 miles, so they are working toget much of the same clientele. If GenCon moves, Origins has to do something to reduce the competition. The other rumor I heard was that Mayfair was pushing to move Origins to Baltimore, with its better road, rail, and air connections--and 509 miles from Indy. The problem is that this requires a new set of "local" attendees and volunteer helpers. I was told that when Origins moved from the east coast to Columbus, it took several years to recover. Presumably the same would be true if moving back.

Unlike most anyone else, I provide a download site for the slides I make for my talks. (I've never had a projector to project them, though surprisingly I was offered one for one talk this time.) I also record myself and post the audio, not a professional job (I use a Sansa MP3 player to record) but good enough. You can find all these at
The talks were:
The Business of Game Design
Starting a Game Design
Completing a Game Design
Of course you can design a game, but can you design a good one?

1 comment:

Dan Eastwood said...

The event tickets at Origins were definitely fouled up this year. The start times were right, but the ending times were for the wrong time and wrong day.

I missed all your talks this year due to other events, but I'll try to take advantage of the links/materials you provided. Thanks!