Thursday, September 06, 2012

Comparing this year’s game conventions

This is not a “convention report,” because I don’t care about many of the events at conventions such as the Origins Awards, and I didn’t bother to attend the really big D&D Next event at GenCon, and I don’t much care about the latest new games.  I’m interested in certain aspects of things and that’s what I’m going to talk about.

Generalization about four conventions: GenCon is a story convention - not just story in games.  WBC and PrezCon are wargame cons.  Origins is a non-story, mostly non-wargame, game con.

GenCon is a convention where stories are king.  Aside from games you have many fiction writers, and costuming/anime/film, mostly in those five ancillary hotels that I never visit (I stick to the convention center).  Nichelle Nicols (Uhuru from original Star Trek) was the major (“media”) guest of honor.  Brandon Sanderson, author of the Mistborne books and also the writer who completed the Wheel of Time series, was also a guest of honor.  But even in the convention center the stories have a strong presence.  RPGs are the dominant story-in-game genre, but even in boardgames there’s an emphasis on story, *personal* story, that I don’t see at other conventions I attend.

I say *personal* story (including RPGs, boardgames, fiction, costumes, anime . . .) as opposed to national/collective story.  At GenCon panel sessions and seminars, people tend to talk and think in terms of role-playing game books rather than board or card games. The traditional boardgamers are not prominent and the companies known for wargames, such as GMT, Worthington, Compass, Avalanche, and so on, were not there.  (Some of them also weren't at Origins, but that's a cost-benefit matter given how Origins has diminished; they used to be at Origins.)  GenCon is very much a convention for Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) and Wizards of the Coast (WotC).  Those companies don't even attend the other conventions. 

In contrast Origins is about games that don’t have personal stories built in.  (Every game has a personal narrative in the sense of "what I did as I played this game".  But a personal narrative of this kind is of much more limited interest than a built-in story, which (if good) appeals to a large number of people.)  Mayfair and Rio Grande (publishers of many dusty abstract Euros) dominate Origins, especially the former.  Some of the wargame companies attend Origins.  Origins does include collectible card games and miniatures but not so much in the way of role-playing games.

WBC is about board and card games, wargames traditionally though nowadays there are many non-wargames as well.  FFG can’t even be persuaded to contribute, last I knew, let alone come as an exhibitor.  GMT is definitely there.  Not even Mayfair or Rio Grande attend, let alone FFG and WotC.  (Mayfair is at PrezCon because part of the company is located in the same city.) Then again, it’s a small convention (1500+), so it’s a small market for the bigger companies.   Same for even-smaller PrezCon.

And (personal) story makes for bigger companies in the 21st century.

When is a theme not a story?  For purposes here I'm suggesting that the theme is a setting that may have a somewhat likely direction, for example what actually happened in history.  A story in this context is an actual plot imposed upon the game by the designers, though in some games players may not be forced to follow it.

WBC (Lancaster Pennsylvania) again posted a 2% increase in attendance. In all, nearly every state plus 17 nations sent participants in 2012.   This is roughly 1,500 unique visiors.  PrezCon (Charlottesville Virginia) is about one third the size.  Origins (Columbus Ohio) is somewhere more than 10,000 unique visitors, but not much more, and many only by the inexpensive path that lets you go through the exhibit hall and a few other places for a day.  At GenCon (Indianapolis Indiana) 300+ exhibitors displayed in the Exhibit Hall, showing more than 45 debuting games.  41,000+ unique and 134,000+ turnstile attendees took part in the Best Four Days in Gaming™.  WBC and PrezCon are much longer conventions.

Compare this with Essen Spiel in Germany where attendance is said to be near 150,000, but I have never ascertain whether that's unique visitors or turnstile, but I think it's the former.  I've never been to Essen Spiel. 

For another comparison we have the UK Game Expo which is larger than WBC but not nearly as large as Origins.  (The population of the UK is between a fourth and a fifth of the US population.)  I'd compare the Game Expo most closely to Origins, except that where Origins seemed to be diminishing, the Expo I attended in 2011 seem to be "going great guns."

I'm from southeastern North Carolina, and encountered two people from North Carolina that I know.  Yet another from my university game club, a fellow who's easy to spot because he is tall and has a deep singer's voice, was at GenCon and neither of us saw the other (and I'm even easier to spot because I'm 6'6").  In my two times at GenCon I've never gone to the subsidiary hotels where many of the more story-based activities occur.  The Indiana Convention Center is huge, and with more than 40,000+ unique attendees this year the convention is much larger than it was three years ago at 27,000+.

Miscellaneous comments
I attended lots of seminars that GenCon, and they were always interesting and useful.  They make their guests of honor work, by having them sit in on many of the seminars that are panel discussions.  In fact the one-man seminar is the exception.  In contrast there are many fewer seminars at Origins and the quality is less consistent.  The WBC and PrezCon have few seminars.  Also many of the Origins seminars are the "National war College", which are not free.  In all the other conventions they are usually free.

If you’re interested in how the game industry works, then anytime you get a chance to listen to Matt Forbeck, James Ernest, or Ken Hite, do it.

I saw Risk Legacy on the Diana Jones award nominee list.  Readers of this blog know that I really despise the disposable nature of this game, something that was not necessary to the concept of the game.  Evidently people LIKE to be abused by commercialism/planned obsolescence.

I stopped at a GenCon booth for "Gaming Paper".  These are big rolls of paper with printed squares intended to be used with role-playing games.  I asked what made this better than the fabric battle mats that you can write on with a water-soluble pen and reuse indefinitely.  I was told what makes it better is, it's disposable!  Once you've used it you're done with it.  Consequently it is much cheaper per square inch than battle mats.  At that point I said I don't hold with disposability (which is ultimately a waste of scarce resources) and walked away.  I'm old enough to remember my mother's stories from the Great Depression about taking leftover bits of soap bars and melting them together to make new soap bars – in fact we did this when I was a kid – and I despise the wastefulness of the modern world. had a booth and is evidently going strong, with 400 games available and more and more options in pieces and boards (including mounted boards). 

Good story.  One person's Kickstarter project offered the opportunity (for $1,000, I think) for someone to have the author of the RPG book come to his house anywhere in the country and run a game.  Surprisingly, someone contributed the $1000.  At some point the contributor met with the author to talk about the upcoming trip, and afterward the author's daughter was excited.  Why?  She recognized that the contributor is a rock star, the drummer for "Fall Out Boy".   (If that doesn't mean anything to you, Fall Out Boy was ranked the 93rd Best Artist of the 2000–10 decade by Billboard.) They'll be playing on one of those fancy (and expensive) gaming tables that you see at Origins and GenCon, as well.

GenCon is largely a "non-electronic" convention.  I say that partly because there was no usable Wi-Fi available in the convention center as far as I could make out (though I only asked one of the volunteers about it), but mainly because it's not about video games.  Nonetheless there was a large ballroom where people could play video games for a per hour fee.  There were tournaments organized on the hour and I sat for a while watching the end of a Gears of War tournament (I don't know which version).  There were two players on a side with the sides video projected on the wall more than 10 feet wide so that people could look at one team or the other as they played.  I watched another four player team tournament where the objective in each heat was to win two out of three matches in which, when you died, you were out of the game.  I also heard a call for a Dance Dance Revolution tournament so it wasn't all shoot'em ups.  At Origins we only have the 'mech free-for-all where players actually walk into large pods and sit to play; it looked like the same gang was at GenCon.

While I'm at it I might compare hobby tabletop game conventions with videogame conferences.  The major differences are that there is little game playing at videogame conference, less than video games ard played at GenCon.  And that's because the conferences are for game creation professionals and students, not for consumers.  The tabletop game conventions include tabletop game creation professionals but most of the people are consumers, ordinary game players, and the conventions are primarily about playing games.  So at the East Coast Game Conference in Raleigh, NC, the primary activity is attending seminars or occasionally panel discussions where people talk about making video games.

Typically when I get to the door of a convention, having driven a long way (as much as 680 miles), I find myself asking "why the hell am I here, why have I bothered to spend so much time and money?"  That's easily answered at PrezCon and WBC because I know fairly well the folks who play Britannia in the tournaments, and I enjoy talking with them and watching the games.  Occasionally I persuade them to playtest a game.  But there's nothing like that at Origins or GenCon.  Fortunately I usually encounter folks who I can have long and interesting talks with, at Origins Steve Rawlings and Paul Rohrbach of Against the Odds Magazine, at GenCon Lisa Camp who is the managing editor for my publisher McFarland.  And of course it's possible to have interesting conversations with lots of people on the floor as they man their booths.  GenCon also has lots of interesting seminars and panel discussions, though there was not much for me at Origins this year.

Must-have item?  I succumbed and bought 100 plastic inch-tall skeletons in three colors.  I don't know why, other than the possibility that they might be used as pieces in a game.  I suppose it's more practical than the wooden cutlass I bought at Origins last year.  Thank heaven I don't buy games these days so at least I avoid that expense.

I have to admit, if I didn't have some design/publishing business to conduct I'd not attend as many conventions, because of the long trips and expense.  But the cons are rarely dull or tedious!


My book “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish" is now available from or Amazon.   I am @lewpuls on Twitter.  (I average much less than one post a day, almost always about games, not about other things.)  Web:

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