Tuesday, August 27, 2013

GenCon (and WBC) 2013

If you've never been to GenCon you might not realize the scope of the convention.  Last year there were more than 40,000 attendees and I suspect yet more this year.  The convention is spread out over the Indiana Convention Center, which is very large - immensely larger than Origins' Columbus Convention Center - and *eight* large hotels.  The convention is not just about tabletop games, but also has a little bit of video games and a lot of anime, film, cosplay, comics, fiction writing - that's a big segment - and other cultures related to the gaming culture.  For example, I videoed the costume parade for five minutes and decided that was enough, though it lasted a few more minutes, several people walking past every couple seconds. 

Some physical services this year had problems compared with last year, such as frequently empty water coolers (or no cups) and bathrooms mostly out of toilet paper by late afternoon.  There were occasional shortages of the convention schedule book as well.  All this might indicate a higher-than-anticipated attendance, and they had already anticipated a record.

WBC in Lancaster, PA, is essentially a family convention.  Don Greenwood (Mr. Avalon Hill) took it upon himself to make this convention a success after Avalon Hill was sold to Hasbro, who really didn't want the company (they wanted the game Diplomacy) and shut it down.  Don himself can occasionally be a gruff fellow, but he definitely wants the convention to be pleasant for families.  And I see many of the gamers I know bringing their sons, daughters, or wives to the convention.  The 21 year-old who nearly won the Britannia tournament this year is a son of another player.  Although the female contingent is not much seen playing wargames, which are dominated by salt-and-pepper haired old farts, they play in many of the Eurostyle and other non-wargame tournaments.  And when you see many dozens of people playing Ticket to Ride you know what's more popular with younger people than wargames.  As someone pointed out at the Avalon Hill reunion this year, board wargaming is essentially a hobby of the baby boomer generation.

GenCon, on the other hand, is a story convention, and not just stories in games, but also stories in film and comics and novels and anime.  For me it's a much more impersonal convention, but unlike WBC and PrezCon where I know the guys who play Britannia, and so have a group of gamers to talk with, at GenCon (and Origins, when I go) I do not.  There isn't an emphasis on families at GenCon, though I don't doubt that many families attend.  The impersonal feeling may also be because WBC is attended by some 1500+ people while GenCon is attended by more than 40,000 people.

I was at GenCon from about 8 AM to as late is 11:00 PM on three days, and on the morning of Sunday until 11:30. In the entire convention at any given time there might be dozens or even hundreds of people visible, but you are unlikely to see any particular person by chance.  I know of three people for my gaming group who attended; I saw two of them (a couple) on Thursday at a distance, and they came to my talk on Sunday.  I didn't see the other one at all, even though he's over 6 foot and stands out pretty well.  And of course, they might've's seen me, but didn't.  I saw Tom Vasel once and once only.  I saw Matt Forbeck only once.  Robert Mosimann of Excalibur Games was there and had a booth, but his booth was not in the list so that I didn't know he was there, and I didn't see him.  40,000 people is two big basketball stadiums or one small football stadium full of people.  I don't have much of an idea how big the exhibition hall is, but certainly big enough to hold an American football field or a soccer field.  If you walk from one end to another when the hall isn't crowded - which is to say, when it isn't open to the public - it takes several minutes.

The rooms for speakers often could hold 150 people, though there are rarely that many.  It seemed that 40 was a much more common number for an audience.  I didn't spend much time in the game playing halls, but the numbers of players are ridiculous.  As I was leaving on Sunday I saw a huge hall filled with with what must have been at least 100 large tables of role-playing gamers.  (In that environment, how they were able to hear their GMs is beyond me.)  And that was just one of several halls that were full of gamers MOST of the time.  Sunday is the day when many of the attendees have already gone home, yet that enormous room was full (D&D tournament, evidently).

This year I was one of 30 "Industry Insider Guests of Honor."  That meant I didn't have to pay for a badge, I got into the dealer room an hour early on Thursday - well, 50 minutes, after I walked to four entrances and more than a quarter mile to find an entrance where they'd let me in - and I participated in four panels.  It would have been five, but one was  suggested by a GoH who was unable to come to the con, and though I offered to do it anyway GenCon decided to cancel it.  Being GoH also meant people could look at my badge, not recognize my name, and ask me what I did to be rated GoH.  That didn't bother me much, as I hadn't recognized some of the names of the GoH when I first saw the list - the selection is very broad, and most of the people work full-time in the industry, which I have never done.

So much of the time I sat on panels, or did my four solo seminars, or listened to panels of fiction writers (many aspects of the business of game design are similar to aspects of fiction writing).  I've decided that successful adventure fiction writers, by and large, are really smart people who are good at thinking on their feet.  Or maybe that's only the ones who come to conventions.  Most notable writers: Brandon Sanderson and Mercedes Lackey.  (And her husband and fellow Media Guest of Honor, Larry Dixon, is a cover artist, did the eagles in LoTR and The Hobbit, is an editor, game designer, and writer himself, and is a bit of a jokester to boot!)

And the rest of the time I talked with publishers and gamers (and McFarland's managing edtor) in the exhibition hall and at the game designers meet and greet.

Whereas at WBC and PrezCon there are so many gray-haired folks (including me), at GenCon there are so many younger people that sometimes I felt like I came from a different era.

The only untoward incident (other than feeling my age in a variety of ways) occurred Saturday before a panel.  I came early and sat down in the middle of the dais, and another Guest of Honor turned up and asked if I was going to run things like I had (in his mind) on a previous panel.

Before the convention, I'd asked panelists via email about asking a few questions of the audience when we were setting up.  And I said I wasn't volunteering to be a moderator because I had four solo seminars to deal with. I evidently said something in the discussion that somehow rubbed this panelist the wrong way.   And he thought there was no need for a moderator.  I think that works sometimes, sometimes not, but said I wouldn't worry about it.

So when he said I'd run the earlier panel, I said something like "did I?"  Yeah, he said, and I'd talked 40 of the 60 minutes (and there was more).  (The time is something I can actually check as I recorded the session.)  I said "no way" and after that, "get out of town" with an accent from the old Joe Pesci commercial.  And he turned around and walked out of the room, and didn't come back!  Which was neither adult behavior nor proper for a panelist.

So I was the only one of four panelists when the start time rolled around, but soon after the other two came (having been at other events, with a schedule that leaves no time for travel from one event to the next), and both had a lot to say about playtesting, so I didn't have to say much.  I did disagree with them insofar as they were looking at it from the angle of recent association with big companies, whereas the audience didn't have that advantage and had to find playtesters in less satisfactory ways.  It's easier to get playtesting done when a big company says "we're going to publish this game, we need playtesters."

In about 50 minutes on Thursday morning I managed to walk through most of the exhibition hall aisles and speak briefly to a few people and listen to a talk about a four player chess game.  I asked the designer, how do you avoid turtling?  Essentially it's through a time limit and giving points for killing pieces, so that if somebody turtles they are not going to have any points.  He said in one of the early games some years ago a professional chess player played and immediately turtled, but that time they didn't have the time delay and he didn't have to worry about the points.  The other three players happily chopped each other up, but they finally realized what was going on and  proceeded to attack the professional chess player and wipe him out. 

The game is also unusual in having some spaces behind where you set up your pieces - it's a four corners arrangement - that give you access to more of the files and ranks for pieces like bishops and rooks, and also an area of four squares at the very center of the board where pawns, knights, and Kings can effectively position themselves in any of those four squares before they move, thus giving them much greater flexibility, and ability to hold the center.

[Interjection: here's a difference between an experienced and relatively inexperienced designer.  It's obvious, to me, that any chess game for more than two players is going to have turtling problems that must be solved by some rule change.  That's because it's a battle game, with no economy to speak of.  Perhaps it wasn't obvious to the designer of this game, when that professional chess player playtested the game.]

I didn't have the time or energy to wander through many of the vast halls full of gamers playing games, and I don't play games myself at conventions, figuring I can play them at home.  I can't say I saw anything in the exhibit hall that really caught my attention. 

The most notable events were arranged by James Mathe of Minion Games.  One was an evening "speed date" for game designers, where some 70 game designers brought their prototypes and 10 publishers swaps tables every 5 minutes looking at the prototypes.  I was only there for 10 minutes, but it was scheduled for four hours.  Evidently some contracts have already resulted.  I didn't think to count, but my recollection is that most of the games were cardgames, few were boardgames, and perhaps not surprisingly, given the event, most of the prototypes were much prettier than I am accustomed to.

The other was a game designer "meet and greet" in a portion of the Hyatt ballroom rented by Mathe at considerable expense.  (When I asked him why he spent four figures of dollars to do this, he didn't have a concrete answer; I suspect there's a philanthropic side behind his formidable exterior, especially given his other activities that benefit inexperienced designers in his blog and on Facebook.)  A few game manufacturers spoke briefly and then more than 100 designers raised the sound level to "it's hard to hear" level.

From a game design point of view, my biggest takeaway was that we in tabletop gaming have reached a point similar to what has happened in video gaming, where "discoverability" is the number one problem in game design.  If someone doesn't know your game dexists, he can't buy it or play it.  Especially in the mobile game sector in video games, there are so many new games every week that without a lot of luck no particular game can be in the awareness of very large numbers of gamers.  I was told they were 800 new tabletop games at Essen last year and I suppose that number will be closer to 1000 this year.  As a result, just as in the video game world, the marketing possibilities of a game become much more important than whether it's a good game to play.  In the video game world few games are played very long before someone moves on to the next game, and I see this phenomenon becoming common in the tabletop world where a game is only played one or two or three times before players move on to something else.  The games don't have to be good games in the old sense of games that you are happy to play over and over and over again, rather they have to be games that have a marketing hook and that look good and sound good when described (the latter especially for Kickstarter).  And not surprisingly, the typical published game is pretty weak, especially those coming out of Kickstarter.  This is a great contrast with the past when, if you designed a game that was really good to play you had a reasonable chance of getting it published.  Now whether the game is really good to play is pretty unimportant.

New games also are leaning much more to the abstract, usually with an "atmosphere" or "canvas" tacked on after the fact (something that does not affect the play or design of the game) to help sell.  (A striking example is a Kickstarter for the Viking game hnefetafl that has been overlayed with Cthulu vs. Vikings . . . http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1569862606/cthulhu-vs-the-vikings-the-game-and-the-comic?ref=live .)  New games that are models of some reality (including fictional realities), typical of wargames, just aren't seen much in non-wargames, and then the models are frequently tenuous.  These are trends, of course, not absolutes - you can find lots of counterexamples.

I'll have more to say about trends in games in a separate post.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

The Movement Toward Simpler Game Devices

I recently read a blog post that asserted that the idea behind "the PC is dying" isn't that it will go away but that people are content with much simpler devices that do what they need to do and don't require the complexity of a PC.  Those much simpler devices are tablets and smartphones.

This matches my view of the early history of video gaming, after the big crash in the early 80s.  At that point the Commodore 64 and Atari 800 computers played fine games, and I thought there would never be another console like the Atari 2600.  Of course I was wrong; I had completely underestimated human fear of the keyboard.  People bought their children Nintendos rather than Commodores and Ataris because there was no keyboard, because the device was easy use, because it was sufficient for their needs.  Their children might've wanted a computer, but the parents didn't want to put up with that (and didn't want to have to help the child figure out the computer); and the computers were little more expensive.

Of course we still have desktop computers and play games on them and high-end PCs are much more powerful than the consoles, just as was true after the 80s crash.  The PS4 and Xbox One, like the PS3 and Xbox 360, are computer wannabes that will be less powerful than some computers the day they are first sold, and will be less powerful than a great many gamer computers within a year or two.  Yet they are simpler devices, and a lot of people prefer the simpler device.  But now the consoles have competition from other devices that can achieve the same simplification and avoidance of a keyboard that thrust the Nintendo forward - tablets and smartphones.  It seems to me likely that because of competition from tablets and smartphones the new consoles will not sell nearly as well as the ones we're using now.

It is the Age of Convenience (which includes battery-powered mobility), far more than in the early 1980s, and the Age of Instant Gratification, and the Age of the "Easy Button" (as popularized by Staples).  Already, the Nintendo handheld 3DS outsells other "consoles" despite a slow start.  The impetus toward use of devices that are just sufficient to the purpose, that avoid unnecessary complication, and that provide the convenience of mobility, is even stronger now than it was 30 years ago, so I expect the popularity of tablets and smartphones to have quite a strong effect on sale of new consoles.  It's partly a matter of price and of what else people want to do on the tablets and smartphones that is not game playing.  The latest iPad is expensive, but tablets like the iPad Mini and the Google Nexus 7 cost less than the new consoles.

Sony has appealed strongly to core gamers to try to counteract the move to smaller, simpler devices.  Microsoft has tried to position their new console as the central device for the household (or at least, the living room), associating it with TV and other traditionally living-room activities even as people are less and less likely to watch TV in the living room, often watching on computers instead.  Neither approach appears likely to counteract the trend to simpler devices, I think.  Time will tell.