Gaming Convention Review

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Afterthoughts of Origins: Con Energy

Now that a little time has passed since my trip to Origins, some more thoughts have been forming in my head that I thought I should write down based on some of my daily posts and my experience at Origins.  In some ways this is an analysis of what I experienced at Origins and in others it is an overall discussion of con energy and signs there are problems.  It is not a condemnation of Origins and all their hard work.  They did a great job!  Origins was well organized, even when things like a fire threw the proverbial monkey wrench in the works.  They really di well in general and I do not mean to take away from that.

I have had time to rest, recover some and think about my comments, especially those on the Day 4 entry with regards to Origins’ energy levels.  It was hard to comment on that since I was a first timer.  Who the heck am I but a newbie from the South who doesn’t really know any better?  But technically I know a few things about gaming cons and the gaming crowd in general.  Nearly 15 years of running 2 to 3 smaller cons a year might give me a little insight.  I give you the fact that the sheer size of the con might make a difference but I am not sure how significant a difference it would make.  The largest event I have been involved with grew to 1500 attendees, so I am still far shy of the 11,000 to 12,000 that Origins averages.

A convention’s energy comes from various things but is felt by most, if not all, attendees as a sense of “I am glad to be here.”  The energy of a con is infectious and should be felt from the weeks and months before the con in their PR (through social media, etc) to the day you arrive all the way through to the end of the con.  It is not up to one person to maintain that energy, however.  It should come naturally and be felt throughout the con.  In the case of a gaming con, the most important nodes of this energy are the people the attendees come in contact with.  The volunteers are a good beginning, but ideally an attendee will only have a brief encounter with general volunteers like registration staff and customer services.  The people the attendees spend the most time with are the game masters and tournament directors, referees and event coordinators.  These people are the best nodes of con energy.

At Origins, throughout the weekend, I could not help but feel a palatable something as I walked through the con.  The general vibe I was getting from the dealers coupled with mixed feelings from various RPG events kind of gave him an overall feeling of something.  I thought perhaps it was just me. Maybe it was because I was not getting involved with the big events – the Shadowrun 5 Edition release or the Pathfinder Society games.  Perhaps that’s where the energy was, at least from an RPG perspective.  However, when other attendees out of the blue voiced the same sense, I have to wonder a little.

Many companies made the perhaps difficult choices of the year to no longer attend Origins, at least at the level they used to.  Paizo was one of them.  Pinnacle Entertainment was another.  Wizards of the Coast has long since put more focus on GenCon.  Again, from an RPG perspective, this perhaps may be one explanation for the lower energy level.  From a board game and card game perspective, Rio Grade Games, Mayfair, Wizkids, and Upper Deck all had a reasonably large presence, as did the new kid on the block, Mage Wars maker, Arcane WondersCatalyst Labs was there enforce with both support for Shadowrun 5th Edition and several of their board games.  Asmodee Games and Cool Mini Or Not also had a presence, if not somewhat small.  Missing – Fantasy Flight Games.  So there is definitely a feel that not all those in the industry leaders see Origins as a good investment.

I can only guess why I and others felt this something – or lack of something –  at the con. In many cases, the lack of excitement for a con comes from the lack of enough newness.  To increase the energy level or at least maintain it, some cons work hard on bringing something new and different to their attendees.  From what I gathered, that “something new” at Origins was Kevin Sorbo and Ioan Gruffudd as well as the whole Super Hero theme.  I have never been a big fan of themes at cons because they are hard to maintain and require so much energy for so little return. I did not feel like the theme added a lot to Origins.  I only saw a handful of costumes.  Gamers don’t dress up unless they are involved in a LARP.  They just want to sit down and game.

Sometimes at a con the energy drain comes from your volunteers and volunteer burn-out.  I do not mean to slam the Origins volunteers as they obviously worked their butts off.  Many that I encountered were very professional and accommodating.  However, sometimes the cost of attending the con (both financial and mental) outweighs the benefits.  In most cases, the most a volunteer gets is a free badge.  Some might get a free room or at least part of a room paid for, but that’s rare for non-profit conventions.  Now, when I say volunteers, I mean not only the workers behind the booths and desks, but also the game masters, event coordinators, and organizers.  As I stated earlier, these are the people that the attendees of a gaming con are more in contact with.  The game masters, event coordinators and tournament directors are the flash point of the fire that should excite the attendees.  If they are not happy, then things kind of spread from there.

For Origins, they have a unique plan based on the number of hours you work.  Also, volunteers are ranked by the number of years they have worked for the con.  Minimum is 16 hours of work but that gains you no ranking in seniority.  The next level is 32 hours and that gains you a ranking.  The ranking categories are 1-5 years, 6-8 years (senior), and 9+ years (veterans).  Ranked volunteers get either a portion of their rooms paid for or free lodging, but they are sharing the room with up to 3 other volunteers.  Overall, it is not a bad deal.  I would imagine it is a nightmare to manage but all the same, not a bad deal.  However, because of the nature of a 5-day con (Wednesday through Sunday), this still can wear a volunteer down.  Also it is not clear if game masters count as volunteers.

On the other side of that, especially in the case of non-profits, it is very difficult to give so many volunteers some form of benefits.  SWAG can only go so far.  In some cases, these GMs, coordinators and directors are paying their hard earned cash for a hotel room, maybe even sharing with a number of other GMs.  They are working hard to herd the cats to make sure all events are running on time and all players are happy.  But all that effort can wear down on a person, especially over a 5-day event.

There are a few other signs that some friends have noticed about Origins that frustrate them and in the end, effect their energy level when they arrive.  The list of events and the vendor room map seem to be released later and later each year.  Also, I know quite a few people that have complained about their online gaming registration system – especially the fact that you can not access it after pre-regsitration closes.  There may be a ton of reasons I am not aware of that some of these things happen but these are the things that attendees see and effect their overall mood of the con, before they even arrive.

I could be way off base and I could be totally misinterpreting my sense of Origins.  It was just a  feeling one guy out of 11,000+ got.  Others may feel differently.  In the end, I had a great time at Origins and probably will return one day with my family.  One of the best things about it was that I would feel fine bringing my wife and kids.  I have seen cons with similar issues and with a few minor adjustments, changes in staff, changes in format, the con can recover.  Even if there is an energy problem, I never felt like the con was dying and hopeless.  There are a lot of people involved with lots of heart and they obviously want the con to do well.  I just think that there is some fatigue that is effecting the overall con and it was noticeable to a newbie like me.

Watching the Facebook page, however, there are more than a few complimentary posts.  One or two are even saying it is the best Origins in a while.  So maybe the con is on an upswing.  That’s good news.  As I was writing this, Mr. John Ward of GAMA released the numbers of the con.  It is in fact on an upswing.

2009: 10,030
2010:  10,669
2011:  11,502
2012: 11,332
2013: 11,573

By his number break down, more people got weekend badges than day passes this year than last.  So that’s even a better sign.  Even if my feelings were right, it’s changing.  The energy is building.  I would just be careful of burnout. A slow climb like that in attendance can wear people down.  200+ increase in attendance overall may not be a huge jump for all the work one puts in each year.   Like I said before, the cost of the con, mental or financial, may outweigh the return eventually.  And maybe that is what I was sensing.

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