Gaming convention season is upon us. Origins Game Fair will be upon us starting June 14th, and Gen Con starts just a little over two months later on August 17th. Today, I am going to throw a bunch of my thoughts and tips about conventions and see what sticks.
First off…who can believe that it is already almost the middle of June? Wasn't it just January? My booking for travel and hoteling for Gen Con has been set for a couple of months now, but it is sort of mind boggling that we are now two months out. I guess the fact that my Gen Con calendar is already starting to fill up should be a hint for that. I wish that I was going to Origins Game Fair next weekend. I went for years when I lived in Cleveland (since Columbus was practically in our back yard), but since moving back to the South, it has made attending more difficult and a lot more expensive. I liked Origins because it was a more "play" intensive convention than Gen Con. If you haven't been to both of these conventions, that point might be a little difficult to parse.
For me, Gen Con is a fun time, but it is definitely more of a consumer-facing trade show than Origins. This isn't a bad thing, in fact for those people who don't have local gaming store (or who's local gaming stores don't have very deep shelves) something like this can be good. While most people go to Gen Con to play games, for many it is secondary to the fact that they can see and buy all the new games, many that they've probably not hear of previously. Gaming is a consumer industry, so being able to buy things is a good thing. Origins, however, isn't as focused on the sales side and, although it seems to be changing as Gen Con prices increase, there isn't the publisher presence that you get at Gen Con. Both conventions have their strengths and weakness, and they appeal to people for different reasons. I do think that the years I was able to attend both I was able to get a more balanced idea of what was happening in the industry.
Next, I want to throw out the idea that we really need more conventions at the local and regional level, particularly ones that embrace as wide of a cross-section of gamers as possible. I don't just mean this from a diversity angle, although that is very, very important, but I also mean that conventions need to dig deeper than just the fans of the top selling couple of role-playing games. There's a lot of games out there, representing them as well as games like D&D and Pathfinder is a step in the direction of getting a wider audience. The first convention that I GMed for, way back in the Stone Age of the 90s, was a fairly large Ohio gaming convention (that no longer exists). I gamed with the guys who ran the gaming HQ, because they were all friends with one of my roommates of the time. They asked me to GM for the convention because I was the only person they knew who played games that weren't D&D. All of the events that they wanted me to run were sanctioned RPGA events that had sign ups…but no one to run them. It was an interesting selection of games, too. I ended up running the West End Games' versions of Star Wars and Paranoia, the classic TSR edition of Marvel Super-Heroes and R. Talsorian Games' Dream Park game. Except maybe for Dream Park, none of these were unknown factors.
Conventions have gotten a lot better since then, but the non-D&D games need to be more of an afterthought.
Anyway, that is a digression, but it fits into talking about local/regional conventions. One thing that I learned after moving back to the South is that gaming conventions have their highest concentrations in the Midwest and the Northeast. This makes sense, gaming started in the Midwest and there are a lot of people in the Northeast, but it leaves out a lot of people interested in gaming, or who could be interested in gaming. With the growth of tabletop gaming over the last few years, we haven't really seen an equivalent increase in gaming conventions…outside of the places that already have a lot of conventions. Now, we're seeing more conventions popping up in the Pacific Northwest, but honestly that's even less feasible for travel to than the Midwest for a lot of gamers.
I live in Florida, and our economy is pretty much based around tourism. Within two hours of where I live, in two different directions, there are two major convention centers that regularly handle conventions that are the same size as Gen Con, and larger. Tampa has a strong regional comic convention in the Tampa Bay Comic-Con, as well as growing ones like MegaCon Tampa. Orlando has MegaCon, Spooky Empire and is one of the homes for Star Wars Celebration. To the far South, there are a number of convention centers around the Daytona and Miami areas, all of which regularly support a number of conventions of sizes equal to, or larger than, shows like Gen Con. As much as I would love for Gen Con to move from Indianapolis to Orlando, I know that it isn't feasible for a lot of people, for the same reasons that the Pacific Northwest isn't.
The other nice thing about regional conventions is that, the Florida weather means that when it is icy and snowy in other parts of the country, the weather is really nice down here. Other regional conventions can offer benefits specific to their areas as part of the package of their show.
However, that doesn't mean that a local or regional convention couldn't grow up into these facilities to be something equivalent to Origins Game Fair. According to their Wikipedia page, Origins had an attendance of 15,938 in 2015. Honestly, that isn't that high of a bar for attendance for a convention to reach, with a few years of hard work and good conventions. It surprises me that, for such a fun convention, Origins has such relatively low attendance numbers.
This is why I think that strengthening the regional gaming convention scene is easier than people would think. Do I think that it is feasible for a gaming convention to have an attendance of 15K out of the gate? No, and I don't think that most people starting a convention can really handle those sorts of numbers right off the bat. I do think that a first year convention with an attendance of 500-1000 people is feasible to shoot for.
I want a stronger area gaming convention scene mostly for selfish reasons: I want to be able to go to some conventions, meet people and throw some dice, and I would like to be able to do it without having to hop onto an airplane. I'm sure that I am not alone in this. Not only that, but a thriving local/regional gaming scene supported by thriving, growing conventions means that there are going to be more gamers in an area. More gamers is always a win. It means more people to potentially game with, as well as more customers for the industry. More customers means that the industry has more money to play with when it comes to making things for all of us. Conventions, gamers, customers, and publishers. All of this is interrelated, and more of one thing leads to more of another.
Now, we can all tell convention horror stories, so we know that all of this means that we have to have the quality as well as the quantity of conventions. Just having more conventions isn't enough. Like I talked about earlier in this piece, there needs to be a depth of games offered, the conventions need to appeal to as broad of a base as possible, and they need to have methods in place to make sure that everyone is comfortable and being well-treated by both vendors and their fellow gamers.
There is probably a lot to unpack in this article, and I hope that it starts some conversations about getting more conventions in more areas. I think that a thriving convention scene is intimately tied to a thriving gaming scene, which is intimately tied to a thriving publishing scene. While I talked about practical examples from my more immediate area, because those are the places that I know, hopefully people will see the potential for conventions in their areas as well. As attendance is growing at conventions across the board, this means that there is going to be room for more.