Gargantuan Gen Con’s Growth Episode.060

With an almost spontaneous decision, I decided to travel east to Indianapolis and attend Gen Con.  I had been attending the convention since I believe 2005 when it was still fairly new to the city from its original town of Geneva, Wisconsin.  As it has continued to grow steadily over the years in weekend turnstile numbers, it has had to change its destination to Indiana as the convention center in the heart of Indianapolis can hold tens of thousands.

That fact is changing considerably in my opinion, specifically in the last 3-4 years.  I quit going to the full weekend since 2001 due to the convention simply getting too big for its britches.  Last year, the attendance numbers were around 56,000, and I would not be surprised if they went over that figure this year.  Although these steadily increasing figures are great for the convention to keep getting their lease renewed, it has become virtually impossible to attend the convention and be able to follow a reasonably enjoyable path throughout.


This looks fun to be in the middle of

To begin with, over the years, registration has been one of the largest problems the convention has faced.  For those who have not attended, you must first purchase a badge that ranges from 1 day to 4 days.  And you have to purchase your badge before registering for any scheduled events such as roleplaying or board games.  This is all done online now with modern technology, but event registration has become essentially a lottery game.  When it first became available to register online, you were required to manually type in a code that referred to the event you wished to purchase a ticket for.  Keep in mind that some people are the “main person” for their group and have to register for more than one person (perhaps the father is registering his family of 4).  They would have to manually type in the code and select how many tickets they wanted.  Now the system is built very similar to a Fantasy Sports draft day for those who are into that.  You rank the games you want the most at the top of your list, which can be as many events as you wish.  When the event registration goes live, when your turn is up to register for events, the computer system takes your number 1 choice and looks to see if there are seats still available for the number of tickets you wanted.  If not, it goes to your number 2 choice.


Cheap hotels specifically spiked in price for Gen Con

This seems to be the least stressful method as automation was better than panicking for a good 15 minutes as you madly typed in codes for events and tried to get everyone in.  The madness came because event registration starts at a specific time for everyone.  Everyone.  Granted not all of the 56,000 attendees register for events, but I would suspect at least a quarter to one half do.  When the clock strikes the hour it goes “live,” you click to get in the virtual line awaiting to be “called.”  In years past, I remember being anywhere from 1200 to 6000.  While you wait, hundreds if not several thousands are buying their events, which possibly fill up the one you are after.   When it gets to your turn, you may not have a single event in your list that is available still.  And all that waiting was literally for nothing.


The website will lock up for many, many people when they try to register for an event.  Some get lucky and buzz right on through without a problem.  These people think it’s a wonderful system and are delighted how smooth the transaction went.  Their “smooth transaction” is what is bottling up the rest who are trying to get in but can’t because they are sailing on through.  When the site locks up, in the past we would hit Refresh on our browsers over and over in an attempt to “cut in line” or at least get the website to load faster.

While the method to the madness has improved over the years, it simply is impossible to make a truly fair system to accommodate over 50,000 people when there are limited choices available to participate in.  There are thousands of games with anywhere from 3 to 100 or more participants, but despite all that, the games that you may want might be the most popular game.  With the average game having 3-6 people, the odds are loosely about 0.001% chance of acquiring your game if all 56,000 attendees were after the same game, which isn’t the case.  It does decrease the odds significantly in acquiring a seat in a 3-6 player game when you have that many attendees because the odds increase greatly that more than 6 of the 56,000 are wanting the game.

The convention has simply gotten too large for what it offers.  Conventions this large are fine if the events are catered to the overall attendance.  Seminars that are 1500-5000, for example, allow for better chance of getting a seat.  Epic conventions like E3 or SIGGRAPH are capable of handling closer to 100,000 people and above because of the type of events they offer.  Gen Con 1 was initially intended to be a convention that offered roleplaying games.  Today, it is filled with hundreds of other things such as card game tournaments, virtual reality game systems, production shows, auctions, colossal exhibitor halls, miniatures, and much more.  This diversity is really what has increased the numbers over the years.  Although roleplaying games are still a major focus, there are a tremendous number of attendees that do absolutely no participation of those types of games.  Although this is wonderful for business and opportunity for more interests, it has greatly hindered the original concept of the convention.


Lines so long you don’t know what you’re standing in line for

There are games you simply will not get into no matter how hard you try unless you find yourself one of the extremely lucky souls.  It has become too great of a game of chance as you have to win your way to the experience you’re hoping for.  Sure there are attendees who don’t see what the problem is as they go to free seminars, explore the Exhibitor’s Hall, or attend the Killer Breakfast that Tracy Hickman runs each year.  These individuals pale in comparison to the thousands who are there for actual events that require payment.

Payment brings me to another feature that is rather odd.  This is something that Gen Con used to not demand and after a corporation purchased the convention it has become such.  To begin with, if you are a GM, there is no set number of games you need to run in order to acquire a complimentary badge.  Personally this is one of my biggest pet peeves of the entire convention.  Game Masters are literally what make that convention possible.  Without their hard work in preparation (sometimes months before the convention) there would be no roleplaying games, which still holds the majority of events there.  These individuals are almost always rewarded well at conventions where they agree to run a certain number of games to which they receive a free badge to the convention.  It is fair because really a GM is work.  It’s a job that requires a lot of their free time spent in order for a handful of people to sit down and get to play a game for 4-8 hours.


Is this fun to do while your wasting your days at Gen Con?

Instead, Gen Con Corporation has this ridiculous formula where you have to have run a total number of player hours of 96.  Confusing sounding, I know.  Basically that each player you have at your table plays for a certain number of hours, which goes to the 96 total hours you have been a GM.  So if you have 4 players at your table and run a 4 hour game, you now have 16 hours and lack 80 more hours before you get your badge comped.  EIGHTY.  This means that if you were to run what I consider a traditional RPG, that is 5 people in a 4-hour game (20 hours), you would run four, 4-hour games, and still be lacking 16 hours.  Therefore you’d be required to run a FIFTH GAME with four people in it for 4-hours.

The convention is 4 days long, and almost everyone on Sunday uses that day to travel back home.  Really you have 3 full days, and they expect you to run FIVE games of that nature in order to get a complimentary badge, totaling ~20 hours.  From here, calculate about 6-7 hours of sleep, which will of course fluctuate depending on the attendee.  That means that of the ~80 hours of gaming (assuming about ½ day on Sunday, which is stretching it), you have ~60 hours of being awake.  That leaves you with 40 hours of free time to do as you please to see a convention that has various set schedules of events and limited available events….that is 3 ½ days long.


I realize my math is a little approximating as there are plenty of variables and factors that could change the numbers, but a traditional GM set up would be facing about that.  That isn’t rewarding anyone; that is essentially restricting the welcome that they should receive for making the convention what it is today.

Now return back to paying events.  Each roleplaying game costs money for you to play.  This is after you pay anywhere from $45-70 depending on how many days you want to attend the convention.  Most games will cost between $4.00 and $6.00.  This is supposed to go to paying for the GM’s badge.  But of course, doing the math leads to a different total.  A Four-Day badge would be $70 if he or she were to pay for it themselves.  Assuming the GM is a traditionalist who runs 4-hour games with ~5 players, they would have a total of 24 players throughout the five games they have to run.  If we use the $4.00 cost for each person for all of the games the GM runs, the total is $96.00.  This value will fluctuate, but the total number of hours, 96, remains strict.  That means that about $26.00 profit is made per GM.

When it comes down to it, Gen Con should have a responsibility to cater to the GMs because as I said without them the convention would simply not exist.  With 56,000 attending, if everyone purchased a four-day badge, which they don’t, the corporation would receive nearly a $4 million gross each year.  It’s a substantial amount of money that is brought in that oddly enough was not enough in recent years as the company had to be saved from filing Chapter 11.  It’s kind of sad for being the largest convention in the state of Indiana.


Something pretty to look at

 I prefer attending Origins.  It is what Gen Con once was in the days when it existed for roleplaying games of a simpler mind.  Only ~12,000 attend this convention, which gives a substantially higher chance of finding plenty of games you wish because although the number of GM’s may be less of a ratio, the numerous slots for each game are not being fought over by 50,000 to 60,000 people but just over 10,000.  These are the conventions that gamers really thrive at.  It’s less stressful.  It’s more accommodating.  It’s more streamlined and less crowded.  It offers more opportunity.  It shuns away from claustrophobia (try entering the Exhibitor’s Hall of Gen Con just before 10 a.m. Thursday morning Day 1).  And it is not the only one.  Although Origins and Dragon Con are well known within the gaming circuit, they pale in exposure of advertisement to the giant gorilla that is Gen Con.  And they only exist on those who are willing to give the lesser known or lesser popular ones a try.  Gen Con itself may have once been a jewel in Gary Gygax’s eyes and a savory delight to gamers who once roamed the halls of Geneva Convention, but those days are long gone and what is left is a mainstream event that treats those like cattle and brandishes them with lottery tickets and expect them to continue to take the punishment.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.


The dramatic spikes of attendance throughout the years for conventions in the midwest


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