3 August 2015 | 53 Comments
Last week, 61,423 people converged onto Indianapolis to attend Gen Con, a massive gaming convention. I was one of them.
I’ve attended three Gen Cons in a row, and this one was by far my favorite (I’ll explain why below). The first year, I basically just wandered around the exhibition hall for three days (recap here). The second year, I purchased a few tables in TMG’s conference room to demo our games in a loose, informal manner (recap here).
This year, I tried something similar but different. I reserved a conference room in the Marriott Downtown, which connects directly with the convention center (it’s not to be confused with the confusingly named JW Marriott, which is 2 blocks away).
We scheduled back-to-back ticketed events on the 5 big round tables in the room (an “event” at Gen Con can be a lot of things. For us it was either learning to play one of our games, playtesting a game/expansion, or playing one of our games). I had a total of about 10 ambassadors and my business partner help out with the events. At night we hosted open game nights.
The following list is a compilation of my experiences and things I’d like to do differently next year. Like I said, I had a great time and consider Gen Con 2015 very successful for Stonemaier Games. But what’s good for me and my company is probably different than you and your company–this isn’t a list of guidelines for you to follow, but you might learn something from my experience at the convention.
1. Sunshine Is Good. Above and beyond everything that was great about having our own conference room in the same hotel where we were staying was the fact that three of the four sides of the room were floor-to-ceiling windows. We had indirect sunlight all day long, in stark contrast to the interior of the convention center. Next year: Finding a similar room–if not the same one–next year will be my highest priority.
2. Food, Water, Bathroom Breaks, and Sleep Are Good. My previous experiences at Gen Con were probably similar to many others in that you completely disrupt your body’s regular schedule so you can see and do as much as possible. This year I wanted to try something different. I arranged in advance for the hotel to deliver lunch to us at 12:00 every day–we didn’t have to go out searching for it. Similarly, I blocked at 6:00-8:00 for dinner, which worked out great as long as we cut off our 4:00-6:00 events at 6:00. We had water fully stocked in the room at all times, and the bathroom was 30 seconds away. We went to bed at 11:00 every night and didn’t have events until 10:00 the following morning. While none of us slept particularly well (we had 2 rooms for 8 people), it could have been a lot worse with the wrong schedule. Next year: We kind of had to haggle our way into the Marriott’s breakfast passes, and I don’t want to do that again. We’ll arrange for that in advance. Also, when it’s 12:00 or 6:00, our events will immediately end and we’ll go get food. Last, I’d like to get more hotel rooms so people can sleep properly.
3. Ticketed Events Are Good: Gen Con convinced me to have ticketed events this year, something I was wary about. Couldn’t I just have 1 event all day that says, “Come play our games whenever you want!”? But they were right. The event format is really good for attendees, as they have a lot of things they want to see or do. It adds structure to what could be chaos. Also, as I’ve learned, tickets are how you prove to Gen Con that people actually showed up to your events. Without that proof, you can’t really justify to them that they should sell you event space next year. Next year: We didn’t charge for tickets this year, which was probably our one mistake. I felt odd charging people for hanging out with us, so we had all $0 tickets. But at Gen Con, people have no problem with the standard $2 tickets, so much so that they might as well be $0. The reason I’d charge next year is that it might be a little extra nudge to get people to actually show up for the event they signed up for. We never really had a problem filling our events, but there were a number of people who didn’t show up.
4. Leaving Time for Impromptu Chats Is Good. I kind of lucked into this one, especially with the back-to-back events. My favorite thing about Gen Con is the people. I’m a pretty high introvert, but I absolutely love the gaming community. So it’s great to see my media contacts, backers, and convention friends, even if we’re just chatting for a few minutes. We had set media times in the schedule for 30-minute chats, but a lot of my interactions with random people happened between events, while I was running Scythe playtests, or during the open game nights. Next year: I don’t think I would change much, other than to make sure that the type of events I run are those that give me the freedom to chat with random people for a few minutes at a time.
5. Gen Con Is Great for Playtesting. I wasn’t sure if people would sign up for our playtesting events for the Euphoria expansion, Between Two Cities expansions, or for Scythe, but I shouldn’t have worried. All of our playtesting events sold out. I actually spent most of my afternoons running Scythe playtests. Finding ways to get players into the game within 5 minutes was a great challenge and an asset as I work on a quick-start guide for the rulebook. Next year: If we have a marquee upcoming game like Scythe again, I’d probably do it exactly the same!
6. Ambassadors and Volunteers Are Amazing. The Stonemaier Games room at Gen Con would not be possible without our ambassadors. Katy, Adam, Josh, Gabby, Matthew, Steven, Nersi, Miles, and Carl were all incredibly helpful, and others (Scot, Barry, Scott, and Manny come to mind) also stepped up at the right time and place. I felt it was my responsibility to treat the ambassadors well, so we took care of a lot of meals, as well as rooms and badges for the “full-time” ambassadors. Next year: Gen Con offers free GM badges to any volunteer who helps out for a certain amount of time. We discovered that system in time to get those badges, but next year we’ll try to do it early enough so we can have the GM badges mailed to us (though pickup wasn’t bad–barely any lines for GM badges). I also might assign an ambassador “greeter” at all times to greet people and show them our various games/products (set up around the room). Our ambassadors did this anyway, so maybe I don’t need to assign the task.
7. Open Game Nights Are Great! One of the odd things about Gen Con is that even though it’s the “best four days of gaming,” it’s actually pretty easy to go the entire time without playing any (or many) games. So I wanted to create a space and time to do that with our open game nights, where any game could be played, not just ours. They were ticketed events, but anyone could walk in and play. Thursday night was kind of slow, with about 20 people in attendance. Friday grew to 30-40, and Saturday was so packed that we had to overflow onto two big tables outside the room. Part of this was correlated to convention attendees, but we also saw that many repeat attendees from night to night. It was a safe, welcoming place for people. I’m sure there are many others like it at Gen Con, but it was particularly important to me, as being welcoming is a key part of our brand. A lot of people attend Gen Con by themselves, so I think it’s helpful to give them a place where they always feel welcome and where strangers can become friends. Next year: I really just wish we had more room for Friday and Saturday. Perhaps I could reserve the tables outside of the room for next year.
8. People Want to Learn Games. This is probably my number 1 takeaway from the event system. In the spirit of what I described in #7, I created a number of daytime events geared around simply playing our games. In Gen Con’s event system, you can select if players should know the game or not, and I inputted that players should come knowing how to play the games. However, that was rarely the case. Most people had not played the games they signed up for–they wanted to learn. Next year: Keep the open game nights, but ditch the “free play” sessions during the day, replacing them with 30-minute demos and/or full teaching games. I would provide teaching guides to the ambassadors to make sure key points are covered before playing a round or two. I could also add an ongoing tournament of 1 or 2 of our games, as “tournament” is pretty clear to people that they need to know how to play.
9. It’s Okay Not to Sell Stuff. I spent $7,000 on Gen Con (conference room, lodging, food, transportation, rental car, cat sitter, etc), and I didn’t sell a single thing (you can only sell inventory out of a booth). As the inquisitive folks at Happy Mitten Games asked me, why were we even there? I’ve mulled over that answer, and I think it’s this: We were there to be Stonemaier Games. By that I mean we wanted a presence at Gen Con, but we wanted the presence to fit who we are as a company. Teaching games, sharing our passion for all board games (not just our own), connecting with people and making friends, and exposing people to our future games with people long before their release date is what we’re all about. Now, all of those things can be done at a booth in the exhibit hall, but the pace and crowds of that room aren’t a good fit for us. Next year: All of that said, I think we could have given people the opportunity to buy our products online after playing them. We had a few promos, but we could have had printed discount code cards linked to each product to hand out to people after each event. Also, I’d like to work with some of our friends at Meeplesource (who had our coins this year) and Greater Than Games (which serves as our distribution broker) to have some of our products in stock in the exhibition hall. Not to push, just to have.
10. The Banner Was Eye-Catching. Friend and ambassador Katy created the design for a big banner that we placed right outside of our conference room. From what we heard, it helped people find the room (it was centrally located, but Gen Con in general is information overload), and it made me feel like Stonemaier was more official. We bought ours from Vispronet.com. Next year: If we make another banner, we might put a #stonemaier hashtag on it so we can find photos of our room that people tweet.
Bonus for Game Designers: We had 4 pitch sessions every morning where designers could sign up for a 30-minute slot to pitch their game to us (conventions are a great time for us to hear pitches). We saw some really neat games–so much creativity. I did notice one mistake (in my opinion) that almost every designer made with their prototype, and I wanted to mention it here in case it helps.
The mistake is that almost every game we saw had cards with several lines of text, and these cards were placed face-up on the table. In-hand cards with lots of text is fine, but as soon as they’re placed on the table and they require other players to read them, the text isn’t effective at all (Magic is the exception to this rule, just like Magic is the exception to every rule). I know they’re just prototypes, but this has a huge impact on the play experience.
Fortunately, there’s an easy fix that allows you to keep the text. In almost all of these games, other players need to read the text on some cards, not all cards. So it’s only the cards that other players need to read from across the table that need to have the text replaced with icons. If you’re unable to do that, at the very least, add a bold icon on those cards that identifies them as cards that other players need to know so they can focus on those cards and ignore the rest.
How was your Gen Con experience? What did you learn that others should know?