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Can Phoenix Sustain a Solid Gaming Only Convention?

Arizona OrbAs I got word back in late November about the demise of the latest attempt to get a large sized gaming only convention off the ground (Vul-Con this time around) I got to thinking what it might take to lay the groundwork for creating what could eventually become a “destination” sort of convention along the lines of Origins or Gen Con right here in our backyard. Sorry to say my travels on the road and subsequent work to keep things rocking here on TGG put this piece on the backburner for a while but I think the time is ripe to look at opening a discussion with an aim to put a foundation into place to bring Arizona what I would call a “Big Daddy” con to the scene.

As with most things, these are simply my thoughts and I certainly look to hear from folks both in the area and outside of AZ regarding their own ideas and opinions.

With the fifth largest urban population (or possibly sixth since there’s always jockeying between Phoenix and Philadelphia) in the U.S. you’d think the area would be ripe to sustain at least one good sized show each year devoted to the gaming community. Yet that’s never been the case here in the Valley of the Sun. So I’m going to address a few topics I think, if tackled, could go a long way in getting something gamers in Arizona could be proud to call a home show up and running.

Realize the Hobby is Much Larger than You Think  

Table top gaming is a niche hobby, believe me I understand that, but it isn’t as small as some would believe or have you believe. Industry reports continue to show game sales are up and more gaming stores are opening across the country. This growth is being seen in other places where gaming may not have always been a large percentage of sales as well – comic books stores as an example. One of my favorite places to visit when I stop in the Chicago area (and have the time) is Graham Crackers Comics in Naperville, IL. I’d popped in a few times with my brother, as GC is his home base for comics, and when I first got to familiarize myself with the store I noticed the gaming section was pretty small and focused mainly on Magic and Heroclix. Since that time the gaming section has grown to what I would guess is three to four times the original size with offerings by Fantasy Flight, AEG, Wizards of the Coast, and more. In fact, when I chatted with store manager Mike Wall a couple weeks back he told me they were doing extremely well with some titles blowing out the door on the very days they’d get a shipment in.

Add to this the crossover appeal to gaming from other areas like comics, “geek” lit, actions figures, and so forth is huge and you could see a tremendous influx as people find our hobby isn’t just a bunch of socially awkward, unwashed virgins. My pal Angry John (who really isn’t angry and is a seriously good guy) over at Graham Crackers visits The Gaming Gang on a daily basis and I swear I don’t think he games at all; I promise we’ll get him over to our side at some point though. Yet here’s an example of someone coming to our site where 95% of what we cover really isn’t their bag but finds enough of interest to keep coming back.

Now that I’ve said my hellos to my buddies over at GC, we do need to get serious about the general appeal which many aspects of gaming have for many people. Sure, some folks aren’t keen on role playing or think grogards are warmongering nuts but the reality is there’s something for almost everyone when it comes to our hobby. Granted, I don’t think I’d get into live role playing but just because that isn’t my bag of tricks doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a viable presence. There’s so much under the umbrella of what we consider to be gaming, and when I talk about gaming I’m not including video games and I love those too mind you, that not being able to claim a first class con here in the Valley is a bit sad.

Be Inclusive

Every gamer has a certain stripe to what they like to play. I’m the first to say my favs are more strategy intensive, historical, and thematic. I’d guess the things I post and the reviews I tackle would lead the reader to believe this already yet that doesn’t mean I have any strong dislike for other sorts of game genres; a good game is a good game. I believe sometimes we as gamers pigeonhole ourselves into specific styles of games we’ll play and that can be a bit of a disservice to ourselves.

Granted, no convention can be all things to all people but there’s nothing worse than investing the time, money, and effort to travel to a show only to find it’s a complete hodgepodge with little broad appeal. Or you were hoping since it’s a game con what you enjoy playing will somehow magically make an appearance. Saying that, a good convention needs to bring other things to the table outside of what may be considered it’s bread and butter; Origins is stronger in board gaming than RPGs whereas Gen Con is the opposite of that. This doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of role playing games going on at Origins or traditional board games happening at Gen Con as both shows do a great job of providing interest outside the core audience. I especially love the inclusive experience at Gen Con where it seems as if gamers of all callings can get together under one roof.

A successful show here in Arizona needs to have a focus but be unafraid to bring in other aspects of the hobby into the tent which may not necessarily be the things you and I might jump aboard.

Appeal to Kids and the Family

One thing I’ve noticed the past few years, at some of the more successful cons around the country, is the inclusion of family friendly or areas or events aimed at keeping the little ones entertained. Be it special areas set aside for parents to confidently allow smaller kids to play as mom and dad peruse the goings on, events which draw younger gamers (Pokemon or Kaijudo tourneys anyone?), or age appropriate gaming for children in the 6-12 range,  I normally see something which will keep even the youngest family members entertained. I’ll be the first to point out I’m not a parent but I do have a niece and nephew who are six and eleven respectively and I know if I were to take them to one of the big gaming cons they’d have fun. I also have friends and, believe it or not, dated women with children in this age range and can say with confidence these kids – outside the most cranky youngsters – would have an awesome time at any of the big shows. I can see where many parents who’d love to head out to a con but worry if their children are going to have fun or, worse yet, completely melt down because they’re bored and that fear then deters mom and dad from attending.

Knowing this, events need to be scheduled which can draw gamers of all ages. As a wargamer and historical miniatures gamer, I’ve heard the term “greying of the hobby” bandied about for a long time. Over the years there’s been a lot of talk about how to bring new converts to these genres but I think the best way is to present games in which the “need to win” takes a backseat to enjoying the game and completion, regardless of the type of game. This is coming from someone who isn’t a fan of the politically correct concept of everyone being a winner just for taking part but I find introductory sessions and low key starter games (without a dumbing down element) do wonders for generating genuine ongoing interest.

Since so many people involved in gaming either work in or come from an education background, utilizing their talents is a no brainer to have them host events which can be successfully pulled off across a wide age demographic. Families game together at home so it’s only natural to do the best to incorporate that same level of comfort at a convention; families play games because it’s nearly hands down the most economically viable way, outside of parking in front of the TV, for everyone in the family to have fun at home.

Price Accordingly

Conventions are a business. Yep, I know a lot of hard work goes into putting together an event, regardless of the size, and most of us like to be compensated for our efforts. For the most part these days a labor of love ends up being a one and done affair and while people made a valiant effort to make the show the best they possibly could these normally fall short. Just because it’s a labor of love doesn’t mean you’re going to see a lot of love for your labor. One of the knocks I heard about regarding Vul-Con – and it was a legitimate gripe – was the two day con didn’t allow for the advance purchase of badges for a single day of attendance; it was pay for both days or take a pass. I understand the need to pay for the venue so this isn’t something I’d hold against Jay and Rick because they really did pour their heart into getting V-C up and running. That said you need to price accordingly.

To make sure you don’t price your way out of an audience, the appropriate venue needs to be booked. I can’t say I’d shoot for the Phoenix Convention Center the first time out nor would I look to hold the show in the basement of a community center either. I’d go in the direction of something like John Kranz does with the annual ConsimWorld Expo and shoot for a nice local hotel which offers a good sized ballroom with options to expand into other rooms if the need arises.  Also the option of cutting a special break for family passes or a family day can do wonders for attendance; Gen Con offers a special price for families on Sunday every year and they pull in a fantastic turn out on the day because they do so.

I’d rather charge ten or fifteen dollars a day, with the option of getting a full con pass at a lower rate, as opposed to hitting prospective attendees up for the whole shebang regardless if they come for the duration. Start up cons aren’t going to make money anyway so wouldn’t you rather do what’s good for the hobby scene as opposed to trying to simply make a buck?

What Looks Bad for Your Business May Very Well be Amazingly Good for Business

I promised myself as the calendar turned to 2013 I wasn’t going to bad mouth any of the local gaming stores here in Arizona. The reality is I’ve never honestly knocked them all that much outside of a couple of podcasts we’ve done and a post or two; considering we have somewhere in the vicinity of 2600 posts and tons of podcasts I don’t think I’ve been overly hard on the local gaming scene. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have my finger completely on the pulse of gaming in AZ simply because we look to have a much higher level of coverage at TGG. This doesn’t mean I don’t care about the goings on in the Valley even though 99% of our audience isn’t local; I know there are other sites which bring you the local happenings better than we ever will.

Yet having a viable local gaming convention can only be good for local businesses as opposed to drawing business away from any particular store or chain. This is something I had (and still have) a hard time understanding in regarding Vul-Con as there were local stores who told their patrons they shouldn’t attend the show and should instead spend their weekend gaming in their stores. How could that be productive to our scene or conducive to good business? I highly doubt stores in Ohio, Indiana, or Georgia tell their customers not to hit Origins, Gen Con, or Dragon*Con. How can a convention held in the area on one weekend of the year hurt your business for the other fifty one weeks on the calendar?

I’ll use an example from last year’s ConsimWorld Expo: I wanted to introduce some of my game designer pals who were hanging out at the show to 1812: The Invasion of Canada, from Academy Games, as I feel it’s a great introduction co-op game which breaks the mold of what the mindset may be of a “wargame.” Designer and developer Lance McMillian sat down with fellow designer and developer John Welsh, along with a couple other attendees, and me for the full five player game. By the time we finished playing Lance enjoyed the game so much he started contacting stores around Tempe to get his hands on a copy. This was just one of the times I ran across someone playing a game for the first time and, finding it was something currently in print, that person went looking to see how they could get their hands on the title here in the Valley! Maybe even so they could play it with other people later that night at the Expo?

ConsimWorld Expo didn’t hurt the local gaming businesses but actually helped get out of towners looking to shop right here. Knowing this there must be something going on, under the surface, in the area which is indifferent to or actually attempting to derail efforts to get a good sized show working in Arizona. That has to be the case right?

Bury the Hatchet

I’ve mentioned before I find the gaming community here in the Phoenix area to be very fractured. I won’t go as far as using the word dysfunctional but if I were to use that word it would apply to the gaming stores one finds here in the Valley of the Sun. I get the fact business is business and people have invested expense and effort in an attempt to ensure the profitability of their store. Honestly, no one is getting rich from running a game store but someone can eke out a living when they do things right. Competition is healthy and looking to keep your edge over that completion is easily understandable. What isn’t understandable is the juvenile shenanigans which take place between various stores and the near hatred some of the Valley store owners seemingly have toward to one another by way of their actions or what they tell their patrons. I know we’re in reality just playing games and are mostly big kids but that’s no excuse to conduct yourself, in the business world, as if you’re nine years old. I do say this with absolutely no disrespect to nine year olds too…

In order to launch a gaming show, which will draw more than a couple hundred people, the store owners in Arizona are going to have to put on their big boy pants and come to the table willing to put past differences behind them. I’m consistently amazed by the shortsightedness I see from stores as they’ll intentionally work against what’s good for the community as long as it’s in their – mistakenly – best interests. It almost looks as if these owners call it a good day if they prevented one person from walking into the door of a competitor even if it costs them ten prospective customers in the end. I can’t say if the strained relations are beyond the point to repair burned bridges but a good option might be to go outside the local scene to bring someone in who can come in with a fresh perspective.

Fresh Faces

As I previously mentioned, I’m not thoroughly invested in the local gaming scene and it may just be we need to bring in fresh blood who aren’t heavily invested in Arizona gaming to piece together a plan – no, I’m not volunteering – because at this point it doesn’t look like locally we can get this done. I’m not knocking anyone who has given it a go in the past or who may be working on a con in the future but something isn’t clicking with the public when it comes to a game con here; The Phoenix Comic Con has grown by leaps and bounds the past five years and a well thought out gaming con wouldn’t be any different. I can understand Neoncon not going over in Vegas because, regardless of what the Nevada tourism board wants you to believe, Sin City doesn’t scream family friendly.

A new perspective could open up an entire realm of possibilities! A team of folks with experience in promoting and producing a profitable convention, even if it wasn’t gaming related, might be a viable option as what can lead to a lot of success is effective promotion as well as under promising and over delivering what attendees can expect. Experience could be the key in getting an Arizona con going. Honestly, how tired are you of reading such and such show is going to be the greatest thing since sliced bread only to find what you end up walking through the door to is mediocre at best?

Timing is Nearly Everything

I never understand why attempts are made to launch new cons in the Valley during the late spring/early summer months. As the weather begins to warm in the rest of the country we’re already starting to see temps pushing one hundred degrees and that doesn’t make for a pleasant stay for most visitors in Arizona. Sure, during the summer months hotels are practically giving away rooms but by this point the convention season is underway, kids are on breaks or vacations, so families already have their plans made and those plans surely don’t include heading to AZ.

A better time to look to schedule would be late March/early April or, better yet, early to late September. At these times of the year conventions are just starting to wind up or wind down so the opportunity to take advantage of gamers excited to get the festivities started or, in the latter case, get one last show in under their belts. Hotels would still be reasonably priced and the weather here is just about perfect at these times of the year. All in all I think a September date would work best as prospective company sponsors and exhibitors are still in con mode with loads of new releases, which came out at Origins or Gen Con, available and many of them will be heading over to Germany for Speil in October so they haven’t shut it all down yet before the holiday season push.

The Attendee is King (or Queen)

Finally I’m going to make mention of the fact any successful convention needs to have the people walking through the door of the convention walk out happier than when they walked in. Some of this stems from making sure people know what they’re getting into before they buy their ticket or step off a plane or out of their car. We don’t need to promote a Phoenix show as “the biggest game con in the Southwest” or “premiere gaming convention in Arizona” because you know what? It’ll be the first time out the gate and that most certainly won’t be the case. Too many shows begin by promising the world and barely deliver Guatemala let alone the world. Transparency and honesty will go a long way to providing a gaming experience which can be built upon and lead to a foundation for bigger and better shows.

No game convention can long survive without the vast majority of attendees believing they came to that venue and experienced something they couldn’t have found anywhere else. That’s what separates the one and done shows from those who celebrate ten, twenty, and thirty or more years of existence. This isn’t something which can be put into place overnight and a lot of hard work (and more importantly sharp planning and thought process) have to go into the endeavor before any fledgling show can even hope to take flight let alone soar here in Arizona. Not only should gamers demand a con worthy of the Valley, I think they really deserve one.

Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list of ideas of how to put on a serious gaming con and I’m sure I’m off the mark here and there (I did point out at the beginning these were simply my thoughts) so I certainly welcome any comments or ideas to add to the discussion!

Jeff McAleer

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1 Comment

  1. Hi again Jeff,

    I missed this piece earlier and didn’t know about it until Jay mentioned spotting at dinner last night with the families.
    I agree with most all of your points and if you look at the underpinnings of Vul-Con we tried to acomplish most of those things to the best of our ability. Ticket pricing was the toughest point to resolve and we thought that perhaps coming down in subsequent years was better than trying to raise rates later. While you may think the PCC is way too pricey, you’d be wrong, it is actually the same price per squarefoot as most other venues in town and even cheaper than most hotels I personally would be willing to go to that offer similar packages. There are so many other unseen expenses I won’t even get into that are the real cost of running an event. As the first one out of the gate I’d say Vul-Con 2012 was not a failure. We made our predicted attendance target and yes lost money but that was expected for the first 5 years.
    In my oppinion the biggest portion of why gaming events fail is more a matter of their structure and who is expected to pay for the event. Let’s take a home and garden show as an example. At a home and garden show you have 10s of 1000s of attendees that come through the door and wander about looking at everything and leave. The vendors at a home and garden show pay upwards in the amount of $1000 for a booth and more than cover the cost of advertising, hall rental, pipe and drap and so on and so on. While the attendees pay about $10 to get in the door and stay for 2 or 3 hours This will work out well for the event as you can see.
    A gaming con does not work that way. You have a static attendance that sits in one place for many hours at a time soaking up space and therefore money. Vendors that are not willing to pay market value for event space and this is a big problem. ALL other types of shows base their covering costs on vendors picking up the tab but club and fan run gaming events have established a messed up model for gaming cons that has become the norm.
    At out projected attendance we figued each person would cost us on average $35 each for them to attend. Some type of games would cost us more to run than others because some lost us money per person because of the space they take up. That was all OK because it would all work out in the end. So unless you go BIG there is no breaking even or making money which is the point right?
    Local community rifts aside it is tough to make one work at all and i wish anyone luck who tries.

    With all that said we are not done though and instead of an all encompassing event we are concetrating on coming back with a smaller specialized event centered around our favorite world of Dust next year in a very unconventional and heavily themed venue . This we are doing more for fun than profit.

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