PERSPECTIVE FROM AN INDIE GAME DESIGNER
JAMES HANNON 05-AUG-2015 Roving reporter and aspiring game designer James Hannon gives his review of his un-costumed Indianapolis trip to try and get his and co-creator John Kraemer’s boardgame Chopper! published.
Hi everyone and thanks for reading. This our second year attending GenCon and this one was a little different than last year when we were fresh-faced designers just learning how the boardgames industry worked.
Who am I and why did I go to GenCon 2015?
My name is James Hannon and I am a writer, film-maker, costumer, programmer, husband, cat owner, amongst other things. I am also an aspiring game designer and game aficionado – and this is the one convention I go to where I don’t even consider bringing a costume.
Along with John Kraemer, I co-designed a board game called Chopper! It is a motorcycle building game that we have been developing for the last year and a half. We also have other games under development that just aren’t ready to be talked about publicly yet. If you read my GenCon 2014 review, you’ll see our first hope-filled attempt at finding a publisher. This year was a little more targeted having learned about special GenCon opportunities that we did not know about last year..
What is GenCon?
GenCon has become a huge annual tabletop** “Tabletop” encompasses more than board games – There are plenty of events and forums for role-playing games (RPG), miniature wargames, live action role-playing (LARP), collectible card games (CCG). There’s also some video game stuff. gaming convention that began in August, 1967 as a small informal wargames gathering at the Lake Geneva, Wisconsin home of the late Gary Gygax (who would become the co-creator of the hugely popular Dungeons and Dragons game). Twelve of his friends showed up and had a great time. This small informal gathering eventually became known years later as Gen Con 0.
On August 24th, 1968, Gygax held the first official GenCon at Horticultural Hall in Lake Geneva where 96 people attended. In 1969, they added a second day for GenCon II and 186 people attended. It grew steadily afterwards and in August, 1975 (the year after Gygax’s Dungeons & Dragons was published), 900 people had attended GenCon 8.
In 1985, it had gotten so big that GenCon 18 was moved to MECCA (Milwaukee Exposition & Convention Center & Arena) and they had 9000 attendees. In 2003 when they moved to the current site at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis, GenCon Indy 2003 had 25,000 attendees. In 2020, their contract with the ICC will end, and there are current discussions that GenCon will move out of Indiana if state laws don’t become less oppressive for gay people. There have been other GenCon branded conventions around the world in South California, Florida, New Jersey, Australia, Barcelona, London, Paris, and other places.
GenCon has become the largest tabletop gaming convention in the United States. Last year, GenCon 2014 had 56,614 unique attendees. While writing this, GenCon 2015 just announced that this year’s unique attendance was 61,423 people – an 8.5% increase over last year, and double the 30,046 unique attendance of GenCon 2010.
The Drive to GenCon Indy 2015
My wonderful wife Jacqueline Hannon, close friend/game designing partner John Kraemer, and I began the 2nd annual drive from Scotch Plains, New Jersey to Indianapolis, Indiana on Wednesday morning (7/29). I’m not entirely sure how I agreed to this seemingly crazy travel arrangement, but I remember having read On the Road by Jack Kerouac last year, and the lure of the open road sounded appealing. And truth-be-told, it is a lot better than you would think.
Renting a comfortable mini-van for 12 hours of driving (one way) with 2-hour driver rotations between three people was actually a large part of what made this trip enjoyable. There is definitely something to be said about being around people you like – and having fair driving schedules and non-cramped quarters. I will do it again next year – although I have to admit, Indianapolis may be close to the limit of how far we’ll drive to a con. Celebration Anaheim and DragonCon in Atlanta with our costumes would be awesome, but not sure if I would want to extend the drive any more than the 1,339 miles overall we drove this weekend.
After 12 hours of driving (with pitstops), we reached our hotel – The Microtel Inn & Suites – Indianapolis Airport. It’s not in the heart of the city, but when we booked last year later than we should have, it was our only option. But we really liked the place and decided to go back. They have a great restaurant there called Kazablanka with a really sweet waitress who remembered us (with impressive details) from last year and good simple food that I can stomach. While the hotel and restaurant were still high-quality this year, I don’t know if we’ll stay there next year. And as you’ll see in the next paragraph, it wasn’t their fault – just pure location.
GenCon – Day 1 – Thursday 7/30
We got up early on Thursday to head off to GenCon at 9am for doors opening at 10am. We got to the front of Indiana Convention Center at 9:10am but WE DIDN’T FIND A PARKING SPOT UNTIL 10AM – AND THAT SPOT WAS A MILE AWAY!!!
We walked to the show and got there after 10:30am. And it was a warm day to walk, so we were already tired and sweaty by the time we got there. Next year we are going to try and stay at a hotel walk-able to the Indiana Convention Center. (Westin/Marriott)
Since she’s not as huge of a fan of games, we lost Jackie when she split off to go to the nearby Indiana State Museum. She highly recommends the museum and came back later with a lot of interesting pictures and stories from the history of Indianapolis. Apparently they also have really great chocolate yogurt with peanuts at the museum cafeteria LOL.
We missed the 10am, opening of GenCon, which according to pictures was insane, but orderly. We got there and there were already 2-hour lines formed for the latest games and expansions. Some of the bigger games that came out (with 2-hour lines) were the Game of Thrones, Star Wars Imperial Assault – Twin Shadows, Legendary Encounters: Predator Deck Building.
One thing about this con, is that it isn’t nearly as frenetic as you might think. Yes, there were a lot of people there, but everyone knew exactly what they wanted and where they were going. While it may look it, there really isn’t a Black Friday mentality. People were orderly and friendly.
Once you got on the line you wanted to be on, friendships were formed with line mates. When John was talking about the Predator game, the guy behind him gave him a coupon for the game. With all the games and competition going on, I always expect fights to break out, but I haven’t seen any tense moments in the two years I have been going. Maybe playing games teaches people to “play well with others”? There’s a moral somewhere in there.
I’ll be honest, a lot of the morning of day 1 was spent in lines for games. John and I may be game designers, but we are also game lovers, so we had to pick up the latest games before they sold out at the con. I’m not ashamed to admit that we got caught up in the games frenzy – John picked up WWE Superstar Showdown, Diamonds, Star Trek-5 year Mission, Shadows of Brimstone expansions, and the aformentioned Predator Deck Builder. I picked up Heroes Wanted by Action Phase Games with a lot of expansions, Survive! Space Attacks by Stronghold Games (out of NJ), and Splendor.
During the day, I ran into Ryan Brown, one of my Mid-Western Finest (G.I. Joe/Cobra) Costume Club brothers, and we hung out for a while. It is great to meet similar-minded folks across the country and compare notes. We also sat in on a Settlers of Catan: Ancient Egypt demo and he won dressed as a Cobra Trooper – which was pretty funny.
By 3pm, we either had whatever games we wanted (or were coming back for early the next morning since they were sold out). And we were exhausted. So we left to go back to the hotel to rest. Another problem with the parking being a mile away is that we had to lug these games back to the car in the heat. I was exhausted.
Day 1 – After Hours
After some rest and dinner, John and I decided to go back to the convention around 8pm. The exhibition rooms closed at 6pm, but gaming went on all night. Literally… People did not go home, but played games all through the night. We weren’t there to play games, but wanted to view the Publisher Speed Dating event.
This Speed Dating event is a non-official but approved event at GenCon where on Thursday and Friday night, 18 prospective designers set up their game at a table and get 6 minutes to demo it to one game publisher at a time, in hopes of selling it. After the 6 minutes are up, the publisher then rotates to the next table. In the weeks before GenCon, a panel of judges (designers and publishers) pick the 18 designers scheduled from a slew of applicants.
Sadly, our game Chopper was not chosen as a finalist, but we decided to spectate the event to see our competition. Now remember, I may be a bit biased here, but while watching the demos, I didn’t see anything that was different from other games on the market in visuals and mechanics. But I didn’t actually play the games myself to see if I got into the story behind it. Either way, I wish them all luck achieving their boardgame dreams.
Back to being objective here, but it makes sense. Publishers are going to spend a lot of money creating and promoting a game, so they want to minimize their risk. And just like in the movie and music industries, the publishers want to sell products that are similar to other popular products. So games that aren’t familiar don’t really stand a chance with the publishers. It sucks for designers, but at least there is some logic to it.
I’ll be honest – we left the convention that night feeling a little dejected, but it re-lit a fire in us to prove them wrong.
We got back to the hotel around 10pm, and decided to grab Jackie and go play our boardgames in the hotel conference room – which had a bunch of tables setup. We did this last year as well, but there were quite a few more hotel guests with the same idea. We had to get up earlier on Day 2 to make sure we got there (and parked) for the 10am opening, so we played a few games of Splendor and called it a night around midnight.
Day 2 – 7/30/2015 – Networking
We arrived early enough for Day 2 to find parking before opening, and John mercifully dropped us off at the convention doors as I had developed a blister walking 8 miles the day before.
Jackie was with us at the con today, but John and I had a couple of lines to wait in (to pick up games that were sold out the day before). So she explored the convention at her own pace and did a lot of people watching. The three of us didn’t see each other for most of that morning after the doors opening.
We spoke to the CEOs of the game publishers when we got through the lines and got some insight on how successful designers got their games made. They were friendly enough and supportive, but we heard pretty much the same things we heard the year before.
A little different was the response from David Whitcher the designer of the new Mayfair game, Star Trek: Five Year Mission. After sitting through a demo of the game (which seems really fun), he told us that he had been a volunteer for Mayfair for years, and that he had submitted 10 games that got declined before he hit with the Star Trek game. And now they are going back and looking at his old submissions again. So it’s a very competitive industry – even for insiders.
John and I were licking our wounds about not getting anywhere with our boardgame this year at GenCon. We were standing around waiting for a publisher rep to show up for an appointment with us. I guess they didn’t quite know how to tell us they weren’t interested, so they kept us waiting for over an hour – probably hoping we would go away.
While awkwardly waiting outside the booth, John recognized the familiar face of Randy White who is one of the host of Boardgames Corner – a popular game review channel on the web. When John called out to him, Randy stopped and came over. He was really friendly and was interested in what our GenCon experience was. When John told him that we were trying to get a game published, he became REALLY interested.
Now from previous experiences, we knew not to solicit boardgame reviewers with our unpublished game. They really can’t do anything for us until it is published, and it just gets awkward if you expect something else out of them. But for whatever reason, Randy was interested in our idea and experience trying to sell it to publishers. We were honest and as objective as we could be (it took a lot, but I didn’t rant about a jerk we ran into). Randy then proceeded to give us a wonderful pep talk with some great tips and advice. He didn’t know us prior and we had randomly run into him, but he spoke to us for over an hour about clever alternative ways of getting our game picked up by publishers, ideas for improving our game, and just gave us sincere encouragement.
This conversation turned a pretty blah day into one that will fuel our game publishing dreams for a while. If Randy happens to read this, I just want to tell him “Thank you from the bottom of my heart – your simple act of GenCon kindness was appreciated immensely.”
Now that being said, go watch some Boardgame Corner reviews at http://www.boardgamecorner.net/ – I didn’t know him before meeting him, but he is one of the only people I’ve ever known who gets even more excited about boardgames than my design partner John Kraemer. If you don’t know John, that’s huge praise – the man hugs his boardgame boxes and sleeps with game manuals next to his pillow. Seriously. So go watch BoardGame Corner to see someone who rivals John in love of game of all kinds.
After this convo, the publisher rep eventually showed and told us no. But at this point, we didn’t really mind – John and I had a whole new plan of attack that we would be implementing soon. And we were able to enjoy our last few hours of GenCon before heading home.
And enjoy, we did. The day was a blur so this may not be in the order it happened, but we met up with Jackie, explored the areas of the con we hadn’t before, found the local Indiana-centric chapters of the 501st Legion, Rebel Legion, and Mandalorian Mercs and “talked shop”, rested in the found “Quiet Room” for a bit, saw a few NJ friends, talked to some game entrepeneurs, and did a lot of walking (7.5 miles for me for day 2 – and I received the “New Blister” achievement LOL).
We went back to the hotel around 5:30pm having done everything we wanted to have done at GenCon – and a whole lot more! We ate at the awesome Kazablanka restaurant again, and then played games down in the conference room late into the evening.
The Drive Home
The drive home is always tough. It’s a 12-hour trip with breaks and you don’t want to add any more time to it than you have to. But we saw a Harley-Davidson shop on the way out of Indiana, and had to stop off. Remember our boardgame is called Chopper! Standing there in the showroom, we had an epiphany that tied the entire trip together. I can’t tell you what it is yet, but hopefully soon… We were fated to go in that Harley-Davidson, that’s all I’m saying.
The rest of the trip was uneventful other than making plans and reminiscing about the great couple of days we just had. And some sleeping off-shift since it was still a 12-hour drive LOL.
Final thoughts and Picture of the Convention
It was a crazy couple of days with driving, walking and pitching/playing games. But it was a really great experience that I definitely suggest if you can do it. Sure there was a lot of money changing hands throughout the day, but it really comes down to the love of boardgames – whether it is for clever mechanics, interesting themes, or a just a good reason to interact socially with people without a computer screen between you.
Which brings me to my favorite Picture of GenCon. While I love the picture of John Kraemer kneeling before the GenCon god at the beginning of this post (and believe it should be on the cover of next years GenCon literature), this simple picture of two guys playing a game on the floor away from everybody at 10pm at night sums up why GenCon is important to me. Games at their core should be about people interacting with each other and having fun.
Thanks for reading! Big thank you to Amber for giving me this outlet to to post my thoughts about GenCon 2015!
Hopefully, see you here next year…