Gen Con 2011: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Michael O. Varhola

A week after the conclusion of Gen Con 2011, I have finally just about recovered, unpacked, and started to get a little perspective on the show, which was certainly a mixed bag of ups and downs. 

First thing I need to do is thank the many people who made Gen Con as successful and enjoyable as it was for Skirmisher Publishing LLC, our d-Infinity multi-platform game magazine, and me personally (see Gen Con Thanks and Acknowledgments). To the extent that Gen Con 2011 was a success it is thanks to these people, as well as all the great fans and customers that interacted with us at our booth, events, and elsewhere throughout the con.

To say that Gen Con was an unqualified success this year, however, would be far from an accurate statement. 

“Gen Con is always the toughest week of the year but it is also the best week of the year,” is something I have long said and, for several years, it was true. My first Gen Con was in 2002, the last time it was held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and I walked the floor with a backpack full of Skirmisher’s first publication, Experts, looking for a distributor, people interested in reviewing it, and swag in exchange for copies of it. I came back home convinced that Gen Con was the place I had to be every year if I was going to be running a game company, and I bought booth space there the next year and have exhibited at every one thereafter (including the year Gen Con was facing bankruptcy and begged us to book in advance on faith).

Things have gotten increasingly challenging at Gen Con over the years, however, and while the “toughest” part of the week has remained true — and while the social and networking benefits of the convention have held strong — the “best” part has steadily diminished from a business point of view.

One reason is the persistently sloppy way the convention is run. As a relatively small company, it is a big deal for Skirmisher to run a half dozen events, and if the times, locations, or published names for them are wrong — as happened this year and multiple times in past ones  — it hurts us and diminishes the value we derive from the con.

Another reason is the decreasing sales we enjoy at the event. In Gen Con 2011, for example — and despite the fact that we had four new products at the con in addition to our existing line — we enjoyed booth sales that were just 1/8 of our top sales at previous conventions! There are probably a number of reasons for this, but the most profound is that the smaller exhibitors were jammed toward the back of the exhibit hall and got no cross traffic. People did not buy our stuff because they never made it to the booth we shared with Armorcast.

There was, in fact, a greater emphasis placed upon the needs of the biggest exhibitors, and a corresponding indifference to smaller ones, than I have ever seen before at Gen Con. In the past, the exhibit hall was a chaotic patchwork of big and little exhibitors, all mixed together throughout the hall. This year, the largest exhibitors were massed at the front of the hall, the artists were clustered in the middle, and small exhibitors were tucked away against the back wall.

As noted, this has all been a growing situation, and for the past three years I have had serious reservations about whether or not to attend Gen Con. A number of friends and colleagues, however, have impressed upon me that we “had” to be there.

But the question we now face at Skirmisher is whether we “have” to keeping going to an event that we no longer really “want” to go to and that is not just indifferent to our existence but which is actually becoming inexorably geared toward companies very different from us. When I consider this question, what comes to mind is, “Gen Con doesn’t need Skirmisher, and doesn’t give a damn whether we come back or not.” And maybe the answer to my question is contained in that presentiment.