Tuesday, November 5, 2013

To Attend or Not To Attend

I enjoy attending gaming conventions; but the past few years I’ve altered my con-going habits thanks to changes in my own life and the ever-fluid convention scene itself. A great deal has to do with transferring my promotional activities from live conventions to online venues, leaving me free to enjoy conventions as an adventure gaming enthusiast without the additional obligations required of a gaming guest.

The Way It Was

Years ago, even after West End Games’ bankruptcy pushed me out into the world of non-corporate-affiliated freelancing, I maintained a regular convention attendance schedule at local conventions -- with occasional appearances at a few not-so-local cons -- as a gaming guest. I ran roleplaying game sessions to showcase my own materials (as well as the obligatory nostalgia D6 Star Wars game) and promoted my activities on panel discussions and at a dealers room table when possible. Granted, this was in the early days of the Internet Age (the late 1990s and the early 2000s), with such social networking sites like Facebook and Google+  yet to come into their prime.

As a freelance game designer and publisher of my own material, attending conventions had their benefits and drawbacks. Creators derive a great deal of satisfaction and encouragement from positive interaction from fans, particularly face-to-face. Conventions offered an opportunity to run games first-hand, giving games an in-person taste of my own gamemastering style featuring my original material. Panel discussions challenged me as a guest to speak meaningfully on a relevant gaming-related topic, often one not directly related to my own work but one that pushed me beyond my comfort zone. Downtime allowed me to simply hang out with fans talking about topics ranging from upcoming releases, stories from behind-the-scenes at West End Games, and the inevitable talk of how to break into publishing or produce their own game. Not every interaction generated a sale, but the face-to-face contact helped make the convention memorable for many con-goers who subsequently became longtime fans of my work.

Attending a convention as a gaming guest takes a lot of time, effort, and money which sometimes interferes with other priorities (family, day job, household, and freelance work). My typical outlay of effort for a convention included printing out scenarios, tent cards, pre-generated characters, and promotional signs for games (sometimes even creating a new adventure wholesale instead of pulling material from my gaming repertoire). Travel, hotel, and food expenses require a significant outlay, especially for someone “working” the convention instead of a con-goer with the freedom to enjoy the entire con. Only a few conventions cover their gaming guest of honor’s hotel expenses (a practice rapidly becoming extinct in the struggling economy); even well-known gamemasters with publishing credits simply get a free convention admission badge as compensation for running games. Game designers can sometimes offset expenses with revenue from a dealers room table, but many conventions have limited such venues to “author alley” tables shared with others over reduced hours.

I still post my criteria for attending a convention as a gaming guest on the Griffon Publishing Studio website -- a complimentary hotel room being the main requirement (since it’s the greatest expense) -- along with the various benefits my attendance could bring to a con. Nobody’s taken me up on it in a number of years; I don’t worry much about it, as attending conventions as a guest has passed beyond an essential strategy in promoting my game design activities and become more of a tertiary luxury.

Interacting with the Gaming Community

For years I’d occasionally debate a longtime gamer friend who questioned why I placed so much emphasis on attending conventions to meet fans and showcase my roleplaying game materials six players per game session; he argued my time was better spent using the internet to reach out and cultivate new customers. Interaction with the gaming community has transformed so much since the mid-1990s and even the early 2000s, when I was still regularly attending conventions. Thanks to the glorious advances of the Internet Age game designers can still remain involved with the gaming community and assertively market their products without attending a single physical convention. Press releases go out to numerous adventure gaming news sites. Many of those offer forums for announcements and other dialogue with interested gamers. Podcasts and other interviews offer opportunities to promote one’s work. Electronic storefronts like DriveThruRPG.com provide publishers with tools to directly market materials to past customers, those with related items in their “wish lists,” and those following favored publishers. Blogs and websites allow creators to directly speak to their audience, offering behind-the-scenes insights, word of new developments right from the source, and free promotional materials. Playtesters review and comment on material online. Designers can even run playtest sessions of their own, or just run games for fun, via online tools like Google+ Hangouts. They can even run events at an increasing number of online virtual conventions.

I’m not saying face-to-face interaction at actual events has no value. I still believe it’s worthwhile in building an audience and promoting new product; but the internet has made the daily accomplishment of this objective much easier and more effective than promoting one’s games among a handful of gamers from one con to the next. Certainly game designers should attend conventions when possible; but it’s no longer an essential strategy in marketing one’s creations.

Changes in My Life

Certainly changes in my life have limited my involvement with gaming conventions. Juggling a family, household responsibilities, and some spare time for game writing and development doesn’t leave a lot of time or energy to do conventions properly. Schedules and finances remain subject to other, more important forces, with conventions rating rather low among numerous priorities. As a full-time stay at home dad, I’m also charged with raising our three year-old; as he shows some interest in his parents’ geeky pursuits we’re gradually introducing him to our activities, including gaming.

Most of my interactions with gamers takes place on the internet, posting about my game design activities on Google+ and Facebook, writing weekly about adventure gaming developments on two blogs (Hobby Games Recce and Schweig’s Game Design Journal), posting press releases about product on various websites and forums, discussing new ideas and game materials with trusted playtesters, maintaining the Griffon Publishing electronic storefront and offering occasional deals at DriveThruRPG.com, and occasionally holding conversations through Google+ Hangouts or in forum exchanges. Conventions as the means of interacting with gamers and potential customers have become less a necessity and more a luxury, a marketing opportunity above and beyond what I’m able to accomplish over the internet.

Enjoying the Hobby

After a short respite from attending my regional gaming conventions, I’m returning to look at the con scene with as a means of celebrating the adventure gaming hobby. Conventions offer an opportunity for me to attend as a game enthusiast without the scheduling and time obligations required of a gaming guest. I certainly enjoy running games occasionally, but I’m not beholden to them as a guest who feels a duty to entertain con-goers constantly. I can attend panels and play in games, hang out with gamer fans and friends, and enjoy a far more relaxed experience.

I’m looking forward to attending some local conventions with roleplaying game programming, in part to run a session promoting some of my own game work, but primarily to play in other games I enjoy. And if I happen to run into old friends and fans, all the better; I’m always happy to talk about my game-industry past, promote my current projects, or just reconnect with old friends.

As always, I encourage constructive feedback and civilized discussion. Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.