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The Con Effect

The Con Effect.  I think the phrase serves to describe what we’ve seen explode over the last ten years.  There’s no mistaking it, nerd culture is as big as it ever was, and getting bigger all the time.  From anime to video games to movies to comics to TV to books to everything in between.  It used to be when you talked about nerd conventions, you were talking about about few thousand people standing in lines to get their prints signed or their picture taken with niche star.  These days the idea of a convention or expo has taken on a completely new meaning.  From PAX to Gen Con to Dragon Con, it seems like there is always something going on.

Video games particularly are seeing more opportunities for developers to showcase their work and players to get hands-on time with highly anticipated titles.  PAX Prime and East both seem to have been growing in attendance and demand.  A couple of years ago, you might be able to scrounge up some badges if you were late to the party.  These days, if you’re not sitting in front of your PC, rapidly clicking “refresh”, you’re probably going to be missing out.  In order to make sure there is plenty of PAX to go around, the convention added a third stop this year in San Antonio, TX.  If you’re hoping to score a weekend pass to the event, they were gone pretty immediately, but there are still single-day passes left.

Once upon a time, video games didn’t even have a conference, leeching off of the Consumer Electronics Show instead.  These days, it seems like the conference cycle never ends.  The year starts with good ol’ CES, D.I.C.E is shortly after that, then PAX East comes in the spring, followed shortly by Game Developers Convention, E3 is a few months later, then Comic Con follows with some nod to video games, that is followed by Gamescom shortly thereafter, then PAX Prime, and bringing up the rear is Tokyo Game Show in September.  Now add PAX South into the fray and you have quite the list of video game conventions.

There isn’t anything ostensibly wrong with having nine video game conventions in a year.  Some might argue that the more gaming conventions, the more opportunities for players to travel and get the whole experience. There’s also an argument that CES, D.I.C.E, GDC, and E3 aren’t open to the public — though, industry affiliation isn’t all that hard to come by.   So really we’re talking about only a few opportunities for gamers to travel to get hands-on time with the games their most excited about.  When it comes to the public and to fans, the more conventions for video games, the better.  Aside from the direct contact with consumers, these expos are important because they provide an industry which is usually all about interaction with TVs and computers, a chance to be a social experience.  Add in the educational talks, wonderful fan events, and its hard to wonder why there isn’t a different expo happening every week.

The flip side to these expos and conventions is the toll on the people who have to work them.  These shows are expensive and are require a large effort from a dedicated team of hard workers.  This is true, not only of the hard-working people wearing the PlayStation blue and Xbox green, but also of the small development teams who are bringing their equally small game to Seattle, Boston, San Antonio, ect.  PAX South might be another opportunity for fans to come together, but for people at Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, 2K, and EA, it simply means another week where a block of hotel rooms is rented out and another demo needs building for public consumption.

While the jury is still out on how people respond to PAX South, my gut is telling me the video game industry might already be stretched a little thin to travel any further.  Even putting the effort of travel aside, PAX South doesn’t fit as cleanly into development cycles. Holding PAX South in January means it will be coming right after the biggest season for video games.  Meanwhile, games releasing in the spring like Bloodborne, The Order: 1886, and The Witcher 3, will have already been demoed to the public at E3 and PAX Prime.  For nearby developers, mostly those in Austin, it makes a lot of sense to hit up San Antonio, but for those located in Washington and California, it might be hard to justify the trek down south.

For those looking forward to having PAX in their backyard, please ignore my wet-blanket-ness.  PAX isn’t just about playing blockbuster titles.  In fact, some — possibly many — would say that PAX is about panels, meeting up with friends, and discovering some of the smaller games that weren’t on your radar.  When you boil it down to the smaller things, the things that make these conventions truly special, having more and more of them might be amazing.  Maybe we don’t need the Halos, the Dragon Ages, and the Borderlands to make these experiences qualify as a “real convention”.  Maybe the publishers of those video games would just like us to think they’re important.  My favorite time spent at these conferences is never the long lines to big titles.  Instead, it’s seeing Brad Muir of Double Fine, hop around with glee as people play Massive Chalice, it’s seeing how many people turn out to support Patrick Klepek’s talks on dealing with internet trolls, it’s voice actors becoming emotional when speaking to the fans who made them into the success of what they are today.  I hope as we continue to add more conventions to the ever-growing slate of special opportunities for fans, each opportunity continues to be special for attendees, no matter how many there are and who is showing up.  We’ll see if that can be the case.

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