Ten Years of Gen Con

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genconI have been meaning to post here more regularly, but circumstances of late have left me extremely busy. In the past few weeks, my company launched the open beta of SolForge, our new digital collectible game on PC and iPad, and immediately thereafter went to Gen Con, where we spent four days demoing and promoting both SolForge and our other product, the deckbuilding game Ascension.

Gen Con is an awesome convention. It’s a place where gamers from around the country gather to share in our collective passion: gaming. This year marked my tenth trip to Gen Con, and I wanted to look back at my experiences there over the years.

My first time at Gen Con was in 2004. I was in attendance solely to compete in the inaugural VS System Pro Circuit. It was a very strange event, because it was a professional level tournament for a game that had only been out for a short period of time. The powers-that-be at Upper Deck had decided to launch the game with the promise of high level organized play in an attempt to lure competitive players away from games like Magic. They extended invitations to top players from a wide variety of competitive gaming endevours, with a list that included everyone from WSOP Champion Chris Moneymaker and Gary Kasperov to Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon champions. The attempt to attract Magic players was successful – in fact, the Top 8 of the event was comprised entirely of tournament Magic players.

Four of us – Neil Reeves, Gabe Walls, Nick Little, and myself – were playing identical decks, a “Common Enemy” control deck built around abusing the most powerful stall cards available and winning the long game thanks to Apocalyse. We were confident that one of us would go on to win the tournament, so we agreed to an even split of the prize money we all made from the event.

As fortune would have it, I managed to dispatch my Teen Titans opponent in the quarterfinals, Nick Little in the mirror match in the semifinals, and a Rigged Elections combo deck in the finals to emerge victorious. It was a pretty awesome moment – I got an impressive looking trophy, a big novelty check, and the honor of going down in history as the first champion of the VS System Pro Circuit – not to mention a chance to get my picture taken in the original Batmobile. Oh, and the prize money was pretty sweet too.

batmobile

That event did introduce me to the complications of taxes when it comes to prize splits. Some people seemed to be under the impression that splitting the money evenly meant that I’d just write eveyone checks until we all had the same amount from the pool – ultimately, we won $80,000 between us. The problem with that plan was that I was being taxed on the full $40,000, and paying out $20,000 of that would leave me with barely enough to pay the IRS. I ended up having to employ an accountant to work out the details, and some people seemed a little frustrated by the way things worked out because they got less money than they expected. So take it from me – don’t do big prize splits with anyone without figuring out the tax implications beforehand.

By the next year at Gen Con, I was on the other side. In late 2004, I was offered a job at Upper Deck working in game design, and I accepted. It wasn’t the first design job offer I’d received – Wizards of the Coast had extended me an offer several times, and I’d repeatedly turned them down because I wanted to be able to keep playing Magic. Ironically enough, once I got out to California to work at Upper Deck, I pretty much stopped playing Magic entirely.
At Gen Con 2005, I was alternating between working at the Upper Deck booth giving VS System demos and helping judge the Pro Circuit in the events hall. I much preferred the latter. VS System is an incredibly poor game for convention demos, because it’s way too complicated. The number of things you have to explain in order for someone to play their very first turn of the game is ridiculous.
I know VS still has some stalwart fans out there, despite having been unceremoniously cancelled years back, but as someone who spent several years working on it, it’s a terrible game. I could go on at length about the various reasons for this (and perhaps I will in a future post), but it mostly boils down to the fact that the game is far too difficult. It caters incredibly to the hardcore tournament player, and as a result fails to appeal to a wider casual audience – a huge failing for a game with such a compelling mass-market license. I appreciate VS System for giving me and the rest of the team that worked on it the ability to learn so many lessons about what not to do in game design while someone else was footing the bill.

By 2006, I was no longer working on VS System – I had moved on to the World of Warcraft TCG. The actual creation of the WoW TCG was somewhat nightmarishly stressful (again, a story for another time), but when it actually turned into a real game, it was pretty amazing. The WoW TCG was the first game that I worked on from start to finish. I was actually the very first person on the design team, because at the time Upper Deck got the license, I was both the lead developer for the new games team and also the person most knowledgable about World of Warcraft in the company.

Interestingly enough, since I started writing this, I received the not unexpected news that the WoWTCG has officially been cancelled. Given the upcoming Hearthstone and Hex TCG launches – new and competing TCG products between Blizzard and Cryptozoic (the license holder for WoWTCG after Upper Deck), this was sort of a forgone conclusion, but it’s still strange that the first game I ever worked on from the very beginning is now gone, even if I haven’t been involved with it in a long time. I’ll definitely write about my experiences designing that game at some point, since it was definitely a crazy time. Anyway, back to Gen Con…

At Gen Con 2006 we gave our first demos of the World of Warcraft TCG. And they weren’t your typical WoWTCGReleasegame demos at a convention, either. The highers-up decided that they wanted the demo experience to seem special and exclusive, so we only set up a few demo tables in the booth, hidden away from the prying eyes of the public. They actually printed out demo invitations that were giving to members of the gaming press or won in drawings by lucky fans.

To this day, I still think that demo method was rather silly. The entire point of game demos at conventions is to expose fans to your product and get them excited about it. The average con-goer at that event had prettty much no chance to play WoW TCG. I can certainly see the value of building buzz or hype before unveiling a product by giving select members of the press early access to something before the public, but that’s generally something done outside of a major convention. Having an actual physical game at an event and just not letting people see it seems like an odd promotional choice.

The following year at Gen Con was the first major convention appearance for WoW TCG after its release. It was also the venue for the first WoW TCG National Championship, which was pretty exciting as a designer. I got to see players competing in a major event for a game I played a major role in creating, and was able to watch people enjoying all of our hard work. It was a truly awesome experience, and made all of the stress of getting the game out totally worth it. It was especially cool to see the variety of decks that got played. While I can’t speak to the development of the later years of the WoW TCG, I think we did a great job with the first release, and that’s a fact I’m still proud of to this day.

Gen Con in 2008 was my first (and possibly last) time at the show as a member of the gaming public since I was there for the first VS System Pro Circuit event. I’d left Upper Deck in the spring, and re-caught the Magic bug something fierce. I decided to fly out to Gen Con because it was the site for two PTQs and I was in the midst of a serious quest to re-qualify for the Pro Tour. The tournaments were Lorwyn Block Constructed, and I was playing Doran, as I did throughout that season. One of the PTQs didn’t even start until 6 PM, and I actually dropped from that one fairly early after a loss because I didn’t want to stay up all night without a strong chance of winning, but I managed to make Top 8 of the other one. I lost in the quarterfinals after making a crucial mistake (something that would become a theme in my PTQ appearances during that period) that allowed my opponent to activate his Windbrisk Heights when I could have stopped him, and it was back to the grind for me.

By Gen Con in 2009 I had accepted a job at another game company – TC Digital – working on the Chaotic TCG, and I was at the convention largely as rules manager and judge for their events. I was hired as part of a plan to bring design and development for the game entirely in-house, whereas previously it was largely handled by an external contracting group (Brian David-Marshall’s company, in fact). I could tell from my start there that the game was troubled – it was a very complex, very numbers-heavy game targeted at a young audience. The core concept of the game was very cool – it was a physical/digital hybrid game in which every card had a code that could be used to also get that card online, so you could use the same cards you got in a booster pack online or with your friends at school. The execution was troubled, however, since each code could only be redeemed once, and there was no way to tell whether a card had been uploaded without trying yourself. You also had to upload every card’s code individually, and each code was super long, making actually inputting your collection online incredibly tedious. Ultimately, the game failed, and I left the company in late 2009, but I think the big idea behind it was a good one and would not be surprised to see it used by a successful product in the future.
Gen Con in 2010 was a big one. It marked the release of Ascension, the first release of my current company, Stone Blade Entertainment (then Gary Games). After leaving TC Digital at the end of 2009, I started working with Justin Gary on some game design consulting projects, as well as a board game he was working on mostly for fun that at the time he called “Legion”. I was sufficiently excited about the game that I cut an Asian Magic trip short to fly directly to Las Vegas for GAMA to help demo a prototype of the game to retailers. It was a huge hit, and we put plans into motion to have it produced in time for Gen Con.

AscensionGameBoxThe convention itself was an awesome experience. We had a very small booth space with only a few demo tables, and so many people wanted to try out the game that we ended up commandeering nearby concession table space for more room to demo. This time was even cooler than with WoW TCG, because this was something that was entirely ours. With WoW, a huge number of the players were interested in the game largely (if not entirely) because of the game license, and while I was a major contributor to the project, it wasn’t something I really ever felt was my own or that it was within my control – I certainly would have many many decisions differently if it had been! With Ascension, though, this was our game from the ground up, and people were interested in it for what it was, not for the license slapped on the box, which made its warm reception that much sweeter.

In the years since, we’ve grown incredibly. We went from a tiny booth in the corner of the room to a 40 2013-08-16 11.48.32x 50 foot space square in the center with huge banners and a giant sphere rotating overhead. We’ve gone from an unknown upstart company to a recognized name in the gaming community. We went from hoping beyond hope that people would want to buy our game to having to turn people away because we sold out of what they want. We went from having just one game to launching our second – we offered our first demos of SolForge at Gen Con in 2012, and unveiled our open beta to the public at Gen Con this year. We’ve gone from a staff of a half dozen trying desperately to keep up to a veritable army of employees and volunteers working their asses off to make the show an incredible success.

It might seem like it would be hard to top my first trip to Gen Con, what with winning the Pro Circuit and all, but these past few years have definitely managed to pull off that feat. While the show itself is incredibly exhausting, I look forward to it every year, because it’s an amazing opportunity to meet face to face with our existing fans and a chance to bring in new ones. These past ten years of Gen Con have been awesome, and I look forward to the next ten being even better.

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