Gen Con – a brief wrap-up, and a note on attendance

by Gil Hova

I am back from Gen Con 50! It was a memorable event, made even more memorable because I was able to see the total eclipse on the Monday after the show. Here’s a quick wrap-up.

  • People are really excited for The Networks: Executives! I got to show it off at the First Exposure Playtest Hall, and the odd edge cases are starting to fall.
  • The Networks sold very well, especially considering that it’s a year old.
  • Wordsy sold very well, and I’m quite thrilled that people are seeing it as a novel new word game.
  • The setup at Lucas Oil Stadium was amazing. I was thrilled to actually be on the actual field, although the grass was covered by a temporary floor. There was a museum set up that was the exact size and dimensions of Gen Con I, filled with old memorabilia like letters from Gary Gygax, early editions of D&D and games like Chainmail that led up to it, and early Magic cards.
  • While I was at the stadium, I got to meet and chat with Caelyn Sandel, an interactive fiction author I admire. I’m just starting to get into IF, and she helped give me some context about the scene that I was missing.
  • I was lucky to be next to the Exploding Kittens booth, which had the most creative setup of anyone in the vendor hall. Watching their whole presentation, plus the random mystery items they sold for $1 (everything from potatoes to toilet plungers to sunglasses; I got a laser pointer) was a delight. They had a line and a crowd for the entire show.
  • The puppetry track. Seriously folks, I gave you plenty of notice about this, and you missed some incredible performances. The puppet slam was raucous, hysterical, and definitely not for children, and the two evening shows I recommended (Uncle Nappy’s sing-a-long and Ubu Faust) were marvelous. I also got to meet Claire the Sheep and her “dingus,” puppeteer Stacey Gordon! Stacey handled Claire for Catan during the Bob & Angus Show, but she’s best-known for being behind Julia, the new autistic Muppet on Sesame Street.

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(One of Claire’s jokes during the puppet slam: “What’s the difference between a park bench and a puppeteer? A park bench can support two people.” May also apply to game designers.)

  • I was part of two seminars. Geoff Engelstein and I recorded an episode of Ludology live, which we set up as a live Q&A. We worried about if we’d have enough material to take us through the full hour, but we got a great turnout and had no shortage of questions. This episode will air on Sunday, August 27!
  • The second seminar I did was The 10 Mistakes New Board Game Designers Make. About 100 new game designers came by, and I’m really happy with how the episode came out, even though I lost count and wound up giving 11 mistakes! I hope to put this on YouTube soon.
  • My booth staff. I can’t say enough about how much they came through. Between my seminars, my playtests, and a mild attack of con crud that forced me to take a nap on Saturday (though I still haven’t lost a full day to con crud since I implemented my fist-bump-instead-of-handshake policy), they ran the booth for me. Having this flexibility during a major show was incredible, and I can’t thank them enough.

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Clockwise from top left, thank you to Alex, Dave, Andrew, John, Min (who was Chief Demo Weasel, which allowed me to run seminars and playtests), Kelsey, me, and Emma. Not pictured: Shaun, who had to leave before this photo was taken. 

Yes, that’s Clucky on my shoulder, and no, he was no help at all.

One last Gen Con observation. They just released their attendance statistics, and announced a turnstile attendance of 207,979 people. This translates to a TPD of 51,995, which is a new record high for the show.

(If you haven’t read my article about TPD, my new favorite way of estimating convention attendance, now would be a good time to do so!)

What I find interesting about this press release is that they are not announcing unique attendance anymore. All they’re saying is: “For the third consecutive year, Gen Con targeted an approximate attendance of 60,000 unique attendees.” But they did not announce the exact unique figure.

Unique attendance went down between 2015 and 2016, from 61, 423 to 60,819, even as total (turnstile) attendance went up. In other words, more people attended, but they tended to be the same people over the course of the event. In 2017, 4-day badges sold out weeks before the show, which was unprecedented. And in the days leading up to the show, all badges sold out, which has never happened since the show has been in Indianapolis (and I’m not sure it happened in Milwaukee either, though I could be wrong there).

My guess: the number of people who came for the whole weekend was so large, it decreased the number of unique attendees. I would speculate there were fewer than 60,000 uniques. If this is true, this would be the second straight year that unique attendance has fallen.

I would bet that Gen Con didn’t mention the number of uniques in their press release because it would give the incorrect impression that the con isn’t growing. On the contrary, it is growing enormously, and would have grown more had they not sold out of badges. Essen SPIEL does not disclose unique attendance either, and my guess is it’s for the same reason: unique attendance gives a misleading impression of attendance.

When a convention announces, say, 60,000 unique attendees, they’re not saying 60,000 people per day showed up; they’re saying that over the course of the event, 60,000 different people showed up. This is useful for vendors like me who want to know how wide an audience we can attract, but not so useful to figure out the “mass” of an event. Sometimes, you just want to know how many people are in the building each day.

If two 4-day events report 200,000 turnstile attendees, but event A reports 60,000 uniques and event B reports 50,000 uniques, that doesn’t mean that event A has 10,000 more bodies in the hall on a given day than event B. Both events attract the same number of people, but there are more attendees who attend event A for a day or two, so the individual people who will appear from day to day will be different. Whereas in event B, the faces will be the same from day to day.

Let’s modify Event A’s turnstiles to 190,000. It still has 60,000 uniques. Event B has 200,000 turnstiles, but 50,000 uniques. Which event is “bigger?” It depends on how you look at it. Event A draws more different people, but Event B will have more people in its halls on any given day. That’s what makes measuring convention attendance so tricky; the two metrics measure their own thing.

As a vendor, I like learning about uniques so I know how many different people I can sell to. But as a fan of games and the game scene, I’m interested in how many total people are around on any given day. That’s why I like to measure convention attendance in TPD; it lets me compare “bodies in the hall” con attendance as directly as I can.

So looking at this through TPD, where does this put Gen Con 2017? As far as I can tell, it’s the largest tabletop-focused convention in the world, with its new peak TPD of 51,995. Lucca Comics & Games drew a TPD of 54,242, but that has such a huge focus on comics and general nerd-dom, I don’t think it’s an apples-to-apples comparison.

The next convention in Gen Con’s league is the Festival des Jeux in Cannes, France. Unfortunately, I don’t have any good attendance metrics for it. The best I can tell is that they drew (a clearly estimated) 150,000 turnstiles across 3 days in 2014. That’s a 50,000 TPD, which Gen Con has eclipsed.

If you’re wondering about Essen SPIEL, it drew a TPD of 43,500 in 2016. Still quite large and impressive, but well behind Gen Con. In terms of the number of people in the building per day, Gen Con is larger.

My gut feeling, from anecdotal evidence, is that if both shows released unique attendance, SPIEL would have more uniques. It’s very common for people to show up at SPIEL for a single day, as they’re usually looking to buy a shortlist of games, and there are no events to keep them coming back the next day. There are plenty of people who are there for the whole show, but there are also hardcore fans who appear on Thursday to gobble up the new hotness, locals who are only there on the weekend because they didn’t want to take time off work, and families with kids on Sunday.

Again, this is a generalization based on anecdotal evidence, but I think it’s a good comparison with Gen Con, where the majority of attendees have 4-day badges and a packed schedule of events the whole way through.

What’s the future for Gen Con in general? This is an fascinating question. Interest in the con grows every year, and Indianapolis is always a gracious and friendly host city. But now that the badges are starting to join the hotels as a scarce resource, the convention is going to have to get even more creative to figure out ways to grow the event. They’ve already expanded into Lucas Oil Stadium, and they’re going to need to figure out ways to utilize every square foot of space they can next year.

Stephen Buonocore mentioned on Board Games Insider that Gen Con didn’t stop selling badges out of some conspiracy. If they could keep selling badges, they would have. Their badge supply is likely tied to fire codes and other regulations that keep the convention from getting too crowded, not that it isn’t crowded already! I’m very curious to see if and how the convention decides to grow the event for next year.