As August approaches, I feel a tug in my heart for a return to GenCon. GenCon is the largest game convention in the country, and is held every year around this time. I started attending in 1996, and it's where I met most of my friends, fellow game designers or not. And even though I have not attended in something like eight years, I feel the urge to go. This must be what the swallows feel like before returning to Capistrano.
When I did attend, it was as a game designer, which meant I spent a lot of time in a booth talking to fans. When I wasn't doing that, I was wandering around the convention hall floor, chatting up fellow game designers. There was precious little game playing.
I think it was 1997 when my friend Dustin Wright instituted what was to become, for me, an annual ritual. It was midnight on a Saturday night, and we were all doing what every right-thinking game designer does at that hour: Drinking. But Dustin had other ideas. "C'mon, Ross, I want to show you something."
Now normally, that kind of come on makes me pause. Were we going to go smoke pot? Was this a come on? Were we going to break into a bank? But I threw caution to the wind and boozily agreed to follow him. I walked back to the convention hall, which I was surprised to find, was still open. It had never occurred to me that anything would be going on at that hour. After all, the sales floor was closed; wasn't everyone out drinking like us? Maybe we were going to sneak back into the exhibition all and pull a prank on someone's booth.
Dustin took me to a secondary building from the main exhibition center, a basketball arena. It was filled with gamers. There were dozens of tables set up, each one surrounded by people playing games. The sound of rolling dice was deafening. I was shocked. Dustin took me to the basement. Same thing there, too. Tables everywhere. Gamers gaming. And oh! the games they were playing. Sure, there were popular games like Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire: The Masquerade. But there were a lot of people playing the shit out of games long dead and forgotten. Villains & Vigilantes. Boot Hill. Elfquest (fucking Elfquest; I didn't think anyone played that game).
It was midnight. On a Saturday night. And I was watching hundreds of gamers playing their beloved games when most right-thinking people were out on the town. That's when Dustin dropped the penny that made everything clear. He did this every year, to remind himself of who we were designing for. To understand that people had fun with our products.
Because most of the time, whenever we interacted with fans, it was either to answer questions or hear complaints. We never really got a chance to see the end user using our products; not on this kind of scale. It was an awsome and humbling sight, and one I repeated every year afterwards.