This last weekend, I attended WonderCon for the first time. In addition to general convention activities like observing cosplayers and wandering the Exhibit Hall, I was also con liaison for Steve Jackson Games.
WonderCon didn’t particularly have gaming as a focus, but there was a sizable gaming area, part of which was reserved for the Steve Jackson Games demo team. It was an interesting and fun experience, so I’m sharing ten things I learned serving as a con liaison and miscellaneous convention attendee.
1. Go on Friday
This is what happens when you arrive 5 minutes before demos are supposed to start. Never again!
WonderCon plans were finalized a bit late for me and the family. We were unable to take a vacation day from our day jobs Friday, but a $150+ hotel bill in exchange for maybe one panel was not an great option either, thus we decided to not make our way over until Saturday morning. This was a huge mistake as Saturday morning ended up being a disaster, not only due to traffic (more on that later, True Believer!) but because things were already in full swing that morning. Hordes and hordes of people were already at the convention center, some wearing extensive costumes, streaming here, there, and everywhere.
We arrived at our hotel with an hour to spare, but then were stuck in the registration line 15 minutes while the lone clerk dealt with some very privileged “guests” who apparently didn’t actually have any rooms reserved. Room keys were procured, but then we waited almost ten minutes at Baja Fresh before realizing the one person in line was apparently reading texted orders from his secret masters elsewhere in the convention (Hail Hydra?) with no end in sight. Pretty innocuous as far as delays go, but when the clock is ticking the tension builds quite a bit and it would have all been avoided by checking in the day before.
2. Gridlock Isn’t Just a Doctor Who Episode
Speaking of tension, the traffic sucks. I mean, really sucks. We were staying at the Hilton so we missed the actual Anaheim Convention Center parking, but by all accounts it was horrible. Even avoiding the actual lot itself and living less than half an hour away we still had a rough time. The traffic started over a mile away; we were barely off the freeway before we started seeing stop and go on surface streets at 11 a.m. on a Saturday. We tried waiting in line but time kept relentlessly passing and our 1 p.m. start time kept getting closer and closer.
I think we would have been late if not for the fact that I used to live close enough to the convention center that I could see the Disneyland fireworks every night. This allowed us to take a more circuitous route and skip miles of lines, especially since the line was to get into the convention center and not the actual hotel. Thanks to a “no non-guest parking” rule, it was not particularly crowded in the hotel parking lot once we escaped the crowd and got in. We technically reached our demo area on time, though I think most people involved expected us to be running games at noon, not putting up signage and moving tables around. It was our own personal Peter Parker moment, but it wasn’t our last.
3. Do Your Research
Shown: the only friend we managed to randomly run into.
I came to WonderCon thinking it would be fairly small, at least as compared to San Diego Comic Con. I also knew a few other things. First, one of my favorite cosplayers, Abby Dark-Star, would be there. Second, a friend of mine I haven’t seen in a few years would be there as a creator. Third, The Room had a booth and we were going to buy a signed Blu-ray for a friend of ours who is a fan. Fourth, two friends of ours, one of whom would be presenting at a panel, would be wandering the floors in cosplay. Finally, another friend of ours with a comic script planned to travel artist alley to find an artist who would buy into his script and agree to make a comic book with him. It seemed like it would be a social occasion.
Unfortunately, what actually happened was that the place was so packed with people and there were so many booths that we struck out entirely the first day. The second day we only had an hour before we had to start running demos, so of the list above we only managed to see Abby Dark-Star because we didn’t do our research. We were lazy about checking programs, Twitters and Facebook pages for too long, and we didn’t work hard enough to set up meeting times or places. If you think you will run into a random person wandering the floor, you probably won’t. There are just too many people and things all over the place.
4. It’s all About the Art
Cute. Unique. Expensive.
I’ve been to quite a few geek-spectrum conventions over the years, and WonderCon, by far, concentrated the most on art. It seemed like half or more of the booths were one artist or another, showing off portfolios and selling prints. There were so many great pieces of art – not only pictures but custom plushes, leather jackets, and even fezzes. We bought what we could without shattering the bank, got them signed, and then spent the rest of the time admiring potential future purchases.
Frankly, there are only so many $40 pieces of wall art I can buy and I didn’t have the budget for any super-premium jackets or even the fezzes (nearly $70 for novelty headgear wasn’t necessarily unfair, but it wasn’t in me to cough it up). This left strolling the aisles and looking at art, though it felt a little awkward and like I was rejecting them when I didn’t buy anything. I mean, a lot of that is on my being neurotic and there were very few aggressive salespeople there, but you could still see some quietly desperate people in unvisited booths. Basically, bring your wallet and hope you have a lot of wall/shelf space.
5. Business Cards and Flyers are Surprisingly Rare
Swag. Fun to get, fun to give out.
One of the things I like about doing demos for Steve Jackson Games is that they provide business cards for their website, as well as some bookmarks and prizes to hand out. Attendees like receiving them and it’s a fun interaction as well as a marketing tool. It may be the particular booths I went to, from what I saw most of the authors could have used some handouts or at least something posted that told you where to follow them digitally. I assume most of these independent contractors are connected in some way – Twitter, Facebook, DeviantArt, Tumblr, Instagram, what have you – why not provide that info?
Some of the art we saw was up in the triple digits and might possibly be a family Christmas gift or something to save up for, but I got the impression that a lot of artists were more interested in immediate sales than mailing something to me in six months. Not to mention many of the artists seemed to be solo acts and you would think small business people like that would want to keep up a fan community. In fairness, they may just have been exhausted or overwhelmed by the fickle crowds, but as a potential customer, it would have been nice to a tangible reminder of talent I’d like to order from in the future.
6. You Have to be Flexible
Having an easy to learn two-player game available is a good start.
We set up our game schedule months ago and got it entered into the program in a timely fashion. In the two weeks before WonderCon, we had a tabletop boot camp where we prepared the games for easy use and played them to either learn them or remind ourselves how they worked. Real life frequently got in the way, as it tends to, but we managed to get some quality time in with our games. We were ready to go or so we thought. When we actually started the demos, it turned out the flow of people was almost completely unpredictable.
Sometimes five or six people would want to play Munchkin even though it was time to play Castellan. Sometimes people would want to just play the games and didn’t want a game demonstrator’s help. Some people just wanted to stare at the games and not actually play at all. One person was staring at the game board, so I said “Hey, we’re playing Munchkin if you want to join in.” Their reply? “I can SEE that. I’m just WATCHING.” This was accompanied with quite a glare, so mental note. Some people hate friendliness, and probably fuzzy bunnies and America. But more to the point, they’re unpredictable. Be ready to act accordingly.
7. Your Results May Vary
Much better than empty tables.
On Saturday we had stretches of sitting around and hoping for players, only to find ourselves completely crushed on Sunday. We had only planned 3 hours of demos Sunday, half of what we did Saturday, but we had so many people ready to get their game on that we ended up running demos until the “voice of God” demanded we pack up. This held true for the convention floor as well, which went from full on Saturday to jam-packed on Sunday. My understanding is that there were equally or more attendees on Saturday, so it is likely that the change is due to a reduction in panels on Sunday and a lack of Masquerade.
The celebrities seemed to be equally chaotic – I saw spaces for Mark Waid and Lou Ferrigno but they were both empty. In fact, of all of the names I recognized on the schedule none seemed to be there at the same time I was. On the other hand, we found Kandyse McClure of Battlestar Galactica fame out in the wilds and Chris Hardwick at the Nerdist booth. Well, a Lego Chris Hardwick anyway. Close enough.
Meanwhile, after being told by everyone we talked to that you had to arrive at the Masquerade at least an hour early we managed to wander in at halftime and see a live light-saber dueling show as well as all the winners. So, my message is mixed, much like my feelings about Star Wars: Episode VII.
8. Wondercon Keeps an Early Schedule
The only “after hours” event we could find.
The local gaming conventions run 24 hours. The last Worldcon I went to had public-accessible room parties put on by publishers that ran into the wee hours of the night, if not later. But WonderCon seemed to wrap up almost completely after the Masquerade’s 10 p.m. end time. It was a little strange for me going to a convention with no night events whatsoever, and a little disappointing since we had spent the day either running demos or being stuck in traffic. Some people kept the party going by crowding into the Hilton bar, many still in costume.
Fun to watch for awhile, but when it appeared likely a half an hour wait for a drink, I got less interested. We looked around some but we didn’t really see anyone we knew and as I’m not really the kind of person who walks into a bar and leaves with new friends, we headed upstairs. It was interesting to wake up on Sunday not feeling like I had undergone a violent biker initiation the day before, but it did make things a bit short. I know this isn’t the venue’s fault as I have attended at least one other convention there that went considerably later. At least I wasn’t hungry.
9. The Food Is at Least Easy to Come By
There was ice cream! (Yes, the photo is slightly out of focus. Because… con.)
The Hilton has a walkway that leads to the Convention Center, and at the end of that walk way is a food court that has a Baja Fresh and a sandwich shop named Submarina, which was surprisingly decent. We definitely paid a hotel/tourist/convention markup in the form of $50 for three foot long sandwiches, chips, and drinks, but the sandwiches were massive (easily twice as thick around as Subway) managing to serve as both lunch and dinner. This is a pretty fair mark up for convention food. There was also a grill that smelled decent, at least. Coffee, which becomes critically important by the second day or so of any convention, was also accessible. The Hilton had a Starbucks that kept disappointingly early hours but was at least available for breakfast and lunch breaks.
The convention center itself had at least two cafeteria-style food dispensaries with prices in the high single digits, and a coffee bar. The coffee bar may have been a strange kind of booth as the ladies were wearing face paint and tight outfits and it was on the convention floor, but whether they were local or not it had mochas and lattes for semi-affordable prices so blessings upon their houses.
10. It Was a Fun Place to Be
I had planned to attend some panels immediately before and after our game demos but once we were actually there the convention was too big and we had too many things to carry for it to be feasible. It was still a worthwhile weekend, though. The staff was friendly, and the weather was nice. There were oodles of cosplayers hanging around the outside of the convention hall, taking pictures, posing and generally being entertaining.
Even with 3-4 hours on the main exhibitor floor it still seemed like we’d only seen two thirds of it at most. It helped that the Hilton was a nice hotel. Much as we had to fight with other con-goers for elevator space, the rooms themselves were nice and you couldn’t beat the location. I understand the mindset of going super-cheap on lodgings to free up con money, but in this case I think it would have been a bad idea. Being close gave us a base of operations and added to a non-dramatic feel that seemed to permeate WonderCon, as opposed to the pedal-to-the-metal feel of its big sibling, SDCC. It was different, but I enjoyed it and will be going next year, which I think is the best endorsement I can give.
Previously by David N. Scott