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Aethercon Report

posted Nov 24, 2012 14:08:38 by lawrence.whitaker
As you know, Design Mechanism was present at Aethercon, a virtual
convention, held the weekend of 16th-18th November. This is my report
on the convention with thoughts and feelings on how it went.

The idea of a virtual convention is appealing. I visit a lot of cons
but the travel can be wearying, so the notion of one where you don't
have to travel very far was attractive to me. The technology is there
to allow conferencing and chat attendance and I wanted to see how the
event would fare – and differ to a traditional bricks and mortar
convention.

We were approached by the organisers back in April or May. In that
time we were bombarded with emails regarding the organization and
prize support. We had to produce graphics for advertising, get to
grips with the Roll20 Virtual Tabletop (more on this to come) and
generally keep up with all kinds of communications regarding the event
itself.

This is all par for the course. What did become a little trying was
the way prize support was handled. In my discussions with the
organisers I made it clear that cash prizes were out of the question
but I would happily offer free PDFs. This seemed beyond them to grasp.
I therefore pledged an affordable amount for us, only to be told by
one of the organisers, in a somewhat accusatory tone, that other
companies were offering far, far more. "Great," I said." I'm glad they
can afford it. But what I've offered is what we can afford". A
complicated scenario then emerged of DrivethruRPG codes for a certain
redeemable value, despite protestations from the other vendors, until
it became clear that even DTRPG preferred (and have) their own,
vendor-controlled, mechanism for just distributing free redemption
coupons. It seemed Aethercon had seen the sense in this, but even
then, it still wasn't clearly communicated.

For any con to be successful it requires a buzz. As Continuum's
organiser for close to 10 years, I know all too well how important
that buzz can be: spreading words on the forums gamers frequent is a
vital component, as well as the usual social media such as Facebook.
Aethercon failed in this respect. I saw no promotion of the con on
RPGnet, RPGsite (apparently there was an attempt, but so far under the
radar no one saw it) or ENworld. I plugged the con several times here,
but much of the word spreading seemed to be left to the vendors and
sponsors and not the organisers. I noted with wry amusement that WIRED
magazine had quite a prominent plug for Aethercon; but is it really
the case that roleplayers read WIRED in preference to the major
forums? I doubt it.

So we neared the con and, even more curiously, communication slowed –
not increased, as one might expect. A small amount of confusing (and,
frankly, useless) guidance was offered for setting out one's booth
come the event. Pete and I both thought that there would be a
dedicated user-interface for these vendor booths in the virtual trade
hall. But no. Vendors were expected to use Roll20, designed for
collaborating on games, to set-out their stand. We were
time-constrained and with nothing more than RQ6 to promote, didn't
spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to put a stand together.
But other companies did, and appear to have had very frustrating
results.

Pete and I had a dry-run before the con went live for us on the
Saturday and immediately hit glitches with the application's
handling of audio and video. We could do one, but not the other. In
the end Pete and I set up a G+ hangout so we could speak to each
other, but had a video presence using Roll20, communicating with
people who came to see us by chat window. That worked, but fell far
short of the idea of a virtual con. It was a glorified chat room,
really, although it did have the advantage of allowing us to run a
combat demo with some visual aids. Only one person, though, was
actually interested in such a demo. All told, we had about 8 guests
over the whole weekend, and several of those were bored-to-death
vendors who just wanted to wander around and hope they weren't alone
in being bored. They weren't. We were too.

The layout of the Aethercon website was very much to blame for this.
The home page used drop-down menus to identify the different 'halls'
which mean you had to go hunting. When you got to the right page, the
booths themselves were identical icons that didn't reflect the
different vendors' presence, products or nature. You'd be forgiven if
you thought no one had shown-up. There was nothing to indicate
otherwise. Conversely, there were colourful graphical icons on the
Home page for two IRC chatrooms. This was an arse-over-tit way of
presenting a virtual con. A bit like putting the trade hall and
gaming tables in the attic with no signage, but lots of pretty display
directions for the organisers' room off the main foyer. We kept tabs
on the discussions in these chatrooms throughout the weekend and it
became clear that demonstration games and tournaments either didn't
start due to tech problems, were cancelled due to lack of interest, or
weren't clearly announced on the main page. Lots of confusion.

The seminars were a little more successful. These were held in G+
Hangouts but the problem here is the limit of 9 people per Hangout.
These were also streamed on YouTube, but that still meant limited
opportunity for Q&A. I participated in an impromptu seminar where I
was meant to discuss the state of the European RPG scene. The guy
meant to be doing this couldn't make it. In the end, I talked about
Design Mechanism and RQ and gave a few thoughts on how things are in
Europe. I have a suspicion that it was me and the moderator only for
this seminar – I've no idea how many people watched the YouTube
stream.

The second seminar was Pete and I on RQ and DM. This was quite well
attended (six participants, I think) with some great questions and
discussions. But, at the end, we decided to call it quits. We'd spent
almost two full days glued to our computers waiting for people to drop
by. Few did, and it certainly wasn't through any fault of ours. We
couldn't run demo games and staff the booth – and even if we had
prepared full demo games, it seemed that attendance (or lack of) resulted
in quite a lot of them being cancelled.

Aethercon, then, was not a success. Poorly marketed, micromanaged in
the wrong areas, using an inappropriate interface and a very poorly
designed website, Aethercon failed on just about every level. It was a
brave idea, and kudos to the Aethercon team for trying to make it
work, but their approach and assumptions were very far removed from
the reality of our industry. Its probably a relief that the con didn't
have more traffic, because the whole thing might have fallen over
completely. I asked Aethercon what their forecast was for the weekend,
and they enthusiastically told me 10,000 attendees or thereabouts.
This was based on Facebook 'likes' and followers, I believe; a dodgy
way to forecast attendance. I think I suggested that 10% of that would
be closer to the mark, but even that cautious forecast was still
way-off beam in the wrong direction.

I hope they attempt Aethercon again and radically change their
approach. If they decide to continue as they have, we won't be there.
Even if they change everything, I'll still need some considerable
convincing, and cast-iron demonstrations of how things work, before
committing to a return visit.

A shame then. Great idea: poor execution. Still, my considerable
thanks to those DM regulars who dropped by to keep me and Pete
company. It was great having some one-to-one chats with Dan, James and
Vaughan, and we very much appreciate them taking the time to come
along.
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