GenCon 50: An Important Milestone

by Transmute Jun

Earlier this year, I attended a show put on by the Idiot’s Lantern comedy group. Their main sketch featured James Bond and Doctor Who welcoming Captain Kirk to the ’50 Years Club’, because all of their franchises had lasted longer than 50 years. It was a very exclusive club, as most franchises had either gone away, or not lived that long. In 2017, GenCon joins this short list, as they celebrated their 50th birthday at GenCon 50, held August 17th – 20th, 2017.

GenCon began in August, 1967 with GenCon 0, an unofficial gathering of gaming enthusiasts in the basement of Gary Gygax (one of the creators of Dungeons & Dragons). GenCon 1, the first ‘official’ convention, was held a year later at the Horticultural Hall in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin (for which the con is named). So yes, for those of you counting, this was both the 50th year for GenCon and the official 50th event, thanks to the unofficial gathering at GenCon 0.

Replica entrance to Horticultural Hall

The convention quickly grew, as gamers from across the country (and eventually, the world) came together each year to join in their shared pastimes. GenCon eventually outgrew its founding city and moved on to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1985 before relocating to its current home of Indianapolis, Indiana in 2003. With each move, GenCon grew, and over the past 10 years, that growth has been significant. In 2017, the convention expanded from the convention center to take over the adjacent Lucas Oil Stadium, both the meeting rooms and the entire floor of the stadium itself (discussed later in this article). The premiere event of the 50th convention was a They Might Be Giants concert, hosted at the nearby Bankers Life Fieldhouse concert hall. The convention had a record number of attendees this year, and for the first time in history, badges completely sold out.

Crowds wait to enter the Exhibit Hall at GenCon 50

Today, while GenCon still offers much in the way of roleplaying games (such as Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder), almost every other type of game is also represented at the con. LARPS, tabletop games, CCGs and video games also have a strong presence at GenCon, as do many gaming-peripheral activities, such as costuming, miniature painting, sword fighting (both with ‘regular’ and padded weapons), music, and dancing. GenCon has also grown to include a strong anime presence, as well as an excellent Writers’ Symposium, where aspiring authors can mix and mingle with those in the business and learn how to improve their craft. GenCon also hosts Trade Day, held on the Wednesday before the con begins, which brings together educators, librarians and retailers to attend seminars and game previews, allowing them to incorporate new games into their professional experiences.

Entrance to VIG Lounge

This year was my third GenCon, and although I have not attended many of these cons, this one was definitely memorable. GenCon 50 paid homage to its rich history, offering many seminars regarding its past and the history of modern gaming. Most coveted were tours of a replica Horticultural Hall, site of the original GenCon in Lake Geneva. The full-scale replica was built on the floor of Lucas Oil stadium, and while anyone could visit the museum it housed, there were a lucky few who were guided by gaming legends such as Frank Mentzer or Bill Meinhardt, as these developers of the original Dungeons & Dragons game relived those early years of the con.

As for me, the con was also memorable because it was my first year as a VIG attendee (Very Important Gamer), which allowed me easy access to a hotel of my choice in the con block, an onsite lounge, special receptions, and a nice swag bag, among other things. Unlike other cons, these VIP-style badges are not sold first-come-first-serve, but are instead re-offered to the holders from the prior year, essentially giving previous VIGs the pre-emptive right to re-purchase every single year. Only badges that are not re-purchased are made available to the general public, and demand is such that these few have to be allocated by lottery. I was one of the lucky few this year who were able to obtain a badge in this manner. Each VIG guest can bring one companion, for about a quarter the cost of the expensive VIG badge. Companions get all of the VIG benefits, save the swag bag and early access to the exhibit hall on Thursday morning, before the convention officially opens.

Tracy Hickman hosts the infamous ‘Killer Breakfast’ event

Another area where GenCon differs from most pop culture cons is in the way events are scheduled. The badges for GenCon are relatively inexpensive ($90 for all 4 days in 2017) but these badges only get you into the convention center and onto the exhibit floor. Any events you wish to attend (such as games, tournaments, seminars, shows, screenings or panels) must be booked in advance via GenCon’s online site (or in person at the con, if any tickets remain), and many of these events have an additional cost. There are some free events (usually seminars and panels) and most games have a $2 per hour cost (so for example, most 4 hour games would cost $8). Some events, particularly entertainment events, can cost more, and the most expensive event is the immersive True Dungeon gaming experience, at $62 for a 2 hour event. On ‘Event Day’, held the May before the convention (on May 28 for 2017) event booking goes live, and competition is fierce. This year, I found that events tended to book up more quickly, and there were fewer empty spots for last-minute attendees who wanted to have their con days move in a more spontaneous fashion. I predict that the more competitive atmosphere for events this year will make it even more difficult to book events next year.

The advantage to this system is that once event tickets are booked, attendees know exactly what they will be doing, and at what times. Days can be planned out with as much precision and activity (or free time) as attendees desire, and there is never a question as to what you are doing next. Even better, there are very few lines at GenCon, with only the biggest panels in the largest room having attendees line up perhaps 60 minutes in advance, and then only for better seating (since everyone has a guaranteed ticket to be in the room). As a result, although this con is much smaller than San Diego Comic Con (SDCC), I found my time to be much busier at GenCon this year, with almost no down time.

Gaming on the floor of Lucas Oil Stadium

Over the past few years, one of the major issues with SDCC has been the potential expansion of the San Diego Convention Center. The most controversial proposal has been a Convadium: a convention center expansion connected with a stadium for the city’s professional football team. Many have rejected the idea, stating that it would not work. In Indianapolis, GenCon expanded this year into Lucas Oil stadium, which is a professional football venue. The stadium is next door to the convention center, and can be accessed either by walking outside, or via an underground passageway. The walk from the exhibit hall only took a couple of minutes, and the corridor was lined with vintage arcade games (that could be played for a quarter) as well as a few overflow exhibitor tables and some fan tables. In 2016, the con took over a number of large meeting rooms at Lucas Oil for True Dungeon, anime programming, and Japanese video-gaming events. This year, in addition to that area, GenCon moved onto the floor of the football stadium, hosting games (including the popular Mayfair Games and Megagames), the gaming library, and the Horticultural Hall replica/museum. This additional space was well-received by most attendees, and as a result, the con did not feel any more crowded than last year, despite having a significant increase in the number of attendees.

In 2017, GenCon brought back its popular food trucks, closing down streets near the convention center to make a pedestrian mall, and expanding the food truck area to include even more options than last year. This area was busy from opening time at 11 am each day until well into the night. The food trucks helped relieve the pressure at the local downtown bars and restaurants, many of which had special GenCon menus and/or theming to welcome attendees.

Retailers eagerly gather to hear about Starfinder during GenCon’s Trade Day

GenCon is the place for the biggest games to debut, and this year the ‘new hotness’ included the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Legendary game (similar in nature to the Legendary Encounters Firefly and Aliens games) as well as the debut of Game of Thrones Catan (based on the popular Settlers of Catan gaming franchise). On the roleplaying front, the star of the show was undoubtedly Starfinder, Paizo’s new science-fiction-based RPG, based on their popular Pathfinder system. Starfinder was introduced to a packed house of retailers and educators at Trade Day, and was the must-have ‘exclusive’ of the con. But don’t worry, it will be available soon at your FLGS (Friendly Local Game Store).

The They Might Be Giants concert on Thursday night was considered to be the marquee event of the con, with attendees enjoying a special show put on by the band, who rarely performs concerts now, making this a noteworthy event in and of itself. They Might Be Giants has a history with GenCon, having performed at the last GenCon in Milwaukee, before the show moved to Indianapolis, and as such were a welcome addition to this historic GenCon 50.

Game of Thrones Catan

While not every year can be a milestone number, I know that the vast majority of attendees are looking forward to returning to GenCon 51, to be held from August 2nd-5th, 2018. Badges will likely go on sale in January, 2018, with the hotel lottery following approximately 2 weeks afterward, and event registration beginning in May.

Did you attend GenCon 50? Join the conversation on FoCC!

Transmute Jun

Transmute Jun has an addiction to pop culture conventions, and attends as many as she can each year. When she's not traveling, she likes to stay at home reading a good book, playing a video game, or binge-watching a TV show. She can be bribed with pizza, Coke Zero and Belgian milk chocolate.