Monday, January 26, 2009

Why are sci-fi conventions dying? It's not just the economy, stupid

Dragon ConImage via Wikipedia

Over at SF Signal, the gang asks if sci-fi conventions are dying.

I wrote about this myself a while back, and as a guy who has helped run convention, my general take is that...

A) The economy is enemy #1 right now and since most cons barely make it in good times lean times will see some culling of the herd.

B) The Internet is hurting "traditional" conventions because these cons are holding onto activities that were vital in the 1970s or earlier but that the Web has made unnecessary.

For example, how many cons still have movie rooms? These were awesome back before VCRs and the only way you could see stuff no longer in the theaters--or even obscure when home movies first came out--was at conventions. How many cons still have LAN parties, when with the exception of casemodders there is no reason to pay to network game when you can do all that online from home today. And so far as dealer's rooms? Name me one item you can get here that you can't get cheaper online?

I'll even take it one step further and ask why do we need masquerade skits when we have Youtube humor videos? Why do we need filking when we've got Jonathan Coulton, MC Frontalot and Paul & Storm--all with stuff free online? Why do I need single-author panels when I'll get less out of that one hour with person than I can get with that author's blog.

These are all legacies of a bygone convention era, and most cons waste their energies catering to the dying throngs of fandom that NEVER WANT CONS TO CHANGE. Yes, the old guard are your most reliable customers, but it's a shrinking market and focusing on them means you won't grow new customers fast enough to replace them.

The conventions that succeed today are the ones that offer me experiences I can't replicate from my PC or in the regular course of my life. Some of that is primacy--SDCC let's me see clips and hear announcements first. Origins and GenCon do the same with game debuts and playtests. Other cons simply offer scale--if you like costuming, enjoy the DragonCon parade, it's HUGE. Smaller cons win by specializing. PenguinCon, for example, combines sci-fi and Linux enthusiasts, with a decide sci-tech bent. That crossover appeal is key here.

Cons can offer experiences I can't get from my PC. First of all, multi-author panels are awesome, because the interplay between multiple experts and celebrities is an experience that can't be matched through blogs and online interviews. Genuine, in-person tabletop games with experienced game masters offer an untouchable con experience--I get to try new stuff with people who really know how the games work and are excited about them. (Personally, I'd love to see a convention that combined the above to experiences--a celebrity gaming con that let me play D&D with Wil Wheaton or Scott Kurtz.)

Stop selling me miniature wargaming models or boffer nerf swords and run workshops that show me how to paint minis are build boffer blades. Don't show me your fan film, let's make one over the course of the con. Don't just show me anything, interact with me. That's the only way conventions will survive.
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