Commercialisation, and the appeal of an amateur fanbase

A lot of gamers will tell you that the opposite of pro is noob. It’s one opposite, I guess, but back in the meatworld the most common opposite of professional is amateur.

Amateur means a lot of things. It can mean bad (amateurish isn’t usually good), it can mean hobbyist, it can mean idealistic. For example, the Olympics is intended for amateur sportspeople, on paper at least. This idea that amateurs were purer hobbyists who did their sport/ game/ profession for the love of it, untainted by filthy lucre is starting to look rather old fashioned now.

So why talk about amateurs? In the wake of the EVE addon changes (which I wrote about yesterday, along with lots of other bloggers), I think there’s a backlash from a lot of people who just don’t like the idea of having their favourite game’s ecosystem commercialised. The amateur way is the purer fanbase, playing and making guides, websites, addons for the sheer love of the game.

The roots of the MMO hobby that I personally love come directly from amateur gamers. MUDs were originally based on  open sourced code, created and staffed by people who just loved them as a hobby. Things have moved on since then, become more commercialised, better in some ways and worse in others. The community itself hasn’t much changed, although it has grown a great deal. Yet the games themselves were once LOVED by their creators and their players, not consumed.

It may be that the majority of gamers would slaver over a more commercial ecosystem. They love wowhead, curse, EVEMon, and all the slew of professional quality player tools that have become available and would happily buy and use more if they existed. I do wonder though what gets lost in the transition.

Yet I think of the fan run scifi conventions I’ve been to compared to commercial conventions. I have seen good quality versions of both, but the fan conventions had more soul and connected with attendees on a much wider range of levels. People ran sessions based on what they personally thought would be fun and interesting, rather than on how many bums they could get on seats. It felt so much easier to connect personally with both other fans and people running the convention (who are of course also other fans), the power differential between producers and consumers just wasn’t there …

It’s on my mind at the moment since Arb and I are off to Comic Con in a few weeks time, which is easily going to be the largest commercial convention I have ever seen. I think it will be brilliant. There will be sessions that no fan convention could ever in a million years hope to match. But it doesn’t affect how much I want to get to Eastercon next year, which I think will feel more like ‘home’ (actually George R R Martin is scheduled to be at both, and lots of authors seem to enjoy the fan convention scene.)

Are any gaming conventions fun?

I’ve read a few blogs from people who went to PAX East over the weekend. And what they had in common is that no one really found the convention itself to be all that fun, it was more about being able to meet up with fellow bloggers/ guildies/ etc there.

Now last year I went to a couple of conventions. One was the Eurogamer Expo, which is a gaming convention, has a show floor full of demos that you can try, and that’s about it. I wasn’t impressed. I wonder if it was partly my own fault – what did I really expect from a gaming convention anyway? There were games, right?

The other convention that I went to last year was Eastercon, which is a sci fi convention. We had a blast! There were panels on all the time, there were films to watch, demos to take part in, panels with well known authors who you could go talk to, a chocolate tasting (yes really). even a room full of board games to play. Some of the panels were even about games, and we also got to meet friends from around the country.

I know which convention I would go to again and it would be the scifi one. But why the big difference? I wonder if it’s because sci fi conventions tend to be fan run, with lots of volunteers stepping up to offer to run sessions on just about anything under the sun, lots of families and family oriented activities, and people with years of fandom under their belt who are keen to welcome newbies into the convention scene.

Maybe it really is about the people, and not about the big shiny demos that you need to queue for hours to play or the devs who probably don’t have time to talk to you anyway.

In any case, me and Arb are going to Comic Con 2011, one of the biggest conventions of them all. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit nervous. Will it be more like the scifi conventions with fans, fan run activities, panels and crazy things to do, or will it be more like the gaming conventions with silent anonymous queues to see the good stuff.

Has anyone actually had fun at a gaming convention? I wonder a bit about Blizzcon too, because really the main fun there seems to be meeting guildies which you don’t actually have to do at a Blizzcon.

My adventures at eastercon: admissions of a convention noob

So, last weekend was the big adventure. I went to Eastercon, held this year at a hotel near Heathrow, which was my first experience of a SF convention. It wasn’t a lone expedition; I went with my sister and our respective partners for moral support. This is one of the larger UK SF conventions (from what I understand), and had about 1250 attendees – just so you get an idea of the scale. It is fan run, which means that the panels and events reflect what the fans are interested in and also what people were able and willing to organise.

If you have read Larisa’s poignant memories of her years of con attendance, you may wonder (as I did) whether she was looking back with rose coloured glasses. And even if she was right in all respects, had the conventions moved on? It took about 2 seconds from walking through the front door of the hotel into the reception area for me to understand that some things will NEVER change.

Two things that caught my eye immediately:

  • Lots of women around! (I’ve been to gaming conventions where the men: women ratio is about 10:1. This was closer to 1:1.)
  • It was all very well organised (again, comparing with gaming conventions). We queued briefly at reception, picked up our delegate badges and goodie bags (free mug! free easter egg! and a couple of books and more assorted useful con information … ) Even in retrospect, every part of the con I saw was very well organised. Panels started on time (give or take the odd 5 minutes), people were where they were supposed to be, sound/lighting was fine.

The whole convention and the other attendees were terrifically friendly. I was impressed at the range and variety of the panels – there were some on hard science, some litcrit type panels on speculative fiction, some about writing and getting published, a couple on games, some on social media,  some fun geek-oriented crafty activities, some family based sessions, film screenings. Plus people wandering around in a wide variety of costumes, cabaret, and a solid set from Mitch Benn.

And a room full of board games too. It shows what the atmosphere was like that when we sat down to play a game, friendly people asked politely if they could join in as they wandered through. (Again, this does not really happen at gaming conventions, oddly enough.)

It’s not often that you are torn between the possibility of watching the first episode of the new Doctor Who in a large screening room with 200+ other fans or going to a panel on ‘The Occult in Modern Urban Fantasy.’ One day, there will be cloning so we can do all of them at once …

Another highlight for me was the video game charades session, where we were wisely advised to form into teams with a variety of age groups represented. I don’t know who had more fun, the under tens who had a ball miming out Lego Star Wars or our husbands acting out Tron. I just know that it was a room full of video game geeks of all ages … and laughter. And it makes me think about how rarely I do get to hang out with mixed age groups. It’s a shame in many ways that it has become so taboo to hang out socially with kids (unless they are relatives) or with older people, because it can be a very positive experience all around.

I thoroughly enjoyed the more serious panels that I attended as well. People were generally well behaved, very engaged, and there were some animated, interesting discussions. As a fan, it’s also a privilege to be able to talk to authors you admire, or hear them discussing their writing and how they work in panels or interviews. I thought Iain Banks was an awesome writer before this weekend, I still think that but I also now think he’s a dude. And Arb did tweet me at least once to let me know that someone we were chatting to in a panel/ event had won a Nebula award (so congrats!)

I get the feeling that the local writer community is very supportive of the con scene – because I don’t really know that you’ll get enough sales from 1250 people to make it worth giving up a weekend otherwise.

It is glaring to me that the con fanbase is very predominantly white in the UK (not sure about the rest of the world), and the programming reflects that. There were panels on feminist issues, disability issues (disability in comic book villains), gay and alternative sexuality issues. But nothing on race.

To Sum Up

We had a brilliant time. The con was a friendly, supportive, fun atmosphere full of fellow geeks who were also having a good time. And some very hard working fans who made the whole thing run so smoothly (so props to you all, and thank you very much.) I do understand now why people say that going to a SF con feels like coming home. Also, if someone offers you some 100% cocoa chocolate, only take a very small piece.

We already booked our spots for 2012!

Transferable skills in MMOs, and Convention Jitters

I had a chance to run the most recent six man instance in LOTRO last week – Sammath Gul (thanks to everyone who came along, especially Arbitrary for being so patient with us.)

I thought it was a really fun instance, and definitely a style of fight and layout from which WoW is moving away. We had to be careful with the pulls and use crowd control where it was available, we had to pay attention to the surroundings to avoid summoning extra adds in the middle of fights, and boss fights were long and (sometimes) intricate.

For example, here’s a handy diagram from someone explaining strategies on one of the bosses. If you think that it looks more like a WoW raid fight than an instance fight, you’d be correct. Even though we used a less demanding strategy, just standing still and beating him down wasn’t an option.

So, it was a lot of fun. More demanding than current WoW instances, partly because I’m still a bit new and awkward with grouping in LOTRO whereas I know WoW like the back of my hand. But still I find that some MMO skills are transferable and helped me to at least hold my end up and not fail totally.

For example: Moving out of the fire. Spotting when a boss has cast a debuff on you and getting out of the way as required. Bunching up quickly. Avoiding other stuff on floor. Applying burst damage to a mob, as given by the kill order. Use of interrupts. Use of crowd control.

You don’t realise that these are transferable skills until you play with someone who isn’t used to doing those things in a game at all. Other skills I find handy are gauging the local economy and making some in game gold. The LOTRO in game economy is borked in many ways, but being able to spot quickly that gathering pays well and knowing how to use the auction house will help you get up to speed.

If you play multiple MMOs, do you find that skills are transferable?

And it’s off to the con

I’ve never really been a convention person, but wish me luck, I’m off to Eastercon this weekend.

So hopefully more on that next week.