Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Exponential Growth

The UK Games Expo was one of those events I always seemed to miss because I thought it was later in the year than in actually was. By the time I got round to looking at tickets it turned out to be the following weekend, or worse, the weekend just gone. But last year I finally got my act together and booked tickets for Saturday and Sunday.

The Expo is a very different event from Salute. While Salute is, essentially, a shopping experience focused on wargaming, the Expo is a multi-day event which is as much about roleplaying, board games and card games as wargames, if not more so. It also a broader event, taking in tournaments, roleplaying events, seminars, family rooms and even some weird new electronic games.

 You can tell this isn't a wargames convention because the Forge World stand isn't buried under the bodies of the dead and dying.

It also takes place in a hotel, which lends it a very different atmosphere to Salute, which is to say it has one. That isn't entirely fair to Salute, which does have atmosphere, but one that is entirely imported, the location itself being essentially a huge sterile box. The Expo has spent the last two years in the NEC Metropole hotel in Birmingham, which gives it more the feel of a convention or conference.

 Raising funds for world conquest through begging in a hotel lobby. How the mighty have fallen.

I had a great time last year, playing and buying a bunch of different games. Having a room in the hotel meant you could retire from the bustle for a rest, or drop off your purchases so you didn't have to drag them around and there was plenty of space set aside to simply sit down and game. The organisers even offered a game library, which was a nice touch.

Given how much I enjoyed last year, I made sure to get myself organised this year, booking time off work so I could take in the whole event from Friday to Sunday and booking in for a tournament and a roleplaying session as well as making a point of attending some of the seminars, as I had ignored them last year.

 Some strange new game that runs on electricity. I doubt it will have much appeal.

This years Expo was even better attended than last you could see it was a big success. Though not everyone seems to think so - take a look at this blog post and then come back.

To be fair, Saturday was by far the busiest day and things did ease off considerably by Sunday. The bring and buy sale was accessible and the trade halls much easier to navigate. That said, I wouldn't have wanted to try negotiating the Games Lore stand mid-morning on a Saturday with a child in tow.

 Annoyingly, I forgot to take any photos until Sunday, so these make the event look positively sedate.

The organisers had taken into account the increased numbers and booked more space in the hotel. This meant there was a third trader hall, many of the tournaments were moved into a separate area and the amount of space for roleplaying events increased. But some parts of the convention couldn't be or simply weren't expanded. The seminars were still held in the same room as last year. This space had little ventilation and the air-conditioning struggled to cope with the mass of bodies. The trader hall increased in size, but so did the number of traders so there wasn't any more room to move. And, weirdly, the breakfast buffet, which had been a relaxed affair last year, was left with queues to get in and then again to get food. Again, to their credit, the hotel had recognised the problem by Sunday morning and opened up a second area.

All of this illustrates the paradox of these kind of events. The more successful and popular an event, the more attendees it attracts, but the more this increases crowding and reduces the enjoyment for those same attendees. Eventually, the event has to move to a bigger venue, which costs more and so demands even more attendees. And so the cycle continues.

The organisers of the Expo seem quite relaxed about this at the moment. In an interview in the show guide they talked casually about attracting as many as 10,000 attendees. However, the organisers of other shows have adopted a very different attitude.

The Salute guide included a half page advert from Newbury and Reading Wargames society announcing that their annual show, Colours, would not be taking place in  2014. Apart from the weirdness of advertising the non-existence of a show, the advert neatly illustrates the paradox of success. The advert is quite blunt, the event had simply gotten too big for the society to run comfortably and they would rather take a year off to plan than face a potential disaster.

 Colours 2014

Nor is this a problem unique to wargaming. Hyper-Japan is a Japanese cultural festival taking in elements of fashion, food, manga, anime and any other bit of Japanese culture it can find, including Yakult. It has always taken place from Friday to Sunday, but this year the Saturday event will be further divided into two seperate events divided by a one hour gap between 14:15 and 15:15. This was, apparently, to avoid the huge queueing problems created because the show had more attendees than insurance would allow into the venue at any one time. I've booked a ticket for Friday and it will be interesting to see how many others make the same decision.

Similarly, I have skipped the MCM London Comic Con (Formally the London Expo) for the past two years, because what was once a reasonably relaxed event had grown to the extent that you could expect to queue for over an hour for entry, even with pre-booked tickets, and could expect the same level of gridlock experience at the UK Games Expo Games Lore stand on Saturday, at the whole event.

Is there a solution to this? I think there is, of a sort, though it's a fairly brutal one. Either a show reaches the point Colours has, where its organisers decide its all gone too far and decide to kill it or rest if for a while or it grows so big that the experience stops being fun and the show dies on its own. I'm not sure that has happened to any show I know of yet, but it remains a possibility.

 Well-attended or over-crowded?

But doesn't that mean the show is dead? Well, yes, after a fashion. But if the demand is there someone, somewhere will step in and set up a new show, starting from scratch and the business of watching it slowly grow begins again. And so we retain a kind of equilibrium in which shows come and go, but the experience of them remains constant. Where is the Expo in this cycle of growth and decay? Who knows, ask me again next year.

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