Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Not Dead, Just Ailing...

Recently, I have noted several forum and blog posts which posit that the traditional two day wargames show is dead.

I do not agree with the general statement but I do have a few thoughts which I will share.

Arguably, the 1980s wargames scene was at it's high point. Show organisers who could afford a decent venue for two days (or even one) essentially had (as I have heard over the years many times) 'a licence to print money'.

The number of shows and the number of kids, coupled with the fact that this was the era of the 'cheque book wargamer' gave a rich environment for making money as long as the organising groups put in a little effort to make their trade customers welcome. It was the CBW's who help steer the hobby into the big time, but also whom put off the gentleman gamer or the school kid on £3 per week with their disdain for anything which was not wildly expensive or 'boutique'. 

Typically, a club would be working flat out to set up from Friday afternoon  through to Saturday morning, and then from close of business Sunday until about ten PM. Three days of pretty hard graft would ensure the financial security of a club for the next twelve months.

Good advertising would ensure that people would be lining up outside the venue for an hour, just to get in.

The very best shows embraced every kind of gaming, reenactment, competition games and painting competions. Some also ran seminars, which I always enjoyed due to my involvement in the gaming industry.

Then, in the mid 90s it was as if a kind of collective lethargy set in along with several changes within the industry. Coupled with the rise of the internet, this resulted in shows falling by the wayside and even the larger shows losing some of the bustle of the previous decade.

Those organising the shows were starting to age (who doesn't?) and the teenagers of the 80s now being involved in establishing families and careers, but in a tighter economic environment than the previous generation of gamers.

Magic The Gathering took it's toll on the traditional types of gaming and the industry was slow to react and adapt. 

Historical miniature gaming was not drawing in the kids to the stores, fantasy was holding it's own and in fact was doing OK, becoming the place 'where the money was'.

A number of shows seemed to recoil against the upsurge in fantasy, and reduced the amount of fantasy content. Within a couple of years you could see familiar faces who were more interested in fantasy and sci-fi, making informed decisions not to attend shows where there was little for them. After all, why spend money to get into a venue if there's nothing you want to buy. The standard of 'off the shelf' gaming terrain means that whereas crowds could be 'wowed' by use of static grass and clever brushwork in the 80s, in the decades that followed, many people had equally good gaming set-ups in their own home.

The Warhammer generation were interested in historical subjects, but they were equally invested in the fantastic and imaginary. They were into slick mechanics which gave a good game, but were turned off by the traditional WRG type rules (I like both types, so personally I was not affected), so when Warhammer Ancient Battles came on the scene, there was a serious upsurge in historical games. When the first hard plastic 28mm historical miniatures came along from the Perry twins a whole new renaissance in gaming began.

There was the potential again, for a second golden age of gaming, with first, second and third generations of gaming all coming together no matter what their individual tastes, to build a hobby which ten years earlier was seen as being on it's last legs.

Some organising bodies, took the baton and embraced the change, got professional in their planning and presentation of their show. And those shows grew and grew. 

A prime example is Vapnartak in York, which has gone from strength to strength, and frankly should take a leaf from the model railway exhibition which is held at the same venue a few weeks later, and use more of the building. There is scope there for Vapnartak to become a Northern counterbalance to Salute.

Salute of course is the rampaging wildebeest in the show calendar, but I fear that we gamers put too much store in a show which is actually too large to get around in a single day. I personally think that Salute would be better as a two day event.

Several shows, despite having strong attendance, didn't move with the times and have suffered or disappeared. It may be a generational thing in that fresh blood needs to be injected into the organisational structure to embrace the changes in the hobby and the industry as well as taking advantage of new technologies. Perhaps, if you have a show which is capable of covering it's costs on trade stand bookings, you might consider a £1 entry fee, or like Britcon's trade show don't charge. 

In the last few years, several manufacturers have started having open days which deliberately clash with shows known to not support the games that their customers enjoy the most. One of those at least, is doing very well indeed from doing so, and gets larger every year.

If the aim of the show is to make a single penny profit, then you have to behave as if it's a business. No arguments... It is!

Simply pretending that you are still running a 1970s village hall show is not going to make you immune to the fact that if you are not putting in the effort, you are not going to make money, because traders are not as I have heard some say in the last few years 'idiots', nor are those attending shows, going to blindly accept poor efforts, high prices or the exclusion of what interests them. Fantasy is where the money is... Ignore that at your peril.

In reality of course ANY wargame is fantasy... We imagine that the toy soldiers, the little lead dollies, on our table are fighting. We imbue them with characteristics and speak of them as if they were real. But they are not...

An ounce of pewter only becomes an Orc or a G.I when it is melted and poured into a mould in an act of creative alchemy. At the end of the day it is still just a lump of pewter

Show organisers should see attendees in the same way. Treat them as that ounce of pewter...

Make them welcome, listen to them, embrace their interests and you can be sure that some of those people will take an interest in whatever your kind of gaming is. In return, you might find something in their part of the hobby (the same hobby, that same piece of pewter)  which is relevant to you.

By doing so, human nature will work it's own alchemy and the hobby will be stronger for it.

Welcome and moreover openly encourage all kinds of gamer and you can have a show which will easily sustain itself over two days. It may take time, but if you speculate wisely, you will accumulate. If you turn off one paying customer, then you are losing money and reputation.

So I say that the two day show is not dead, it is ailing... It needs some metaphorical chicken soup, and then maybe a little meat and two veg to get it's strength back.

Most of all, any show needs a dedicated and free thinking group of organisers who put the interests of the many before the disinterest of a few.