Sunday, November 18, 2012

AetherCon Aftermath

Let's talk about AetherCon.

As you may know, AetherCon ran this weekend, all three days, as perhaps the first large-scale online gaming  convention which attempted to replicate all the functions of a meatspace gaming convention.  And there were a lot of issues with how it went down from which we can all learn something.

AetherCon was the brainchild of one gamer - Stephen - who wanted very much to create an online convention for everybody, to celebrate the love of gaming we all share.  No edition wars, no crap, just a mess of people gaming and talking about games.  It's a laudable goal, and we would do well to remember that when we're looking at what worked and what didn't with AetherCon this weekend.

Let me back up a little bit.  My involvement with AetherCon began months ago when I contacted the staff about running some games.  The first red flag was that the person I talked to had actually just quit the staff; they were kind enough to pass me the contact info for the right people, so I essentially said "Hey, I'd like to DM some Labyrinth Lord, let me know what to do."  Things ballooned from there.

Each time I talked with Stephen, it seemed he wanted me to do more, or do something different.  I wanted to run my LL game, he asked me if I could run something else.  They really wanted GMs for their announced tournaments (Savage Worlds, Call of Cthulhu, Pathfinder), as well as GMs to run games on a particular list (which Stephen had judged popular, or classics perhaps).  I demurred, having no confidence in running a game with which I was unfamiliar, and no desire to do so besides.  I had a few vague ideas about some OSR stuff that could be really sweet in a con environment, but the cool reaction I got to Labyrinth Lord had me set my sights a little lower.

Stephen encouraged me to advertise AetherCon in general, which I was happy to do; most folks have no problem doing a little pimping for something with which they're involved.  He also asked if I would help out as a floor manager - meaning, at the time, hanging out in one of the chat rooms and helping to keep conversation going, help people find their games, etc.  I thought "why not" -- after all, I could run my games on Saturday and maybe take a floor manager shift on Sunday or something, right?

I asked if they had a presence on Google-Plus.  Despite having several people listed as their 'Social Media' staff members, they did not.  I encouraged Stephen to look into G+, lest AetherCon miss out on the gamers who 'lived' there.  He asked me to show him how to create a G+ page -- then asked me to go ahead and do it for him, which I did.  I even agreed to crosspost the con updates to the G+ page, which I did for some time, but my free evenings weren't sufficient for what Stephen wanted as far as 'regular posting', so that duty was handed over to someone else.  Whether that person continued the job or whether Stephen eventually did it himself, I've no idea.

Throughout this process, Stephen was regularly contacting me and strongly encouraging - some would use the verb 'pressuring' - me to ping on my friends (virtual and otherwise) to get them to sign up to play and run games.  "Yep, I've chatted with some people about it" was not a sufficient answer most of the time.  Stephen apparently believes strongly that direct personal contact and regular favor-asking is the best way to get things done, but I was not about to lean on my pals to make them do something in which they were not interested.  People who want to do it will do it; people who don't, won't.

Things got really crazy the past couple of weeks.  Somehow overnight I was "promoted" from "a floor manager" to "the guy in charge of the floor managers, oh, and recruiting enough of them, too".  This wasn't working.  I couldn't force people to GM, I couldn't force people to sign up to play, I sure as hell couldn't force them to be floor managers for this con.  The few names I was given of people who had already volunteered for the duty didn't pan out, they were generally unresponsive.  I can't help but wonder now if they, too, were pressganged into service and were just smarter than I am about ignoring emails.

Stephen then asked me to head up the chat-room installation effort which he had begun with the people at Mibbit; I told him I didn't mind being cc'd and being some kind of POC, but I had no experience with coding or configuring a chat-room.  I should've stood my ground or been more forceful, because - surprise! - next thing you know AetherCon is holding me responsible for configuring a mess of Mibbit chatrooms, and Stephen's asking me to do things with the tool that I'm just not certain can be done.  Communicating with the Mibbit POC was very difficult - they're in the UK and did not always respond immediately to emails, probably because this was 'extra doing-a-favor work' rather than a paying client.  Bottom line is, that process should have been started looong before it was.  There was a lot of last-minute running around, trying to bang Stephen's pie-in-the-sky vision against what the tech could actually do easily.  It was a freaking mess.  If the Roll20 guys were getting the same crap...

I was getting upset.  Depressed, even, because I didn't want to deal with all this extra stuff.  I just wanted to run a couple of games!  Each time I tried to express my frustration - and inability to get done what he wanted done - to Stephen, I'd get a reply like "this [the chat-room configuration] is your baby now".  Dropped in my lap, unbidden.  He claimed to be too busy to assist or help deal with the consequences of me being unable to get it the way he wanted it.  I had very limited time to invest in this stuff .  Where was the rest of the AetherCon staff?  That's a fantastic question.  I was never passed a spreadsheet or staff list with emails.  Any time I had an issue, everything went through Stephen, who was, to hear him tell it, working 24-7 on all aspects of the con.  I guess I believe that, because it helps explain what was happening.

Come the weekend of the con, I was exhausted from working a mess of hours and the stress of anticipating all of this going pear-shaped and catching shit for being unable to do the things I said I couldn't do in the first place.  Great feeling, right?  I didn't even have my scenario complete.  I was working on it post-midnight on Friday, for crying out loud.  Part of me didn't even want to run the damn games anymore - thinking about this swirling mess was making me sick.

On Saturday, I logged in to see how things were going, figuring I'd keep the main chatroom open while I prepped for my (noon) game.  Stephen wanted me in the backstage chat, helping out there; I told him no.  I had a game to prep, I had to eat and shower and see my family and all of that before getting into back-to-back sessions.  Thankfully I had access to the player database so my players didn't have to deal with all the "player code" crap.  I had some Roll20 technical issues and only two players show up for my session, so, after talking frankly with the players, we agreed to play the session another time.  I cancelled my 6pm slot for similar reasons coupled with some household stuff going on, but I have offered to run the scenario (or another) for everyone who was signed up.  I'm pretty confident that game will get run, actually, and because it'll get run in a plain Hangout and not during the most stressful weekend I've had in ages, it'll be a freaking great session.  So there's that.

What went wrong with AetherCon?  It was a good idea, right?  Certainly.  I guess it all comes down to implementation.  You can read about one of the vendor's experiences over here, but I can only speak to what I myself saw, no matter how much the stuff Skirmisher says rings true to my ear.

Here's what I think didn't work, generally:

1) Singular Vision/Lack of dedicated staff.  Stephen knew what he wanted, but he didn't have a team ready to assist him in realizing that vision.  Nor did he seem receptive to new ideas.  This is the biggest issue, it trickles down into everything else, and, I'm sorry to say, is a problem that may not be fixable - at least, the singular vision part.  Stephen had some very strong ideas about what games to run, how to do a tournament, even when ads should be shared in social media (I guess he read an article somewhere).   Fingers in every pie, and no bakers to assist, I guess.

Bottom line: you can't do an extravaganza as a one-man-show.  Get a dedicated team together early, let them play to their specialties, and actually take and accept suggestions for change and innovation.

2) Slavish attempt to replicate a meatspace con in virtual space.  What I mean by this is that you can't throw a vendor into an opaque room and call it a 'booth'.  Nobody can walk by and see the product laid out.  And the games?  Event codes, player codes that players had to show to GMs so they could be seated?  What is all of that stuff?  Is there a problem with impostors I don't know about?  And the attempt to mandate that GMs livestream their games?  Come on.

Bottom line: Accent what's unique and remarkable about an online con, providing new ways for vendors, GMs, con-goers to interact rather than building structures that mimic realspace.

3) Communications - internal and external.  AetherCon did a good job at some aspects of advertising, that's undeniable.  It did a crap job of communicating with GMs, players, and its own staffers.  The Call of Cthulhu tournament was cancelled like two weeks before the con; the registered players were informed of this, but staff sure wasn't, and no big announcement was made.  I wouldn't have known about that (fairly major) cancellation had I not had a pal signed up for the tournament.  Oh, and the respect thing comes in here, too - if someone volunteers for A, then enable them to do A - don't try to guilt them into doing B, then C, then D...

I don't, and can't, know what other difficulties Stephen and the other AetherCon staffers (from actual-staff through GMs) encountered over the past three days and the past nine months.  I salute their intent, dedication, and passion, and thank everyone involved - players, too - for the effort put forth.  There are lessons to be learned, both as a community (how to throw an online con) and individually (how to treat collaborators, how to say 'no' at the right time).

"Event code?  Sign-in?  Thirty minutes early?  Dude, I just want to play some checkers."


  1. I hate that feeling when you go to volunteer to run something and then have the person pay no attention/check out what your about- instead suggesting things outside your wheelhouse (that are clearly uppermost in their mind over what you might want to do). It seems like a really silly mistake to make a)for people volunteering and b)in an era where it is incredibly easy to check on people and see if they're associated or doing stuff with particular games.

  2. I use Fantasy Grounds VTT and the community ran an online Con around 6months ago - 28 games of many different rulesets were played. It was done quite well. Scheduling and organisation of resources were the biggest headaches for the organisers but they did have a small team working together and they did allow/encourage DM/GMs to host whatever flavours of game they wanted to. I think the next one will played early in the new year - no details available just yet...

  3. It is a shame that it turned out so badly.

    One thing we have noticed in running Indie+ is that the con metaphor doesn't work. An online event is completely different for a meatspace event and has a very different level of involvement from customers.

    One area this really sticks out is recruiting players. Finding GMs is fairly easy but players are hard. Unlike a meatspace where players are stuck at the convention so will sign up to games just for something to do, virtual players will only play in games that really catch their eye. If there is nothing on they fancy, they can take advantages of the many different entertainment options they have in their house.

    6d6 / Indie+

  4. How many players do you figure attended Indie+ ?

  5. Sorry to here is was such a difficult experience.

  6. would any of you be interested in *playing* in a session or two at the next fantasy grounds con? what things might make it more interesting or more likely for you?

  7. I don't know, damned, you've done such a good job posting the same plug for Fantasy Grounds in the comments of every blog post mentioning Aethercon now, I'm sure the world is convinced.

  8. EJ, I would nominate you to run a virtual con with proper delegation and sharing of duties. If you think you've learned a lot from this experiment, I'd be willing to help you try to run a "second draft."

  9. @Erik - not all of them! But if there is momentum out there someones got to use it :) I couldnt make Aethercon weekend myself but I was following its progress from where I first saw it posted on about 6 months ago.
    Everyone leans stuff the first time they do something new and Im sure the Aethercon guys will get better and better - hopefully SH can get some more help (and know how to use it) for the next one.
    And yes - I am plugging the Fantasy Grounds platform - why not - more players using it makes it better for everyone. Ill post some more info here as it starts taking shape.