The Horror that Came to GenCon

I don’t know if it’s a question of overconfidence in computers, a dumbass move by Hasbro to save money, a decision by WotC to skimp on an event that they’re washing their hands of next year, or simply bald-faced incompetence, but preregistration for this year’s GenCon sucks.

I’ve been to GenCon three times, and I’m looking forward to this year’s trip, which marks the last time that the con will be held in Milwaukee before being moved (at least for the next few years) to Indianapolis.

It started last August with Housing. In the past, if you went to GenCon, you could register for housing at the next year’s con. This year, they ditched that in favor of a first come, first serve set-up using online registration. Personally, I’m of the mind that it’s a good idea to reward repeat customers, but Wizards apparently wanted to be more egalitarian about it. So as a result, my friends and I had to scramble to make sure we were online with credit-cards in hand to get room reservations as soon they became available earlier this year.

And then came preregistration. We initially prereg’d for the con back in January, but that’s only half the battle — the next step is actually registering for events. In previous years, you would get a preregistration guide with a TV Guide-like directory of what’s running when, something that’s essential when you’re attending a con with hundreds of events. Then you’d figure out what you wanted to play, and send in your event preregs … and hope that you got what you wanted.

Last year Wizards offered a step up — you could send in your prereg’d events online by entering the appropriate event number. This year the entire process moved online, much to the surprise of veterans like myself and my fellow Blackrazors. Without telling anyone who’d prereg’d, they decided to ditch years of tradition and practice and not send out a prereg booklet.

And then, without any way for people to look at a comprehensive listing of events, they went live with event registration.

Good freaking grief.

Fortunately, someone at WotC must have a smidgen of common sense left, because they posted a pipe-delimited file to the site listing all the events. This mammoth file could be downloaded and — assuming you’re familiar with Excel — imported into a spreadsheet. It was no where near as good as having a prereg book, but it was something.

The moment event prereg went live, WotC’s web site was hammered … and the GenCon store crashed. Several hours we were finally able to get into the store, only to find that if you clicked on an event listing, you’d get a strange bit of database-spawned error text.

Turns out that you needed to be logged into the WotC web site in order for it to recognize that you’d prereg’d earlier — it would have been nice if the site had actually told us that, rather than spouting incoherent mutations of a 404 error.

Finally logged in, and having assembled my event list in Excel, I began scanning through the pages upon pages of RPGA event listings. As I looked at events, I found that almost none of them had event descriptions — instead of text explaining the event, there was just the database relic “null”.

Turns out that only the first offering of an event (most RPGA events are offered at multiple times) had the full description. And even dumber, only the first listing of the multi-round events like the D&D Feature (in which you compete against other gamers to advance through three rounds of play) told you went its subsequent rounds would be played.

The entire process was frustrating, confusing and infuriating for me, and I’m someone who works with the Web every damn day. And if it was hard for me, then how freaking hard was it for the gamers who aren’t familiar with the Web? Or don’t have access to the net? Are there gamers sitting out there, patiently waiting for their prereg books, not realizing that they will never arrive? And that — because GenCon events sell out so quickly — they’ll be SOL when they arrive at the con?

I can understand WotC wanting to save money by not printing the prereg book — it must have been a huge expense, but to ditch it and to not warn gamers, well, that’s just stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid! And heck, why ditch it entirely? Why not produce the book but make it available only as a PDF? That way gamers without regular net access (like one of the guys in my group) could have a friend download and print it for them. And heck, even those with net access would have appreciated the traditional guide to the con.

Fortunately, after much hair-pulling, I was able to preregister and get all of the events I wanted, which was an improvement over last year, when I procrastinated and got hardly any events. But this online snafu makes me very nervous about what I might find at GenCon — I would not be terribly surprised to find the con bumped from the convention center and arena and out onto the streets of Milwaukee, with cardboard boxes for tables (if we’re lucky) and vendors hacking their wares out of vans.

I don’t understand how WotC screwed this up so badly. Is it because they were supremely confident in their online prowess? Could be — they’ve underestimated the complexity of massive electronic/online projects before. Could it be because Hasbro has cut funding for an event it sold to former Wizards president (and founder) Peter Atkinson and simply doesn’t care about the world’s premier gaming event any more? I fear so. The entire affair reminds me of rats fleeing a sinking ship (or a crew abandoning one about to be boarded by pirates). Or is it simply out-and-out incompetence? I hope not — Wizards was a good company and it’s my hope that it still is.