GAMMA.CON 2018 (and Wintercon 2018) Review

Being a Canberra boy (well, more-or-less) I have a bit of a soft spot for our local conventions. Given they don’t cost any money for me to go to, are within 20 minutes driving distance of my house (with ample parking) and have by far the largest number of my friends/acquaintances in attendance; it’s a pretty low bar for me to be impressed.

Well, it’s still a high bar as I’m a cynical jackass who doesn’t have positive feelings but attending an interstate event is much more of a hassle and thus primes me to expect more (and thus be disappointed more).

So in the last month I had the pleasure of attending both GAMMA.CON 2018 and Wintercon 2018. Two very different events here in the nation’s capital.

Lets get Wintercon out of the way first- it’s a garbage event that should not be called a “convention”. At best it’s a glorified games day. Tabletop gaming is fun and the full Cancon event run by the Canberra Games Society is somewhat bearable but fuck me is Wintercon garbage. No panels, no events, half a dozen traders (literallly). Nothing that wasn’t tabletop based (not even any role playing stuff like D&D I could see) and not a wide variety of table top stuff. I get that this is a fundraising venture for Cancon but falsely labelling this as a convention is an insult. I was there for about 2 minutes- walked in the door, realised there was nothing to do, realised I couldn’t even buy any miniatures/figures to use in D&D, looked at some misc dice and then left.

GAMMA.CON 2018 however, was a pretty good event. Which given some of the behind the scenes organisational stuff that was going on was a surprise.

A TL;DR:

GAMMA.CON 2018- 7/10 (Wintercon- 0/10)

The move from AIS to EPIC was done perhaps a year too early but GAMMA.CON made pretty good use of the space. In particular the “gaming hall” was great. The “Stage and Trader Hall” was fine but it somehow managed to feel way too crowded up one end and way too empty at the other. The positioning of the panel rooms as literally the first thing when you walked in was great given how hard to make people go to panels- for some reason people struggle to find the rooms and they are typically mostly empty.

i mean, that definietely has nothing to do with the panel content and just the venue yeah? And that’s why you have hepas of signage and great maps so attendees know where everything is right?

Lol get fucked.

I mean, the idea of styling your map on the old school Super Mario and Legend of Zelda maps/layouts was great. However it completely lacks any functionality- it’s hard to read, does not give an accurate gauge of how much space different areas give to each other or how the three different buildings the convention is in relate to each other… or the carpark. I’d say 80% of the map is effectively wasted space. Plus the numbers/labels and the captions/names are too small and in a bad colour and font for reading. Also if you look at the comments you will see a map of the Arist and Trader area… which is simply wrong (/lying?) because the layout of the green artist tables needs to be rotated 90 degrees to match how they were actually set up.

As an aside, names like “Gaming hall” are ones I’ve just invented on account of the garbage venue maps provided in the booklet being completely useless and factually wrong in multiple points. Unless you were actually there it’s nigh impossible for me to describe the set up based on these “maps”.

Was hoping that these maps were just decorative and actual ones would be provided in the program booklet and at the venue. No such luck. Even the volunteers who I asked for directions were pretty unimpressed with the maps and the only way you could find where anything was was to literally walk the whole venue to see yourself… which was hard when you didn’t know how far the venue extended.

Speaking of the program booklet; equally as bad as the maps. Rather than having a map in the double page spread in the middle of the book, it was one of the (also poorly designed) posters. The map sections were split across several pages on either side of the poster. As was the schedule.. which looked like a super basic excel table that was full of typos and errors. The only way to know what was actually on in a panel room or the screenings was to walk in and find out. Very hard to schedule. Also even the way the different schedules were displayed next to each other made no sense. (I’ll try to dig up a photo of the booklet to show what I mean.  But after weeks of chasing down a copy everyone I know threw away their copies)

That being said, the panel and screening schedule were pretty uninteresting. Too much seemed to hinge on uninteresting guests doing uninteresting topics. I only bothered going to three panels:

1) Turtle-Boy Podcast Live. This was surprisingly great. Have no clue what this podcast was about and I only went as there was nothing else on that I wanted to do. Was like 4 people in the audience and it became a really fun interactive thing of us building a hypothetical expanded cinematic universe featuring the Ninja Turtles to see what sort of problems could arise and how they could be prevented or solved.

2) The Movie Club: Hammer Time. A really informative and interesting discussion about the classic Hammer Horror stuff of the 1950s-1970s. I’m not a fan of horror and knew nothing about this topic but I found it a really good panel. (Again, only went due to nothing else of interest being on)

3) Girls Und Panzer Der Panel. With a tagline of ‘why is Girls Und Panzer Der so good’, I falsely assumed that was tongue in cheek and going to talk about why it was a bad anime (in terms of both concept and production/delivery). But no. A disappointing panel.

Speaking of disappointing- didn’t bother walking into the Screenings Room. Aside from all the non-screening content in there, nothing save ‘Land of the Giants’ seemed remotely interesting. All generic stuff or stuff I’d seen recently. Gone are the days when underappreciated gems would pop up in a screening room.

The panels/screenings were also super poorly set up. The two panel streams were set up to run in the same room separated by a nice black, thin and semi-transparent curtain. So noise pollution was very bad between them. Meanwhile the screening room (which had as many panels/workshops as screenings) was separated by the art room by an equally flimsy curtain. Fortunately the art room didn’t have much noise pollution… it was just really fucking dark and so hard to do any art stuff as the lights were off for the screenings. It seemed to be something that was not well thought out… or perhaps the best solution to a bad venue situation?

Oh and both panel rooms (well, half rooms) had fancy names. So you’d assume there’d be super prominent signage telling you which one is which right? Nah. Signage is for losers

The stuff in the “gaming hall” was pretty good- an eSports stage and a tournament stage down one end (with speakers angled to direct noise pollution into just that end), free play consoles of a whole bunch of old consoles (only criticism is it seemed very similar to previous years), the Restrospekt Videogame Museum (which looked great but I was soft-banned from it on account of my talent of accidentally breaking gaming consoles), freeplay pinball machines (possibly the single best highlight of the whole convention for the Terminator 2 pinball machine), some freeplay arcade machines (much better ones than previous years although still no Time Crisis 2), some indie devs (which didn’t look as interesting as previous years- a few repeats and the number of devs/games seemed down), a few traders (which seemed odd- will detail later on), some tabletop gaming (much smaller than previous years) and… wrestling…

Aside from the wrestling, the rest of the stuff was fine to great. But that wrestling… I mean… I know that we all know wrestling is fake but at least some effort to pretend it’s real would be great. Plus the sound was fucking- it was so much louder than it needed to be inside an enclosed space… and the MC microphone was at a different level to the music so it wasn’t even a consistent level of too loud. Plus the wrestling was happening for like… 15% of the convention? So otherwise the corner was a big chunk of dead space. With a whole bunch of chairs lined up next to it in rows that faced a blank wall rather than the stage… for some reason…

Also near the end of day 1 of the convention I the upstairs part of the event was connected to the “gaming hall”. You know, because the maps really didn’t make it clear. And the only staircase was near the secondary exit to the venue. It has some D&D sessions happening (cool) and then a ‘Cosplay HQ’ for cosplayers to hang out and do stuff (yawn). Nothing more to really add on either of those.

The other main hall- the ‘trader/stage hall’ was a bit more problematic. For one thing, there were about 110-120 ‘artists’ selling stuff. (I put ‘artists’ in quotation marks simply because of the sheer variety of things being sold here that aren’t technically “art” so I’m not sure if the term is appropriate). Given how disappointed I was with the variety of art at SMASH 2018, it’s probably no surprise that GAMMA 2018’s Artist Alley was pretty disappointing in terms of both variety and quality.

But quantity is the thing I want to touch on here as it’s the only thing that the event really has any input on. GAMMA.CON 2017 had ~5000 attendees and maybe 50-60 artists. This year’s GAMMA had ~6200 attendees. So you can see an issue here. Approximately double the number of ‘artists’ but nowhere near that amount of extra attendees.

Of note is that the Exhibitor numbers were down compared to last year. in 2017 there were probably 35-40. This year there was probably 20-25 this year. And a lot of the ones this year were new… which means a LOT of the ones last year didn’t come back.

In the very poor/slim amount of pre-event promotion that was done, one of the key lines was how much GAMMA had grown this year; being three times the size it was at AIS. However being frank the event hadn’t filled out AIS (hence my comment earlier that the move to EPIC was probably a year early). Sure the floor space was all being used, but there was so much more room to fit in attendees.

I suspect the blow out in artists numbers had to do with all this extra space needing to be filled. Because the huge increase in people selling things was not matched by a huge increase in people to buy things… so on average everyone will have done less trade than last year. And given how many apparently didn’t come back based on last year… that could be a concern.

If you’ve not done event organising, as an attendee this is bad for you in several ways. Firstly, if the traders don’t do well then they don’t come back and there’s less stuff for you to buy. Secondly, traders don’t buy space from at the convention which goes a notable way to paying the costs of the convention which puts up the cost of a ticket to attend. And lastly they are less likely to sponsor the convention or parts thereof; meaning either/both less money for the convention (again, higher ticket cost) and less cool prizes for competitions. This is of course simplifying a lot of various factors but it gets across the gist of the key parts.

Also- the Exhibitors that were there were pretty disappointing. Literally five different comic shops, plus a book shop, a fudge guy, a few generic pop culture merch sellers. Only two interesting ones were the ‘crazy cat lady’ trader where everything was themed around cats and the lewd ‘Senpai.jp’ shop that sold.. well… very lewd things. I was honestly stunned how many people were walking around wearing hoodies depicting an anime girls with rose coloured cheeks and semen all over her proclaiming ‘living lewd’. I would love to see how many of those hoodies ever see the light of day again.

Speaking of lewds, for some fucking reason the official event merch included softcore body pillows of the mascots. Aside from the fact the mascots are teenagers (and so it’s fucked), why would a ‘family friendly’ event put those sort of shit out.

Don’t get me wrong- I’m not a prude. There was the adult GAMMA@Night where selling that sort of thing would be fine (great even)… assuming you aged up the characters to be adults. But selling it from your official merch booth which shirts and pins and shit while kids are running around? Seems like a really poor decision from a PR perspective. Especially when you’re also selling branded shot glasses which were only allowed to be sold at the @Night event…

The Main Stage was pretty disappointing too this year. A lot of music stuff which was either bad (Meri Amber) or background jazz (The Consouls), boring guest junk or cosplay. There was a comedy show but I missed it. i assume it was fine.

i should probably touch on the Guests at this point. Honestly, I don’t know why GAMMA.CON bothered with half of them. I get bringing Spike Spencer as he is… a big shot VA from the USA… I guess. Not that you would know it from like 80% of his activities over the weekend- he seemed to be more like a snake oil salesman trying to sell me (I think) a book on dating advice, something to do with cooking (a website?) and some financial management “strategy”. It seemed really suss. But when you’re main credit is Shinji from Evangelion which is literally 20 years old I guess you need to diversify your talent(s) and income stream(s).

But the rest of the guests were Cosplay Guests. And the difference between what 1-2 Cosplay Guests bring and 4-5 cosplay guests bring is… well.. a waste of money in guest fees. A.K. Wirru is a fucking great bloke but given he was a guest last year is bringing him back straight away really a ‘headline act’. Hayley Elise did a cool thing at GAMMA@Night but who the fuck were the rest of them and how many tickets would they honestly have sold to the convention? (None) And did they bring interesting content (Not that wasn’t being brought by another Cosplay Guest already)

Should add that Ally Mclean no longer does Cosplay and does kind of do other stuff but I dunno whether it really qualifies as headline content. there were perhaps more prestigious/interesting people doing panels who didn’t get guest headline status.

At least GAMMA didn’t get Good Game or some iteration for like, the fifth year in a row. (2014- Junglist, 2015- Goose, 2016- Bajo/Hex, 2017- GGSP Team… kind of lazy guest organisation on behalf of the event repeatedly going to the same place for content).

Oh and the ‘Comic Book Guests’ and the ‘Tabletop Guests’ aren’t really what ‘guests’ mean in the convention scene. They are definitely great and bring awesome content (although a lot of repeats from GAMMA.CON 2017).

I do somewhat sympathise with the organisers. In the era of the big US Comic Cons being chock full of Marvel actors and Star Wars actors and… whatever other pop-culture thing has movies/TV shows happening; many do expect conventions to have “Guests”. But the budgets of these smaller volunteer organisations just can’t compete with the SupaNovas and the OZCC. And there isn’t an easy solution to balance this popular perception/desire with the stark reality of budgets.

The GAMMA@Night event was… unique. Fine. There was an Adults 18+ section and an all ages Neko Nation thing.

Dealing with the latter first, the Neko Nation thing was garbage. Lots of flashing lights and electronic remixes of j-pop and k-pop… with about 0-6 people concurrently dancing in a room with capacity for like 200 for the 4 hour period. It became a recurring gag to walk past the dance party and see how there was no-one there.

The fact you walked past it was a key issue- for some reason @Night was spread across two buildings (excluding Neko Nation) when it really had enough stuff for one building. All of the content was great- the adult video games, the life drawing (yay naked ladies), the pole dancing, the bar.

But there wasn’t enough content or people to fill out two huge halls.

For some reason, the Exhibitor/Artist areas were left open for @Night. So some people could keep selling things… or they could go home and just leave their merchandise unsupervised and at risk of being stolen.

Given only a handful of Traders actually stayed open; a fairly easy solution to to this problem would have been to move the traders in the gaming hall into the main Exhibitor section and then put those who wanted to stay open for @Night into the “Games Hall”. Then just having the Games Hall open for @Night. Move the main stage events to be on the Wrestling Ring/Stage and everything would fit and be better.

Back on the content- there were two things worth highlighting. One good, one bad. The good one was the “Cospole Dancing”. I mean, it was pole dancing with only a handful of cosplay realted things but they were good. The second last pole dance was a comedy one featuring Deadpool and a Unicorn. And then the last dance was Hayley Elise cosplaying Yoko dancing to the Gurren Lagann OP. Very nice.

The bad was a lets play/play through of some of visual novel soft-core porn game. On one hand the game was pretty boring (compared to Hatoful Boyfriend last year). Secondly the people on stage doing the voices were.. well.. less “doing the voices” and more “screeching”. Definitely a misstep for @Night.

So yeah. On balance, GAMMA.CON 2018 was pretty fine in general but the more I think of the details the more the small issues seem to pop up. All up I’d say it was probably a 7/10… which is what I would probably give it every other year I have been. As an attendee nothing is particularly problematic and as long as you don’t expect you’ll meet Stan Lee it’s a fun way to spend the weekend with friends. And if you get bored after a couple hours you can be back home/in bed/at a pub within 20 minutes.