Quakecon and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
While I will always, always love Quakecon, it is not without its faults. I mean, what convention is. A lot of people point to PAX as something like a gold standard for these big cultural gatherings, and even it has issues and little annoyances about it from time to time.
You see, most years, for most people, The four-day weekend of Quakecon is really more like two. With long lines for check-in to the BYOC LAN area (the main draw of the show for most) taking the lion’s share of Thursday, and nothing but teardown and packing up taking place Sunday morning, there isn’t much more gaming to be had than if you just spent a normal weekend holed up with several friends at one of your houses.
This year though, Thursday was such a disaster, it practically shut hundreds of eager gamers out of the event all together.
The afore-mentioned long lines for check in are nothing new. I can remember waiting nearly five hours to get my gear checked in the first time I came to Quakecon in 2005. This year things are worse. Much worse.
12-plus hour wait times worse. Gamers regularly line up in the wee hours of the morning before registration officially begins, knowing they’ll be near the front once things open up, usually around 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. One of the early arrivals I spoke to was still waiting for his chance to get in at 2:30 p.m.
Here’s a quick look at what that line looked like in person.
I don’t think there is one simple answer as to why the delays were so bad.
First, it’s probably just a big year for the event. After all, it seems like every other major public show this time of year, namely PAX Prime and Comic Con, sold out months ahead of time. Quakecon has always been free and open, thus it became many people’s Plan B.
Second, the best stuff in PC gaming today doesn’t require a badass $3,000 gaming rig. The Source engine, which runs pretty much everything Valve has done since the original Half-Life, has been plugging away since 2004. League of Legends was designed to compete with a custom map from Warcraft 3. Quake Live, the featured tournament game at this year’s event, runs in a browser. A $500 Dell will never get you any style points at Quakecon, but these days it will keep you in the action.
Finally, there’s the storm that has been building on the horizon ever since id Software sold (out) to ZeniMax in 2010: paid entry. Shortly after id became part of the ZM/Bethesda family, the option to pay to cut in line appeared as a limited option. The number of reserved slots have grown each year. From a handful of spots its first year, it now accounts for 1,850 seats in the BYOC. While the exact layout of the BYOC area varies a bit from year to year, in 2007, also hosted in the Hilton Anatole hotel, there were roughly 2,700 total seats. The largest figure I can find for this venue is 3,200 for the 2005 event. I overheard one staff member say this years number of seats is closer to 3,100, but I’ve yet to get a confirmed total. Regardless of this year’s arrangement, 60 percent of the total seats in the BYOC were already spoken for well ahead of time.
It looks like the free and open part of Quakecon’s reputation is on its way out.
But lack of access for hundreds of dedicated gamers was not the only problem Quakecon saw on Thursday. The official opening and John Carmack’s keynote address, the first, and only big event of the day, was delayed by just over two hours. The registration problems I discussed above were given as the reason for the delay. Possible, but the delay was implemented in a kind of half-assed fashion. I heard about it ahead of time in the press room, mainly because the outlets important enough (or who had their shit together enough) to land major interviews were given the opportunity to reschedule.
I later found out from a volunteer guarding the door of the room housing the main stage that he didn’t know anything was up until about 1:30. The original start time was set for 2:00, so he had to shoo away the attendees who had started lining up. Normally I would expect there to just be an announcement and people could choose to stick around, or find something else to do in the meantime, but the queue poles and signage didn’t show up until sometime during the gap between the original and new start times. Either the organizers weren’t, you know, organized, or the higher-ups had decided to bump back the start time much earlier, but forgot to amend the schedule or get the word out to anyone who could actually use it.
Delays aren’t unheard of at Quakecon though. Some years it seems like the event runs on its own special version of Valve time. Hell, two years ago a panel on pro gaming had to be cancelled because the tournament was so far behind schedule that no one expected to speak had time.
But something about this year just feels… different. Like the decision makers knew many of these problems could happen, but they didn’t care enough to alert anyone. The organization of many parts of this year’s Quakecon feels like an afterthought. Sponsors were announced weeks ago and lauded for their contributions, but some of the volunteers who make the event work can’t even get a seat in the BYOC area they helped set up.
Once again drawing comparisons to Penny Arcade’s shows, this show simply looks like amateur hour. PAX Prime features dozens of panels, hundreds special guests, musicians and speakers, nearly four times as many attendees, and travel between venues in downtown Seattle to account for. Quakecon has like five big presentations, a LAN party to run (admittedly a very large one, but still), and a tournament to host, all from the same building on a service road just off I-35.
If Quakecon wants to survive long term, it needs to step up its game. They want to keep selling passes in the form of pre-registrations? Fine. But make that the only way in. Yes, the event was free and open for over a decade, but the time has come to go one way or the other and stick with it.
I was just about fed up with the whole event when John Carmack’s keynote showed me a glimmer of hope. At the beginning of his speech, Carmack gave an actual apology for the PC version of Rage. I emphasize actual because all too often the developers are hidden behind a PR filter, and even when they are allowed a mea culpa of sorts for something that went wrong with their game, it comes out half-hearted, simultaneously dismissing the matter as only affecting a handful of gamers, or expressing sorrow that the people who bought their game didn’t “get it.” But not Carmack. He explained that the problems mostly stemmed from driver issues, but he owned it and admitted that it was really poorly handled, and that it is something they will learn from for future games.
Now if only we could get the Quakecon staff to adopt the same attitude.