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The Year Was 2019 (Part 2): There’s No Place Like Home

Updated: May 13, 2021

Oh boy! This is it! The big one! This is the blog post about The Hamilton Games Festival! What a ride! Many of you are probably wondering what that is. Consider this a bit of a postmortem. It’s a strange beast, and there are a lot of misconceptions floating around out there about it. Hopefully this helps.

So, for starters, I do want to clear one big thing up before I start explaining the backstory and the day of. There are a lot of people out there who think this is a “Wraith Games event”. It’s not. In many ways, it was my idea, but due to the weird way this whole thing was set up, it wasn’t run by Wraith, nor was it planned by Wraith. I know that doesn’t make much sense now, but hopefully it will in a second. Okay, let’s go back in time to about 2 ½ years ago? That sounds right. When I had an idea…

The idea was simple: let’s do a game jam. We have this lovely little tech center run by our local library about two blocks away from the studio. By tech center, I mean there’s a bunch of computers, tables where people can sit down with laptops or whatever, permanently affixed tablets, 3D printers, regular printers, and a VR room. It’s real sick. Kind of like an internet cafe without the cafe, or a library without all the books. We actually approached them quite a while after coming up with the idea, but when we did, they were lukewarm about it at best. After that, we just approached the landlord for our studio to see if we could use some of the empty offices in the building. It actually came with a huge stipulation that they got to decide the theme (it was “city planning”, for those interested). Well, after going on NPR for the second time (you guys remember that, right?), and accidentally namedropping them, the tech center realized we weren’t just a bunch of weirdos after hearing us on air and greenlit the jam. Of course, this meant we had two spaces… and anyone who’s seen an old sitcom knows what you do when you double book a date for the same dance: you take both dates and hope they don’t notice!

Okay, not quite. Close, though. We decided to double down. We would use the tech center for the game jam, and then use the empty offices for… something else? Hadn’t thought of that yet, but the answer would come soon. So, do any of you remember when Lance and I taught at Future Awesome Camp? After that, we started talking with the program director about maybe doing something in the Cincinnati area. Gaming specific, this time. Basically, a whole bunch of workshops and classes, speakers and panels, all about game development for students. This would have to wait a smidge, though (mostly because my brain was running way slower than it should have in hindsight).

Working with some Talawanda students during the remodel

Next thing you should probably know is that I have a couple of amazing side gigs. The first thing is that I teach for a 501c3 charity that brings extracurricular subjects to underprivileged schools. I teach game design. This is usually once a week and I’m allowed to take entire semesters off, but it really only pays for the travel expenses. Secondly is that I volunteer to help run the Strauss Gallery. Well, kind of. The Strauss is connected to Artspace Hamilton Lofts. Artspace is a nationwide charitable organization that provides affordable housing to artists. I volunteer my time on the housing side of things (I’m also a resident). The long and short of this part is that we started coming up with an idea for having a video game themed interactive gallery show (we do about one show a month here at the Strauss).

That’s when it all clicked. We could have the art show at the Strauss, the talks/workshops in the offices, and the game jam at the tech center all at the same time! It was brilliant! But I needed some help…

Fortunately, I know a lot of amazing event runners: GDEX, IGDA Cincinnati, AllMid, Aloysius Fox, Run Jump Dev, Kabo Events, Louisville Makes Games, and some others. The idea would be that we could all come together and run parts of this event together. But for those of you who’ve been following Collapsus closely know: feature creep is real!

The Strauss Gallery. Picture stolen from our friend Kim Pochard (who did all the branding for the festival)… unlike most of the other photos on this post that are stolen from Griffin without credit.

So, one by one I started asking all of my event friends if they wanted to help out. We got “yesses” all across the board! That’s when we decided that all the profits would go to AbleGamers and Extra Life, and the event would be free for students and disabled individuals. We added an eSports component, thanks to AllMid, then brought on the Pinball Garage for help running an arcade; A Game Knight (the local board game cafe) would host our board games and we’d bring in Illuminaudi (yes, that’s how they spell it), the local card shop, to handle TCG tournaments. It was basically “Games take over Hamilton”; but that’s when we knew we needed the city’s help.

There are times I really love Hamilton. They are often so willing to try new things. Luckily, we had some contacts in the city who really wanted to see this be a thing. Like our friend Nick Bauer, who had convinced the city to make the last Ice Fest game-themed. Oh, yeah. I guess most of you don’t know about Ice Fest. See, our city puts on a LOT of events. Two of the biggest being Ice Fest (where they shut down the streets, bring in ice sculptors, and there are a whole bunch of vendors and food trucks) and Operation Pumpkin (basically 10 times bigger, but with pumpkins instead of ice). We were really looking for that sort of thing. The problem is our event would be a hybrid indoor/outdoor event (something that’s not really done), and despite having some top-tier talent running it with combined decades of experience between them, this was still going to be a first-year event. The city needed metrics. Looking at other events, both in gaming and other festivals near Hamilton, we ended up getting an estimation of how many people to expect. I won’t post that number here, but it was laughably high. I actually blame myself for that. But with that high of a number, the city was all in. They were going to shut down 8 whole streets and give us the amphitheatre to run concerts and rhythm game tournaments. What we needed next was a date.

I’m gonna say this: being that this was my crazy idea, and also that I live downtown (and all of our event friends live at least an hour or two away), that meant it was on me to go to places and make negotiations (often with help from our event friends if they happened to be in town). That’s not a slight on them; they all had their own events to run; but I will say they had confidence that I could get things done well. For the most part, I did. But the hotel… oof, the hotel! I’m not going to go into too many details, but let’s just say the hotel was not used to working with events like conventions or festivals. Because of this, what they needed from us was way more financially involved than most conventions would normally be. Also, because they had a basketball contract with our local team, their availability was very low; so they chose the date of the event… and ooh boy, was it a bad date! That’s not to blame them, they were just as new at this as we were; though I will say it was kind of the beginning of the end, and we hadn’t really started yet.

The original festival street closure map! WAY too big!

I’m going to skip past almost everything. We had lots of boring meetings with the city and the county, tons of calls to sponsors, piles upon piles of emails. This was honestly the most stressful thing I’ve ever done. It gets worse, though. We ended up having to downsize (which, keep in mind, due to our turnout, that was not a bad thing. It was just one more thing). A Game Knight closed (so we had to move TCGs to Startek and indie tabletop combined with the regular indie showcase), we had to drop the amphitheater because we couldn’t communicate with our music sponsor in a timely enough manner, 8 streets became 6, then 4, then 2, then finally 1, and we had to move the indie game showcase to the Mercantile Lofts and the eSports lounge over to the YMCA.

It really hit the fan when we had to drop the hotel entirely. There was so much planned for the hotel that now didn’t have a home, and because the hotel was no longer cheap for developers, vendors, musicians, and staff, we had a boatload of cancellations just a month out. One of the biggest problems is this made it where some of our department heads (entire organizations) needed to drop out; which sucks! They put in all this work only to have it go nowhere… and keep in mind, the whole reason the date was set when it was, was because of the hotel, which we no longer had! But the show must go on.

By this point, we’d burned through the grant the city had given us, and also our private donations. So much so that until three days beforehand, we didn’t even have tables and chairs. We had to borrow those. All of these last-minute changes and disruptions made it nearly impossible to get a concrete schedule or proper wayfinding printed up. It was a mess. However, we knew we could run a good show with what we had. The eSports lounge, indie game showcase, drone racing, chiptune stage, TCGs, talks, the game jam, and the games gallery all had a concrete home, and we had enough staff to run it all. Even though it was a smaller show, we knew we could kick some butt!

The HGF map and schedule for the day-of

Before I move on, briefly on the games gallery. As someone who volunteers at the Strauss, we do about one show a month. The games art gallery was one of the things I was most proud of. When it was originally planned, it had an interactive component, similar to some events some of our friends have done, but as it moved on, because of cancellations, we had to drop it to static art only. Lots of paintings and prints, even some textile art and sculpture! There was a little confusion by some, because the vast majority was art from tabletop games, but all in all, it was one heck of a show!

One of our intern, Chris Quay’s pieces at the gallery

Anyway, that basically leads us to the day of the show. We had our tables set up on the closed street for vendors, the stage set up for our chiptune artists (though the city forgot to wire power for the drone racing, and since it was a weekend, that didn’t get off the ground until Sunday), a few different food trucks, and then all of our indoor activities ready to go. Aaaand…


We were absolutely dead.

See, one of the things we kept hearing throughout the weekend was that no one even knew it was going on. I find that incredibly hard to believe. The newspaper had run an article, there were posters all throughout the city, the city and county promoted it on social media, a whole bunch of local businesses talked about it, our event partners told everyone about it. That plus this adage in Hamilton that live music will always draw a crowd. It didn’t.

We also had to make a few last-minute changes. Con-ops had to be moved, for instance. Though, minor gripe: at every event I’ve ever gone to, con-ops is mostly for staff and specific emergencies. For some reason, despite having posted where badge pickup was, a lot of people kept trying to go to con-ops. This is very confusing for me. Anyway…

We tried posting to the best of our ability when things would be moved or cancelled, but we still needed to do a better job. That’s really the thing. Despite everyone doing their best, we all still needed to do a better job. I think we call that a “Kobayashi Maru”.

A mini staff meeting of some of the Wraith team

People playing Collapsus

Make-a-Molecule was a HIT!

But you know what? Something magical happened. All of our indoor zones did super well while all of our outdoor zones were super dead. Okay, okay, slight fib. We had to cancel the talks because of poor attendance. On top of that, when the drone racing did start finally, it did really well! The joke of the whole thing, I guess, is that by attendance metrics, the indoor portions of the event were WAY more successful than a first-year event normally is. The outdoor portions, however, were an absolute failure. If we were ever to do something like this again, it would have more of the stuff that worked, and none of the stuff that didn’t. I.E. one big indoor space with more indie games, TCGs, eSports, and drone racing, with no outdoor component at all (not even vendors), and also no talks. It probably would also only be one day. But that’s probably not going to happen.

Gotta love some Bellum!

Adam Wik showing off Galatune (one of our faves)!

Kick Bot AND Zodiac d20 in the same image? What is this… a crossover episode?!

By the end of it, surprisingly, we broke even. Apparently that is a huge deal for events. No one breaks even on their first year. At the end of the day, despite all of the stress (and the backlash, what little of it there was), I’m glad we did it. All of us are glad we did it. We tried and it wasn’t a total failure (I guess we call that a “half success”). But I certainly have a new-found respect for all of our friends who do run events. I gotta say, too, I am HUGELY thankful for all the work the other event heads, our team, and the other volunteers put into this! They really saved the show!

The after party

Even though I was down, Cody was able to bring up my spirits!

Griffin and Steve are way too cool for all this

So with that out of the way, Chapter 3! See you next week!


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