Convention Coverage – Sac Gamers Expo

By the Last Token Gaming Staff

A week ago today, Marshall Garvey, Isaac Smith, Terry Randolph, Sean Willis, and Michael Ros attended the first inaugural Sac Gamers Expo, with the latter four covering the event with Last Token Gaming’s first ever press badges. It was a special occasion not just for us, but for Sacramento gaming as well as the City of Trees continues to grow as a true video game town. What did we enjoy, and what do we feel needs to be adjusted so as to make this expo a perennially great one? Read on!

Terry Randolph:

Going into Sac Gamers Expo, I knew to have tempered expectations. This was only the very first of hopefully many more gaming expos to come, which meant there was going to be a lot of feeling out for all parties involved in creating the expo. From the very moment going into the Scottish Rite Center to get our press badges, I got the feeling I had years ago from when Sac Anime had started out as a Comic/Games/Anime Expo. There were some cool panels that were being provided for people to listen in on, some movies that could be watched, a free-to-play area, tournament area, and museum of video gaming. There was an area where people could meet prominent YouTube stars as well as hang out with a local superstar podcast Video Game Bang (seriously, check out their work, it’s awesome) and prominent cosplayer Macy Rose.

Even with tempered expectations, I feel like the Expo lacked cohesion and focus, eliminating a solid identity in gaming. Suffice to say it felt disjointed, like the sum of its part couldn’t create a whole experience. Let me explain.

One of my biggest issues stems from the free-to-play area and tournament area being separated from one another. While I can understand separating the two for spacing and the layout of the Temple, the distance between the two felt off putting. Free-to-play also felt like it disappeared behind the vendors because the signage indicating its location didn’t grab attention. It was easy to tell where the tournament area was based on the amount of people surrounding the Super Smash Bros. Wii U tournament at all times. It feels like it would make more sense to have the two areas closer together; that way, if players in tournaments are waiting, they can play free-to-play games or friendly matches until it’s their turn, and so on. If spacing is the culprit behind it, the tournaments also felt very barren and empty; one system per game or tournament doesn’t create the same atmosphere as bracket tournaments or multiple systems with the same game. It would have been cool to have the tournament area on stage with some commentating versus the quiet atmosphere it was in. I felt like I wasn’t watching any tournaments at all. The lack of friendly match availability afterwards also felt off putting.

Another issue was panel and the movie room placement; having the panels and movies in the back left both rooms feeling empty. Again, I suspect spacing issues to be the culprit, but not really advertising where the panels were going to be or the movies where didn’t help either. Little things like having signs indicating where these two rooms are as well as a schedule could’ve drawn more interest. It’s unfortunate how little attention it feels like the panels grabbed because they had some pretty cool guests for the Expo.

Finally, the biggest problem I have with the expo was a lack of focus on gaming that eliminated any solid identity firmly rooted in gaming. Sure, there were the tournaments, free-to-play area, panels and museum to enjoy. However, those were only individual parts, the sum of it all didn’t combine to create a cohesiveness. I was hoping for more studios to come in to showcase a game they were working on, or maybe a game jam area for people to work on stuff together, items that really accentuate gaming not only as a commercial product, but as an experience. It also didn’t help to see a table set up before entering into the vendor area promoting the next Sac Anime Convention.

Reading all of this, I’m sure it comes off as being very negative. I want to be clear these are really small things that can only improve the experience.

Truthfully, I had a blast at Sac Gamers Expo and felt like it has a lot of great qualities it can build off of to be even better next time. There was a sense of community that sometimes takes something like this to bring it all together. It was a lot of fun being able to not only discuss things like analyzing the Smash tournament matches, but also talk to little kids about the games on retro consoles that were in the free to play area. It was also cool to run into old friends and catch up with them, only to find that what drew you together gives you plenty to talk about. Those are priceless moments that make a difference in perception and experience.

The museum, while small, was fun to walk through. It was also eye opening to visually see the evolution of gaming from its first stages to now. Given the short amount of time video games have been alive for, to see the rapid transformation is remarkable. I really hope it’ll come back next year, because even in the midst of my gripes, I think this has potential to be an amazing yearly convention.

Marshall Garvey:

Before I get to the recap proper of the convention, I have to start by triumphantly celebrating one more time about this being our first one we covered with press badges! And mother nature went all out to stop us, kicking that Sunday off with a torrential downpour of rain and gusty winds. So bad, in fact, that it was a brief possibility all four of us with badges couldn’t go. Due to his not having a car available, I had long planned to drive out to Olivehurst to pick up Sean, but the winds were so strong in the early morning that he insisted it might not be worth the risk. I chose to go for it, refusing to let his hard-earned press badge go to waste, and it went smoothly. But the carpool to the Scottish Rite Center itself….my god, you could start a koi pond in the puddles I had to drive around.

But that moment we got our badges at the front door…damn, what a feeling! When the calendar flipped to 2015, my primary goal for Last Token Gaming was to up our convention coverage significantly. We’ve done so all year, from Indie Arcade to Twitchcon to Comic Con itself. But to end with one more as official members of the press was a satisfying payoff for all of our hard work throughout the year. I couldn’t be any more proud of us for it!

Now, on to the convention itself! Altogether, I had myself a ball. It was my first time at the Scottish Rite Center since Sac Anime 2008, and really, you can’t go wrong with this venue. It’s spacious, clean, inviting, and easy to move around. The expo’s organizers should only plan to host it elsewhere if they absolutely need a larger venue to accommodate everything.

First up on our plate was the gaming museum. Located in one of the first rooms in the entrance hall, it featured wall-to-wall tables of classic consoles and rare memorabilia, including R.O.B., the Super Mario Bros. Movie on Laserdisc, a Dreamcast mouse and keyboard, Atari Lynx, a VTech Socrates, and so much more. I’m certain our friends who made World 1-1 would have been thrilled by this display. Perhaps the movie could be screened in the room to augment the excitement of seeing gaming history all gathered in one place.

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Luckily, all the ancient consoles of yesteryear weren’t consigned to just the museum. The stage in the main hall was made into a “free play” area, with a PlayStation, Virtual Boy, Atari 5200, Vectrex, and others. My favorite moment here was trying the boulder chase in Crash Bandicoot, whose difficulty I had forgotten due to the reverse camera angle. (As memory recalls, I only played it a few times at the dentist’s office back when it was first out. My fervent loyalty to N64 meant I never wanted a PlayStation.) Channeling my inner Arin Hanson, I decided to ramble out loud while trying not to screw up…and for whatever reason, started belting out Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma.” (And surely enough, managed to make it to the end as a result.) Mario Clash on the Virtual Boy, meanwhile, was a truly bizarre/somewhat enjoyable/headache-inducing experience. (And if you don’t mind another shoehorned song reference, Michael nailed a brilliant Rush one with “Red Lenses.” “I see red/And it hurts my head”…damn, Neil Peart predicted this system 11 years before it existed!)

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At the heart of the main hall were a cornucopia of vendors. Some of these had mouth-watering selections, including old collectibles and enough N64 classics in the box to make me feel like I was suddenly back in third grade. In a rare moment of financial restraint, I kept my spending to a mere used copy of 007: The World Is Not Enough for N64 and a button with Banjo and Kazooie on each side. Granted, the fact that I already own so many classics for N64 is probably the main reason half my paycheck didn’t disappear that day. If I had a chance to get Conker’s Bad Fur Day for the first time in the original box, you better believe I’d find a way to rationalize spending $160 for it on the spot!

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By far the most impressive attractions were the celebrity guests. Especially for an inaugural expo, the lineup was strong. I had the privilege of meeting the talented minds behind Videogame BANG! (who did a live podcast in the event room at noon), while Sean got a chance to chat with Andre Meadows aka Black Nerd Comedy. To my delight, voice actor Roger Craig Smith was easy to meet before his panel. While he’s known to gamers for his work in Resident Evil 5, Assassin’s Creed and Sonic, I recognize him primarily as the voice of Thomas and many other characters from Cartoon Network’s Regular Show. As some of you know, Regular Show is like religion to me, and to meet a key member of its voice cast was a special occasion! Roger did not disappoint, providing some nice behind-the-scenes tidbits and doing several of his many voices from the series. (I overdosed on fanboying when he bellowed out “This is Chopper 6!” in his Jesse Ventura-style voice.) Best of all, he signed my picture with Mordecai and Rigby’s signature “Ooooooohhhhhh!!!!” without me even requesting it!

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Especially for a first convention, Sac Gamers Expo ran pretty smoothly. Perhaps the only thing that didn’t feel quite locked in for me was the handling of the tournaments, which were consigned to a relatively small room. I was really expecting these events, especially the Smash Bros. tournament, to be featured front and center. To have them somewhat sequestered in a gathering room wasn’t suitable for the competitors and the enthused crowds watching them….I would suggest they get the main stage next year, with the “free play” tables moved to the room. The panel and viewing rooms were also too far away from the action, and needed more signage to attract visitors. All the more since the panels and film showings were very good, especially the speed run marathon.

I ultimately agree with my colleagues that the convention needs to cultivate a 100% “gaming” identity, which was diluted by the clear (but admittedly expected) overlap with Sac Anime vendors and cosplayers. But I don’t say this with a “they failed to do it correctly” disposition. If anything, it’s congruent with Sacramento’s rapidly growing reputation as a major video gaming city. (You may recall the passage from me and Isaac’s interview with local devs Arclight Worlds just this past year where Colin Sullivan noted how Sacramento has become sort of a “refuge” for game developers driven inland by San Francisco’s skyrocketing rent.) Thanks to the efforts of people like IGDA Sacramento, Videogame BANG! and others (I’d certainly like to think LTG is important in this picture too!), the River City has developed a clear sense of community in gaming. And I have no doubt that Sac Gamers Expo will play an indispensable role in furthering that as the years go by.

Isaac Smith

I agree with what Terry and Marshall have said, and had a wonderful time at Sac Gamers Expo overall. That being said, I had a couple issues with the convention. The first, which is relatively minor, was the placement of the “free play” area and the tournament area. The vintage game free play area, while nifty, was given prime real estate up on the stage, while the tournament was relegated to a side room. The Super Smash Bros. tournaments throughout the day garnered a large audience and it seemed a shame that they didn’t have a better spot.

I’m also going to gripe a bit more about the “free play” area. Pretty much all of the games were single player. Many were obscure. Although it was cool to see and play through them, the tournament area had six or seven stations with more popular games, and only one or two tournaments going on at a time, during which no one could play on the unused consoles. It would have been better to have free play on those consoles until they were needed for a tournament. There is something exhilarating about competing against or teaming up with complete strangers, especially in games we all know and love. I would love to see an expanded “free play” area next year, with more popular titles and more multiplayer games! Nothing builds a community like trashing bad guys together.

The second and more serious one is that it was sponsored and put together by the same people who did Sacramento’s ComiCon and SacAnime. I absolutely understand that having experienced event organizers, a fan base, and a rapport with the facility staff helps give a convention a running start. Had SacAnime’s organizers not been involved, it would have been a much more meager affair. At the same time, the setup was very much geared towards the crowd that goes to the other conventions: lots of artists and people selling paraphernalia. Although Sacramento has a burgeoning game development scene, there were a total of three devs present, none of which were representatives of Sacramento’s fast-growing Indie Game Developers Assocation branch. The non-vendor gaming personalities were relegated to the entrance hall and it seemed that traffic in those areas was sporadic at best. The people who make Sacramento’s gaming community happen were given short shrift, while the deviantArt denizens and fridge magnet makers had prime spots to hawk their wares. As a plus, however, instead of people selling rare anime and manga, it was people selling vintage games.

And the crossover was apparent in the attendees as well: there were more comic book and anime cosplayers than video game cosplayers.

I understand that this was the first year, and that’s one big reason I can’t pan the convention: a lot of people came, many had a good time, and in the eyes of the community and the attendees (and the staff here at LTG), it’s considered a success. What needs to happen now is that it needs to develop its own culture, like the individual cultures of Comic Con and SacAnime. It needs to find its “crowd”.

Anyway, in spite of what may seem like a negative review, I should mention that I had a good time. It was a well put-together convention. I just think it needs some time to find and cater to its audience.

Pros:

  • Well-organized and well-attended
  • Lots of vintage game and game paraphernalia vendors
  • Good panelists and tournaments
  • Excellent celebrity lineup
  • Outstanding game vendors

Cons:

  • Too much crossover with SacAnime and Comic Con
  • Not enough importance placed on Sacramento gaming personalities
  • Tournament and free play areas needed expansion, and different locations
  • More dev tables needed
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