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A History of GenCon






Nothing to see here. Move along. Move along.


GenCon is North America's preeminent role playing and gaming convention. GenCon began in 1968. Although GenCon and the machinations of TSR have, seemingly, always been tightly integrated, GenCon existed before TSR.


The Early Days


GenCon was started by a joint group of gamers from Milwaukee and Chicago. The group did, however, include TSR founder Gary Gygax. The first GenCon was considered a raging success, attracting some 162 attendees. The venue was Lake Geneva, specifically Horticultural Hall (330 Broad Street). The name GenCon or "Geneva Convention" was a nod to the rules of war laid out in the Geneva Convention accords. GenCon's focus in the early days was purely war games.


For a few years, the con was held at venues rotating between Horticultural Hall, the American Legion, and the campus of George Williams College.


In 1976, TSR officially took over as GenCon's host and principle corporate sponsor. Attendance hit 300. In 1977, the con was held at the Lake Geneva Playboy Resort. Perverts. Two years later, attendance shot up to 1,000. In 1978 the venue was moved to the University of Wisconsin. While a more respectable and larger setting, the University of Wisconsin proved to be somewhat irritating to gamers. Some of the tournaments were held in buildings nearly 3 miles away. The dealer hall was in an unairconditioned gymnasium.


GenCon moves on Mecca


In 1985, GenCon had grown too big to be hosted on a campus and it moved to Milwaukee and its long-time home at the MECCA Convention Center. Over 5,000 people attended. Within a few years, it easily became Milwaukee's largest annual convention. In 1985, however, only a portion of "Mecca" was needed for the con. It used two side halls and shared the main hall with a floral convention. However, by 1987, GenCon had to fully occupy Mecca to accommodate RPG hajjis.





In 1988, GenCon and the competing Origins convention hosted a joint con. Over 10,000 attendees showed up. Origins previously had been a roving event, moving from host city to host city. The GenCon/Origins marriage did not last long. Origins split off after a few years and returned to its nomadic ways.


In 1992, attendance figures hit 15,000. Kibourn Hall was added to host the ever popular game auction. Vampire: The Masquerade was debuted at GenCon '92. GenCon '93 saw the debut of Wizards of the Coast's (WotC) Magic: The Gathering.


The card game craze touched off by Magic: The Gathering only helped to further pump up GenCon's attendance figures: 20,000 in 1994 and 30,000 in 1996.


GenCon '97 almost didn't happen. TSR tanked and it was only by the super human efforts of WotC employees (WotC has just purchased TSR) that the con happened. Flush with cash, WotC kicked off GenCon 1997 with a free concert by Milwaukee's own Violent Femmes. An opening night concert became a recent GenCon tradition.


Right after GenCon '97, the city of Milwaukee tore down MECCA and built a larger convention center. The convention center's architects generously allowed GenCon organizers an oversight role in the design of the new facility. GenCon '98 opened with a free concert by They Might Be Giants.


The Big Snit


In 1998, Steve Jackson Games, Palladium (a GenCon attendee since 1982), and RPGnet pulled out of GenCon. The companies cited the high cost of booth rentals. Many companies felt that rental prices were already high. When GenCon '98's raised the rates between 36 and 50% many of the industry's biggest companies had to reexamine the cost/benefits. WotC argued the rates were still fair, if you compared it to other more expensive conventions unrelated to the gaming industry. Okay. WotC further argued any company that did not show up for GenCon might give players the impression the absentee company was on its last legs.


The Big Future


Many were afraid WotC, a Seattle-area company, would move the con out west. But it promised to keep GenCon in Milwaukee until at least 2006. Despite WotC's pledge, GenCon outgrew Milwaukee's ability to host the ever growing event (40,000 people in 2000). WotC, now owned by Hasbro, plans to move the con to Indianapolis for 2003. Indianapolis was selected because it kept the con close to its Midwest roots and offered 1/3 more convention space. It seemed a suitable compromise and allowed for increased expansion. Indianapolis is only a four-hour drive from Milwaukee. GenCon estimates the majority of attendees travel to the con by car as long as it's within a "day trip" range. Indianapolis, 248 miles south of Milwaukee, places it within a day trip of 2/3's of America's population, as opposed to 1/3 in Milwaukee. Indianapolis has the distinction of being the "crossroads of America". It's served by most interstate highways in America. Bet you never knew that, eh?


-- Karl Mamer





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