Gen Con 2014 — How Not to Do Registration

I wrote last week about the awesome time I (well, we—my friends and I) had at Gen Con this year. Easily the most fun I’ve had at a Gen Con without staying downtown. 

Which leads me right into the lousy time I had getting set up for the convention. Registering for Gen Con has become a hassle and a frustration. And it doesn’t have to be. The fixes are technically easy. They may not be politically easy, but I think they are palatable, and certainly better than the situation we have now. 

There are two components to this: finding a place to stay, finding a game to play.

The housing situation is the worse of the two. Every year, the downtown housing has sold out more quickly. We’re now to the point where you can be online the moment the housing site goes live and have the downtown hotels sold out in the amount of time it takes to click on a hotel and put in your information. And the server is buckling under the onslaught, so that many people are getting booted out of the system or having transactions fail midway. All of which adds up to:

  • All downtown rooms sold out within the first 10 minutes.
  • Even if you’re ready to go when signup opens, with a powerful computer sitting on a fast connection, it’s a crapshoot whether or not you can get a hotel room downtown.

When it came time to register for a hotel room for Gen Con this year, my friend was sitting on a fast connection in the IT area of a Research I university—neither bandwidth nor processing power are any kind of limit on my friend’s end of things. And yet the server kicks him out twice in the process of registering, and by 11:10 am there are zero downtown rooms available in the housing system. There are two problems here.

  1. Gen Con (or the hotel company they’re hiring) simply doesn’t have the capacity—whether the problem is one of processing power or bandwidth—to handle that many people trying to register at once. It shouldn’t take 3 tries simply to complete a hotel registration without it failing. 
  2. The convenient rooms should not be unavailable to everyone who doesn’t manage to register within the first 15 minutes. That’s ridiculous. 

This leads to two negative consequences with the current method. First of all, it’s frustrating and it gets worse every year. The harder it is to get in this year, the more people queue up to start pounding the server at exactly 11 am next year. And then it gets even worse. Secondly, it’s particularly discouraging for new attendees, or anyone who decides after the first day housing becomes available, that they would like to attend. 

Imagine you’re a potential attendee, and you decide in, say, March, that you’re going to go to Gen Con for the first time. So you start looking into hotels, and discover that they’re all sold out downtown. The closest you can get is a 20-30 minute drive away. 

Or say you’re planning to run some games and have a bunch of books or props or minis or whatever. If you can get a hotel downtown, you can walk over with this material and then take your supplies back after your game. If you stay on the outskirts of town, you have to carry everything with you all day, particularly if you can’t park close. That was part of why this year was the first year in 15 that I didn’t run any games. Carting my stuff around all day just because I ran a game in the morning was really tiring. 

Gen Con had ~56,000 attendees this year, at least some of whom didn’t register ahead (I saw the lines). Let’s say that 90% did, however—that would be about 50,000 people trying to register.  Let’s assume a fifth of them are trying to get a hotel room (I’m guessing an average of 4 people per hotel room, and a modest number who either don’t get a hotel through the housing system or have it booked for them by a friend booking multiple rooms or live within driving distance). As for registering for events, I assume that at least 40,000 of those people do at least some registering for themselves, but that not all do it on opening day of registration. (At least a few people don’t attend any events that require registering, or just use generic tickets.) And they’re all trying to get into 14,000 different events, some bigger, some smaller; some in high demand, some easily attended. 

This is mostly a solved problem, and the solution is not throwing more and more CPUs and internet connections at it. The solution to a short-lived spike of way too much demand is to spread the demand out. I’ll get to how in a moment, but the basic solution is quite simple: don’t have everyone register for housing—or for events—at the same time. UW-Madison has about 42,000 students, and thousands of class sections every semester. And, as a Research I university with vibrant comp sci, physics, and engineering departments, it has plenty of computing resources to throw at class registration. And yet rather than have everyone try to register at once, they stagger registrations. You get an email that tells you when you can first have access to the registration system, to the minute. 

The same solution would be perfect for Gen Con. You could base registration priority on seniority (as UW does), but that would compound the frustration for 1st-time attendees. I’d be ok with it—I have as much seniority as you can have (I’ve attended every year since long before the current registration records began), and I’ve been a GM for 14 of the last 15 years (which would be the obvious other factor to use along with seniority), but it would be a bad choice for the long-term health of Gen Con. Random assignment of registration times would be the fairest way, IMHO. When you buy your badge, the system could spit out a random day, spread out over, say, a month. 

The same solution would work even better for hotel registration. While people do have brand preferences, all of the downtown hotels are very similar prices, so the only significant difference is distance—and even the furthest of them are still quite close. It’s already a lottery as to who actually gets a downtown hotel room, so this wouldn’t really change that. But it would make the whole process much less frustrating, and you wouldn’t have everyone signing on and pounding the servers all at once. And this would acknowledge and publicize the fact that it’s a lottery, so if you got a later date, you’d know that you might want to start planning for staying somewhere other than downtown.

That said, I think the other part of the solution is to get more hotel rooms allocated to Gen Con. Unless we’re actually filling up the entire downtown, they should increase the housing block. Clearly, a lot of people are not staying downtown. If we are already using all the rooms, then a lottery system for registration times seems even more fair. 

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