July 7th and 8th at the Crown Plaza in Cherry Hill, NJ, Gamer Con will be opening its doors to gamers ready to play in the 24hr arcade and console rooms, see panels featuring special guests (like Doc Mack, Brian Colin, Daniel Pesina, and Jon St. John), compete in tournaments, and shop the vendor room. AFJ had the chance to interview the Con’s organizer, Lani Winzer, about what it takes to run something like Gamer Con and what drives her to do it.
AFJ: How did Gamer Con start?
Lani Winzer: Gamer Con was born out of a passion for gaming. Jerry Colona was the original creator and he saw a need for what we do there and what sets apart from other events. He has always been into the classic arcades and bringing people back to that nostalgia. He did it for his family, you know, his nieces and nephews and all his friends from school and college that got together and did stuff like this, and decided to do it on a larger scale and bring in the whole community.
AFJ: That’s really cool because you have all these larger cons about comic books and pop culture, and gaming usually gets left behind. You have some booths that sell these older games, but I just went to Greater Philadelphia Comic Con, and no one was selling video games. There was not one video game representation there.
LW: Yeah, I’ve been there. There’s a lot for a lot of different people, but we try to keep it focused on what we’re about. There’s definitely a need for what we do, I think, and that’s why we’ve grown over the past few years.
AFJ: When did you get started and why?
LW: So, right when Jerry was starting it, he came to me and picked my brain a little bit because I’ve been involved in Too Many Games for years, and at that point, he was just tossing ideas around with me. There are people that come and go, they start an event and its okay or its just one year and then doesn’t do anything. But I really heard in what he was trying to do in his vision really lined up with me and what I thought would be a really cool event for people that would really get into it. I saw that he had something there, so I came in right from that first year as a sponsor of that console room and I was involved ever since. I’ve been apart of it since day one and watching it grow has been really awesome.
AFJ: What does it take to set up something like Gamer Con?
LW: A whole lot (laughs). There’s a lot of people who are interested in doing these kinds of events and they're fun, but something to keep in mind is that it’s more a labor of love than anything, it’s not something that’s going to be a career for most people. There are people that come in and think, “okay, I’ll do these aspects of it, and it’ll just happen.” Or “I’ll throw some money at it and it’ll be this great thing,” the “build it and they will come” mentality. It doesn’t quite work that way. (Laughs) I wish it did.
You really have to have a solid team of people working together on all of these different aspects to make this one weekend really be everything it can be. Say you have an event, a wedding, there’s one couple getting married, and you need to figure out who’s coming. Or say you have a concert, with one band, maybe a couple of bands. A convention like ours has several bands, several special guests, like the wedding guests, and each of those things has its own thing. Like this band needs this setup, this panelist needs the projector to be this way, then there is all the scheduling that goes into it because we’ve got a packed weekend. It’s about making sure everybody’s where they want to be, where they need to be, and where the attendees can talk and play and have a great time. We really try to make everything accessible, affordable, and enjoyable, so to ask me all these details are, you just have to think, and you need to have a team thinking about it, working on it, evolving it. It’s a lot of research and study. Besides the day of the event, you’ve got to do marketing: you’ve got your website, interacting with fans beforehand doing stuff like our interview today!
AFJ: Making sure everyone knows where and when it’s going to be. Knowing all the relevant information.
LW: Exactly, like this morning, I was working on floor plan and schedule, with our hotel and event center convention manager, and there are hours of work that go into that.
This year we added some pre-show events on Friday too. It’s a lot. Whatever we’re doing we have to keep in mind that the attendees are going to have a really good time, its just about doing all the behind the scenes stuff in a way that it almost looks seamless.
It’s a lot of different people; we’ve got a lot of arcade cabinets, we have a very classic arcade focused convention, so we have to make sure they’re all up and running. The logistics of transportation, of electricity, having someone on hand should something go wrong and inevitably something goes wrong. The trick is to head it off at the pass if you can, put out fires when they happen if they happen as quickly as you can. Again, that’s all about having a great team.
AFJ: How does Gamer Con compare to some other events that you’ve been to?
LW: Well, it’s kind of what brought me into being more involved in it - you know Ready Player One? I’m a big fan. You know, James Holladay was the creator of the Oasis, he is a game designer, and he’s all about the innards of that, the nostalgia. What the feeling is that you have when you're playing these games when you’re sharing it with other people and how to create that experience. So that, I think, is a little bit of what sets us apart from others. There are some large conventions on either coast of the country right now, that are very corporate, and you know it’s cool to go and playtest the newest Microsoft Xbox game, but you also stand in line all day (laughs). What are you taking out of that?
There is something to be said for these new games, and we do have a lot of modern stuff as well. We’re bringing VR this year; we’ve got some really great tournaments going on, and only a little bit of that is on the classics side, but as far as the presence of our arcades and respect for where it came from. From the beginning we had Jeff Lee, who did Q*bert, he was there doing panels and hanging out with the attendees. We actually had Q*bert set up so you could play Q*bert with Jeff Lee. We have the same thing with Brian Colin and Doc Mack and all these guys who are the guts of some of this stuff. That’s maybe not your childhood, but my childhood and other parents' like me trying to instill that in our kids that are gamers, you know, who are into the latest and greatest, sometimes it’s really a fun thing to introduce them to where it all started. Like where did this come from? What were the struggles? Like we didn’t have extra lives (Laughs). If you failed at Dragon’s Quest, that was it, you had to start all the way over.
AFJ: How has Gamer Con evolved over the years you have been a part of it?
LW: We are going into our sixth event, and it's not that many years because for a few years we had a bi-annual event, so we had our show in July and December. It was last year that we only did the July show. We wanted to focus more of our efforts on bringing everything to July. It seemed to be more of a fan favorite; attendees were there in greater force in July. One major thing this year is that we moved, not to far, less than ten minutes down the road, to the Crown Plaza, which is another hotel, but much bigger and actually has just this huge grand ballroom and event center. All this space for us to really spread out because we have the need, we’ve had a lot of interest.
Some things I’ve seen change: I was pushing for more table-top to come in, do more board games and more game tournaments along those lines, so we definitely beefed that up, so that’s a whole other focus.
Also, our special guests were usually along the lines of the designers we love and respect and we’re having them back this year, like you can play Rampage the game, with the designer Brian Colin, and he’s just a hoot, he’s great! He’ll be doing panels, talking to people, and playing Rampage with you. But besides that, we are bringing in a lot more guests in recent years and especially this year. We’re having a lot of voice actor guests, YouTubers who aren’t your status-quo, but we have game review people. Voice actors like Jon St. John, who did Duke Nukem and a bunch of iconic voices out there, so he’s coming in from San Francisco, and this will be his first year.
We’ve evolved in terms of music too. I feel like game music is a big part of that nostalgic feeling that you get when you're playing – when you ask somebody, “what do you love about this game?” Sometimes they’ll say, “Well, when I hear that music it reminds me of this era in my life.” So, we’ve got DJs, live bands, and one-man acts to give people the opportunity to get up and dance at our later night concerts stuff going on. It’s fun. You’ve got your favorite game theme and you can actually move around and dance to it and go “I remember beating this level!”
AFJ: What is your favorite part of Gamer Con?
LW: My favorite part has to be – it’s going to sound really cheesy and cliché, but – seeing all the smiling faces. It really is. When you're doing a show, you’re working, if you're a con-organizer. But, in between running around making sure everything is ship-shape, its just, looking up in time to catch the smiles and the enthusiasm and how happy they are to just get away in that weekend and be there in that moment. Like in the vendor room they found the thing they’ve been searching for, the treasure they really wanted, and got a good deal on it.
One of my favorite things was (laughs) it was last year or the December event we were having a Smash Bros tournament and this kid was just so into it, and made it to the final round and when he won he knocked everything over! He stood up and his chair went down, there are papers somehow next to him or someone’s bag went flying. That’s the kind of thing that is so great about putting on a gaming convention like this, it’s just giving the community an opportunity to get together and just play. You don’t have to worry about anything this weekend; you’re just there to have a great time.
AFJ: Is that why you do it? To see everyone enjoy what you created?
LW: Yes! I would say so. People ask, “What do you get out of this?” and like I said it really is a labor of love, you put a lot of work, a lot of energy, time, and effort, but it is. Just having everybody there, having a great time, that just makes me so happy. That’s what it’s all about.
AFJ: We wanted to ask about your personal history as a gamer, what was the first game you played?
LW: Probably Pac-Man, in the arcade on the boardwalk. At home, I had a Texas-Instruments and they had a bunch of games that were similar, but legally distinct from some of the Atari games and other systems out there. I played this game similar to Pac-Man called Munch-man, and it was really cool! There were some of the levels and things about it that I liked better than Pac-Man even. And then I had Atari after that and the rest is history.
AFJ: What’s your favorite game of all time?
LW: I wish it was that simple for me. For me, it’s what system? On Nintendo, I’m a big Zelda fan – there’s a bunch of titles I love on Nintendo. On PlayStation, there’s just too many to list, there’s Kingdom Hearts, there’s Spyro and Crash, There’s Japanese games: Ico and anything Final Fantasy.
AFJ: Which Final Fantasy is your favorite?
LW: I don’t have a favorite Final Fantasy. I’ve been playing through the entire franchise. I get that question a lot; some of the newer ones lost a little in the storylines. I also like more simple puzzle games. I like Katamari Damacy.
AFJ: What is that?
LW: Oh My Gosh it's so cool, you have to play it (laughs). It’s this very bizarre Japanese game, that you have this sticky ball and you have these little characters and they are Katamari, and you have to roll up things in this ball. It could be just, office supplies - as you roll it up it just gets bigger, and you start rolling up your entire room. So where you could pick up paperclips and thumbtacks, next thing you know you're picking up chairs and beds and desks. There is something really satisfying about it. As the levels go on you're rolling up entire towns, and then you can roll up the whole universe. Then there’s the King of the Cosmos, which is just - I can’t explain that you just have to see this dude with a goatee and these very, very, tight, tights (laughs). It’s very Japanese.
And then indie games, I love indie games, you know of course Cuphead! That’s got to be on the top of my list right now for most frustrating (laughs).
AFJ: Are there any big titles you're looking to play this year?
LW: At Gamer Con, I am looking forward to playing something, we’ve got Doc Mack coming in from Galloping Ghost Arcade in Chicago – he develops a new game every year or so and he’s bringing Dark Presence. It’s an extremely realistic fighter game, they have fine-tuned this thing, the graphics are beautiful. So they're bringing that to Gamer Con and everyone should come – it’s going to be available to playtest with the designers right there, showing you stuff.
As far as stuff to play, I don’t have as much time these days, you know Steam always has these big sales and then I wind up buying a dozen games and never play them. Eventually, I will. try to find a couple minutes when I can – it’s hard when you're running a game convention and people are like have you played this? Have you tried this?” And I say no.
AFJ: I’ve been busy making this (laughs)
LW: Yeah, I’ve been busy putting together this for you guys, and its tough – it’s not so much these days, but in the past years since I got started way back with Too Many Games – Just being female, your gamer cred automatically gets questioned and I don’t feel the need to stand there and say “I’ve been playing Atari since I was five years old,” and all that stuff because I don’t really need to prove anything to anybody, but its certainly can feel like – or detracts a little bit - when someone says, “what do you mean you haven’t played the new whatever” and you know I just haven’t.
AFJ: For Gamer Con, what would you say if you were trying to convince someone to go? Say they aren’t a big gamer, but they have time that weekend.
LW: Even if you're not the biggest gamer you're going to find amazing things for sale in the vendor room, like your childhood: for sale! You can actually get these things. It’s an experience; it’s an entire weekend of fun stuff happening for a really low price. We try to keep it very reasonable. We don’t ever anticipate greatly raising our ticket prices like some other conventions do where it's astronomical and you can’t get there. For less than it would cost for you to go to the movies and get your popcorn and soda, you have a whole weekend of free-play arcade games and consoles and game music and panelists, you can meet people who are the creators of these games and people who have these huge followings on YouTube just by doing what they love, and find out how they do it. Again, buy all the stuff you want, compete in tournaments for money and prizes, you can compete in the casual tournaments on the consoles or the arcade where there’s not as much of a big stake prize. We’ve got a whole tournaments room this year live streaming on Twitch.
It’s hard to pick one thing to tell people. It’s just everything you could want in a weekend, get away and have fun. If you're local, it's in your neighborhood, if not it's in the South Jersey Philadelphia area, I timed it from the hotel and it’s only seven minutes from Philadelphia.
Our Con is on Saturday and Sunday [July 7th and 8th] but we’ve got pre-show events happening that organically grow out of having a show like this, so everyone shows up at the hotel a day early, they call it day zero, so they’ll be there on Friday night, We’re actually doing a poker run this year, and I don’t know if you know what a poker run is, but this year its – I have to remember how to say this – it’s a Pokémon poker run, it’s a PokéRun. (laughs) you can win super cool prizes from that, it’s like a scavenger hunt. You're going to go around to the game stores on Friday from this time to this time and they’ll pick up their poker card from all these different locations and whoever has the best hand is going to win the top prize! There are a second place and a surprise for the crappiest hand.
And the Crown Plaza has a beautiful pool and a whole patio outdoors, so we’re going to have this big pajama/pool party on the patio. There’s going to be music and a little bar set up out there, so people can come wearing their nerdy PJs or swimsuits.
To sum it up: it’s a weekend of fun for the whole family.