Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Long Time No Post

It's been a little while since I posted to this forum. The main reason has been my involvement with scheduling a regional gaming convention held in Vancouver, WA (part of the greater Portland, OR area). I have been serving on the Boardgame Committee, and have been specifically responsible for figuring out the room layouts for the boardgame portion, as well as being responsible for scheduling games in that area.

I've learned a few things, mostly about people, in this process.

The first thing is that scheduling 250 games submitted in an online database that is, for very good reasons, coming up to speed a little late in the process is time consuming and difficult work. It requires a lot of concentration, good people skills, good organizational skills, and an ability to work with people who may not have all of the social skills one might wish for. Actually, it's remarkably like doing high-end customer support work for a computer-aided engineering software company, which I did for six years or so.

The second thing I've learned is that if your overseeing organization isn't smart about consistency and learning from past mistakes, your job will be much harder. In this case, there is no best-practice available for the various people scheduling rooms. I've seen complaints from people who aren't getting any information from the people doing the scheduling for their section, in particular role-playing games.

Here's the process that I've used/developed over the past 12 days or so. Note that the online scheduling software/database is in more of a late-alpha state than I might like, but the guys doing this are working hard to get it where it needs to be, so some of what I'll lay out as a proposed best-practice is not what I was actually doing.

The first step in the process is to take a proposed event by a game-master and decide if the game will be scheduled or not, in my parlance "accept" the game. There have been very few games I've turned down, mostly because we already have several sessions of that game scheduled already. This year, Power Grid got a lot of time, mostly because of the new maps that came out and partly because one gamer is bringing a special edition map from Germany. I also asked a couple of people who had proposed a game that was already scheduled three times by the Men In Black from Steve Jackson Games to perhaps find a different game to run.

The only other reason I'd reject or discourage a game would be one that involved physical violence or strong sexual material (nudity, etc). GameStorm is a family-friendly convention, and so we have to be kind of careful about that sort of thing. In fact, the Live Action Role Play folks have a few things that fall under this rubrik, and we're taking steps to make sure that they are set away from the main body of the convention so as not to "freak the mundanes". I love that line.

Second, I contact the Game Master (GM) via email, which they provide when they sign up to run a game. I used a boilerplate for the important stuff that everyone needs to know, and it helped some. If the GM didn't submit a preferred time, I would ask them for one. If they were running multiple instances of the same game but at different times, our website required that they create a proposal for each timeslot, which was not great but all of the GMs I worked with were willing to do this. Next year we should have a "clone" button that makes this much easier.

I should note at this point that for some reason it was decided that Accepted status wouldn't be listed in either the Proposals portion of the scheduling website, nor in the Sessions portion. After about 15 games disappeared from the list one morning, all Accepted, I decided not to use this status anymore, which is a bit dangerous. In fact, one of the early proposals never got back around to creating their duplicate entries, and I'm sure there are more that never replied to me at all but got confirmed anyway. That's why an Accepted status is so important.

Once I get the necessary confirmation from the GM, I then schedule the game. If they had given a preferred time in their proposal, I had already pencilled in the game on a separate spreadsheet that I used to view the entire schedule graphically, as the online software doesn't really do this. Yet. At this point, the game is considered "Confirmed" and is viewable on the Sessions page of the website.

There have been several GMs who wished to reschedule games, especially as the schedule became populated and they became aware of other games they wanted to participate in. This starts to get a little sticky, as it's often the case that someone who signed up for the game that a GM wants to move did so because of the time slot as much as anything else. Fortunately, I have email addresses available for all of the players who have signed up for a game, so I can contact them and alert them to any changes. I also alert the GMs if I make changes (other than moving from one table to an identical one, unless there's a spacial issue involved such as running multiple games at once at adjacent tables).

Finally, I do a double-check to make sure that both my spreadsheet and the online list of events matches up. In most cases, a discrepancy clues me in to the fact that something isn't where it should be, and by keeping my e-mails I can generally figure out which is correct and "fix" the other. This part is particularly time consuming, but critical. I spent four hours last night on this as today is the day that the information goes to the program book people for printing. In fact, I can't even upgrade any proposals because I don't want to get an entry stuck between states.

Key to the process is communication between myself, the hotel liasons, the person in charge of Events, the people coding the scheduling system, the GMs, and anyone signed up for the game. I took it as a point of pride when someone complained that the RPGs they'd signed up to run hadn't produced any communication at all, but the boardgame events they'd proposed had gotten very good communication from me. It's a bit of a juggling act, but one that's necessary and requires patience and a certain amount of faith. Not unlike GMing an RPG, to be honest.

What has amazed me is that there has apparently been no retention of any best-practices for scheduling. This convention is in it's 12th year and while I understand that the scheduling software is new, there is no excuse for not having a base process in place, much less making it easily available. My goal at the end of the year is to encourage a culture of retaining knowledge so that future years won't run into the same problems over and over. This is especially true when an organization churns over it's leadership every year, with people taking new roles. When the woman who is the liason with the hotel started her report at a recent board meeting, attended by a couple of industry guys, by saying she had no clue what she was doing, that summarized the entire problem in just a few words. After 12 years, no one should be clueless. Everyone should have a very clear sense of who has what responsibilities, who is dependent on other bodies in the organization, etc.

Five years ago or so, I attended this convention after paying via Paypal online. When I arrived at the con, there was no record of my payment, and I spent about 90 minutes at the reg desk trying to get this sorted out. The next year, I didn't bother going to reg, but just went and enjoyed the con (I did, of course, pay the fee online ahead of time). No one asked to see my badge, and no one gave me any trouble. When it's easier to just skip the registration desk, that's a bad sign. I'm fairly certain this has been cleaned up considerably, but I really don't know as I haven't attended in a couple of years due to external conflicts.

Will I help out next year? After spending 60 hours on scheduling over the past 12 days, my answer today is no f*cking way. At the same time, I recognize that to simply walk away without at least attempting to cure some of the systemic issues this convention has is no solution at all, no matter what I suggest. As such, I will probably do some work to try to institute better and persistent communications, at least in the area of event scheduling. Otherwise, I'm just not sure.

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