Punchboard Media: In Focus - Interview with Avonelle Wing
'In Focus: Perspectives in Board Gaming' is an exclusive series from Punchboard Media that spotlights diverse perspectives across the board gaming industry. Our guest this week is Avonelle Wing, the Senior Vice President for Double Exposure -- the company behind DEXCON, DREAMATION, Metatopia, and the First Exposure Playtest Hall. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Avonelle! Before we talk about your work with Double Exposure, I have a few rapid fire questions about what kind of games you like -- What was the game that got you into modern board gaming? What is your all-time favorite game? What is the best game you've played so far this year? What upcoming game are you most excited about?
Game that got me into modern board gaming... that's a tough one. I'm a card player -- Hearts, Spades. eventually, Poker. As a kid, the guys on the Air Force base I lived on LOVED Merchants of Venus, and invited me to play with them. It was magical.
But then I took a long break from board games. Even while running conventions, I didn't prioritize them. I loved Set, Wizard... again, mostly card games. We started running Metatopia, and I fell for Arboretum by Dan Cassar while it was in the playtesting phase - again, card game. I'll tell you honestly, I think it was Splendor that got me back to the gaming table and taught me what my ideal game aesthetic looks like. Then, I encountered Morels by Two Lanterns Games and it bowled me over. If you haven't played it before, you should check it out. They hit my platonic ideal of a game design ethos. Paraphrased, can be taught in 15 minutes or less, can be played in 45 minutes. A beer doesn't hurt your chances, but being stone-cold sober doesn't help them.
These days, I've got a much broader palate, but everything I truly love plays in an hour or less. Dimension by T&K. More card games -- Cover Your Assets and Skull King by Grandpa Beck's Games. Arboretum, still. Elevenses and Too Many Cinderellas. Spellcaster from R&R. I know those are all Envoy games -- to be honest, I don't get a lot of time to dabble outside of Envoy games, but I do love Courtier (AEG) and Bohnanza.
What have I played this year? Photosynthesis. Loved it. Would play it again, which is high praise from me. A bunch of prototypes. I won't really get to play much until later in the year.
I know you are also a big fan of Live Action Role Playing, or LARPing. For those less familiar, can you tell us a bit about it and what draws you to it? For anyone interested, do you have any recommendations for how to get into LARPing?
Oh! Readers have an AMAZING opportunity right now. There's an every-other-year convention, the Living Games Conference, happening later this month.
For me, LARP is cathartic. It's like reading a really good book, but you're in the story. You're editing as you go.
If you've never LARPed, the closest example I can give you is playing games as a kid where you doled out roles.
You have worked at Double Exposure for over 20 years. How did you get started there?
I showed up at a convention! DREAMATION 1997. I was an attendee in February and worked with DEXCON in July.
What is your title at Double Exposure? What does that job entail?
Senior Vice President.
The words don't even begin to capture what I do. In a sentence, I handle or manage everything Vinny, my spouse and business partner, doesn't handle.
He is the perfectionist who wrangles all the details of the schedule, does all the accounting work, keeps track of how all the pieces fit together. When it comes to all of the unruly, chaotic things that happen around a convention or a company? That's me. Loading the truck. Soothing somebody whose playtest -- or relationship -- has fallen flat under the pressures of a convention. Having big, important conversations about inclusion and community standards. Boosting people up when they're afraid they don't belong, and clearing space for people who can't find a place to squeeze in.
Speaking of important conversations about inclusion and community standards, how do you make sure your conventions are free of harassment in all its forms?
Hah. We don't.
When you put humans together in a space outside of their daily life, there are going to be incidents. Bad actors, bad decisions, regrettable choices.
What we do is work to empower the community to stand behind somebody who is being targeted -- or to stand in front of them if necessary.
We work to educate people about power dynamics, about micro-aggressions. We make it okay to say "We don't do that here" or "That's not cool; stop that."
We empower our GMs and the Metatopia designers to say "Hey. Not at my table."
And, we give people space to come to us and tell us that they're having a problem without fear that we'll make it worse.
Humans are as gross and vexing as they are magical and amazing. We work to encourage folks to be their best selves.
Can you tell us a little bit about the three big events Double Exposure runs -- DEXCON, DREAMATION, and Metatopia? How are they different? How have they evolved over the years?
DEXCON is our flagship convention. It runs in July and it's our flashier show. We host signature events every year - things that aren't available elsewhere, or one-time events. It's bigger, too. We've grown to about 2,000 people. It runs for 5 days, and in many ways, is the easiest of them because once we get it open, we have 4 days to enjoy watching the wheels work.
When I started working with DE, DEXCON was our most "traditional" event -- it looked a lot like the other gaming conventions that existed, with a few key exceptions. Our pay-on-price model was unheard-of at the time. Our big parties, like Sugarfest, were a hallmark of SciFi/Fantasy cons and not gaming conventions.
DREAMATION is our slightly smaller, weirder little convention. It's at about 1,500 people, and happens in February. DREAMATION is very, very similar to DEXCON for attendees -- same processes, same interface, same routines and structures. What makes DREAMATION different is that it tends to attract the rangy, weird games that don't have a home anywhere else. The Indie Games Explosion has been a feature of DREAMATION and a core part of DREAMATION's identity for years. A place for indie RPG folks to gather, play, network, and socialize.
Metatopia is the caboose baby of the three. It's much newer -- we're in year seven.
Metatopia is our game design festival and professional development conference for game pros. It features three (sometimes four) concurrent tracks of panels, seminars and roundtables. Hundreds of game designers join us to put their current projects through the ringer and to playtest for other people.
It's a complete departure from how we run the other events (except for the schedule structure and the interface -- those run constant through everything) in that the designers are the customer. Players come in at a very reduced fee and get to be the playtesters -- the expert consumers -- for our designers.
It has grown into a very lovely, very supportive little eco-system. (Don't tell the others, but Metatopia's my favorite even though it's 10x the work.)
You have an event you've run at Gen Con for years now called First Exposure Playtest Hall, and a new Gen Con event this year called First Encounter Designer Showcase. What are the goals of these programs?
The goal of First Exposure Playtest Hall (FEPH) is to give designers from all over the country (and in some cases, the world!) a chance to playtest their games directly with their future consumers. Each designer package comes with four slots, two hours each, where we seat players at the table and the designer can work through anything they need to explore with their design.
First Encounter Designer Showcase (FEDS) is brand-new this year. We're still working out the details, but in the same way that Double Exposure always takes an idea and puts our own spin on improving it, FEDS is going to take the publisher speed-dating model and reimagine it.
You know how some dating apps are like "yeah. Here are all the people. Good luck!" and others have started advertising "We will match you only with people we think you will be compatible with, based on your goals and criteria"? Like that. My secret goal is to develop a reputation for identifying "the right game" for "the right publisher" and cutting right to the chase.
Double Exposure also started the Envoy program. What was behind this decision? How has the program been progressing?
Envoy is a culmination of all of our experience with DEXCON, DREAMATION, Metatopia and FEPH.
At it's heart, Envoy is a crowd-sourced street team for game publishers. We have 1,100+ Heralds (game masters) who teach games in their home communities. The best way to sell a game is get somebody to play it and love it. So, we help publishers get the word out about their games.
Additionally, we fill in some of the roles that small to medium-sized publishers don't have the people-power to manage -- from brainstorming marketing ideas to proofreading rules to troubleshooting the design process.
Envoy takes all of the pieces and connects them. Consumers, retailers, publishers, distributors.
Here's an example -- I ran around GAMA last year asking retailers "What one thing vexes you most about how publishers operate?" I then took those answers back to our publishers, and started implementing changes immediately. I'll give the non-Envoy publishers reading a freebie -- the resounding answer was that brick and mortar retailers were having Big Feelings about BigCon releases not getting to retailers until a month after the conventions.
The industry was kind of like a bunch of undergrads waiting until The Last Minute to get their files to the printer so the games could ship. It was (and still is, in some cases) utterly normal to have to drop-ship product from the factory to make it to the convention with them. It sometimes takes nearly a month to complete the cycle of ground-transport from the port to shipped to retailers. By then, there's a good chance the Cult of the New has moved on and you've got a stale property, at least in some markets.
That makes no sense! It's entirely possible to start out in September looking at next year's cycle -- GAMA, Origins, Gen Con, BGGCon, Essen -- and set deadlines that allow you to bring product in a month before each store, so your distributors have it in the system in time to get it to retailers on, say, day two of a release. Retailers are happier. Customers are thrilled. Publishers aren't losing the momentum of a con release.
It's a simple fix, but somebody needed to be in the position to put those pieces together -- to ask those questions on a broad enough scale to identify the patterns and provide guidance on how to change. Publishers are too busy making games. So, Envoy does that legwork for them.
How can people looking for more information about the Envoy program get in touch with you?