How To Fix San Diego Comic-Con

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No, SDCC isn’t really broken, but the giant, sprawling leviathan could use a few patches to make things easier on the hundreds of thousands of dedicated fans who show up.

With every completed San Diego Comic-Con there follows a mountain of declarations that the high point of the Geek year has been fundamentally undermined. The standard complaint is that long ago, SDCC cast off whatever superficial connection it had to the media in its name and has since become nothing more than a showcase for film and TV.

Fortunately, and I’m not the first person to say this, that isn’t really true. No, it’s not really hyperfocused on comics, but the fact is that when Comic-Con was founded 44 years ago, the idea of organized fandom was still a very new concept, mostly centered around Star Trek and, obviously, comics. In the 40 years since, organized fandom has exploded to include film, TV, and yes, even video games. It’s all one giant community, Comic-Con is the event that brings it all together, and it’s perfectly fine that it isn’t just about the funny books. (And besides, it hasn’t really been that since the mid 90s anyway.)

But if Comic-Con isn’t a massive horrible sellout that no longer cares about the art form at the center of it, it is MASSIVE. This year’s convention, like every year in the past decade plus, was sold out of 130,000 badges entirely, and that’s not including the additional thousands who come out hoping to buy a discarded badge or just take part in the festivities set up adjacent to the convention. And it is beyond dispute that for the last several years, the actual experience of Comic-Con has included some maddening experiences, especially for fans.

Horrendous problems with badge purchase, made almost unthinkably awful in 2012, are only the first problem. Once you’re on the scene, lines keep getting longer, navigating the slew of events keeps getting more difficult, and many people who spent perhaps thousands of their own dollars making the trip to San Diego end up spending most of their time waiting to do one or two things and missing out on so much they’d gladly check out, if only doing so didn’t rob them of the chance to see what are considered core experiences.

It’s no wonder every so often the convention organizers seriously consider relocating the entire convention to a city with more space to handle the capacity. But they shouldn’t. San Diego has been Comic-Con’s home since 1970, and frankly, Los Angeles and Las Vegas already have plenty of huge events of their own. It should stay in San Diego. But even so, some serious changes need to be made before the whole thing becomes broken and fans become so disillusioned that they stop caring about it.

I’m not going to pretend that SDCC isn’t one of the greatest experiences you can have as a fan and as a geek. And trust me, it’s even better when you’re there as press. But there’s no reason the Comic-Con organization needs to avoid making things easier – especially and specifically for the fans. I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic since I lost my entire Saturday to Hall H so, for what it’s worth, here are two ways Comic-Con might be, well if not fixed, at least patched up significantly.


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Comic Con badge problems

The badge purchase process has got to be fixed. Again.

In 2012, Comic-Con rolled out a new, complex system for badge purchases that, to put it mildly, failed utterly. Starting that year, all fans were required to register for a Comic-Con organization membership just like the press and professionals. Part of the justification for this was to cut back on scalping which, to be fair, was a horrible problem. Only those with a member IDs are allowed to buy badges, and the badges are linked specifically to your name. Further, getting people into the system was supposed to provide a less haphazard way of putting prospective buyers into the purchase queue. Good in theory, except instead of making things smoother, it actually destroyed the process of getting a badge for far too many people.

They way it is supposed to work is that once you’ve registered and are officially in their system, when the time comes to make your badge purchase you receive a link to where you can make your purchase. The problem, of course, is that thousands upon thousands of people trying to access the same servers at the same time will inevitably cause problems if that demand hasn’t been accounted for when building up site infrastructure, which is, apparently, what happened. Thousands of people who should have been able to at least attempt to buy a ticket encountered error and/or site overload messages even before buying was officially opened. Many people even reported that the site would crash while they were in the process of actually finalizing their tickets. Simply put, the system simply wasn’t prepared for the demand.

In 2012, badges sold out in just under one hour. Except they didn’t. So many problems occurred that their system incorrectly recorded the number of purchases. Comic-Con had to roll out a secondary sale of unsold and refunded badges a few months. The same thing happened in 2013, and while this year’s badge sale went slightly more smoothly, site slowness and demand still pushed people out and tickets were gone within an hour and a half. now, getting into Comic-Con is a privilege, not a right, at the discretion of the organization, but the system simply doesn’t work the way it’s intended. Too many fans are left bitter and disappointed by a process that feels as arbitrary as getting picked last in gym class. So what can be done? Here are a few suggestion:

Comic Con badge fail

1) Use a lotto system. The convention center can legally only hold a max of 130,000 people, and as such, SDCC only issues 130,000 badges. This of course includes the number of badges held back for press and for professionals, which probably means real fans are competing for closer to 115,000 tickets. If that’s the case, then why make the process even more painful and angering than it already is. Comic-Con knows how many badges it’s going to sell, so it should have a lottery in which badge purchase approval is given only to a number of people equal to the number of badges currently available to purchase.

This would allow for a smoother and more orderly purchase process simply by weeding out people who procrastinate. Set a time limit for the initial round of purchases and when it’s over, any leftover ticket purchase slots should be distributed in a second purchase lotto. Further, it would severely reduce demand on purchase day. If only approximately 115,000 people receive notifications that they can purchase badges, there won’t be a crush of closer to a million people trying to do the same thing. Instead of one huge slog, badge purchases would happen in waves, far easier to manage and less angering than letting people think they have a chance, only to discover they’re prevented by the very system designed to facilitate purchases from making them.

2) Implement a reliable hold system. Say you go to an online grocer and start putting together your shopping cart. For approximately 10 minutes, the items you select will be linked to your user name so that no one else can nab them while you’re finalizing your purchase. Not so comic con, where the system works more like a frenzied Wall Street trading session, with everyone competing for the same tickets at the same time, and if you get bumped out of line through no fault of your own, you’re screwed out of your ticket. Making certain that once a fan has actually reached the purchase page, they have a few minutes in which one badge is set aside. Let’s arbitrarily call it 10 minutes. If you can’t get the purchase made within that time, the badge then gets released back into the wild and distributed into the second round lotto. BUT, if someone is kicked off the site for technical reasons, they should have recourse to attempt to buy their badge again, even after the time period technically passes.

3) For chrissakes, upgrade site infrastructure.

While a lotto system would reduce some demand, there is absolutely no excuse for Comic-Con to fail to anticipate what even 100,000 people trying to access a site at the same time will do. Spend $10,000 extra and beef up your website in anticipation of the big day.


Comic Con Hall H line

Hall H Is Definitely Breaking Comic-Con, But It Can Be Fixed.

The presentations made in Hall H, particularly those made on Saturday have become for many attendees the primary reason for going. It sounds silly of course, but when you’re there, seeing footage from films you absolutely can’t wait for, and months before anyone else, it’s an almost electric experience.

But you all know the deal: people waiting in line overnight – a line that stretches all the way to the docks – hoping they’re far enough ahead in line to make the cut, with many hundreds ultimately discovering they wasted their time. While the Hall H line is one of the most life affirming and fun gatherings of people you’ll experience at a convention or anyone else – it turns into a kind of geek summer camp and everyone should check it out at least once – it’s also a grueling experience. There are no bathrooms, people have to lug around any supplies with them (but cannot bring them into the Hall, so logistics of handing said items off are important), while meanwhile local vulture entrepreneurs troll the line selling vitals like water or blankets at a huge markup.

This year, Comic-Con found a way to make that experience even worse. A number of wristbands equivalent to the number of available seats were distributed to people in line starting around 9 PM the night before. These wristbands were described as guaranteeing access to the first panel in the morning, but that’s not how they worked. Even after you got your wristband, you had to stay in line, or have someone with a wrist band hold your spot. No seriously – you waited in line for a wrist band, then had to wait in line in order to keep from losing the access the wristband supposedly gave you. And even with these lines, many people issued wristbands discovered that too many had been handed out. Reportedly, on Friday morning a couple of hundred people with bands were turned away despite the “guarantee”.

The result: instead of making the lines more manageable, the wristbands simply encouraged people to line up even earlier. By Friday, people were starting to line up as early as 2 PM for the next morning’s Hall H panels. Yes, those of us from The Escapist who attended Comic-Con had to wait in this line to get into Hall H, but I’m not complaining for myself. I was paid to be there, and while the process was frustrating, I at least had the benefit of not having gone broke to attend Comic-Con. It’s the actual civilian fans who got most screwed, and who have been for years. So how do we fix it?

1) Comic-Con needs to admit that Hall H is THE reason thousands even go, and do more to accommodate them.

Now Hall H presentations are put on, and paid for, by the Studios licensing the space from SDCC for the hour or so they need it. And as such, they have final say on how the content is shown, who gets to see it, etc. But SDCC makes millions from fans coming out to San Diego specifically for Hall H. So why not work out a deal with the attending studios to allow a slightly larger number of people to at least see the presentations?

There are dozens of other rooms at the convention center with giant sized movie screens, as well as similar rooms, like the Indigo Ballroom, at nearby hotels that the convention already uses. Some of the spaces ought to be wired into Hall H’s feed via CCTV during Hall H presentations known to have incredibly high demand, and opened up only to SDCC badge holders.

We all know that the footage shown during these presentations is intended strictly for the fans who bothered to come to San Diego, but that’s who I’m talking about. Not people complaining because they were stuck at home, not people complaining who would never attend, but people already there.

Hall H

2) Never pull this wristband bullshit again.

The idea of wristbands for Hall H access isn’t a terrible one. But it was hilariously botched. next year, if Comic-Con sincerely wants to ease line pressure via wristbands, then getting one should work like an actual ticket would in other circumstances.

1) Wait in line to get the wristband.
2) Said wristband comes with instructions to return to line by a certain time.
3) Failure to be back on time means you forfeit your space in line and a replacement wristband is given to someone else.
4) That’s it.

Even if the return time is something like 4 AM, that’s better than being issued a guarantee at 9 PM that only works if you do the same exact thing you were already going to do.

3) Ban the press from Hall H. Yes, that includes me.

This one is going to get me punched, so let me stress that I only advocate for this if it’s combined with my first suggestion. Hall H only seats about 6100 people, and somewhere between 500 and 1000 of those seats are always reserved for press and studio employees. Further, non-studio approved media has to wait in line too, which means even more seats taken up by media that could go to fans.

So why not work with the Studios to give the fans – who, both the Studios and Hall H insist every year are THE reason these presentations happen – a better chance at seeing the fun? Simply set aside one of the rooms elsewhere in the convention hall or one of the adjacent hotels as a press viewing area, with a CCTV feed that allows media to see everything the fans see without taking their slots. This way, the media gets to report on everything they see, thus doing their jobs, and more fans get to make it into the main hall.

Obviously, people will still want to camp out for Hall H. It’s part of the core Comic-Con experience going back years. Hell, it gave us one of the best twitter accounts in recent memory. But increasingly, demand for Hall H really can interfere with the ability to see what else is happening at SDCC, and this is especially true for the fans who have limited time and financial budgets.

The fans are dedicated, and that dedication is genuinely inspiring, and intoxicating. And part of that dedication means obviously that people are willing to deal with the problems of SDCC because so much of it makes the whole thing worth it. But knowing that dedication exists shouldn’t be an excuse not to take steps to make things, well, actually work. It’s literally the least Comic-Con can do.


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