Designer Travels: Metatopia 2019

I wanted to write about my experience at Metatopia as a game designer and as a minority in the gaming community. The Indie Game Network sponsors several designers each year to increase diversity and inclusion in the gaming community. This year I was blessed to be one of the 8 IDGN Sponsorship winners. What that meant for me, was that I got flown to New Jersey, and once there I had free entry to Metatopia, food money, and a room to share with a fellow IDGN recipient.

I arrived in New Jersey on Thursday evening, and took an Uber to the con. When I arrived, the hotel lobby was already packed with people. Tables were set up for people to pick up their badges, and to my surprise they had ribbons you could stick to your badge to show your preferred pronoun. There were also ribbons which let others know you were an ally, among other things. Perhaps other cons are doing this, but this was the first time I’d ever seen this available. It was my signal that Metatopia was not going to be like any other con I’d been to.

Along with getting your badge, you can also pick up your schedule. Your schedule is one sheet labeled Friday through Sunday, with timeslots from morning to night. If you communicated with the staff beforehand, you might have a pre-made schedule. Otherwise you’d get a relatively blank sheet you could fill up as you went.

There was a huge room where the walls were covered with sheets listing every single panel, game, larp, and rpg being run for the entire weekend. Each had their own page with a time frame, as well open slots for players to sign up on. Thursday was the best time to sign up for a game, because once the set as were filled up, you could only sign up as an alternative in case someone dropped out.

Initially that was a bit overwhelming for me to take in all in one day, but the detailed scheduling ended up being one of the best things for my mental health at the con. Many times I find myself falling into the same behavior at conventions where I don’t have a schedule.

I eat breakfast, go to the prototype/open-gaming area, and then I sit there waiting for potential playtesters until the sun goes down. I’m usually alone, so I don’t get up for bathroom breaks unless its an emergency. If I do get up, I have to then beg a nearby gamer to please watch my stuff for five minutes, and rush to the bathroom and back to my seat. I don’t drink much water, because that will make me take bathroom breaks, and I snack through dinner, because sustenance can wait until I’m done testing.

Metatopia’s schedule system allowed me to break that pattern and actually take time to breath. I knew when I had free time, and utilized them for refreshing walks outside to find local eats. (Side note: If you’re willing to walk, the food nearby is absolutely amazing)

I had 3 specific times to demo my games, and people who signed up to play them, so I never wasted time, energy, or anxiety trying to find playtesters. Even for games that didn’t get filled up, there were staff dedicated to wrangling people who were looking for something to do and sending them to the games that needed them.

Another thing the schedule did was take away some of the frenzy of needing to maximize time playtesting. Instead it emphasized socializing and making connections. Metatopia is the only con I’ve been to with an introductory panel for people new to the convention itself. They give you a tour of where everything is, explain how things work, and also have you go around and introduce yourself so all the newbies generally know each other and don’t feel so alone.

There was a crying couch where people knew to leave you alone if a session didn’t go well. Staff was always on hand to come to your defense if an attendee was being disruptive or disrespectful. For me, I often feel isolated at conventions, particularly as a minority, it’s hard to feel alone physically and mentally. At Metatopia I saw so much more diversity, a large part in thanks to the sponsorship. They also did a great job of providing mental support, which truly gave them a large spot in my heart.

I mentioned the scheduled games, but I found that I had the most fun in the open gaming area in the lobby of the hotel. After my schedule was clear and I had some dinner, I would wander over there, and one by one connections were made. One friend introduced me to another, and suddenly we were chatting, sitting down for a game or three, and when I look up it’s already 2 AM.

I was able to sit down and game with designers and publishers alike, and none of the stress that usually accompanies pitching was there. It didn’t feel like pitching. To be honest, it wasn’t pitching. It was playing a bunch of prototypes with some cool people, and enjoying the wide variety of personalities that color the gaming community.

I made amazing progress with both of the games I demoed at Metatopia, but I felt like that could be said for many conventions. To me, the thing which makes Metatopia unique is how it makes you feel. It’s the connections you make, and the sense of support it creates. To anyone looking for a new con to explore, I highly suggest Metatopia. It was an unforgettable experience, and as black female designer, I felt extremely welcome.