Halcon 2013: Nerd Heaven for the Maritimes

Despite some issues this year, Halcon is still THE place to be for a nerd living in Atlantic Canada.

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After Halcon 2013 was finished and I was on my long drive back home, I had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to say about it. I saw some articles tearing the show apart for making a mistake, one that resulted in a lot of people getting removed from the convention, but was that all that was worth saying about it? Did I want to talk about all of the great costumes I saw? No, I had taken pictures for that reason. I wondered if I should go into the panels, the merchant floor, or the celebrities that went there, but none of those things felt like the full experience, or even anything more than just bullet points in some crap travel guide. I’m still not completely sure I know what to say, but this paragraph has gone on long enough. Let’s get to why I had a ball at Halcon 2013…in a bit.

I have been to some big conventions before. I helped cover PAX East 2013 last year, and have been to a few more PAX conventions over the years. I’ve also been to Fan Expo in Toronto, Ontario, because as an Atlantic Canadian, you have a belief burned into you that you need to go out West to see anything cool or worthwhile. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what a convention in Atlantic Canada could contain that would interest anyone. Having taken a few steps into the Fredericton Gaming Convention a few months ago, essentially walking into dark, dank room filled with people playing games I had at home, my belief that the Maritimes were a dead zone for cool nerd conventions was pretty much solidified. All of the cool stuff I’d ever done at cons had been at least eight hours away, and I was getting comfortable with the idea that the only good cons would always require an ordeal to get to.

Then I checked out Halcon. It had been running for several years out of Halifax, pretty much the biggest city in the Maritimes. If there was ever going to be anything interesting near me, it was going to be there. So, when it rolled around this year I checked out the site, and I was genuinely impressed. Seeing that Jewel Staite from Firefly was going to be there along with Peter Davison from Doctor Who impressed me quite a bit. Again, that old thought pattern of having to go away from Atlantic Canada to see anything cool was still in effect, and I was surprised to see celebrities I’d heard of coming out this way. I was even more surprised to see a pinball group, Great Pinball Limited, bringing some classic tables to the convention. It was sounding better than I’d ever expected, so I signed up.

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As I did, I thought back on my trip to Fan Expo 2012 in Toronto, and I was a little worried. Halcon seemed to be taking cues from them, or at least their site bore some similarities. They had decent celebrities and cool things at the convention, but upon arrival at Fan Expo I soon found that I’d paid almost a hundred dollars to go shopping. Celebrity autographs cost money, and the show floor itself was almost entirely filled with vendors of one type or another, selling merchandise or artwork. There were a handful of panels you could see for that ticket price you paid, but there weren’t many of them, and among those panels there was barely anything worth seeing. Beyond a few crap panels, you were just one of thousands of people duped into paying for the right to shop at an extremely nerd-focused mall. I had more fun at a retro game store I found a few miles away than at the entire convention.

With that in mind, I was a little worried that Halcon was going to be more of the same. I’m not interested in paying for the right to pay other people money. After having been to PAX, I know I don’t need to tolerate paying for that kind of crummy convention. At PAX, my money would get me into dozens of cool panels lead by industry greats, let me play reams of brand new or in-development games and talk to the people who made them, and overall offer me a fun experience without me spending a dime more than the entry fee. I would actually get something for my entry fee at PAX, so if Halcon turned out to be anything like Fan Expo, I was done. I knew where I was going to go from here on out.

While not as big as PAX, Halcon still manages to nail almost all the things that PAX got right. Maybe not all of them (like a certain ticket snafu that got a lot of people thrown out by the fire marshall), but enough of them that I’d love to go back next year.

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For starters, there were some interesting panels going on all day, every day. I arrived a day late, but right off the bat I got to go to Jen Giesbrecht and Shannon Fay‘s panel on breaking into the short story market. If you’re into writing short stories at all, you might recognize this as the information you desperately need to know but no one talks about. There are few reliable sites that talk about this, and most published authors who run seminars don’t seem to remember what it’s like to be a new author starting up. This wasn’t the only panel for writers, either, as there were several more staffed by other experienced writers, all of them offering some useful help at different stages of a writing career.

My interest in writing makes me a bit niche, but there was plenty more for people with different interests. There were other interesting panels by cosplayers like Yaya Han, talking to people about how it all works. There were panels on creature costumes, armor working, and hair styling for cosplay, covering just about any aspect the aspiring cosplayer could want to know. Barring that, the hundreds of cosplayers walking around the con were friendly enough to tell you a little bit about their outfits and the work it took to create them.

If you didn’t want to learn anything, there was an entire floor available for board games and video games. Board games actually took the most space, spreading out into an entire room filled with free rentals for people who wanted to try out Settlers of Cattan, Carcassonne, or Betrayal at the House on the Hill. There were a couple of companies showing off brand new games as well, such as Gentlemen Thieves, a game where you had to tell a story about how your cards beat a certain set of traps. Why does your tape let you get through a rotating room? If you could explain it, you just might have won. Think you might have liked it? You could have tried it all out for free, something I haven’t seen since PAX.

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There were lots of games to be played as well. Plenty of TVs were hooked up, letting players goof off with Super Smash Bros or Persona 4 Arena if you felt like fighting with someone without getting kicked out. If video games weren’t your thing, you could always hit up the pinball room that contained almost two dozen tables set to free play, even containing a few brand new tables. Using LCD screens and modern circuit boards, a new company had already made a Wizard of Oz table that just looked incredible. I don’t care about the Wizard of Oz even one little bit, but that table still blew me away, if only because it meant that pinball might be making a tiny comeback. The time I spent in that room alone over the weekend, my face lit up with flashing lights, was worth my entry fee alone.

These things were all stuff that the big show in Toronto lacked. The panels at Fan Expo were lackluster, seeming to have been slapped together without much effort. Beyond them, there were no games or attempts to even try to convince the people there that they’d gotten anything for their entry fee. You paid for the right to pay for things, and very little was free for you to check out. Meanwhile, a small convention in Atlantic Canada had shown me a great time for my entry fee, giving me free games and some solid panels to check out. It was pretty impressive, but apparently, I wasn’t the only one who thought so, given how many people tried to enter the convention on Saturday. I don’t think they left with that same impressed mindset, though.

For those of you who weren’t there and don’t know, there was an issue with ticket sales. It seems pretty simple to pick up on the problem in hindsight, as the issue stemmed from the convention selling single day tickets with no set day typed out on them. That meant that the more industrious cheapskates could use their tickets on all three days of the con, over and over again, as there was no way of telling if they’d been used before. This meant a ton of people who shouldn’t have been there were inside the building on Saturday, making it so that the fire marshal was called in. His solution to the problem was to cut off access to the convention for several hours, locking out the people who weren’t already inside and barring re-entry to anyone who left.

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Saying people got mad about it doesn’t even begin to describe it. Refunds were given, but a lot of people went home rightfully furious about the whole thing. It may have been a small goof that slipped the minds of the staff running the event, but it’s one that had huge repercussions for the con, ones that will be felt next year and beyond. This is a huge mistake that people aren’t going to forgive easily, and with good reason.

Even so, I do hope the staff will be forgiven soon, as they do put a lot of heart and soul into the convention. This isn’t some corporate-run industry event, but rather a convention put on by a bunch of people with nerdy interests who volunteer their time so they can celebrate with other people with nerdy interests. A ton of volunteer work goes into making the con work as well as it does when it is working, with everyone just wanting to see everyone having a good time. These people made a mistake, a bad one, but in the grand scheme, these people will learn from it and grow in the future. These people are also working on this convention in their spare time on their own dime, so keep that in mind.

I believe they will be fine, though, as they’ve already thrown a convention that’s far better than what I’ve seen from bigger conventions in Toronto. They seem to be taking their cues from PAX, providing lots of content for the people who paid their entry fees, and are providing interesting, different things to do with your time there. Whether you’re  creative person who wants to learn more about their craft, someone who wants to try out a couple of new games, or someone who just wants to take pictures of people in amazing costumes, you don’t have to feel like you need to go far away from your home to do so. Halcon is only a short hop for just about anyone living in Atlantic Canada, and provided all the fun I’ve found in big conventions like PAX on a smaller, more local stage. It may not be quite a substitute for the huge event that PAX is, but it sure kicks the crap out of the ‘bigger’ cons out West.

And as an Atlantic Canadian, not much makes you happier than beating Toronto.

Joel and Mash Those Buttons would like to thank the staff, cosplayers, and other con-goers for being so friendly and making our time there a fun one.

Joel Couture
Joel Couture
Joel Couture

MASH Veteran

A horror-obsessed gamer, Joel is still spending his days looking for something to scare himself as much as Fatal Frame. Even so, he has ridiculous action games and obscure gems to keep him happy in the meantime. A self-proclaimed aficionado of terrible retro games, he's always looking for a rotten game he hasn't played yet, and may be willing to exchange information for candy.

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