Comic-Con: Designing a Better Mousetrap (Line)

I love San Diego Comic-Con.

Every year, the geek subculture begins a pilgrimage to the bloated San Diego Convention Center. Every year, there comes that inevitable hard decision…drive or fly? And, every year, there comes the lines.

Endless lines. Lines you wait in for hours and still probably can’t see that impossible-to-get-into Game of Thrones or Firefly Reunion panel. The worst part about it is the waste. People wait for hours to get into a hall to see one, two or even three panels they have no interest in seeing, just to save a seat for a panel halfway through the program schedule. Hours are wasted doing nothing but sitting in line, sometimes fruitlessly.

Now, this year, I was working the Gazillion kiosk showing off the in-development video game Marvel Heroes in a tiny corner of the sprawling Marvel booth, and that meant no panels for me. I did, in fact, have a couple of time slots open, but not two back-to-back, meaning my chances of getting into one of those highly-coveted panels was unfortunately somewhere close to 0 degrees Kelvin.

This got me to thinking, though. What would it take build a better mousetrap, or rather, come up with a better system for handling lines?

I am a lot of things, but naive isn’t one of them; I know full well Comic-Con itself has wrestled with the problem repeatedly, as have people much smarter than I. Still, as a designer, I can’t resist the challenge of coming up with something that is both realistic and effective at alleviating at least some of the issues the current system struggles with.

The Ballroom 20 Plan
The first thing to consider as a designer is the importance of iteration. Grand, sweeping plans are fun, but they require lots of iteration, and the granularity for opportunities of iteration (once a year), as well as the cost of mistakes (hundreds of thousands of dollars), means that starting small is the way to go. Start a pilot program, see what happens, adjust, re-try next year, then expand if it winds up working out, or scrap if it doesn’t.

San Diego Comic-Con has a lot of rooms dedicated to programming (in con-speak, this means panels). Some are mid-sized, some are monstrous. The very largest is the Hall H auditorium, and its lines are the things of legends. Still, it actually isn’t the hardest line to get through, simply because its capacity is as epic as its lines. The hardest line to get through is actually the next largest hall, Ballroom 20.

Ballroom 20 is very large, but since the number of highly-sought after panels is more than Hall H can handle, it means the overflow hits Ballroom 20, and Ballroom 20 is generally hopeless to get into short of a four hour – or worse – wait.

Okay, no really, now the Ballroom 20 Plan…

  • Of the total capacity, set aside a section of seats. Let’s keep it small, say 15%, and put it towards the front (though these should only ever cover about 50% of the frontage). These are good seats, in other words.
  • When you pay for your pass online and the programming for Ballroom 20 is revealed, you go to a webpage that lists the programming for Ballroom 20 for each day. Here, beside each panel, you have the option of putting in a maximum bid for one of these premium seats. In other words, you say to yourself, “Yeah, I’d pay an extra $50 to make sure I get into that My Little Pon…er, I mean, Transformers panel.”
  • Every so often the system calculates, looks at the number of premium seats for each panel and the number and price of bids, and posts both the current minimum bid to get a premium seat and sends an email out to everyone who bid with whether they qualify for the seat.
  • At this point, people can rebid until a cut-off point as determined by logistical needs.
  • The day of, the premium seats are roped off and cleared between panels.
  • You walk to the front of the line before the panel starts, your badge is scanned, and if your badge matches, they let you in. No waiting. No fuss. Comic-Con gets more income. A section of the hardest core is sated, meaning the overall line is smaller.

Lottery Seats
The second step of this plan would be to have a second set of seats set aside. These are “Lottery Seats”. When you get your pass and the programming is locked, you can sign up for a set number of panels – probably one or two – that you want to be entered into the lottery for.

Once the bidding is closed, the lottery seat winners are notified by email, and the winners can walk up and get in the same way the premium seat holders can.

How does this scale?
As you want to scale the system, you simply increase the number of premium and lottery seats. You probably also don’t want these numbers to hit 100%, leaving some room for those few who didn’t win the lottery and don’t want to pay extra but are willing to wait in line anyways.

People “pay” in different ways under this system. You pay in money for a premium seat, or you pay for a chance by registering for the panel early, or you pay in time waiting on standby.

Due to the need for a standby line, this won’t entirely get rid of the line, but it should drastically reduce it, since as the percentage of premium plus lottery seats go up, people will know what their chances actually are and won’t want to waste their time.


  1. Programming must be set early. This has always been a problem for Comic-Con, as the schedule is usually in flux until very late.
  2. Under this system clearing sections, and possibly eventually the whole hall, is necessary. Clearing halls means more security (which could probably be paid for with the premium seat system), but more importantly it means more time is necessary between panels. Clearing a hall like Ballroom 20 is non-trivial, and clearing a hall like Hall H is enough to induce epileptic seizures in organizers. This is doable, but it would reduce the number of panels.

The biggest thing that probably can’t be avoided under this system is a reduction in the number of panels. Personally, I think this is worth it, as I believe the current system for panels is broken, but others might legitimately disagree.

Anyone have any clever ideas to alleviate the hall clearing problem?

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