And when the Gen Con Game Fair moves to Indianapolis next year it will take 35 years of tradition and millions of tourist dollars with it.
Milwaukee's gaming community is heartsick over losing an event that they say helped make the city special, and they hope Gen Con comes back some day.
"It's such a great experience," said Lucas Eckels, 19, who has been playing role-playing games since he was in third grade. "I was very disappointed to hear it was leaving. I live in Milwaukee, and for me it's a big deal to travel. It's been here for such a long time."
Gen Con is the nation's largest hobby gaming convention, where people buy and play games for four days straight. It will be at the Midwest Express Center on Aug. 8 to 11. But next summer, there won't be packs of backpack-toting teenagers playing games in George Webb's diner downtown.
This time next year, the line to get into the Safe House - one of the most popular bars during Gen Con - won't be nearly as long.
And Milwaukee will have lost a homegrown institution that helped build a cultural phenomena, luring tens of thousands of gamers from across the country every year.
Eckels, a student at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, said he fears that moving Gen Con will "change the flavor" of the event, where he has met friends who share his love of games.
"You may go with one or two friends, but you'll also be gaming with five or six complete strangers," said Eckels, who has attended Gen Con the last three years. "They are not strangers for long, though. I like to do a lot of people watching. It's all kinds of different people."
Mike Moderski, a 32-year-old financial analyst for a bank, has played games at Gen Con for 11 years.
He enjoys the live-action role-playing sessions, where players physically act out characters in an imaginary setting, talking with others who are also playing characters. Moderski also goes to Gen Con to find new board games for his family.
"You get tried of playing Monopoly, and I found a lot of different games through Gen Con that I could bring home," Moderski said. "It's not only the games but also the camaraderie. A lot of the people I see there I see every year and have developed friendships."
Will he follow Gen Con to Indianapolis next year?
"Part of the reason I went to Gen Con was because it was here," Moderski said, noting there is a 50-50 chance he will attend next year. "It's not that far away, but now I have all the costs associated with traveling. I have a family and . . . there is the debate whether I want to be far away from them for that long."
As sad some Milwaukee game enthusiasts may be over losing Gen Con, some attendees from out of town are upbeat about the change. They say the hotel situation downtown during Gen Con is a nightmare and has been getting progressively worse each year.
Kristen Trigg, 20, of Indianhead Park, Ill., said she knows people who are staying in dorms this year during Gen Con because there are not enough hotel rooms downtown.
"I don't want to pay hotel prices for college dorms, so we are staying farther away and paying more than I would like," said Trigg, who has been to Gen Con twice before. "This is the first year I have had problems, but my friends who have been going longer are really mad about it."
Trigg, who has modeled outfits made only of duct tape and electrical tape in past Gen Con costume contests, said she prefers watching the people at the event over playing the games.
"I am sticking to the tape theme because people seem to remember me," Trigg said about her outfit for this year's competition. "This year I am not exactly sure yet. Either this aluminum foil-looking tape or I might try to make something out of yellow caution tape."
A modest start
Gen Con began when a group of gamers interested in military miniatures and board games met in Lake Geneva, according to Gary Gygax, who hosted the first Gen Con party in 1967 and helped invent "Dungeons & Dragons" in 1974 for TSR Games.
"It will be missed," Gygax said. "I think it's a shame that Wisconsin and Milwaukee have lost the honor . . . and I sure hope we recapture it as soon as possible. It was a real feather in our cap."
Gygax said Gen Con grew from humble roots, with attendees paying $1 for a day of board games and other activities in Horticultural Hall in Lake Geneva. Gen Con moved to the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in Kenosha in 1978 and then set up camp at the MECCA Convention Center in 1985.
"'Dungeons & Dragons' got its first group exposure at Gen Con," Gygax said. "By that time we had written the second draft of the game to become D&D. I ran some adventures."
The event blossomed to include all forms of hobbyist gaming - board, card, role-playing and strategy games - as well as fantasy and science fiction fandom.
Now gamers visit Gen Con to see the latest games, buy merchandise, compete in networked computer game competitions and meet celebrities.
Seminar rooms at the convention center are filled with people playing games around the clock, and the hallways are often lined with people sitting along the sides talking or looking over their latest purchases.
"It was always something I looked forward to all year, and not just the games but hooking up with my friends," said Peter Adkison, founder and former CEO of Wizards of the Coast who now owns Gen Con. "It's going to mean different things for different people."
Companies fill Gen Con's exhibit hall with booths offering freebies to promote their newest products and get feedback from fans. Merchants sell gaming gear ranging from multi-colored dice and out-of-print books to steel swords and chain mail armor.
Writing workshops and panel discussions explore the intellectual elements and the industry of hobby gaming. Attendees can stroll through the show's art gallery or watch the popular Japanese cartoons called Anime.
Players of the most obscure games can find partners at Gen Con, and attendees say the event has helped them make friends with people they see once a year.
"It's almost like a family reunion," said Gygax, who is "so busy signing autographs or giving talks that I hardly have time to think. The gaming fans are not quite as zealous as rock groupies, but they drop down to their knees and bow. It's mostly done in fun."
'No room to grow'
TSR, which produced "Dungeons & Dragons" and put on Gen Con, was bought by Wizards of the Coast in 1997. Wizards, makers of Pokemon cards and Magic: The Gathering, was later bought by Hasbro. Wizards announced in November 1999 that Gen Con would leave Milwaukee after the 2002 convention. Then Wizards announced in March that it had sold the show to Adkison.
"It has become a difficult situation to manage," Adkison said of holding Gen Con in Milwaukee. "There is no room to grow the convention."
Some members of Milwaukee's gaming community had hoped Adkison's acquisition of Gen Con might mean it would eventually return to Milwaukee. But citing a lack of convention center space and available hotel rooms downtown, Adkison said "it's not likely to happen."
"We certainly wouldn't say 'no way,' but it really depends on where the city goes," said Adkison, who was irritated that his father had to stay in a hotel 40 miles away from the convention center during one Gen Con. "I know it's difficult to move. I really do love Milwaukee, and I have a lot of good memories."
The city is also losing a financial windfall that brought about $10 million in direct spending to the local economy, according to Jack Moneypenny, vice president of sales for the Greater Milwaukee Convention & Visitors Bureau. Gen Con was one of the largest reoccurring conventions in town, he said.
"We do not have the downtown package that they want," Moneypenny said. "They want everybody in a two- or three-block radius of convention center and that isn't going to happen."
Still, Moneypenny said the bureau is trying to lure Gen Con back to Milwaukee when its obligations to Indianapolis end in 2006.
"Milwaukee has undergone a huge metamorphosis" over the last few years, he said. "We are actively booking those dates right now, so we are in the right time frame in trying to get them back."
Gene Salecker, 45, of River Grove, Ill., is a miniatures game player who runs contests at Gen Con all day, including a strategy game based on the sci-fi movie "Aliens" that uses 12-inch action figures in custom-made uniforms.
Salecker came to appreciate Milwaukee during his 11 years of attending Gen Con despite 16-hour stints of playing games each day during the convention.
"I am sad to see it leave," said Salecker, a military history author and campus police officer at Northeastern Illinois University. "I made it a point to . . . walk around the city and go to the museums and into the different shops and restaurants.
"There is always something to do in Milwaukee," he said. "I was actually getting to know the city pretty well."