What I hope to see in future virtual game conventions

by Gil Hova

Image credit: WikiMedia user Piotrus, GFDL & CC-BY-SA-2.5

I’ve just wrapped up my second virtual tabletop game convention, Gen Con Online. I’ve already done Virtual Gaming Con a few weeks ago. I was also involved in the planning of Origins Online before that show went pear-shaped. With that experience under my belt, I wanted to share some thoughts about how those went, and how I would love to see virtual game conventions change over the next few months.

First, I want to get a couple of things out of the way. Putting on a convention, virtual or physical, is an incredible amount of work. Once Origins went poof, VGC had the challenge of making a first-of-its-kind tabletop gaming convention with no real template to work from. Gen Con could use VGC’s precedents, but had to deliver an experience that would measure up to what con-goers are used to seeing in-person in Indianapolis every summer.

Also, every interaction I had with Gen Con staff was overwhelmingly positive. The Gen Con folks care deeply about their convention, and it showed in everything they did. I appreciate their patience, thoughtfulness, and grace in everything they did.

So I want to make it clear that in no way am I trying to say how either Gen Con or VGC erred, or screwed up, or did anything other than put tremendous thought, labor, and love into their virtual conventions. Putting on a physical show similar to what you did last year is already a tremendous amount of work. Putting on a virtual show with no real prior precedent just adds to the pressure.

Instead, this is a Monday morning quarterback, 20/20 hindsight kind of post. The stuff I’m going to point out here isn’t obvious stuff that people should have known before the show; it’s subtle, emergent stuff that only comes out after the hard work of putting the show on is done. Writing this article is far easier than running a convention.

Second, I know there are a bunch of folks who dislike virtual conventions. But the reality of the matter is that for the next year or so, virtual conventions will be all that we can do. Few things in the gaming world are more irresponsible than holding an in-person convention right now.

Not to mention, virtual conventions have some significant benefits over in-person conventions. They are far more accessible; many folks cannot attend physical conventions because of money issues, because they can’t get time off of work, or because it means they wouldn’t be able to take care of a sick or young family member. Also, there are people in parts of the world that don’t get large, Gen Con-sized conventions, so a virtual convention, where time zones and technology are their only barriers, is a fantastic solution.

So what can we do to make virtual gaming conventions better?

VGC, Gen Con, and Origins all had a similar setup. They were split into three parts:

  • A central hub, implemented in Discord, where people would gather to play games. (Gen Con handled this a bit differently; details below)
  • A seminar/panel track, with public panels implemented on Twitch, and private panels implemented on Zoom.
  • A vendor hall, implemented as a web-based interactive map that users could click on to get static information and links to web pages and informative videos. (VGC handled this differently; details below.)

The necessity of centralization

This gets to my biggest issue with virtual conventions, as they’re implemented right now: they are too decentralized. A convention is, at its lexical and literal heart, a place where people convene. It’s a place where we serendipitously bump into people we haven’t seen in years. It’s a place where we meet old friends and make new friends, where we go out to dinner at local restaurants to catch up and talk about stuff.

None of that stuff is possible at a virtual convention right now.

We joke that conventions are a place where we see a friend in passing, shout “hello” and “I’ll talk to you later” at each other, and never see each other again. But even that experience is missing.

In our annual Ludology Live episode at Gen Con (which we streamed on Twitch this year), Emma, Scott, and I mentioned how we were missing the delight of previous conventions. Walking the vendor hall, seeing eye-popping booths (like Big Potato’s Blockbuster booth from Gen Con last year, or the Exploding Kittens human-powered vending machine), passing cosplayers showing off the spectacular costumes they’ve been working on all year, watching the hot new game that people have been whispering about excitedly. All those moments are delightful, and you only get them through a centralized experience.

Centralizing the vendor hall

Having seen Origins’ plan for online vendor hall, looking at SPIEL’s plan for their vendor hall, and trying out Gen Con’s vendor hall, I have to say: a browseable web experience is no substitute for a real vendor hall.

Browsing a web page with icons, static links, and videos is like browsing a catalog. It’s a passive, solitary experience. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but in the context of a convention, it is a poor substitute for the real thing.

Furthermore, as a publisher, I wasn’t able to get a booth for the show this year. That was a bit of a bummer at first, but once I saw the “Looking Glass” web page, which was the stand-in for the vendor hall… I felt oddly relieved.

Like I mentioned above, I didn’t have too many problems with the implementation of this in and of itself. Other people have commented on how they don’t like the visual design (I heard the name “fart cloud” used more than once), but my problems weren’t there.

Instead, my biggest issue was that, if I had a 10×10 booth at the show, that would have translated to an avatar in this map roughly the size of my smallest toenail. I have publisher friends who have felt in the past that Gen Con takes their small exhibitors for granted, and if I didn’t know otherwise, this would fall right in line with that pattern.

When I saw this map, I felt relief that I didn’t have to spend any time on a presence on a digital map that I’d need calipers to measure. If I’m Gen Con and I’m reading about a potential exhibitor’s reaction to seeing the map they’re not on, relief is not how I’d want them to feel. Instead, I’d want them to feel regret, jealousy, and a determination to be there next year.

Keep in mind, SPIEL will be charging 600€ for the smallest “booth” in their online map. I was already disinclined to pay for this before Gen Con, and even though SPIEL will likely be better about making their smallest exhibitors visible, I don’t see any way that I’m making that 600€ back, in any way.

This is because, as I wrote before, browsing this map is a passive experience. It’s not really interactive from a personal sense. You’re not getting face time with anyone, nor are you meeting anyone new.

Also, take a look at the avatars in the screen, and compare it to the experience you get walking by the Exploding Kittens booth:

There’s no sense of delight with an online map of vendors. It’s such a constrained system. The experience is more of browsing a catalog. And again, I don’t think that’s a bad thing on its own, but as a substitute for a vendor hall, I think it turns into a source of disappointment.

What I’d like to see instead is what VGC did: fold the vendor hall into the main gaming experience. Namely, instead of buying a booth, each vendor buys their own set of voice and text channels in the convention’s Discord server. Con-goers can drop into these to talk to booth staff, and to get demos of their games.

One criticism of VGC was that it had an enormous amount of voice and text channels, almost overwhelming the attendees. I can understand this criticism, and I wonder if putting channels into more categories (like every 10 tables gets its own category) would be a way to make this more intimidating, especially if we could convince attendees to collapse all categories (hiding tables) they weren’t interested in.

A more radical solution would be to implement the vendor hall as its own Discord server. This might have the effect of splitting the show and decentralizing it again. But with proper messaging and branding, it might work.

Discord has an excellent screen-sharing feature which I think works very well here; the booth staff shares their game window, so people dropping by the “booth” (voice channel) get to watch and listen to the game being played without needing to open a program or go to a web page. At VGC, we sometimes had 5 people watching our game of High Rise at some points. It was a really lovely way to handle a demo.

One thing conventions would need to be cognizant of is of publishers routing attendees to their own Discord servers. I think this hurts our convention paradigm, as it pulls people out of the “building,” as it were. Gen Con had a bot that aggressively removed links to other Discord servers (and publishers would be warned ahead of time that they would face disciplinary action for pulling people into external servers for con demos). While I have some thoughts about that, in this context, I think it would be a reasonable way to work.

Centralizing the seminar experience

Many conventions have a track of panels and seminars. Virtual conventions have utilized a couple of solutions: Twitch for large-scale, public events, and Zoom for small-scale private events. For this article, I’ll stick with Twitch as my example of a livestream platform, but YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter all have livestream functionality that are now reasonable competitors.

Modern livestreaming is amazing technology, and it lets us connect in ways we’ve never been able to before. And the nice thing about streaming during a convention is the sheer, overwhelming quantity of streams coming at us. A lot of these streams are very well-produced, as well; these days, anyone with a free copy of OBS, a good webcam, and good lighting can make something that looks amazing for everyone.

Twitch is also made really well for seminars or panels, as it’s designed to amplify mainly the voices of the principals. Viewers can interact via a chat, but their visibility is far lesser, which is an excellent way to implement a talk.

Zoom is a little trickier. It was designed as meeting software, so at its root, all participants are equal. Meeting organizers can mass-mute the audience, which makes it a bit better. But it doesn’t scale nearly as well as Twitch.

This gets to the thorny issue of paid, ticketed events, which is how Gen Con handles many of its events. I bought a $12 ticket to an event that was effectively the screening of a film. This was done in Zoom to keep it private, and so only the ticketholders could watch (and assuming the participants did not share the Zoom link with others).

Unfortunately, Zoom was not designed with this use case in mind. Video playback was inconsistent; it frequently dropped frames or resolution fidelity, making on-screen text impossible to read. This isn’t really noticeable during a meeting, but it’s hard to deal with for a film.

This event would have been far better in Twitch, except that Twitch is, by its own nature, public. This particular event required a payment to cover the costs of the production, so I don’t think going free is a reasonable suggestion here. I wonder if the best answer here is to use Twitch’s built-in monetization function; for example, make the ticket free, but require viewers to subscribe to the channel. The issue here is that the channel receives very little of the subscription money, but if the numbers can work out somehow, this could be a better way to handle paid events.

This is something I’ve found in general, when trying to work a platform into a process. Some platforms are designed with a specific paradigm in mind. If you approach these platforms with another paradigm (for example, trying to apply a convention panel paradigm to Twitch), you could find yourself swimming upstream.

Instead, exploring the features of the platforms and adapting your paradigm to better use those features is often a far better way to adapt a platform into a process.

The other issue I have with livestreaming on Twitch as part of the event is that it adds to the decentralized, non-convening, and isolated feel of the show. I have to leave one paradigm (Discord) to watch events in a different paradigm (Twitch). This makes me feel like I’m switching between two different events.

I think the way around this is to host the streamed events the week before the gaming events. How exciting would it be to have a week of special Gen Con streams the week before the show? You’d put the focus of the whole event on Twitch, so everyone would share the same single paradigm. You’d build up excitement for the hot new games, so when the weekend rolled around, players would be excited to try the games for themselves (well, the virtual versions of the games, anyway).

Centralizing the gaming experience

The final piece of the puzzle is the central hub of the convention. Cons have been using Discord servers for this, and I think this is a decent way to go. Discord’s voice chat features are almost effortless to use (especially when using the downloadable client, not the web page), and its structure makes moderation relatively easy to use.

The big thing is that the whole convention must be in the same Discord server. This is vital for the convention to work – it’s what makes the convention feel like “convening,” instead of just a place to organize games.

I think this is where the Gen Con experience didn’t work great for me. Gen Con forbade gaming on their Discord server (with one exception, which I’ll get to). Instead, everyone who ran an event was responsible for running it on their own platform – Discord, Skype, Tabletop Simulator built-in chat, etc.

This meant that as you moved from text channel to another in Gen Con’s Discord, you saw… no gaming. People talking about games, maybe planning games, asking for help with games, but no gaming.

This is so far removed from the in-person Gen Con experience, it’s almost breathtaking. Gen Con is predicated on gaming. Gen Con Online kept gaming very far out of sight, almost as if it was a shameful, unsavory thing.

Furthermore, Gen Con was very strict about not allowing people to post links to external Discords. I had recommended that above, but with the assumption that all gaming for the convention would happen within the Discord server. Since this wasn’t the case with Gen Con, there was no way to really see where the gaming was happening. It was hidden in various remote Discords, none of which were easily available to the passers-by.

Even worse, as a publisher, if I mention a game on a stream, I want to be able to show it off. One of the sour notes of the conventions was when I demoed High Rise on the BGG stream, and then attempted to post a link to my Discord so that players could come by and ask for a demo. However, Gen Con’s Twitch streams do not allow non-mods to post links, and I wasn’t even able to whisper (direct-message) the URL to a moderator.

No problem, I thought, I’ll just post my link in the Gen Con Discord. And this is how I found out about Gen Con’s aggressive ban on external Discord invites.

We eventually communicated the URL to the Twitch moderators, and the Gen Con staff (who were extremely helpful and responsive through the whole show) decided afterwards to allow people to post links on the streaming channels.

But this incident speaks to how Gen Con’s setup puts barriers up against the very thing it’s supposed to facilitate: setting up games with people. We are not allowed to play games in the server (other than the open gaming area, but that had some weirdness – see below), but we’re also not allowed to post links to places where people can play games. It felt strange, like we were not supposed to do the very thing we’re there to do.

One of my favorite things to do at conventions is to walk the floor and look at what everyone is playing. That was impossible at this year’s Gen Con. The gaming was hidden behind a locked door. That felt isolating and lonely.

I mentioned an exception to the ban on gaming in the Gen Con Discord. Here it is: Gen Con did allow for open gaming. It was a little complicated to use; you needed to go to a specific channel and assign yourself the !player role. Doing that gave you access to the open gaming voice channels, and would allow other people to tag you as they looked for games.

If you had asked me before the show what I thought of this, I would have said, “That sounds reasonable, and it’s Gen Con, so those tables will likely be full all the time.” Wrong! I checked on those voice channels repeatedly, and they were always empty. Like a ghost town. I tried to join a game once; I had a pleasant conversation with another gamer as we waited for a third for a game that required three players.

We waited for 30 minutes. No one came, other than one person who joined us, and then immediately left. Strange.

The failure of the open gaming tables baffles me. Perhaps people found the role self-assignments confusing? Or perhaps the con’s decentralized nature meant that people just assumed they’d be playing games on external servers?

Without the critical mass of gamers, there was no open gaming. I saw some publishers trying to get players to play games on the open gaming channels, but they never seemed to go off. It seems that if you weren’t playing a scheduled game, you weren’t playing a game. That seems wrong to me, almost the opposite of what a convention should be.

What could be

It’s hard to talk about the potential of online conventions without getting into wild imaginings of the ultimate virtual convention. This would be a show that would be held entirely in a VR space, like Second Life. For example, you’d model the Indiana Convention Center in VR, and the players would all dress themselves in custom avatars and walk from place to place in the show. Panels could be represented by one avatar chatting in a special room with special voice privileges, and the vendor room would feature graphics that each exhibitor would come up with themselves.

This approach would have so many benefits: it would restore delight to the convention. It would allow for a form of cosplay – not anything like the real thing, of course, but people could freely imagine their visual appearance, and that’s part of the spectacle of the show. And mostly, it would feel like people “convening.” It would be a convention, in the literal sense of the word.

The reason we don’t see this, of course, is because of the technical issues. This space would be tricky to implement, even without the needs of panels and the vendor hall. Making it accessible to vision-impaired people would be a challenge. And making it friendly to people who are not technically inclined (remember, most people who aren’t used to video games struggle with standard console controllers) would be a formidable challenge; it’s hard enough to make it work for programmers!

This is why I’m advocating for a Discord-based solution. Discord presents a way that players can interact with each other via text and voice, and it’s fairly simple to pick up. Maybe someday we’ll have a VR-based solution that would be realistic for a virtual convention, but I don’t think we’re there yet.

To sum up

Overall, I would like to see these changes to online conventions:

  1. Run the convention within a single Discord server.
  2. Run all panels and seminars on Twitch the week before the convention.
  3. Implement the vendor hall as a series of voice and text channels that vendors would purchase.
  4. Keep all gaming within the same Discord server. Do not allow invites to external servers.

Online conventions are still such a new thing, and who knows? Maybe I’ll change my mind in the next few months. But I’d love to see these changes implemented. And I’d love to know what you think!