Dear Organizers of Virtual Conventions,

Thank you for your hard work.

Running a convention is too often a thankless job in the best of times, and I know it’s done out of passion and love for the industry. It’s only gotten harder because of the format change and everything being more uncertain than ever, and you’re often asked to learn a new skillset and new format in a matter of weeks or months… with a fraction of the usual budget, potentially.

I know it’s hard. I’d like to help.

I’ve attended / participated in / volunteered at most of the bigger virtual conventions since April. I co-created the Virtual Playtesting Discord group, which has become one of the largest (if not the largest) online playtesting groups. I’ve written about my experiences at Protospiel Online, Gen Con Online, the UKGE Virtually Expo, and Nonecon in blog posts here. (In retrospect, I should have written a post about the Virtual Gaming Con while it was still fresh. Ah, well.)

A number of patterns and a bit of data has emerged, though I’m obviously only able to see what’s presented publicly or made accessible through the badges us mere mortals get.

If there’s one piece of information I want to burn into your brain, it’s this: virtual conventions require a paradigm shift. The principles of real-world conventions can be helpful, but most of the details become irrelevant pretty quickly. Whatever you know about real-world conventions, save it for the real-world conventions in 2021, 2022, and so on.

Grab the coffee, tea, or something stronger if you want…

Use the battle-tasted tools of the trade.

I’ll get into a bit more about each tool in this ‘stack’ over the rest of this post:

  • Discord (for voice chats and general organization),
  • Google Sheets / Docs / Forms (for policies, sharing schedules, other sorts of sign-ups, or other organizational needs)
  • Tabletop.events (for badge sales, event lineups and signing up to play)
  • Twitch.tv / Youtube (for broadcasting and watching speakers / special events)
  • Tabletop Simulator/ Tabletopia / Board Game Arena (for actually playing games)

Why, though? Beyond the fact that all of these tools have proven to be the best-in-class, all are off-the-shelf, cheap or free, and have technical people that keep the services running without your needing to dedicate someone to the tech.

The alternative here is something bespoke and built for the con, which usually ends up being more expensive to create and more challenging to maintain / edit. There’s also the risk that  the tool won’t get the stress testing in the time available.

Let’s start by talking about Discord for a minute, since it’s arguably the backbone of almost every virtual con I’ve seen. For the unfamiliar, Discord is a free program and service that offers voice chat and text chat. You set up a server (for free), which you can then add channels to. One channel equals one specific place to connect with people, via voice or text.

You can also add categories, which can hold any number of channels (categories are to channels as folders are to files). I might have a voice channel named ‘Table 1’, a text channel named ‘Table 1’, and a category called ‘Board Games’ to hold all the table channels. There’s plenty more about server design that’s worth talking about another time (one of those things I’m happy to chat about – reach out here)

Don’t try to emulate a real-world convention in the virtual space.

Every real-world-con-gone-virtual-con has had vestiges of the real-world con in the virtual space. UKGE had ‘The Queue’ and the ‘Chow Street’ channel. Gen Con had the ‘Food Truck’ channel and the ‘Pin Trading chat’. These are great parts of the real-world cons, and I’m sure they have passionate  followings… but they just aren’t a fit for the virtual space. If they need to be part of the convention because people will really miss them, put them somewhere further down in the channel list to keep the games and games-adjacent channels further up.

Keep convention activities on convention servers.

It’s worth noting there are some technical limits to how many channels or users a Discord server can have, but as yet no virtual convention has come close to them. A single server can have up to 500 channels and up to 5,000 online users (and supposedly you can contact Discord to get to heavier-duty hardware).

You can pay to ‘boost’ a server, which upgrades the voice and video streams available through Discord, but entire conventions have been run on nothing but the free options. I would submit that even an event as large as GenCon.online could run all their events on a single server, though for organizational reasons I’d use multiple servers make life easier.

Now, back to the recommendation: keep convention activities on convention servers. The more places people have to look for where to go, or the more steps it takes to figure things out, the more people you’re going to lose along the way. Think of these servers as you might real-world convention halls — albeit halls you can more precisely control. For example, Hall 1 (Server 1) is all board game stuff. Hall 2 (Server 2) is all RPG stuff. Hall 3 (Server 3) is all the artists, creative stuff, etc.

The alternative to this is what GenCon and UKGE did — essentially, the convention’s Discord server was a central hub for con-related activities, customer service, tech support, and so on. How you actually connected with the games, however, was based on whatever the individual designers or publishers set up. They might have used Zoom, Skype, the designer’s / publisher’s Discord server, or some other place to do a voice chat.

The issue here is that it takes people away from the convention and out of the convention’s purview. It’s akin to meeting to play games in hall 1, then heading off the property to go play games somewhere else in the city. It’s harder to track metrics when everyone’s scattered like that, and harder for mods to kick / ban people who violate the Code of Conduct you’ve put into place.

The recommendation: As you’re designing your server, set up each exhibitor / publisher with a single text and voice channel on the official convention server. If they’ve paid for more exposure, or if they want to run more than one game at a time, make a second / third / fourth channel for them. Break things up into multiple, official servers if necessary (call them halls if you want) – one for board games, one for RPG’s, one for artisans, etc.

As part of this process, ensure exhibitors know how they can access the server(s) and set up as they like (setting up a pinned post with their schedule, for example, or getting their staff familiar with the platform). Each exhibitor should get access to some of the best practices along with the invite link, but not permission to create new ones. These servers should be set up, open, and available at least a week before the con starts.

Searching and scheduling is the new browsing.

Browsing as the traditional convention activity has no neat, elegant online substitute. Yes, we may still say we ‘browse the web’, and that is done in a web ‘browser’… but ‘search’ is king — it helps people find what they’re looking for. A generation of people have grown up using modern-day search engines — and today, searching and filtering is the best-case scenario.

The best-in-class tool that I’ve seen: tabletop.events (and no, I’m not affiliated with them, just a big fan of their offering). Along the top you can search by name / text, event type, starting day, and starting time.

At virtual cons like Gencon.online, Con of Champions, and UKGE, there’s usually a bit more run-up to schedule the games you want to play. There might be a need to do this early on (the Con of Champions allowed higher tiers of badges to register for games first), but in many cases, it’s possible (or should be possible) to register for a game / buy a ticket just minutes before the game is scheduled to start. In the days leading up to the convention, you can create a schedule that works for you — ideally one that’s remembered by the website.

Organize and archive the streams and programs post-con.

During UKGE, their website’s home page featured three tabbed areas, each with a video stream, and it was easy to switch between the con’s three stages. While it’s no longer present on their website, it’s the best approximation of meandering between stages I’ve seen so far.

I couldn’t tell what each stage specialized in, except an assumption that the main stage was for the largest / most popular events. Ideally, what’s happening at each stage is clear from the scheduled line-up, a brief description that’s attached to the name, or the name of the stage itself.

Depending on the types of programming on offer, there may also be room to cross-broadcast things happening in each publisher’s channels or re-run previously recorded seminars.  I could also see a ‘video wall’ re-broadcasting some of the various video channels across the Discord server. Ideally there’s something happening at a stage throughout the day, rather than just looping advertisements or animations…

The best-in-class tool for this is Twitch — beyond being free and built for streaming, streams are recorded and available on the channel. Creators can ‘tag team’ using Twitch’s ‘Squad Stream‘, which puts up to four people in one stream. (Youtube should work as well, but Twitch is what I’ve seen used more often.) There is a bit of work needed after the streams are complete to name and tag, and you may want to embed the recorded videos somewhere for badgeholders to enjoy. The goal here, beyond ensuring the seminars are recorded when live, is to ensure the sessions can be enjoyed (and more importantly, found) after the con is over. 

Reduce friction and barriers to entry wherever possible.

You would think being virtual and accessible from home would mean a ton of people would be around. In truth, however, the technology isn’t there yet for a perfectly smooth experience in even the best-case scenario. Games played on a virtual platform take about twice as long as they do in the real-world, since there’s the teaching of the game alongside working with the interface…

While I’m sure none of the virtual cons have intentionally added friction, there’s already a fair bit of friction between using Discord (which has a learning curve) and Tabletop Simulator / Tabletopia / Board Game Arena (which each have their own learning curves). Any time a new service has to be added on top of that is a bit more friction.

There’s no generic recommendation here, just something to be aware and conscious of as everything is getting put together. Bring in a few people not working on the con to have a look at things, or log out of the back-end to see how things look from the outside. How intuitive is the flow / order of operations?

Understand people come and go during virtual cons.

Think about the last real-world con you went to — assuming you live some distance away from it, you probably opted to stay at a hotel, get up early, raid the continental breakfast, then be at the door for the moment the doors to the con opened. It takes time to do all that — time to reach the venue, time to wait in line, time to physically navigate the hall, and so on. You don’t want to leave the con to find a place to eat (one reason why inflated food-and-beverage prices at cons are considered acceptable by attendees).

Virtual cons have less friction to leave and return when joining a ‘table’ is a single click away. When you’re done, another click lets you leave or join another event. It’s easy to get up, go to the bathroom, grab another drink, then jump right back into play (and depending on the game, you might be able to do that in the downtime between your turns). Expect visitors to leave for a cup of coffee / tea / meal from their own kitchen, then return. Maybe they hang out with their family / friends for awhile, then jump back in. These sorts of things are now more compatible with each other.

In conclusion…

  • It’s a different beast, but it’s tamable.
  • Virtual conventions may never attract as many people as real-world conventions do.
  • Virtual conventions are still worth doing.

Please feel free to make contact if you’d like some additional help making your virtual con a success.

Cheers – Chris