In past years, GenCon’s sold-out events have helped elevate the American convention to become one of the biggest on the planet. This year, I looked at GenCon.online as the highest-profile look into how a real-world event transforms into a virtual event. While events like the Virtual Gaming Con (held by Board Game Geek and Dice Tower) were excellent, those entities laid their claim to fame on the internet and later moved to real-world events. Moving back to the virtual space meant they were back on their home turf.

How many people went to GenCon.online?

On paper, GenCon.online looked to be of a similar scale as their real-world events, with an equally huge attendance. Until official numbers are released, however, one best guess is to look at the post everyone had to agree / ‘thumbs up’ to in order to access the Discord server.

Based on that, if we accept that each of the emoji was clicked once by a unique person, that comes to a little over 7,300 people… and it’s safe to assume some people attended the con without needing the Discord server, though I’ll talk about that more in a minute.

I can say that over 6,700 events were scheduled (many of which were held multiple times), according to the website… Quite a few were sold out, some got cancelled, but all in all, many of them looked like they took place with the cast of characters that signed up to play them. For comparison, GenCon 2019 had around 70,000 participants and 19,600 ticketed events.

What did you do at GenCon.online?

I personally signed up to playtest 4 of my games as standard-issue events, and 3 of them went off without a hitch. (I needed to cancel the 4th for a meeting outside the con.) As the person running the event, I was able to communicate with ticket-holders via GenCon’s reasonably easy to use messaging system, and tell them where to meet (I used the Virtual Playtesting Discord server, since it’s already setup and is all about board games already.) My playtests went fine, and playing with non-designers is a great way of ensuring rules explanations are easily understood and otherwise ensuring that the game is fun. On both those counts, things were a success.

GenCon’s event-messaging system worked fine, but it relies on every attendee checking their messages and taking action on it. It also assumes every event organizer knows how to setup a Zoom channel, a Discord server, or some other way of voice chatting, since the con did not provide these tools. Forget that Zoom only offers 40-minute meetings for free, for example, and you’ll find yourself needing to change plans on the fly.

A number of excellent sessions were publicly broadcast on Twitch. I enjoyed Skybound’s session on Diversity in Tabletop Games and participated in White Wizard’s Shark Tank along with several other designers.

While there is the usual frustration of missing out on events at conventions, knowing that virtually all of them are recorded means you can watch them again at your leisure. There may be some issues tracking them down, but as of publication, the excellent Event search is still online. Here’s hoping it stays online for awhile (more about that in a minute).

The Looking Glass was probably the fanciest ‘new’ thing — a chance to peruse some of the exhibitors. This ended up being a cute, but less-than-useful tool:

An ‘exhibitor’ got about half a screen’s worth of real estate, assuming the user clicked on their name or otherwise navigated to the location… You’d only know about this information on the website and went looking for it, though — exhibitors did not have an individual channel or space on the Discord server, just some group channels (#looking-glass-advertisements, #merch-chat) and a somewhat locked-down #event-promotions channel.

Irksome…?

There was one element of the GenCon MO that seemed helpful at the start, but irked me later on. On one level, a lot of the information you needed was available and accurate… but it was on you to find it, read it, understand it, and take action on it — and potentially under some time pressure. For anyone new to gaming in the virtual world, having to go back and forth between multiple sources of information and join (or purchase) multiple programs to play a board game in a new and strange place would have been bewildering.

Irksome x2…?

While GenCon.online was the place to learn what was happening beforehand, the GenCon Discord Server was essentially the ‘welcome desk’ of the virtual space. As far as I could see, moderating was pretty tight – self-promotional stuff was relegated to a single channel, while most anything not specific to the con’s functions was quickly deleted, barely seen by the masses.

Unfortunately, most questions in the Discord server tended to be answered by ‘MEE6’ (a Discord bot programmed with answers to commonly asked questions), a brief note to ask your EO/GM (GenCon-speak for ‘Event Organizer’ / ‘GameMaster’), or advice to check your Event Messages.

Irksome x3

Tickets. They were bought and sold, but no one bothered to collect them, because… why bother? It seems like just another holdover from the real-world event that really wasn’t needed here.

Real world ≠ virtual world

It’s almost as if GenCon said ‘well, we have this great system and website set up for real-world conventions, let’s just hammer a few more things onto it to make it work for this virtual convention, and we’ll be back to business as usual for 2021.’ As a result, lots of wording never got changed for this event (while signing up to host an event, I was asked if I needed power or A/V equipment). They seem to have forgotten that real-world and virtual conventions are demonstrably quite different… and while virtual conventions are still quite new, there have been a few examples to draw from.

The First Exposure Playtest Hall

Somewhere between disappointment and ‘great time’ was the First Exposure Playtest Hall. Designers paid for the privilege of playtesting games in four-hour slots, while players could sign up for a two-hour event (thus, ideally, each game would get playtested twice). The plan was for the moderators to steer people to specific games based on their interests or a Google form they submitted…

Except that Google form didn’t bother asking about interests – it wanted my name, e-mail, which slots I signed up for, and a single ‘Is there anything we need to know?’ sort of question. I did not see which games were being playtested at which times until well after the event had started, because that information was never made part of the GenCon event schedule.

In other words, you signed up for a time slot on the GenCon website before knowing which games you might be trying out. If there was a specific game you wanted to try, you’d have to know when their slot was, then sign up for that.

To their credit, Double Exposure did have a list of games on their website.. which was never mentioned or linked from the GenCon website. It was only because someone linked to it on Discord that I was able to find it at all…. but going to the Double Exposure website to find this information was a time warp back to the late 90’s when Flash was still a thing and before responsive web design became a thing. I could not find that specific page of games and designers from navigating their links or home page. Whatever this ‘unique system’ of theirs supposedly is, I hope it’s not as stuck in the past as their website.

In any case, I participated in two of the playtest slots and playtested two other people’s games. Both went fine, and I’m glad I tried them out. Both designers were receptive to feedback, and it sounded like they got a fair bit for their time and effort. More than a few people seemed like they were new to Tabletop Simulator, like they just bought it recently and hadn’t had a chance to play much in it yet…

And then there’s the memory hole

As I was putting the final touches on this review, I wanted to check out some of the chat happening that I might have missed on the playtesting channel. Three days and over a dozen slots worth of playtests happened, and I only participated in two of those slots, after all.

It turns out the entire Discord channel is just…. gone. The instructions channel is still present, and I can’t specifically recall any other channels that were deleted. Some were closed and no longer allowing comments, sure… but just… gone? Why? It’s not as if it was short on space. Maybe it wasn’t needed for posterity, but the con ends and hours later a portion of the con is just gone…? There may been others – again, I don’t specifically recall… but it’s bizarre.

What else was going on?

The Discord server had some of the usual GenCon hijinks — the pin chat / trading, the dance party, the cosplay, etc. Not sure why the organizers created channels for things like food trucks  or dice sharing except as reminders of the real-world events… While virtual conventions lack the same sense of browsing / walking past booth, the closest thing was the aforementioned Looking Glass.

What went wrong?

This event’s fundamental flaw was its scattered nature. Sure, GenCon chose to centralize some of the miscellaneous stuff above… but the main reason you go to Gen Con is to play games, watch / listen to seminars… and all of that was scattered.

Why was it scattered, though? Did Gen Con suddenly believe the best way to run an event was to send thousands of people across the real-world equivalent of several different buildings? Someone wrote how absurd it would be to have 6,000 events running on a Discord server. Honestly, though, it wouldn’t — those 6,000 events are not running simultaneously, after all, and quite a few of those events are broadcasts / seminars / things you watch, not things you play. Centralize the things you watch on Twitch, and centralize the things you play on Discord.

Even at it’s busiest period (Saturday at 2pm showed 277 events starting at that hour, for example), you’d only need a few hundred ‘rooms’ to handle the interactive events happening simultaneously. You could even run multiple Discord servers (they are free, after all) – one specifically for board games, one for RPG’s, one for the traditional GenCon events (the pin collectors, the cosplay contest), one for support, and so on. As a badge holder, you’d get access to them all.

As a guide for future virtual cons, I’d look back to the Con of Champions that ran back in May as one guide for how to do it well. Get stuff set up on tabletop.events, then buy badges / tickets. That platform shows you the specific room / channel to go to, along with the time to start. Navigate to that room on the Discord server when it’s time to start, and off you go. Two platforms — one for buying badges or tickets and seeing where to go, and one for voice chat, organized by room number. (Add a third platform like Twitch for the broadcast events, if you’ll have them in any quantity.)

I was also shocked to see very little assistance offered ahead of the con to familiarize gamers with Tabletop Simulator. At least two of the gamers at my tables were completely new to the program, and while I tried to pass on pro-tips and ways to make things work better, it’s intimidating without some experience… Heather and the Protospiel.online team offered some sessions that allowed players to understand what was happening ahead of time. It’s one of the value-added offerings they put together that really worked.

Conclusion

Gen Con has run physical events for decades now, and it’s clear they tried to fit the infrastructure they’ve developed for the real-world into a virtual setting. It worked… OK… but with a bit more thought process into making the event fit the format, it could have been so much better.

Good stuff

  • Badges were free, and most tickets were either free or a nominal fee.
  • Finding and book events on the website was easy enough.
  • In general, a good-enough website to show your schedule, and prevent you from double-booking yourselves.
  • Sessions were excellent, recorded, able to be found, and otherwise good times.

Bad stuff

  • Generally felt disorganized and using a system not really suitable for the event.
  • Each player and event left to their own devices / services for connecting to things.
  • Pay attention to the event messages or you’ll miss the important details.
  • Poor organization for the First Exposure Playtesting Event.