To say the past year has been transformative has become a huge cliché. But as we’re finally starting to see the light at the end of the long, long tunnel (with MCV/DEVELOP being 25 per cent vaccinated at the time of writing), it’s time to start looking back on the lessons of the last year.
And one thing is clear, games industry events have been particularly hard hit, and have had to adapt in creative ways. To find out more, and what the future of events may look like, we reached out to organisers.
“Moving from physical to digital has been a huge challenge,” says Nordic Game’s Jacob Riis, “but thankfully our core audience, the Nordic dev community, have been very supportive and helped making our online editions succeed.”
As Riis notes, the move to all-digital is a little bittersweet, with the loss of face-to-face contact pitted against the increased accessibility online.
“On the negative side, it’s near impossible to recreate the unique vibe of a physical Nordic Game – nothing digital can replace gathering thousands of industry people in Malmö and feeling that special energy of togetherness. On the positive side of not having to travel all the way to Sweden, we’ve seen an uptake of participants coming from other regions such as South America and US, which has been great.”
INDIGO’s Tom Jongens notes digital events’ ability to reach more people than ever before too, stating:
“One change we’ve seen is in the attendee demographic in INDIGO last year, a trend that will likely follow this year. Last year we saw an increase in international attendees. While INDIGO was already maturing as an international game business event, it’s not the type of event most people would book a hotel and plane ticket for.
“But with INDIGO now being accessible online we’ve seen an influx of many nationalities that we didn’t have before. In 2020 we were able to double our meetings up to nearly 500 meetings on MeetToMatch in a single day now folks were able to join our business track from overseas. Therefore we’ve been putting more marketing effort into attracting attendees from America, Latin America and Asia.”
“Last year we were surprised with the lockdown and restrictions and managed to pull off an online event,” Jongens continues. “This year we came prepared. We’ve majorly increased our efforts on creating a studio/TV environment for the conference on June 25th, making sure we have high-quality lighting, audio, and video to capture our speakers in the best possible way to make sure they have an environment in which their message is supported in the best possible way but it also makes it more enticing for the online attendee.
“We also changed our submission policy for the showcase. These past few years we were supporting more and more international developers in our showcase but we felt that wouldn’t be safe with possible travel restrictions that could still be applied in June. With that uncertainty and to prevent any dangers, we decided to focus on Dutch and Belgian developers only. Coincidentally, that helps us bring out the local flavor of INDIGO!”
There’s also the events that were born post-pandemic. Events that, instead of having to adapt an existing format for the digital space, were able to tailor their experiences for online right from the start.
“The event wasn’t changed by the pandemic—it was 100% inspired by it,” says Heather Stewart, executive producer, Game Carnival and Unconventional Productions. “We created Game Carnival when GDC was canceled, and turned this into a recurring event platform when it was clear that COVID-19 would put an indefinite hold on in-person events.
“We imagined a free event, with world-class speakers and that vision, Game Carnival, went from ideation to launch in just two months. We’re proud of the turnout and reception by the industry. The virtual event generated over 11m impressions globally and coverage in major media including MCV, The Hollywood Reporter, VentureBeat, and The Wrap.”
So what has our panel learned about running digital events, and what advice can they share?
“Running digital events is as time consuming, if not more, compared to creating physical events,” notes Nordic Game’s Riis. “That was a surprise to me. In general, I think we’ve learned to adapt faster than we thought we could. Also, what seemed to be an extremely negative and depressing situation at first, actually turned out to have some positives as well, like us getting new participants from all over the world. So the learning there has been to stay optimistic and focus on the good parts instead of giving up.”
“Digital events are hard for sponsors and partners,” adds INDIGO’s Jongens, “since they really thrive on interaction on location to create noise on their products and services. So you really need to think of new and unique ways for them to engage with your attendees.
“Another difference is the flow of ticket sales, which is maddening to an organizer. With a physical event with maximum attendees, visitors often buy tickets early on. To ensure they get a good price with the early birds and they don’t miss out. Digital events though, with theoretical unlimited tickets, attendees wait until the last few weeks until they purchase their tickets. That can make things quite scary but also something you can take into account.
“Keeping the focus of your attendees is also a big challenge. Anyone working from home will probably agree, you’re easily distracted by work or life around you and focussing on a day-long event is a big ask. We try to keep the energy up by providing several tracks in the conference programme, the showcase stream and networking activities in between.”
“The pivot to virtual in 2020 was new for everyone,” adds Chris Wren, Chair, XDS Advisory Committee. “You couldn’t just stand still and wait to see what the other guys are doing because we were all faced with the same hard problems; How do we retain sponsors? Will we sell as many tickets? What will the attendee experience look like?”
“The biggest learnings for us; be comfortable in ambiguity, make hard decisions – even if you’re not sure if they are the right ones, and don’t be afraid to experiment and innovate. If you have a loyal base of sponsors and attendees, they will empathize with your situation and be there to support you no matter what.”
That’s all quite a lot to keep track of, then. Luckily Game Carnival’s Stewart has advice to keep you focused:
“There are many moving parts to a digital event, but it helps to focus on a few key objectives. Have you created a world that is not just user-friendly, but inviting? Do you understand what your sponsors/partners and attendees need from the event, and have you created the features and capabilities to meet those needs? Do they understand the capabilities of this new world? If you’re in tune with what your audience needs from the event, it’s much easier to define and prioritize those moving parts.”
Even with all that advice though, it can be hard to stand out among the crowd as a digital event – especially with working from home draining all our attention spans. How does our panel differentiate themselves from the competition?
“We always try our best to maintain and develop the very special Nordic Game vibe which we’ve been building upon for 14 years now,” says Nordic Games’ Riis. “Our ambition is always to be in motion and to further develop the cornerstones of NG, so that attending Nordic Game, physically or online, should always be like playing a very well crafted sequel to a game. You know the essence of what’s in store, but you’re keen on discovery improvements, adjustments and a few surprises.”
“We’ve put a lot of time and energy into creating an immersive virtual world,” adds Game Carnival’s Stewart. “We’re using RTX tech that feels like real life, more so than even many video games. While we’re excited about the Game Carnival virtual world and capabilities, a core differentiator comes from how we approach this event. At Xsolla [Game Carnival owners], we power thousands of games/projects for developers, large and small, around the world, so we started with a deep understanding of the kind of challenges developers, publishers and platform partners in the gaming ecosystem face, what solutions work best, and what energizes the industry as a whole.”
Distinguishing yourself from other online events is easier said than done, though. Physical events often have their own distinct feel – perhaps even if just due to their venue, or hosting city. Elements that have been lost in the move to online.
“I think most events differentiate themselves mainly through their offline program, things that are hard to replicate online through the tools we have today” says INDIGO’s Jongens. “INDIGO is a Dutch event and attending it prior to COVID-19 meant getting in touch with Dutch culture and developers but that also applies to other events across the border. These cultural differences blurred when events started to be hosted online in a global manner during the pandemic.
“To me, most of them started to feel the same. Suddenly, developers across the world could join any online event and event organizers had access to speakers that could join a conference through the comforts of their own homes. Which is essentially great, but again blurred the lines between events. With our choice to host a hybrid event, in which Dutch/Belgian developers, speakers and streamers can join us on-site we can still present a national flavor and differentiate ourselves through that.”
This is perhaps an optimistic stance, but with vaccines rolling out worldwide it seems that next years’ editions of events will be able to have physical elements once again. But organisers aren’t keen to just throw away the lessons learned from the past year.
“The next edition of Nordic Game will include digital elements, to cater for the part of people not being able to attend physically,” says Nordic Game’s Riis.
“After nearly 2 years of virtual events there will be presumptions that some aspects will carry forward,” adds XDS’ Wren “For example, the ability to participate remotely in sessions or B2B meetings without the need to attend physically. That will involve greater scope and risk for planners, so it will be interesting to see how attendee expectations could move us into yet more uncharted waters.”
“Virtual events are not a temporary solution until in-person events return,” adds Game Carnival’s Stewart. “Exhibitor partners and attendees alike have adapted to the virtual worlds and they’re benefiting from a reduction of booth costs, travel, time out of the office.
“Even as live events return, we can expect virtual events to continue. They serve as a powerful complement to live events—virtual events expand the breadth of speakers and content, bring in bigger global audiences and even live forever online.”
The success of digital events over the past year is just one of many lessons we’ve learned from the pandemic, as INDIGO’s Jongens notes:
“I think one of the biggest lessons of the last year is that we’re able to create and maintain meaningful interactions online. At first, we thought a digital event wouldn’t have the same effect and it still isn’t the same as a physical one, but with today’s tools and services you’re able to create something pretty darn close.”
It should be stressed that these successes didn’t come naturally, but were the result of the hard work of those working in digital events. It has been a difficult year for us all, but as MeetToMatch’s Fedor van Herpen notes, things are looking up: “We are happy to see that most event organizers in the games industry are focusing on creating unique experiences again, after the challenging year of 2020. They are looking for elements such as incredible virtual venues, speakers that have not been seen elsewhere, or side events that fit to the DNA of the event in physical form.
“We are incredibly happy that MeetToMatch is able to provide a reliable infrastructure with the event platform, but also helping these event organizers out by promoting the event, and to invite publishers and investors to meet up with developers. Soon, we will launch a first big part of our platform redesign, bringing a next step in user experience to events.
“And don’t forget to support your favorite events with the purchase of a ticket, or a promotion on social media: they love you back for that.”