This past weekend I virtually attended Spiel.digital, the virtual representation of the world’s biggest boardgames convention. I blogged a couple of months back about the experience of virtually exhibiting at UK Games Expo and, having learnt from that (very positive) experience, I was looking forward to this one.
The Spiel organisers had stated from the outset that this convention was going to be a bit different. They were investing quite heavily in having quality digital content; the main interface was innovative and interactive, and the content itself (stands and so forth) would be enduring content that will remain in place until at least the end of the year.
As a designer or publisher, there were about four main ‘levels’ of participation available. You could buy one of three types of virtual stand, at 600, 1500 and 3500 Euros. Needless to say, I went for the super-cheap option of a 100 Euro stand at the Designers’ Prototype Gallery, which allows you to be present and to display any number of current ‘works in progress’. The larger stand basically get you a higher-profile set of icons on the main page, and enable you to publish more streams of content (demos, playthroughs, unboxing etc)
My main reason for attending was to try and drum up support for my two upcoming Kickstarters – unfortunately this fell fairly heavily at the first hurdle because of the lack of a central discussion area. Each exhibitor (including those in the prototype gallery) was able to open their own Discord server for chat, but all the servers therefore were specific to a company, so there was no place for general chat, banter etc. This was one of the main reasons why there was such a buzz around UK Games Expo – the main Discord chat area allowed people to drop in, hang out, and do a bunch of silly and fun stuff like send each other virtual beers, badges and so on.
So to use a real convention analogy, it was a bit like being stuck in a dark corner of the conference hall but not being allowed to go out and drag people kicking and screaming to your stand. You could obviously, theoretically, drop into other companies’ servers and spam about your game but that didn’t feel like a good way to make friends! And because all of the prototype designers were in one particular virtual area, there wasn’t a great deal of passing traffic, other than other designers dropping into each other’s booths (because no-one was coming to theirs). So some good chat, but not much in the way of business.
Two things that all of this really highlight to me. The first is having a plan for any event like this – that is, knowing what it is that you’re aiming to achieve, and being clear in your own mind that your chosen path is contributing to your aim. If your plan is just to talk to like-minded people and to find out what’s going on in the board game world, then you might be better off just turning up as a punter and holding on to your money. At this stage, attendance at virtual cons is free, but this probably won’t last beyond the end of this year. Equally, if your aim is to actually sell games, then you need to be in the right places, with the highest profile you can afford, and you need to be prepared to be proactive throughout the whole event – publishing and broadcasting content, advertising your stand, going out and getting people. And if you just want to see what it’s like exhibiting, start small and build gradually as your experience grows.
The second point is the importance of just trying stuff out, trying different approaches. Failure is in some ways easier to take if you feel like you’ve tried everything, rather than regretting having stuck to just one approach. I think I would have felt short-changed if I’d paid over 3 grand for a large stand at Spiel; but equally, if I hadn’t tried to exhibit at all then I’d be wondering ‘what if?’. Being present is almost always going to be better than being absent, and you never know who you're going to meet or what's going to happen when you do. And ultimately, you need to get yourself 'out there' if you want any kind of success - in any field at all, really.
So, overall verdict? I really applaud the fact that the organisers tried to do something a bit different, and that they’ve made the effort to have content that stands out. But from a designer’s point of view it was hard to get much traction. I’m certainly glad I didn’t shell out the big bucks for a full stand. I don’t know how much extra business it was worth to those that went for large over small or medium, but anecdotally, smaller companies that went for a stand weren’t much better off than those just doing prototypes.
From a gamer’s point of view I’m not sure – there were apparently over 1400 new games being released during Spiel.digital, so if you’re turning up with a bulging wallet and an empty game shelf, it might well have been a gold mine. There was also masses of content being streamed from publishers, much of it ‘televised’ through BGG Conline. But my general impression was that there might have been too many sellers and not enough buyers. I’ve seen a few comments and posts implying that there was less of a buzz around Spiel than other Cons, and that was my impression too – although there were the usual pile of geeklists on BGG containing gamers’ most anticipated releases. If there was less buzz then that’s a shame, because there was clearly a huge amount of effort and innovation from the organisers and you always want to hope that success comes from going that extra mile.
The standing content for Spiel is still available – check it out here:
If you’re interested in another, more in-depth report on Spiel ’20 then try this one from boardgame.de.
I sort of feel like I’ve already had enough of virtual content, and I can’t help feel it’s just an interim measure rather than some amazing new future. But I guess it’s too early to say. But I’ve signed up for Airecon ’21 in April in the hope that that might be the first convention that returns to three dimensions.
What do you think? Were you at Spiel.digital? And how are you finding the whole virtual convention thing - let me know in the comments.