I had the new experience this past weekend of taking part in the Virtual UK Games Expo (UKGE). UKGE, in its physical form, is one of the biggest board games conventions around – I believe it’s the third biggest in the world after Gen Con and Essen Spiel, with over 25000 people attending in person last year. But of course, like all the other Game Cons this year it’s fallen victim to Covid restrictions and so took place in virtual form. I had booked a stand at the real UKGE and so was able to set up a virtual version. Here’s some of the things I learned from the weekend.
1. A virtual Con is still a great Con
I think this surprised me the most – for all of the wonderful efforts from the UKGE organisers (see later), I expected Virtually Expo to be a bit of a damp squib – better than nothing but no substitute for the ‘real thing’. But actually it was great – loads of interesting content, much of which you could watch at a time to suit you; really easy to find the people you wanted and to chat with them via a range of different media. And it all seemed so accessible and compact compared to the real thing.
2. It’s made a flat industry even flatter
The strange thing is that, if anything, operating virtually makes the board games industry an even more level playing field than it was before. It was already amazing that a one-person outfit can set up a stand at UKGE with little more than some tables, posters and games, and can find themselves next to the industry giants like Asmodee, Days of Wonder or CMON competing for gamers’ attention. But now, the key players at a virtual Con are not necessarily the ones with the most money – it’s the ones who have got the skills, the imagination and the drive to create content, interact with gamers and other companies, and create a high profile, even if it’s all from their bedroom. Most of the key apps are free or low-cost, so it’s really just a question of getting adept with them and taking advantage. But there is a potential down side to this low bar – if everything’s free to enter, then a Game Con may not be financially viable for the organisers, so it may become totally reliant on goodwill effort, or have to charge more for entry. But we now know it can work.
3. Agility is everything
I mean this from the point of view of any company or individual that wants to have any kind of success, whether you’re a designer, a distributor, an artist, a publisher or anything else – the ones that will do well are the ones that grasp how to thrive in a virtual world. Or more broadly, the ones who thrive are those who adapt to any adversity and turn it into opportunity. It was easy to see how some companies had really embraced that opportunity, and were reaching out, broadcasting, networking, advertising, and trying to do everything they would normally, just virtually. The virtual convention experience is really what you make it. I had the most basic stand possible, and hurriedly learned my way around Tabletop Simulator in order to do some virtual playtesting of my upcoming game Ukiyo, but was in awe of how some of the other participants juggled Discord, Twitch, YouTube, Tabletop Simulator and more to produce a complete multimedia experience (and had obviously done so in just weeks). I definitely have a long way to go but some great stuff to aspire to!
4. A more inclusive Game Con?
Many people commented in chatrooms that it was great to be able to attend from their bedrooms, to watch demos in pyjamas or save fortunes on hotel bills, but there’s a serious side to this too. Many of those that couldn’t attend physically (because of geography, disability or illness, neurodiversity, money, family commitments or a dozen other reasons) can now take part actively and on their terms. I was able to ‘advertise’ my playtesting sessions in between taking the kids swimming on Saturday morning. I probably couldn’t have taken a full three days out of that week to attend everything in person but I could happily fit it around other commitments when attending virtually. And of course, you can get global participation – I was delighted in one of the playtest chatrooms to find I was talking to two Australians, who had never been able to get involved in UKGE before.
5. Virtual might be the future – at least for now
Let’s be clear – there’s no substitute for playing with people in person, engaging in three-dimensions and getting to know people over a real coffee rather than a digital one (one nice touch was that attendees could buy virtual beers for other people as a ‘hi’ or a ‘thanks’). And the virtual format happened because it had to – organisers Richard and Tony said in their stage interview that this could not be new normal - but it did also had its own unique advantages, and by day 3, the Lobby Discord servers were full of people asking if this could be done again (even if the real UKGE goes ahead next year). So maybe this could be an alternative future, but as a virtual way of making a real Games Con even better, enabling people to get involved in far more ways (especially for those that can’t be there in person).
What was perhaps the most amazing thing about all of this was that the organisers pulled it all together in just ten weeks with a team of just four people. Incredible. From their early analysis, it looks like over 20000 people took part, with over 5000 ‘actively engaging’ (ie rather than just browsing/lurking)
I’m now looking ahead to what a virtual presence at Essen Spiel might look like in October – I wasn’t planning to have a real stand this year, but actually a virtual stand might be ideal. And then hopefully back to three dimensions for 2021…?
So I can’t wait for the old normal to return, but in the meantime this looks like being a really good consolation prize. Huge thanks and congratulations to Richard, Tony and the Virtually Expo team for making it all happen!