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How games industry events went virtual during lockdown


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We examine how games organisations pivoted to digital events during the pandemic, and how this may impact the future of games industry events as a whole.

It’s been a long time since the games industry met up en masse. Events like the Electronic Entertainment Expo [E3], the Game Developers Conference [GDC] and countless others have shifted to virtual settings due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, with speakers beaming in to deliver talks from the comfort of their own homes. As vaccine rollouts continue, some are choosing to step back into the realm of in-person events, reconnecting with their peers in physical locations.

However, many have embraced the possibilities offered by digital event spaces – just take the multimedia concerts held in Fortnite by musicians like Ariana Grande, for example – to create an alternative type of event, one which is arguably more accessible, more diverse and more flexible than their physical counterparts.

One rising digital event is the Wholesome Direct. Organised by Wholesome Games, this showcase has been held in the summer of 2020 and 2021 to highlight cute, colourful games. Co-founders Matthew Taylor and James Tillman wanted to spotlight these games to help small development teams impacted by the closure of in-person events.

Wholesome

Matthew [right] and James [left] from Wholesome.

“We don't want to encourage developers to stop making violent or scary games, we just want to make sure wholesome games get as much attention as the rest,” Taylor says.

After a selection process, developers exhibiting in the Direct must submit a trailer cut to a certain time limit and provide promotional images, with interview clips being optional.

“Honestly, the most time consuming part of the whole event is narrowing down the selections,” Taylor says. “Everyone submits via a Google form and then we have to choose from over 300 games, which involves a lot of research and internal debates.”

Surprisingly, Taylor is “pretty sure” that none of the event's organisers had any formal experience in event management. Despite this, they organised charity and merchandise partners and liaised with the developers of their featured games – over 50 in 2020, and over 75 this summer – to ensure that things ran smoothly. However, the team behind digital games festival Guerrilla Collective gave a helping hand.

“One thing I'm never afraid to do is ask for help, and although the folks at Guerrilla Collective didn't have a hand in curating or editing Wholesome Direct, their knowledge and connections helped us reach a lot more viewers and overcome some hurdles that would've been tougher on our own,” Taylor says.

With online events being so accessible and easy to organise, Taylor feels that it’s important to make sure yours stands out from the crowd. “Think deeply about what makes your event different and what you're offering, both to the viewer and to the developers involved,” Taylor advises. For example, Wholesome Direct had a “really clear premise” – a large collection of games with a similar atmosphere – and came with a “built-in community” on Twitter, Discord and TikTok: “If you don't have all of those, it's going to be a tough road.”

UKIE faced its fair share of challenges when moving its annual Hub Crawl, a series of free events for games businesses around the UK, to a digital setting in 2021. “The biggest challenge with virtual events is shifting to more of a ‘broadcast’ approach,’ UKIE’s head of campaigns and communications George Osborn tells us. “We had to restructure our events slightly to ensure they were more digestible, either reducing their overall length or shortening individual sessions to create something a bit more dynamic.”

George Osborn
 

UKIE also utilised a digital “gallery” behind-the-scenes, where speakers were prepped before the event, and had a moderator monitoring the chat. But it’s also important to “think carefully about how your content works within a virtual setting,” according to Osborn.

“Historically, the UKIE Hub Crawl saw us take the same, or very similar, talk content to different parts of the country. This year, our virtual version allowed us to run an ‘episodic’ weekly programme about the life cycle of a business to allow people to either watch all the events as a business boot camp or tune into particular activities that they felt they needed help with,” Osborn says.

Overall, Osborn feels that much of the same principles for running in-person events apply to their digital counterparts. “Making sure that you give yourself enough time to organise everything effectively, promoting the specific reasons why you should attend to drive sign ups and cultivating a safe, welcoming space that people feel safe to share ideas in remains as important for digital events as it does for those in real life,” Osborn says.

Barclays is involved with a variety of gaming events, such as the annual Hub Crawl organised by UKIE, as well as our own Game Frenzy events and esports competitions. However, lockdown changed everything.

David Gowans
 

“There’s obviously been a huge change in events and how the games industry connects,” Barclays head of creative technologies, games and esports David Gowans explains. “Really, the great thing that I saw from the sector was [that] as things pivoted to not being able to meet each other in physical space, there was a very quick adoption of digital tools where people can connect together.”

Barclays was “able to go global very easily because of the lack of barriers'' for its digital Game Frenzy events held during the pandemic, according to Gowans. The first series of these events, featuring talks from a wide variety of games industry figures, focused on five different locations over the course of a single week: the US, the UK, Israel, South East Asia and India.

Gowans thinks that digital events shouldn’t simply try to fully replicate an in-person experience, but rather should lean into the possibilities offered by digitisation. For example, the first digital Games Frenzy fostered lots of follow-up engagement and networking amongst attendees through email and direct connections, but it lacked some of the energy of meeting people in-person. So for the most recent Frenzy, held in partnership with UKIE, the team did something different. Using Gather Town, a video conferencing platform where people explore digital spaces as a pixelated avatar, attendees could meet up and chat in a virtual convention centre. Gowans even recalls a spontaneous conga line forming after a full day of talks.

“I really loved doing that: something clicked with us around it.,” Gowans recalls. “It replicated a lot of the activity that we were missing from the physical event.” 

Additionally, having content be available on-demand makes an event more accessible to speakers and attendees in different time-zones, making it easier to fit an event around your schedule and avoid travel costs, Gowans tells us. Subsequently, this can increase the diversity of both attendees and events.

“There’s never been an E3 that’s been able to broadcast and showcase a more diverse range of games, from the big AAA blockbusters to smaller independent games,” Gowans says, referring to digital showcases such as Wholesome Direct. “That’s fantastic to see – I think the industry will only grow if it can continue to bring in new people and offer games for what they are looking for.”

For Gowans, the key thing to remember when organising a digital event is to have fun. 

“The tools are there,” Gowans says. “People can run events themselves. They can start small, focusing on a topic that can help each other. If you’re part of a community or you have something to say, it’s really easy to set up a video chat on any of the video tools that are out there.” 

He notes that anyone chatting over Zoom could quickly broadcast ourselves live to YouTube, tweet it out to attract an audience and set up a Discord server for viewers to create an impromptu event.

Taylor adds: “The key is that if you're going to run an event like this, you have to be prepared to make yourself available and answer questions pretty much around the clock. Developers are counting on you, and that's not a responsibility to be taken lightly.”

As efforts against the pandemic improve, some are choosing to organise in-person events again. The annual Game Developers Conference will be in-person next year, for example, whilst Develop:Brighton 2021 is scheduled to run as a hybrid physical and virtual event in October. Taylor speaks fondly about the experience of attending in-person events – showcasing his game Rolling Hills at PAX East was a particular highlight. However, he says that the Wholesome Direct will remain virtual “no matter what”, and that “any physical presence we have [at events] would be the result of cool partners like PAX or E3 offering to lend a hand.” 

“I think digital events will remain if only because they're so much cheaper to produce than in-person events, and as a result they allow more developers to participate,” he says. “Having said that, I think in-person events can be really helpful for indies because they're a way to connect with individual players and get invaluable feedback.”

UKIE is planning a return to in-person events, such as its upcoming AGM in September, but are ensuring that any events are “in line with the law and best practice in regards to Covid,” according to Osborn.

“We’re also looking at making sure that, where it’s appropriate, people can tune into events virtually too to ensure they’re as accessible as possible,” Osborn says, noting that the second day of the AGM is to be held entirely online, for example. 

“Events like the Demo Day, where we’re trying to help get games in front of a wider audience of investors and press, really benefit from the platform that virtual events offer. And where there’s a good case to go virtual – such as working with international partners, where the Covid travel situation may be a little bit less certain – we’ll take a common sense approach to it.”

Although virtual events existed before the pandemic, Gowans feels that it acted as a catalyst for their evolution, and that the last eighteen months has proven that there’s a space for them as a complement to physical events going forwards.

“I don’t think it will drop away when physical events return – there are still very clear cases where virtual events help to fill a gap that’s needed by the industry,” Gowans says, pointing to the enthusiastic communities keen to run, attend and speak at these events. “Fostering that community through virtual events will always be a thing moving forward.”

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