The in-person events are back, and here's why you should attend
Games Conference Guide Insights – July 2022
As we are entering the second half of the year, the conversations about travelling and going through personal struggles with airports, cancelations, or lost luggage are becoming part of the decisions process where to go for holidays, which event to attend, and if it is worth travelling to. Physical events are becoming a norm. As of now, out of 228 events scheduled for 2022 tracked by Game Conference Guide, 65% (149) are organized as physical first.
Last year I had a chance to ask few conference organizers how did they managed to pull off a physical event and what kind of challenges they were facing when a lot of restrictions were still in place and Omicron wave was inevitable. I thought to revisit this topic with new set of questions and investigate, where the organizers are now, invite new voices to the mix and see how they are handling the situation in 2022 and what new challenges are they facing onwards.
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Game Conference Guide Insights is a monthly newsletter covering games industry events and offers a peak behind the scene.
Before I continue, massive thanks to Lerika Mallayeva (DevGAMM), Masahiko Murakami (BitSummit), Guy Blomberg (Games Industry Gathering), PAX Team (PAX), JP van Seventer (INDIGO), Chris Dring (GI.biz / ReedPop) and Dave Bradley (PG Connects) for being kind enough to share their views and opinions.
“There is something magical about sharing an experience with people who care about the same things you do. It’s an essential part of being a human. It’s validating seeing and meeting people who are similar to you, who accept you for who you are, who love the same things you do.” -- PAX Team
These words encapsulate the overarching theme and connects all the organizers from Japan to Lithuania, from US to Netherlands, that I had a chance to talk to. By this time, I may sound like a broken record, but the importance of physical events is something you can’t just exchange that easily with a virtual component, at least not in the very near future.
“You’ll have to forgive us if we’re a little sentimental or romantic, but we really do believe in the “Welcome Home” slogan of PAX. A sense of place is really important to us, and that’s not something that often happens online.”
PAX is a primarily a consumer show, but even if consumers have access to Twitch, Discord or other social gathering points at the same time, there’s nothing really like getting together in-person. The demand to meet and see your colleagues for the first time, exhibit and network is seen across the board.
Even in Japan, where BitSummit is scheduled to happen at the beginning of August. The team is currently facing a different set of challenges. First, it is very hard to get into Japan and if geographical hurdle is conquered, there is another one - language barrier. “Especially Japanese developers are not good at communicating in English, so I think online communication was almost impossible,” explains Masahiko Murakami, board member of JIGA (Japan Independent Games Aggregate) why developers are favouring in-person to virtual events.
“The appeal of in-person events is that you can meet your peers from around the world in person, have a drink, talk about useful and useless things, and have a lot of fun.” -- Masahiko Murakami
“I loved running digital events,” says Dave Bradley, COO of Steel Media running PG Connects, series of B2B conferences around the world. He could present the greatest experts wherever they were from the comfort of his home, but at the end of 2021 even he could sense a real fatigue in the industry.
“No one really succeeded in running a virtual event that was better than the in-person ones they hosted previously, so everyone is swinging back to what they know.” argues Guy Blomberg, founder of Games Industry Gathering and Business Development Director of E3.
“The best option we’ve found is to have a digital day separate from the event. Our event last year, GI Live: London, was a hybrid show and ultimately it cost us more to put on but generated less revenue,” adds Chris Dring, head of games B2B at ReedPop (organizer of PAX, EGX and many more), who is surprised by the speed how people moved from virtual to in-person. “We have just run a digital-only event (GI Live: Online) and two physical events (Best Places To Work Awards UK and our GI 20th Anniversary party), and the demand for the latter was a lot, lot stronger.”
The solution to keep virtual component separate from the in-person offering might be the best option, the downside for the organizer are the costs for production. For example, Dutch Game Garden took a very radical approach and decided early on to limit the number of people allowed to participate on-site for INDIGO in June. 400 were able to join on-site, the rest was online. This was done as a countermeasure to restrictions that might be re-introduce or left over. “A serious event takes planning of a year or at least 8 months in advance and that is where the uncertainties kick in. Covid is so different in the summer and winter.” explains JP van Seventer, managing director at Dutch Game Garden.
“Nothing really beats in-person events, and we're social animals that need to meet and hang out, we need that connection, we share knowledge quicker, and visiting each other's cultures and countries also enhances our insight into the global game industry.” -- JP van Seventer
Dutch Game Garden has experimented with hybrid approach by incorporating the streaming and virtual programming throughout the lockdowns as part of the discovery process for indie developers. “In the future, we can see a combination of both onsite playing and online streaming as part of the discovery. That would be an improved value for the developers due to the lockdown season. Also, maybe it is easier to do smaller online events throughout the year to build up to the in-person events,” adds JP with an overview how to approach events in the future.
“Some people are still cautious,” points out Bradley and highlights that they are doing their best to alleviate that anxiety with tools like color-coded lanyards, sanitisers at every corner, streamed content etc. “Let’s not forget of course that the post-covid economy is playing havoc with the travel industry too, so there are obstacles in the way of people travelling quickly and cheaply to events. But we’re back on track,” quickly adds.
“I loved doing our digital events last year, and video is a good way to deliver talks and panels; but you can’t beat the experience of bumping into people in person. Humans are social creatures after all and interesting stuff happens when we step away from our desks and hang out together.” -- Dave Bradley
Serendipity is coming back in every conversation. Bumping into people while queueing up for a coffee, or just going with the flow and making connections during evening hours where decompression from the busy schedule can lead to a deeper conversations.
“It’s these moments that make events valuable and tangible and real. It‘s also the reason why working in an office, at least sometimes, can bear stronger results than working from home... the pandemic didn’t show me that remote working and digital events can be just as effective as office working and physical events, it showed me the exact opposite.” -- Chris Dring
Dring explains that the main objective of a business conference is to let person A to meet with person B with the least amount of distraction around (awards, activities, raffles, loud noise). “I think most B2B shows get that, but I learnt during the pandemic – more than ever – that when attendees have a choice between talking to each other and watching talks, they generally pick the former option.”
“For the foreseeable future, events will be hybrid. Some 10% of our speakers prefer to stay home and contribute remotely,” explains Bradley their strategy. It might change in the future but this the current situation they are facing. “I think despite rising prices and global tensions, we will see the best events attract an international crowd.”
“More attendees prefer offline to online, on the other hand, there is a demand for remote meetings tied to in-person events,” says to me Lerika Mallayeva, CEO of DevGAMM, looking at the data from the previous events. Her team is facing a completely different set of challenges. The biggest one is the war in Ukraine. “Because of this devastating aggression, we had to cancel two events and relocate five members of our team to different countries and cities. We will not be able to return to our previous event locations because of the war, so we’ll have to spend much time finding new locations in other countries and understating how to broaden our community.”
She also adds that the behaviour of attendees has changed as well. “Less people buy tickets beforehand, more people decide to buy at the very last moment.“ This raises a quite a big logistic and production challenges on its own, from ordering enough print materials to securing enough food & refreshments for everyone.
For events there is a lot of exploration and experimentation ahead of them. Mallayeva points to another feature that events are slowly adopting as well. “Environmentally friendly events with less print materials, digital schedule only, no swag bags, reusable bottles instead of plastic etc. That is a great trend: online events during pandemic left almost no carbon footprint, so why not bring that idea to actual locations? Feels like it’s been long overdue.”
Let’s not forget, Covid-19 is still here and the raising numbers around Europe, US and Canada is also bringing a lot of raised eyebrows and potentially questions about the safety of organizing gatherings indoors during the colder months. The interviews were done before the surge of numbers due to BA.5 variant, but I am personally glad that safety is number one priority for everyone involved in organizing events and even though the restrictions might change and differ from country to country, the organizers are following the protocols.
“PAX is still a fully masked and vaxxed event.” This is a decision not just made by experts but involving fans as well. “The overwhelming majority of them have asked us to keep the vaxxed/masked policy in place.” Every event has its own consumers and the target audience; the event needs to be built around them and with them as well.
Why attend one when virtually you can do it anytime, anywhere, on any device?
We do have all the metrics available from number of visitors and viewers, the peak viewership, number of meetings down to how long it took. Tools to ease up the communication allows us to communicate to almost never-ending audience. With cheaper cost I must add, but as Blomberg points out: “It's hard to quantify component that now seems so important to our professional and mental wellbeing. I think the human answer is that people just miss being with other people.”
I would like to end this very long piece with two opinions that hit me the second I read them. One is from Blomberg offering a window into the near future what would make events more engaging, safe and more welcoming.
“I'd also like to see more events like the Games Industry Gathering that hold people accountable, so if someone misbehaves at an event, they are removed from it immediately and not invited to the next ones, no matter how important they think they are.”
The other comes from Chris Dring, who offers a peak into the future of B2C events.
“I fully expect consumer shows to adopt more community-based activity to compensate for a drop in AAA content. I wouldn’t be surprised to see, in the future, consumer events companies paying the likes of PlayStation and Nintendo to come to their events with upcoming titles… just in the same way comic events pay celebrities to come.”
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[Game Conference Guide is tracking games industry & game developers’ events, trade shows, festivals, conferences and events around the world.]