Thoughts on Spiel.digital and virtual boardgame conventions

Boardgame conventions and fairs are a celebratory event in the hobby and industry. Designers, publishers, printers, distributors, and fans wait all year for big gatherings like Gencon, Origins, UK Games Expo, BGGcon, GAMA trade show, Dice Tower Con, or Spiel… but in 2020, thanks to COVID-19, none of these, or the myriad of smaller local conventions, are happening.

Publishers have had to deal with production and shipping delays and adjustments, and figure out new ways to spread the word about their games that doesn’t involve gathering. For a hobby whose very existence relies heavily on across-the-table interaction, COVID-19 seemed mildly disastrous.

But the show must go on!

…several attempts have been made now to try and emulate a live fair in an online setting. The most successful one I’ve seen to date was from publisher Capstone Games, whose “Camp Capstone” event seemed to deliver all the right trimmings to get fans organized and in front of video streams that showcased new and upcoming titles from the publisher. It was quaintly thematic and effective.

Spiel.digital 2020 was an attempt by organizers Merz Verlag to bring the huge fair, normally held in Essen, Germany, online. It strived to cater to fans, media, and business – using a website with portals to different sections for each type of attendee.

Unfortunately, the usability of the site was nothing short of frustrating. There was a master games list that you could search to find something of interest. They would allow you to add items to your Watchlist by starring them, but there appeared to be no way to view all current or upcoming events connected to the games on your Watchlist. Finding any information on current or upcoming streams was near impossible, or difficult to do quickly.

Virtual booths (in the visual form of hexes) let users click to see what that publisher or vendor had to show off. As booths were clicked on more often, they would glow red to show off their popularity. In a virtual platform, where little guys should have equal billing to everyone else, they were instead lost in the shuffle.

Apparently there was a Discord server connected to the event, but I never saw any mention of that… which brings me to my next criticism. General communication around the digital fair was less than stellar. Certain menu items and areas of the website just weren’t available, for some reason, until the day of the event. Nobody knew why. The official stream, which is one of the few I actually managed to find, was only offered in German. I know it’s a German situated fair, but it’s also an international fair with plenty of international attendees.

Merz Verlag had a big challenge with creating Spiel.digital, and I admire the effort they put forth. Unfortunately, a lot of the digital end of this effort seemed to be hastily slapped together or not entirely thought out. With four or five months of lead time, there’s no reason this could not have been organized better, so that exhibitors could take better advantage of Spiel.digital as a platform. As it stands, it seems like very few saw a lot of benefit.

So how did the exhibitors do? The ones I talked to reported low to very low sales. Some small ones, like Ostia-Spiele, worked really hard and put together a nice program with lots of live events. Phil Schmit streamed a lot for PD-Verlag, well done. Portal Games and Ignacy have a lot of experience from their own online conventions and did some amazing streams – yet no one had a lot of viewers. The problems seem to be the site´s bad navigation and too much happening at the same time.

– Uli Blennemann (Spielworxx)

For someone like me, who never gets a chance to attend live boardgame events, Spiel.digital was a hopeful possibility. Spiel had an opportunity to seize upon something new and powerful amid this troublesome year. They could have pioneered a platform and shown how inclusive they could be with remote participants. If Spiel 2021 (or 2022, or whenever…) gets the go ahead to reopen their doors to their live event, I hope they continue to offer and refine the digital experience. I would love to see more “virtual cons” moving forward, but I think we need to learn from the bad ones and adopt what works from the good ones.

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