SPIEL.digital 2020; four days of promised virtual showcasing, gaming, and exploring. Laptop recharging, headphones resting. We made it. The question is; did the organisers?
In 2019, 209,000 visitors travelled to Germany to attend this coveted convention. The convenience of the online platform, I cannot shake the feeling that SPIEL.digital may have had a few teething issues along the way.
Essen but Make it Digital
Since Coronavirus changed our world back in the spring, there has been a seismic shift towards digital gaming. Virtual interactions have become an imperfect but practical way to try and mitigate the huge impact global and national lockdown regulations have had on our lives and our beloved hobby. But, this has been a reluctant (albeit necessary) transition for many. After all, if there is one gossamer thread linking the members of our diverse and wonderful tabletop community, it is this; a preference for the tactile, physical gaming experience over any virtual one.
With that in mind, is it fair to expect the most well-known board gaming trade fair in the world to translate into a digital format that which it does so well on the traditional convention platform? Given Essen’s considerable event experience and enviable resources, perhaps it is a legitimate expectation. On the other hand, without notice and limited online experience, why should Essen Spiel be held to a higher standard than any other organisation doing their best to adapt to the new normal?
Whilst memories of the grand Essens of old still fresh in our minds and the digital event space looks set to stay, that is a question which will doubtless remain open to a fierce debate. Debates between those far more convention-hardened and eloquent than me. For now, therefore, I will pare down the big issue and focus in on my own personal experience of SPIEL.digital 2020.
What Was it Like?
So, what was it like? Well, starting strong with a surprising opening speech from the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. The bar was set high. Overall, I found it a bit of a mixed bag.
It goes without saying that free entry was a big plus point; low risk, huge potential. Truth be told, anything that increases accessibility and lowers the traditional barriers to entry from which our hobby suffers should be viewed as a positive step. After all, travelling to Essen would normally hit the pocket of the average international board gamer significantly and preserve the experience for only the most committed and fortunate few (thousand!).
Please don’t misunderstand me for I am not suggesting that everything we experience virtually should be without a real-time price. Conventions (including digital ones) are not free to stage. Last-minute changes have meant huge losses for organisers. To the extent that some worry about their ability to carry on in the industry. Further, I am happy to pay for online experiences/services and do so on a regular basis. The financial impacts of coronavirus are not unique to event hosts and publishers. So, the gesture is greatly appreciated by the average cash-conscious board gamer.
Access and Availability
In a similar vein, the availability of premium online gaming through Board Game Arena and Tabletopia during SPIEL.digital was a great way to try and capture a little of the magic that coming together to play new releases with thousands of other like-minded people usually casts.
Nevertheless, early on into exploring the SPIEL.digital site, a hunger for more began to grow within me. Now, I am not naïve enough to believe that the atmosphere of any physical convention can ever be truly replicated online; the noise, the smells, the excitement that spreads amongst attendees unabated as we race around the halls catching glimpses of new boxes, unfamiliar gameplay, and general booth buzz. See a long queue? Join it – no matter what it is for, it’s got to mean something amaaaazing, right? For these reasons, the digital gaming sibling will always fall short and so should not be held to the same standards.
Plus, in some ways, the digital experience can be a better one for some and a further tool for expanding accessibility generally. The pressure to walk out of a board gaming convention clutching copies of the big releases having visited all of the hottest booths in a race to prove yourself as a true board gamer (not to mention the stress of social interaction with potentially thousands of other people in a single, shared physical space) can be overwhelming for even battle-hardened attendees, and something my own anxiety has triggered in the past.
However, it was not the absence of a tactile experience which disabused me nor was it the obvious lack of any out-of-nowhere huge surprise industry shocking release for which Essen is often renown. Essentially, this was a digital convention, showcasing board games and publishers in a digital space with attendees interacting digitally. And yet, for me, the digital design and set-up were disorientating and difficult to navigate.
Whilst the menu layout and use of Spiel’s “Theme Worlds” was impactful and helped to pinpoint exhibitors focusing on particular categories of board games (family, two-player, party etc.), I felt moving around the site slightly clunky. I also confess to eventually giving up on Discord and trying to join online games. The combination of being kicked off the servers and confusing communication channels was a turn-off, literally.
Into the Unknown
Now, as a backer of numerous Kickstarter campaigns, I have learnt to cope with a certain degree of the unknown. The gamble as to whether the game I pledge will arrive. Is it in the same format I committed to buying when hooked in by the pretty pictures and advance reviews? That is the tantalising nature of the Kickstarter beast. When an exhibitor commits to a digital booth to sell a confirmed new release, you might expect to see a showcasing of the components, gameplay and experience. Some did this better than others in this event. Although, some of the games in question did require a bit more digging.
Although the SPIEL.digital headlines proclaimed 1400+ new releases, I found this statement a little confused. Many coveted titles were already well known and some won’t actually be available until well into 2021. On this basis, were SPIEL.digital’s claims linguistic licence or hyperbolic? I’ll let you decide. It must be considered that hosting a digital convention on this scale was no easy feat.
And that is what I think SPIEL.digital ultimately lacked at its heart; fun. Being there, albeit digitally, did not quite capture that incredible buzz we are all accustomed to.
Perhaps this was in part because of the weight upon its serious shoulders. The expectation of the entire community and perform in an arena and on a platform previously untrodden by the organisers. Regardless of the cause, I am hoping that Essen won’t shy away from virtual events in the future. I think the platform has huge potential to do great things for our community. Both as a standalone format and integrated with more traditional events. Overall, I hope SPIEL.digital builds upon their inaugural virtual offering, making their digital presence bigger and better.
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