2021 is the second year in a row where most major trade shows have been canceled, at least in their physical form. While Gamescom 2021 was originally going ahead with a hybrid format, they’ve recently announced they’re scrapping the physical portion of this year’s event. Covid-wise things might be looking better at the end of August, but with so much uncertainty and the long preparation that exhibitors have before these shows, it seems like a sensible decision. But with a digital-only show to look forward to, what can we expect? We got in touch with Valentina Birke from Super Crowd, project manager for the Indie Arena Booth – which won the 2019 Gamescom ‘booth of the year’ award and pioneered a digital platform for the 2020 edition. What followed were some unique insights into the birth and future of their digital indie game platform.
What was winning the ‘best booth’ award like for you in 2019?
Winning the best booth award of gamescom was amazing! As a small company we never thought that we were able to compete with AAA studios with the big budgets at gamescom.
For the 2020 edition, the Indie Arena Booth went all-digital. How did that happen?
At first we were a little shocked and didn’t know how to handle the situation for about 2 weeks. I think everyone felt that way last year. We are an event company, so the loss of physical events is twice as difficult and we didn’t know how to deal with it at first. We then relatively quickly remembered our roots as indie devs and worked up the concept of a game based Indie Arena Booth. This was a very intense process – we invited developer friends to a gamejam and brainstormed and prototyped concepts. Then it became relatively clear that we can implement a good concept to help the indie scene. We got a lot of trust from partners, sponsors and devs. In the beginning we couldn’t communicate our concept that clearly, but our longtime partners trusted us that we would get something good off the ground. We developed Indie Arena Booth Online in only 4 months. That was a really exciting but also exhausting way! We were able to keep many members of our teams, so our illustrator did all the art direction, our physical booth builders did the digital booths, and an Indie Arena Booth alumni did most of the programming.
What were your biggest takeaways from the inaugural version of your online platform?
Indie Arena Booth Online was our first event and due to a lack of time and experience we made some adjustments for future events. For example we got rid of the booth editor, which was a standalone sandbox-y booth builder. Each team was able to create their own personal space. It was really amazing what the teams created to represent their games, some really went wild with the editor and created amazingly creative worlds.
The downside of the editor was that each game had its own world which made the total world really huge and hard to explore. We had 220 booths, which means 220 levels in total. The other two downsides of the booth editor was that it was, due to the short time frame of development, extremely complicated to use. Fortunately our target group is devs, so it wasn’t that big of a problem, but with our other events we wanted to create something more handy. Also pushing changes was a pretty big deal with the editor, correcting a typo in one of the NPCs would mean to push a complete new build which took approximately 2 hours.
Still, Indie Arena Booth Online was a milestone in the development of our framework. Our next event, MAG Online, which took place 2 months later in November already benefited from our experiences from Indie Arena Booth Online. We completely reworked the structure of the world and simplified booth building by doing it ourselves and created a CMS for the exhibitors; we added meta gameplay and an XP system. MAG Online was already a much smoother experience for exhibitors and visitors.
Other takeaways we had from Indie Arena Booth Online was that we really have an amazing community of devs, partners and publishers who trusted us to do a good job even when not knowing exactly what we do. As we opened the submissions for Indie Arena Booth Online we didn’t have much gameplay or concepts to share and we still got a lot of support from our community!
The platform was also used for the Hamburg Game Conference – how did the experience differ from the one at Gamescom?
The implemented changes (see above) increased the average playtime of our events by quite a bit. Indie Arena Booth Online’s playtime was 10 minutes, MAG Online 2,5 hours and Hamburg Games Conference 4 hours. This growth comes mainly from the development of the platform. It’s much more convenient and stable to use now.
For the Hamburg Games Conference we also implemented an integrated video call system. It went incredibly smoothly! The participants connected their avatars with their meet to match profile. This way every avatar also had a profile picture above them. It was the first time in forever it had a “real convention feeling” as you could run into people by accident and talk with them! It was really a great approach and turned out to work better than I expected it to.
Gamescom 2021 was initially planned as a hybrid event, but the IAB announced early on that they were going digital-only again. What prompted this decision and will fans see the booth return to the show floor in the future?
Indie Arena Booth has always had a super international lineup, this is what makes Indie Arena Booth so special. We concluded that most people weren’t able to travel to Germany for a convention as there still are travel bans. We could’ve either gone for a German/Europe edition of Indie Arena Booth or stay online with the booth. As the online booth worked really well and had a lot of benefits for our devs, we stuck to the online plan.
What are going to be some of the changes that people will see in the upcoming Gamescom version of the platform?
First of all: I consider Indie Arena Booth Online 2020 more as a public alpha than a smooth platform. That said, it was still amazing and a milestone for us but really needed some improvements and bug fixing. This year’s booth will run much smoother and will also get the features we implemented for our other events. We’ll have a collectible and level up system and also video calls within a restricted login version for business and press of Indie Arena Booth (obviously we’re just using the video call feature with a login system, as it requires a lot of moderation and such). We also made the booth setup much more convenient for our participating teams, like I mentioned before. And, we also set a theme for this year’s booth, which is still secret, but will fit well to all of the content 😉
How are the preparations for Gamescom going? What’s the feedback you’re getting from the indie developer community and their publishers?
We got really great feedback from the community so far. Lots of people saw our other events and enjoyed them! We are really happy about the trust that people put in us once again. We also got some comments about the raised prices this year, which I think is understandable. We always aim to make Indie Arena Booth as accessible as possible to everyone and having higher prices goes against that. The raise is due to the smaller amount of games in total. Devs wished for a smaller lineup to get the most out of Indie Arena Booth; we had 220 booths last year, which was a lot to discover; this year we’re making sure that everyone gets the visibility they deserve which means fewer games but also higher prices so we can finance the project. I think if we have fewer games this year, it’ll be beneficial for each participant but this also means a higher price for everyone. We actually found out that it’s not much cheaper to do an Online event (if you plan to do it well) compared to a physical event. We build everything in high quality and pay people to build and develop everything.
Still, most of the feedback was amazing, lots of people who participated last year submitted again and we were also able to reach new people. The good thing with online events is that they’re planable in uncertain times like this. And we have a great community which always supports us with everything they can. I’m really thankful for all the support and helpful feedback we get for Indie Arena Booth and I’m really looking forward to seeing everyone on the internet in August!