Elspeth Lawson, September 21, 2020
Since COVID-19 hit, the video game industry has had to rethink the structure of the in-person events that have fostered knowledge-sharing and community. Many events have been canceled, while others have explored new ways to create these exhibitions online. For gamescom 2020, we wanted to turn the Indie Arena Booth into an impactful digital experience that gamers could enjoy in their homes. The result was an MMO-type experience that featured more than 150 exhibitors and a whopping 200+ booths, created in Unity by Super Crowd Games. Here, the Super Crowd team shares how they did it.
Coming up with a concept
We’ve always been interested in finding innovative ways to step up online presence during events. As it became clear that physical gatherings would be impossible for the rest of 2020, we decided that this situation offered an opportunity to explore new solutions.
We started to brainstorm – since the Indie Arena Booth was founded by game developers, we structured the event’s redesign as a game jam. In just three days, we had a prototype that represented the core vision we had for the event, a virtual space where visitors could walk along the booths with others, chat, and watch page-embedded Twitch streams. We showed the prototype and a game design document to our partners, and we were blown away by their response. Using Unity’s responsive workflow, we quickly created a prototype, which enabled us to get early feedback and additional iteration time. After a few weeks of discussion and further tinkering, we knew what Indie Arena Booth Online should look like and what kind of experience we wanted to offer.
The expo was staged as a WebGL app to provide easy and fast access for visitors online. This set-up allowed up to 40 people to “stand” together in a booth, chat, access information about the game, and even download demos directly through Steam. Developers could create an event schedule for their booth, and point visitors directly to these events (most of which were streamed). We also offered a business area for select visitors and partnered with Steam and GOG to create a tailor-made sales event during the expo.
The Editor – empowering over 150 developers
When we started planning, the whole development roadmap sounded impossible. By streamlining the process and inviting exhibitors to be a part of it, we managed to pull everything off just in time.
The biggest challenge was that we had over 200 booths to create in just three months – and only five booth creators to make them. We put together an editor that would allow the exhibitors to build their booths themselves, using over 1,000 building blocks by our artists for maximum creative freedom. Our built-in layering tool and color scheme creator helped each booth to develop a unique flair while maintaining a consistent style event-wide. Exhibitors could add character dialogs and all kinds of objects to give their booth more personality while relaying information to visitors.
Digital gamescom – the release
Since the Indie Arena Booth world mixed our own and exhibitor-built content, migrating everything led to a couple of tough weeks in August. We wanted to make sure that the build size would stay as small as possible since users would have to download the game. We were able to achieve good results with Unity’s built-in Sprite Atlas and compression tools. We had simultaneous events for demos, sales, and editorial features planned with partners on Steam and GOG, plus our streaming show on Twitch. Shay and Andrea Rene, our partnered streamers, created content on our main channel, while developers and publishers themselves were featured in one Twitch directory. Altogether, we had more than 80 channels broadcasting on Twitch during digital gamescom.
Our Indie Arena Booths went live on August 27 at 10 p.m. CEST, directly after Opening Night Live gamescom with Geoff Keighley. We hit around 600 concurrent players in the game almost immediately, and luckily our backend and online infrastructure passed this first stress test. The next four days felt almost as crazy as the physical gamescom.
Summing up the journey and looking forward
Creating the first online browser exhibition MMO from scratch with user-generated content in just four months was a crazy ride. While the product didn’t have the polish of a normal production plan, we were proud to present attendees with a unique and memorable experience that still conjured the gaming conference vibe. It wouldn’t have been possible without the help of all our partners and publishers, who helped create this ambitious project in such a short time.
We’re excited to plan our next moves with the framework we established, armed with new data about what players liked and used. All of this will feed into the next iteration, for MAG Online on November 27–29 2020. We can’t wait to see you there!