I’m writing this on a Thursday night while participating in a panel in Clubhouse, the social audio chat platform that has grown quickly to more than 8 million users in a couple of months. I’m in the Nordic Games breakfast room run by Zsuzsa James and other folks. We were bemoaning the fact that we can’t meet in person at places like the Game Developers Conference this year, which considered doing a hybrid online-and-physical event in July in San Francisco, but nixed that idea and decided to go with an online-only event.

When I heard GDC might be doing an in-person event in July, I thought that would be too soon. We haven’t vaccinated enough people in the world, and it wouldn’t feel safe to me. But I recognize the strong desire to return to physical events and the need to make virtual events better. It’s just so sad that it will probably be next year before we comfortable with that idea.

We talked a lot about that at our GamesBeat Summit: Into the Metaverse event at the end of January. It was successful, with more than 3,500 registered attendees, 229,000 livestream views, and lots of interaction in the Zoom Q&A rooms between our 99 speakers and the VIP attendees. We even had some small but fascinating roundtable discussions. The nice thing about online events is that, thanks to social engagement measurement tools like Spiketrap, we can tell the precise moment when our audience is most engaged. It happened to be on Day Two, when Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney talked about the need for an open metaverse, not one controlled by walled gardens.

GamesBeat Summit 2021: Growing the Next Generation

Tim Sweeney (right), CEO of Epic Games, talks with Dean Takahashi at GamesBeat Summit: Into the Metaverse

Above: Tim Sweeney (right), CEO of Epic Games, talks with Dean Takahashi at GamesBeat Summit: Into the Metaverse

Image Credit: VentureBeat

We’ll try to do it again for our GamesBeat Summit 2021 event, with the theme Growing the Next Generation, on April 28 and April 29. We’re recruiting some great speakers now, like Brenda Romero of Romero Games, who lives in Ireland and otherwise wouldn’t have hopped on a plane to come to our event. We also have other speakers like Keisha Howard of Sugar Gamers, Daniel Melville (who received a Metal Gear-themed artificial arm), Frank Azor of AMD, and Adam Boyes and Chelsea Blasko of Iron Galaxy. Melville is also in the United Kingdom, and we couldn’t get him as a speaker the year before because we weren’t able to fly him out to California. We’ll also have Eric Goldberg of Playable Worlds to moderate financial sessions that will help make sense of the huge boom in investing and acquisitions.

Rami Ismail, cofounder of the now-defunct Vlambeer, has said that conferences should not charge high fees for attendees, as that supports the elitist nature of the events and limits accessibility for developers who live in poorer parts of the world. That’s a valid argument because he was correct that so many game developers couldn’t get visas to travel to the U.S. or afford the trip to San Francisco. His Gamedev.World event in June 2019 was a step toward making game events more accessible as it was online only, with speakers from around the globe, with real-time (or prerecorded) translation into eight languages. That was the model for creating a democratic and accessible event.

We couldn’t consider doing that before with physical events in expensive places. We could get 400 to 600 people to come, but we had to charge them hefty fees. With our January event, we were able to let many people watch it for free, thanks in part to the generosity of sponsor Facebook and the others for our metaverse event. It would be great to be able to make the online event free going forward, but we’ll need more sponsors to step up and help make that possible again.

The metaverse idea is so welcome now because we need to invent it to rescue us from the boredom of video calls. It wouldn’t replace real life, but it would be so much more fun to explore a beautiful game world while socializing with other people. Kind of like the occasional great conversations I have with people while playing Call of Duty: Warzone. People are disarmed, ironically, in Warzone and freer to talk.

I sense that our metaverse conference resonated because people hadn’t seen that kind of event before. Rony Abovitz, the former CEO of Magic Leap and founder of AI entertainment startup Sun and Thunder, said he got a few invitations for events per week, but he said mine stood out because he hadn’t been to an event with the metaverse topic before.

That’s something that I realize all conference organizers have to be mindful of. It’s easier in a lot of ways to create online events. But anybody in the world can create them, and the competition is enormous. If you create a generic event, then you’ll get lost among all of the other events because you’re competing with all the other events that are accessible via a web link.

Leaders of gaming at Dice Summit. Jade Raymond of Google is speaking, and Jason Rubin of Facebook is on the far right.

Above: Leaders of gaming at Dice Summit in 2020.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Some organizers have decided not to try join the online fray. The Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences’ annual Dice Summit didn’t happen in Las Vegas this month, and it isn’t expected to return as an online-only event at all. It is such a great experience every year in person, with an intimate crowd in fun places, that the organizers believe they can’t replicate that experience online. They’ll have some online roundtables for members and some monthly talks, but no major gathering so long as it can’t be done in person. I can understand why they are going in that direction, and hope it turns out well once we get back to the physical event life.

Perhaps even more than the usual trip to Las Vegas, I’ll miss the Gamelab (which takes place every June) event in beautiful Barcelona. That event will now be online on June 23 to June 25. But perhaps all that traveling has been bad for me. During the pandemic, I’ve been jogging every day, eating better home-cooked meals, and I’ve shed around 22 pounds.

We’ll see if the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) returns as an all-digital event in June. Last year, they couldn’t make it happen. But I expect that something could work, perhaps in a more concentrated week than last year, as an online event. And of course, it could be that the usual December event, The Game Awards, might be the first real in-person event that we have this year. It will always have an online presence, but the odds might be good that some kind of hybrid in-person venue would work. I don’t really know what will happen with Gamescom in Germany this year, but I’ll presume it will be an online-only event again.

Clubhouse is a conference every night

Clubhouse's growth is spiking on iOS.

Above: Clubhouse’s growth is spiking on iOS.

Image Credit: App Annie

As for Clubhouse, I’m enjoying the access to so many more people than I would normally meet in a dull online day, so much so that GamesBeat’s Mike Minotti accused me of secretly working for them. He’s one of the Discord fans, which I use occasionally when playing games. I just don’t think it delivers the same kind of experience that Clubhouse does with the ease of moving from panel to panel to panel.

I joined Clubhouse on January 26, and I have 1,200 followers and have chosen to follow 566 people. It’s not the metaverse, at least not the one that I imagine could be akin to the worlds of Snow Crash and Ready Player One. It’s not easy to share any visuals or connect with people. And it would be weird to have an event that consisted of more than one panel, as Clubhouse is currently structured.

Above: BlizzCon in 2019. It’s online-only when its 2020 event kicks off today.

Image Credit: Blizzard

But it’s not bad. It gives me something to listen to — and people to actually talk to — while I’m jogging at night or just working on late-night stories. I keep revisiting Jon Radoff’s Game Industry Cocktail Hour, which has been going for 80 hours or so. With $100 million in funding, Clubhouse just might be the thing that disrupts game events for good.

“It’s always happy hour in the game industry,” said someone in the cocktail hour room.

Today, I’ll be watching the BlizzCon only-only event starting around 2 p.m. Pacific time, and I’m interested to see how they pull off some of the events that would normally be best in person, such as artist work sessions and community showcases. Yes, it won’t be the same as being there in person. But it will probably be a delight for all the people who could never make it in person to a real-life BlizzCon, including me.

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