Gen Con Online in review: the best four days of gaming goes online

Yes, it’s the post you’ve all been waiting for: the Gen Con Online review! Before I get started, I want to apologize for this post going up much later than I’d planned. Between burning loads of energy on Gen Con Online and work ramping back up (in addition to general pandemic stuff taking a toll on my mental health), I didn’t quite have the spoons to write this up until now. Better late than never, though, right?

First off, I want to talk about this year’s blog coverage for Gen Con. You might have noticed there were only posts for day 0.5 and day 1, and then nothing. It’s not that I didn’t do anything on days 2 through 4 – I did a lot. With Gen Con held online this year, my brain wasn’t quite in the same headspace it usually is. Instead of spending the last hour of my day writing up a post, my mind was all “eh, we’re home, why do we need to write a Crafty Nerd post every day?” I was feeling bad about not writing on Friday and Saturday, but on Sunday, it hit me: this isn’t a typical Gen Con, and maybe I didn’t need to do my traditional Gen Con coverage. So, here we are, wrapping things two weeks after the convention!

General observations about Gen Con Online

In general, I think the convention went well. I liked that we had the opening and closing ceremonies as we would at a typical Gen Con. We even had the ceremonial first dice roll of the con, which I was hoping would happen! (After all, it’s a Gen Con tradition!) Granted, attending the convention online didn’t have quite the same magic as attending in person, but it still felt like Gen Con — even at home.

The ceremonial first dice roll, streamed on Twitch.

Rolling a 1 in for the opening dice roll just sums up this entire year, it feels like.

Holding Gen Con online this year enabled a lot of folks who don’t typically get to come to the con the ability to go, which I’m happy about. Attending a pop-up Gen Con at a local game store is one thing, but it’s not the same as actually experiencing the convention in person. Between all the games and events, the live streams on Twitch, the performances, and the discord, folks who were new to the con got a taste of what an in-person Gen Con is like. I’m hoping it encourages more people to come to Indianapolis the next time we all get together for Gen Con in person.

I will admit, I was a little frustrated by the fact that all the games I had on my wish list for event reg filled up almost immediately. I’m typically used to having one or two events on my wish list sell out before I can register. This year, though, almost everything I’d added to my wish list sold out before I could register. I’d been hoping to get into tabletop RPGs set in the Star Trek and The Expanse universes, but they sold out quickly. Heck, even the Red Dragon Inn beginners event filled up before I could register.

However, I did get into some events I had been looking forward to on my wish list! I enjoyed the pixel quilting workshop I got into — and even joined a second quilting workshop on Saturday evening. I also enjoyed the Doubleclicks and Friends concert, and it was fun to see Sarah Donner perform with her little foster kittens.

Sarah Donner playing the guitar with a kitten trying to climb on her.

Sarah Donner with kittens!

The Gen Con Online experience

With this being Gen Con’s first online event, I wasn’t sure what to expect. How would event registrations be handled? Where would events be hosted? What kind of events would we see? Well, I was pleasantly surprised to have a smooth Gen Con online experience.

What worked well online

One thing that made Gen Con Online easier for me was the use of the same event registration system we’re all used to. While new tools were implemented to facilitate hosting online events, such as online ticket redemption, the familiarity of the existing system helped make it easy to find and register for events.

Many of the events streamed live on Twitch, which I enjoyed. I was entirely new to Twitch at the beginning of Gen Con Online, but I figured it out pretty quickly and enjoyed using it. Being able to chat with others watching the same event without having to go to another app was a plus. Additionally, the chat was a lot easier to use than Zoom’s chat feature, which is tricky to work with even for experienced users.

Having a Gen Con Discord server also helped Gen Con Online attendees interact with others. I spent a lot of time talking to people over the Gen Con Discord, and even made some new friends! I like that Gen Con decided to keep the Discord server up year-round — I think it’ll be an excellent way to keep people engaged with Gen Con during the off-season.

In general, I feel that Gen Con did a great job of organizing the convention on such short notice. The folks at Gen Con had approximately two months to put together an online version of an event that takes over multiple buildings in downtown Indianapolis and draws over 60k people each year, and they pulled it off!

What could be improved

Of course, as with everything, there are always some things that could be improved — and Gen Con Online is no different.

While I appreciate that Gen Con used the original event registration system, there could have been better instruction on how to turn in event tickets. In many of the events I went to, the hosts had to keep reminding folks to turn in their tickets, and in some cases, walk people through how to turn them in. I think better instruction on how to turn in tickets is essential, especially since if folks don’t turn in their tickets for paid events, the event hosts don’t get paid. (In retrospect, my not-so-inner technology trainer realizes I could have put together a quick video walking folks through turning in tickets to share on the blog. Folks at Gen Con, if you’re reading this, I make instructional videos for a living and would be more than happy to volunteer to make some video demos to help support the next Gen Con online!)

While this wasn’t under Gen Con’s control, it sounded like some of the platforms used to host games online couldn’t handle the onslaught of Gen Con Online traffic. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what the best way to fix this would be. After all, it’s up to each platform to make sure they can keep things up and running.

One last thing that I think could use some tweaks was The Looking Glass. While it was a fun way of recreating the online Exhibit Hall experience, it was a little clunky to use at points. Some exhibitors just failed to include any information in their online exhibits, which hindered the ability to virtually browse booths at times. Additionally, The Looking Glass was unusable on my phone (a Samsung Galaxy S9, not exactly an old or tiny phone). I tried to use my phone to browse The Looking Glass a few times, and while I could navigate to a vendor using the sidebar to a degree, any vendor information loaded up under the sidebar and off the screen. I couldn’t zoom in or out on my phone to see the whole site, either — using The Looking Glass on a smartphone was frustrating.

Screenshot of The Looking Glass, which displays logos for vendors at Gen Con in a cloud format.

Ahh, The Looking Glass — a fun idea, but it didn’t really work out all that well in some ways.

My favorite parts of Gen Con Online

While I enjoyed the entire convention, there were some things I especially enjoyed about Gen Con Online. Getting to see musical acts that I might not typically get to see at Gen Con was pretty awesome. I also liked being able to watch Toni of Quiltoni stream her quilting workshops. It felt like I was hanging out in the crafting area at Gen Con all weekend!

Screenshot of the camera feeds of everyone participating in the Quilting 201 workshop on Thursday evening.

I totally fixed the mislaid pattern pieces for Sailor Moon before I stitched her together, by the way.

My housemates and I did a few things at home to help make it feel a little more like Gen Con, too. We made some pierogies, found some giant cupcakes to eat, and I made signs to hang around the house. I even dressed as Ëlinyr one day! I mean, come on, it’s not Gen Con without at least one day of cosplay.

Me dressed as Elinyr, in front of a bookshelf full of games with a sign saying "Games Library" taped to it.

I will take any excuse to put on the elf ears, haha.

And I know I’ve mentioned it plenty already, but I’ll repeat it: I enjoyed the Gen Con Online Discord. Between that and the Fans of Gen Con Facebook group, I had a lot of fun talking with other con-goers from the comfort of my desk chair.

In closing…

Aside from the few issues I encountered, I enjoyed Gen Con Online — and appreciate all the work that went into it. The folks at Gen Con didn’t have to try to replicate the entire convention experience online for us. Most other cons that moved online shared prerecorded events or only offered a handful of online panels. In contrast, Gen Con Online included nearly 7,000 events and attracted over 40,000 participants. In a typical year, Gen Con has approximately 70,000 attendees — so to see over half of the usual amount of attendees come to the online convention is impressive! (At least to me, anyway.)

I think Gen Con did a great job bringing the event online. It gave all us gamers something to look forward to during some pretty rough times. During her Twitch stream on Sunday, Toni of Quiltoni said, “Gen Con is best con” several times — and she’s right. Gen Con is run by (and attended by) folks who care, not just about the community, but about the people who look forward to this event every year. I’m happy I attended this year’s online convention, and I’m looking forward to when we can all get together in Indy in person again.

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