Protospiel Online July 2020 was our first open-to-the-public event. This brand new online format for playtesting conventions gave us the chance to try several new ideas. We aimed to create an event that would bring the Protospiel community together while reaching out to a wider audience. In this article, we’ll take a look behind the scenes at how we planned the convention and see how each of our ideas worked out.
A New Way to Protospiel
One of our favorite things about Protospiel is its low barrier to entry. Prototypes with any level of polish are welcome. There are always plenty of seasoned designers ready to playtest for others and offer advice. It’s common to hear someone ask “What game did you bring? Can we play it?” All of these things add up to make Protospiel a great place for new designers to take their first steps in the tabletop industry.
We’ll be the first to admit that online conventions can’t completely replace in-person playtesting. We can’t observe players’ body language or feel the satisfaction of looking around the room to find ourselves surrounded by like-minded people. At the same time, the online format can be a powerful way to bring Protospiel to a wider and more diverse audience.
For those who want to see more diversity and representation in tabletop gaming, supporting diversity among designers is an important piece of the puzzle. In recent years, we as a Protospiel community have tried with limited success to increase diversity at our in-person events. We believe this shift to online events could be the perfect opportunity to broaden our horizons — as long as we’re willing to lean in and accept the challenge.
Protospiel Online July 2020 Charity Fundraiser
For our test event in April 2020, we ran a fundraiser for Tabletop.Events (TTE), the online registration platform many Protospiels use to manage their ticket sales. By the time we were ready to open ticket sales for Protospiel Online July 2020, TTE had successfully raised funds to keep running through the end of the year. Shortly after that, they sold the business to Board Game Geek to ensure more long-term financial stability. Since TTE no longer needed help raising funds, we decided to turn our attention to a different cause that more urgently needed support.
Taking a Stand for Equality
After listening to stories and perspectives of our BIPOC friends in the tabletop games industry, we decided to put our money where our mouth is in our commitment to be better allies in their fight for equality and representation — within the tabletop industry and beyond. Special thanks to Eric Slauson for his referrals to the following established organizations fighting for equality in the United States:
- National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
- American Civil Liberties Union
- The Equal Justice Initiative
- The Innocence Project
- The National Police Accountability Project
You can read more about each of these organizations on our charities page.
We gave each attendee the opportunity to give 10% of their badge cost to one organization, an equal split to all five, or none. We also offered all badge holders the option to donate an extra $5, $10, $20, or $50 to one organization or an equal split to all five (less TTE transaction fees).
We are pleased to announce that the Protospiel Online July 2020 crew raised a total of $479.70 for these five charities! Here’s how the giving broke out:
Supporting Diversity in Tabletop Gaming
Although Protospiel is known for its friendly and collegial atmosphere, as a community, we haven’t quite cracked the code for attracting a diverse crew of game designers and playtesters. We feel Protospiel Online can play an important part in changing that. The online venue removes travel and time barriers many people from under-represented groups often grapple with.
We talked with other people in the tabletop industry who’ve been working to increase diversity in the hobby — Kathleen Mercury, AnnaMaria Jackson-Phelps & Fertessa Allyse of Girl’s Game Shelf, Omari Akil & Hamu Dennis of Board Game Brothas, and Lauren Nepomuceno of XYZ Game Labs to name a few — thanks all!
One of the best pieces of advice we got from these conversations was the importance of being proactive about inviting and including attendees from diverse backgrounds. Although we organizers know we are hoping for a diverse group of designers and playtesters to attend, it’s hard for those people to know we feel that way unless we either reach out with a personal invite or let them see people similar to themselves at the convention.
With this in mind, we decided to take a two-pronged approach. First, we reached out directly to the most friendly and professional BIPOC, LGBT+, and women who were already part of the Protospiel Online community and encouraged them to apply for Moderator positions. Second, as they applied, we added them to a public Attendee Directory on our website.
This recruitment strategy turned out to be a win-win-win for all involved. The moderators’ profiles on our website allowed prospective attendees to see without question that we welcome diverse backgrounds at Protospiel Online. Then, once the event was running, all of our moderators did a great job over video chat putting a human face to the event and helping everyone feel welcome and taken care of. Since our moderators were paid an hourly rate, we were again able to put our money where our mouth is when it comes to being allies and pulling for diversity in the workforce of the tabletop games industry.
Every single one of our moderators did a fantastic job. We heard thank yous from attendees every day for the way they kept things organized and welcoming all weekend.
We didn’t take statistics on racial background or sexual orientation of our attendees. We did, however, require everyone share their pronoun upon registration so we could include this on their “badge” — i.e. their custom Nickname in our Discord server. Here’s a chart showing how the pronouns broke out:
While 15% non-male participants sounds out of balance, when compared to the 5/95 split some in-person Protospiels have historically seen, this is progress.
Our team of organizers also runs Protospiel Denver, and we had ~25% non-male attendees when we hosted that in March 2020. We’re not sure why this ratio moved away from 50/50 when we transferred to online. We plan to double down on getting the word out to a wider audience for our next event.
Financial Need Scholarship Program
After running our small test-run Protospiel Online in April 2020, we saw that live moderators would be key to creating the safe and welcoming experience we wanted for a larger public event. We could also see that the work was high-touch and could be tiring — especially if done by one person for too long at once. This lead to our decision to hire a team of paid moderators, and, with that, to set our badge prices high enough to cover this cost.
We didn’t approach this price increase lightly. In-person Protospiels serve an important role in the tabletop games industry as an affordable first convention for new designers. It’s important to us to honor that brand promise. Especially knowing that many people in our community might be experiencing furloughs or unemployment due to the pandemic, we didn’t want our ticket price to be the only reason someone couldn’t attend Protospiel Online.
With all this in mind, we created a badge scholarship program. We gave all types of attendees the opportunity to sponsor a badge scholarship as part of their own badge purchase. We subsidized the scholarship by making the sponsorship up-charge less than the cost of a full-price Designer badge. Badge holders also had the option to purchase extra badge scholarships for a flat $25, and we took donations of Tabletop Simulator unlock codes. We included one of these unlock codes in the scholarship package for any recipient who didn’t already have a copy of Tabletop Simulator.
We were happy to find that our attendees are a generous bunch. We ended up with a healthy turn out of sponsors for Protospiel Online July 2020 and are continuing the badge scholarship program for October 2020. It feels good to know we’re able to provide a free badge to anyone who needs it while still paying our moderators a fair hourly wage for their work.
Publisher Coffee Talks at Protospiel Online July 2020
One major difference between Protospiel Online and other virtual board game conventions is our focus on unscheduled peer-to-peer playtesting. We believe this creates a relaxed environment that helps attendees make meaningful connections during and between playtests.
This setup works for publishers as well as it does for designers at in-person Protospiels. When everyone’s together in one room all at the same time, it’s easy for designers and publishers to find each other. Publishers can walk the room to find prototypes that spark their interest. Designers can connect with publishers over a full playtest rather than a 5-10 minute pitch. Both sides can have a chance to see how the other communicates and works through problems.
Online conventions make it more difficult for people to find each other real-time. Attendees can’t look across the room to see who they’d like to connect with. You can’t put up a big sign with sponsor logos somewhere you’re sure everyone will see it. Any online announcement feature you might try is easy for people to mute or unsubscribe from.
Scheduled live streams are the most common way online board game conventions try to create attention for their vendors and featured guests. For us, scheduling anything at the same time as our open playtesting would take away from the main purpose of our event. Because of this, we are unlikely to run any events outside of our Discord server during Protospiel Online weekend. If we every do run live events to feature publishers and/or press who attend, we’ll schedule them outside of main event hours.
Given our stance on scheduling “traditional” events during the convention, we talked with publishers who signed up early for Protospiel Online July 2020 to brainstorm a compromise. Several publishers told us one thing they missed most about in-person conventions was the chance to talk shop with other publishers between the main events. Based on this feedback, we encouraged publishers to connect with each other in our Coffee Talk voice channel.
We created a private section of our Discord server where we tried to organize times for the publishers to gather. There was not much conversation in this section, so we were not able to nail down meeting times far enough in advance to announce times to the larger group. There were, however, a couple of times when multiple publishers gathered in Coffee Talk more-or-less spontaneously. The attendees who stumbled upon this conversation told us it was valuable and enjoyable. Unfortunately, since it wasn’t planned in advance, we didn’t get a chance to record it.
We still think the idea of Publisher Coffee Talks has potential. We’ll need to work with publishers and moderators to figure out how to manage them in a way that gives fair access to all of our attendees. We’re not yet sure whether or not October will be the next time we try this.
Protospiel Online July 2020 Giveaways
We created 2 different random drawing giveaways for our July attendees: the #Partners Giveaway and the Design Challenge. XYZ Game Labs was our sponsor for both giveaways, footing the bill for the 4 $25 gift cards we gave out to the winners.
The #Partners Giveaway challenged attendees to find emojis mixed in with the information we shared about the publishers and press who attended. The Design Challenge gave attendees 3 design prompts to spark their creativity. We didn’t judge the game ideas. One idea simply equaled one entry in the random drawing giveaway.
Both of these giveaways got very few entries. Our guess is that people didn’t choose to read the text channels in our Discord that explained how to enter. Since our event in July, we’ve set up a better way to send emails to our attendees. If we do giveaways at future events, we’ll make sure to send emails with entry instructions both before and after Protospiel weekend.
Taking Protospiel International
We had a few people in the UK and Europe join us for our test run in April. From their feedback, we saw what an inconvenience it can be to the international crowd to playtest on a US centric schedule without messing up their circadian rhythm.
We decided to focus on growing the international crowd for Protospiel Online to make sure anyone across the globe could find someone to playtest with at a reasonable time of day for them. The major way we pushed for this was by hiring moderators in international time zones and keeping our Looking for a Game Voice channel moderated 24 hours a day.
Once we started promising the event would stay open during overnight hours in the US, we got a fair bit of interest from designers in the UK, Europe, and Australia. After they started asking us how many people from their local time zone they could expect to find, we added Time Zone as one of our required registration questions. Since we started asking this question halfway through badge sales, we are missing some data, but, from the data we gathered, over 14% of our attendees were from international locations.
We invited attendees to add their cities as a “pin” on a virtual map. Although not all attendees shared their location, you can see that we started to make in-roads to several new locations for Protospiel.
See the interactive map via MapCustomizer.
Keeping Protospiel Connected Through COVID-19
One of the biggest reasons we chose to launch Protospiel Online in July was to give the Protospiel community a dedicated weekend to make playtesting together a priority. It was wonderful to have a chance to reconnect with old friends and make new friends with Protospiel first-timers.
It turned out that we had more badges sold for our online event (149) that we did for our first in-person event in Denver (122). We also had more publisher badges for July (7) than we did for Denver (6).
Over 95% of the people who purchased a badge for July showed up for some portion of the event (up from ~74% for Protospiel Denver). This meant that we had an average of 7-8 playtests running at any one time in our Discord server throughout waking hours in the US and 1-3 running at a time in our overnight hours.
Overall, we counted this first open-to-the-public Protospiel Online a success. We’re looking forward to improving the process and growing the event even more for October 2020!