Episode 67 - June 28, 2021

Reimagining Online Events with Em Lazer-Walker

00:00 / 00:00



With the advent of the pandemic era, events and conferences, as we knew them, that sustained tech and gaming communities in such a large way have all but disappeared. We have seen many organizations turn to online and virtual versions of the gatherings which have helped fill the gap to an extent, while also presenting a new array of challenges and shortcomings for organizers and attendees alike. Joining us on the show today is Em Lazer-Walker, Senior Cloud Advocate at Microsoft and one of the minds behind the amazing Roguelike Celebration. The event, which has consciously tried to avoid the usual connotations of a conference, hence the use of the term 'celebration', made the switch to a virtual experience in response to the new normal and we get to hear from Em about how they approached this tricky feat and the priorities which remained in sight for Em and the team. Ultimately, the goal was to create a fun world that people would get excited about, and we get to delve into the many practical layers of this mission. Em talks about accessibility, the chat platform, social cues, and a whole range of subtle features that might not immediately come to mind! We also discuss what the event might look like post-pandemic and how listeners can get involved and take some inspiration from the open-source nature of the platform. Tune in to hear all this and much more!

Key Points From This Episode:

  • Memories of the last conferences before the pandemic and thoughts on virtual events.
  • Em's experiences running Roguelike Celebration, and some history of the related games and community.
  • The event's transition to online-only in response to the pandemic and how they weathered the storm.
  • The considerations that go into planning an event with a focus on community and meaningful conversations.
  • How Em went about building the infrastructure that matched the strengths of online games.
  • Video chat versus text-chat; the two camps that exist and accommodating both groups.
  • Ways that Em and his team are simulating the social environment and cues of in-person gatherings.
  • How accessibility concerns were addressed for Roguelike Celebration; text, color, chat, and more!
  • Thoughts on the future of the online event and how it might change and grow.
  • Challenges with the interface; dealing with concerns around confusion and similarities to other platforms.
  • The question of chat histories and digital hoarding, and why Em decided against newer chat trends.
  • Scheduling and timing issues for the conference and the big request for more free time from attendees.
  • The approach to post-event interaction and conversation and the impromptu way things played out.
  • Possibilities for the growth of the video chat feature for the event in the future.
  • How listeners can get involved and check out the open-source space.
  • This week's picks! TV series, movies, audiobooks, games, and more!


  • “I think trying to have a digital-physical hybrid event is inherently a flawed strategy. I don't think it is possible to do it in a way that the people who are attending one of the two events don't feel like they are getting the sub-par experience.” — @lazerwalker [0:26:22]
  • “Providing a novel space itself is inherently valuable, because you are giving people the chance to escape and this feels like something new in a way that a physical event space feels like something new.” — @lazerwalker [0:27:31]

About our guest:

Em's picks:

Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:



[00:00:10] Al: Hey, everybody. Welcome to Enjoy The Vue. I’m Alex, and today today on our panel, we have Ari.

[00:00:16] Ar: Hello.

[00:00:17] Al: Tessa.

[00:00:18] T: Hello.

[00:00:19] Al: And our special guest for this episode is Em Lazer-Walker.

[00:00:24] ELW: Hey, everyone.

[00:00:25] Al: Em, is a Senior Cloud Advocate at Microsoft, is very involved in the indie game community and organizes conferences. So yeah, conferences, you all remember those?

[00:00:40] Ar: Barely.

[00:00:40] ELW: What a distant memory.

[00:00:42] Al: Yes, I was at one in January, right before everything's blocked out.

[00:00:48] Ar: Yeah, Tessa and I were at one in March, literally right before everything.

[00:00:53] T: I flew home that day Austin closed. That was the last time I saw any friends in real life.

[00:01:01] ELW: So, remember, I was at a conference in February and I remember like getting drinks with people after the conference and like sharing drinks with people.

[00:01:10] T: Oh, yeah, people, people were like sharing that barbecue, and that's just generally not my thing. There were lots of jokes about elbow bumping, but no actual elbow bumping. I got hugged by a few strangers. I was like, “Stop.” I don't think that will be happening as often the next conference I go to.

[00:01:29] Ar: In that particular instance, we even got an email like a week later, saying someone at the conference had COVID.

[00:01:37] T: And there was there was a smaller conference after the main conference, and they were there as well.

[00:01:42] Ar: I think it was the last major tech conference, actually.

[00:01:45] T: At least in person.

[00:01:46] ELW: You remember the Big Game Developers Conference is in March every year. And I remember, there was uproar about whether or not they were going to cancel it, and then they did cancel it, and then there were all of these people, myself included, scrambling to organize all these satellite events for the people who are still going to be stranded in San Francisco through whatever reason. And then one by one, those all got canceled. I was I was trying to organize, first an in-person conference, then we lost two venues, dummy said, “Great, we're just going to provide recording space to people who want to give talks, so nobody lost that recording space.” And then we finally said, “Nope, this is clearly a bad idea.”

[00:02:19] T: Yeah, I feel like a lot of that planning, you could see it in real time on Twitter. 

[00:02:23] Al: Yeah, in organizing meetups, I was definitely keeping a pulse and like talking to other cities and various things. And I was like, “What are you all doing? What is everybody else doing?” And my other organizers were like, “Okay, are we going to do it? Are we going to have the March event? Like, are we going to do our March meetup?” And I was like, “No, we're not.” And they were like, “But we can do it.” I'm like, “No, we can't.” And they were like, “Well, but maybe it'll be okay.” I said, “No, we're canceling. We have to cancel.” And then we forgot to tell the space that we were canceling. We have a very good relationship with them. So, they called us and they were like, “Are you all coming?”

[00:02:59] T: Had a very good relationship with them?

[00:03:02] Al: We still have a very good relationship with them. But it was one of those moments where we're like, “Right.” So, since then, we now have protocols, we now actually have protocols for like, when you cancel a meeting, here are all the things that you need to make sure happen.

[00:03:17] Ar: What about virtual conferences? Has anyone attended one? I have not.

[00:03:22] Al: I've attended a couple. And then I've kind of like put on in the background a few. And then there's somewhere like, I registered, I'm just like, “That would have been nice if I went to that.”

[00:03:33] ELW: It's tough though. Like I would grump in, and then eventually I will talk about my own thing. But I've been to a bunch of them and I spoke about a bunch of them, and I just find it so hard to get anything out of it. Like when I'm already sitting at my desk, 40 hours a week in video calls, I don't want to spend more time doing that.

[00:03:49] Ar: That's pretty much why I haven't, just like not appealing.

[00:03:54] Al: Yeah, I've definitely had. It's one of those things where I want to balance like, “Okay, yes, I am doing this conference. But also, I should be really working on that thing that I'm supposed to work on.”

[00:04:06] T: Yeah, also, I feel like some managers might be more apt to be like, “Well, you could just have it playing in the background.” And I'm like, “No, I would rather just not go then.” I feel like the rules of conduct are, I don't know if it's just like conference organizers haven't made them explicit, or people are just so used to behaving differently on the internet, but like chatting, and air quotes with people, virtual conferences is pretty different. The main chat I was involved in at the virtual ones I've been to because I was speaking there, people were talking about like, “Wow, that speaker is really cute. I wonder if they're single.” I could see somebody maybe leaning over to their friend at a conference and saying something like that. But like, in this case, you're saying it to the entire audience, and also the speakers.

[00:04:54] Ar: Oh my god.

[00:04:57] ELW: Where were the moderators? That sounds like a code of conduct violation.

[00:05:03] T: I feel like they were more focused on kicking out all of the Trump bots and Putin bots.

[00:05:10] Al: Wow.

[00:05:11] Ar: That just sounds like a disaster all around.

[00:05:14] Al: Yeah. I remember being at one conference, and the people who were the moderators in the room didn't have the power to actually remove people from the room. They had to go get an admin to do that. So, there weren't enough admins and it was just like the first hour of that conference was bad. There were some other things about that conference that also were really bad. But like, that was the one where it was just like, “Oh.”

[00:05:43] ELW: Yeah. I spoke at a conference where there were Twitch moderation issues, like there were moderators, there were someone who was saying, like pro fascist things, or anti-Semitic things. I don’t remember what flavor of inappropriate, and someone else very forcefully told them, that was not okay and the moderator banned that second person. That's really tricky. Because if you're an in-person event, the people who are responding to code of conduct violations are usually core organizers who have spent time thinking through this is the behavior we care about versus don't. Whereas, it is totally reasonable that at an online event, you're probably going to have a bunch of volunteer moderators, and maybe you're not really expecting anything to go wrong. So, you're not spending a lot of time training them about what your policies are.

[00:06:28] T: I think also, even if you have a code of conduct, there are certain things that maybe online conferences aren't really prepared for, like if someone in chat says something like, “Oh, I don't like this talk. It's really boring, or the slides are really ugly or something.” You know, like, everybody sees that. And it's like, what do you do about that?

[00:06:50] ELW” Yeah. So, I run a game design conference called Roguelike Celebration, and even before we were a fully digital event, we still live stream on Twitch, and we used to deal with that all the time. But like our conference identity is very scattered in that on the one hand, we are this like, hardcore event for players and developers of this like very niche game genre that goes back to the ‘70s. And on the other hand, we bring together basically anyone who does procedural generation and creativity. So, we have academics talking about using AI for creative purposes. We have artists showing off cool generative projects they've made. And so, we intentionally span the gamut, which also then means that we combine these audiences, like the people who are watching on Twitch when we were an in-person event would be a lot of like, very hardcore roguelike friends who would be very dismissive of anything that wasn't that. We would maybe give people a warning, and then be very aggressive about banning them as being like, “This is not a space to be negative about the speaker as a person or the topic of their presentation.”

[00:07:50] Al: Yeah, content moderation is extremely difficult to get right. You have to be kind of heavy handed with it. Now you were saying, you running Roguelike Celebration, which is a conference. Was that a conference that you were doing in-person before? And then it moved online?

[00:08:07] ELW: Yeah. So, all the stuff I was talking about Twitch moderation. That's when we were an in-person event, but also tangentially broadcasted at the Twitch. So, this year, our first year, fully online was our fifth year in existence. We used to be at the GitHub offices in San Francisco and the before times.

[00:08:23] Al: Cool.

[00:08:25] T: What is a Roguelike?

[00:08:27] ELW: That definition itself is contentious. It is a type of game. So, there was a game called Rogue in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s that was like a top down, dungeon crawler, where all the graphics are like ASCII symbols. So, like your characters, the @ sign. What it's come to me now is it can mean games like in that hack that are very strictly like that. This is a turn-based dungeon crawler with ASCII graphics where all the levels are made up. It's a different game every time. It can also mean more broadly, type of games that use procedural generation to generate all the levels and when you die, that world ends and you play again with a completely new world. So, like Hades being a really popular example of a game that you'd consider a Roguelike.

[00:09:12] T: How did Roguelike Celebration come to be?

[00:09:14] ELW: So, Noah, our original event organizer, a bunch of us was talking to him years ago about there are a bunch of people who really love these old traditional Roguelikes and there's really no space to celebrate them. There used to be a very focused Roguelike developer conference that sort of died out. So, the goal here was making a sort of fun space for fans and developers and everyone to come together and celebrate this thing. So, calling it a celebration was a very conscious choice. This is not a conference. This is not stuffy. This is a place to come and be with your people.

And then over the years as we sort of found our audience, we sort of morphed into that little more of like, we are not purely a developer conference, we are not purely a fan conference, we have both of those together plus the third aspect of like bringing together academics and artists and people from different mediums in different modes of working to learn from each other and be inspired.

[00:10:06] Al: That's really cool. I like that it’s sort of organically kind of grew into like this larger and larger thing and you didn't try to be like, “No, we're only just developers.” I like that you're building like this natural sort of growing community.

[00:10:21] ELW: Yeah. It's been interesting shifting to online with that specifically, because previously, even as we kept expanding who we were and who we were serving, we were pretty strictly limited to –we had an event space that fit 250 people, we are in San Francisco. San Francisco is a very expensive city to visit. There were pretty hard limits to our scale. And so, seeing attendee numbers go up two and three times as we shifted online is also really interesting. We've been having internal conversations for next year about how do we manage that scale? Do we want to grow? What do we actually want to be as an event?

[00:10:54] T: How is the transition to being online only? Do you feel like you had a leg up because you're already streaming on Twitch?

[00:11:02] ELW: Yes and no. That definitely helped that we already had that infrastructure, and like being a game focused event, we had Twitch as this audience that made sense for us. But early on in the organization process, like I was, the one who was negative isn't really the right word. But I was not a fan of previous online events I had attended and I was very concerned about am I going to organize another event that I don't like, and I like I knew that we could completely knock out of the park streaming a series of talks. But I don't go to conferences for talks. I go to conferences to meet people and talk to people and have conversations.

I think Roguelike, even more than other conferences, it's particularly about that small, tight knit community. I was worried that if we were just going to have Twitch chat or Discord or something like that, that was not going to capture that feeling having hundreds of people on the same text chat leads to those toxic dynamics we've already talked about. It doesn't let people actually have conversations.

So early on, I sort of floated the idea of what if we built our own event space, instead built around this idea of letting people actually have small group conversations.

[00:12:06] Al: Yeah, I definitely, I know I've been to PyCon before and they're very big about like, you're going to want to go see all the talks that you want to see. But take some time, and make room for the hallway track. Because it's not listed on any schedule, but you're going to run into people, and you're going to have conversations, and you're going to find out about things, and you need to make time for the hallway track.

[00:12:30] ELW: Yeah, and a lot of this stuff is so deeply shaped by your in-person event venue in ways that you don't even consciously think about as an organizer. Our first year of regulate, before I was that deeply involved, other than some speaker selection. We were at a different space and then once we moved to GitHub, that is really when the community started forming not just because it was our second and third year, but because GitHub’s physical space, is that much more amenable to people walking around and talking to strangers. And we suddenly had catering funds to provide lunch so people weren't disappearing elsewhere for lunch, they could eat in the same place and have lunch with a stranger. And all of these things like at the time we thought about this as this is event logistics, this is coordinating, this is talking to caterers, not this is architecting our social space.

[00:13:15] T: Yeah, I will say I've never thought so much about a building's architecture is when I've been stuck three days in a row in a cavernous freezing hotel, running from one end to the other.

[00:13:28] Al: Having the right space for like a physical event is very important. Because I've been at events where like, it was not well orchestrated, and like people would get divided, and then you'd not be able to see them anymore. Or like here in Atlanta, we have film festivals on the regular, but they're different buildings all over town. So, it's not like you can come out and like go talk to other people have seen other movies. You have to very specifically go to the place to see the thing. So, it's a lot harder to sort of create that community space, if you're having to separate everything out like that.

So yeah, definitely having a physical space that is very good for that is important. But how would you think, like, I haven't been to a virtual conference where I think that really nailed getting that experience. So, what was your approach? What did you do? Did you think you got it perfect? Or what were you doing?

[00:14:32] ELW: So, the high-level idea that I had was, online games are really good at connecting people to each other. We have 40 years of practical experience and academic research around how to get people to make friends in MMOs. So, the base idea was, can we apply that to a virtual event? And so, I built a mud which is basically a text based MMO so like halfway between Discord or Slack and a video game, where you show up in the space, you create your character, which because it's all text based, you would type in your name, you would type out a text description of yourself whatever you wanted, and then you're dropped into a space where here's a venue that looks mostly like our actual physical event space. Like it was modeled after GitHub. But it was a little different. The bar was serving potions instead of alcohol, the Fortier was haunted. We've tried to find this balance of the right level of playfulness. 

But you show up into the space, and you see this text description of the room you're in. And there are objects you can pick up and play with, and you can see which other people are in the room with you. You can do text chat, you can do audio or video chat. We'll talk about all that later. But currently, you can only have conversations with the people who are in the same room as you. So, you don't have the quite the conversational fluidity of being able to see all the different conversational circles that are happening and like going up to someone and fluidly talking to someone else. But you can still have the sense of, I'm in a room talking to these people. If I want to talk to other people, I can pick up and move somewhere else. I don't think we completely nailed it. I think there's a lot more work to do and I think there's a big question about is a text only space, the right choice? Is it the wrong choice?

Big picture, a lot of the feedback we got was people not just saying they enjoyed the conference, but that it specifically captured that feeling of presence that they hadn't felt since being at a physical conference. I work day to day a lot in virtual reality and augmented reality, and people use the exact same language they use when they talk about like putting on a VR headset for the first time, which I think is really cool and weird, given this was just like HTML in the DOM.

[00:16:37] T: It almost feels like going back in time to when the World Wide Web was the thing, I imagine, and people are like, “Wow, it's like they're here.” Even though it's just text like recreating that sense of wonder if that makes sense. Because if you just described it to somebody, like you text chat with other people in a room, I don't think people would be able to understand necessarily.

[00:16:56] ELW: I've grappled a lot with giving demos of the space or walkthroughs of the space because it really needs other people to fully come alive. Otherwise, it is just great. This is an empty chat room. I can click around and find secrets and go on little adventures. But it's not as fun as a game. It's not intended to be a game.

[00:17:15] T: Yeah. I feel like there's there's several existing – I’m not sure if they were all around at the time of Roguelike last year, but implementations of similar things like gather town, and wander me, and one that I actually picked in the past, but now I ironically can't remember. So, I'm curious what led to the decision to build our own besides that, “hey, wouldn't it be fun if we built our own?”

[00:17:42] ELW: Yeah, there are a bunch of pieces to this. One is that at the time, the market wasn't really there yet, like online town existed, which became gather town. But it really didn't scale. If you had more than five or six people in a conversation, it would just blow up. If you had more than 20 or 30 people in the entire space, it would blow up. Another thing we really valued was having text conversation that I think if you look at any sort of person who engages in online spaces, there are people who are always happy for the enhanced fidelity of video chat and will happily on video chat for hours a day. And they're the people who are saying, “No, no, no. I want to be text chatting.” That is how I'm comfortable. We really wanted to accommodate both of those groups of people. So, it became a really important design decision that we want to give you the option to escalate up into video chat or audio chat when you want to. If you want to do that the whole time, that should be viable, but it should absolutely not be the default or necessary.

And then the other big piece of the puzzle is, it is one thing to be able to technically provide people technical infrastructure so that you can have small group conversations and ways to jump between them at an in-person conference, there are still all of these small social cues that make it socially acceptable to talk to someone. So, you know that you can strike up a small conversation with the person sitting next to you about the talk you just saw. You can comment on a sticker on someone's badge while you're waiting in line for something. These are all these little hooks that make it socially acceptable to initiate conversation. And by default, we don't have any of these online.

But I think a lot of these spaces like gather town are just starting to get into that with like, new advances in level design layout and like what techniques they give people. But for the most part, I was banking really heavily on the hypothesis that game design could solve these problems. And so, the Roguelike Celebration space had all of these little game-like interactions you could do. So, as an example, you'd go to the bar and you could drink a potion, and it was a polymorph potion that would change you, meaning you would get a random emoji added to the front of your name, which meant if you just like didn't want to interact with people for a while you could like go to the bar and like roll the dice on a bunch of different potions until you got a really cool emoji. And that was a perfectly socially acceptable way to like spend some time by yourself. It also meant that when you're talking to someone else, if they have a really cool emoji, that's something you can common on, and like you can start a conversation based on that.

It means if you find someone who has the same emoji as you, you instantly have this huge connection and you're like, “Hey, you, you're awesome. You're also a snake.” So, this like, little tiny interaction, provided all of this like fruitful social interaction space.

[00:20:17] Al: So, you have a snake emoji. Did you also have like a badger emoji, and a lion emoji, and raven emoji? Like were those like the four that you had or were there more?

[00:20:29] ELW: Was not like it was explicitly not Harry Potter. This is like before JK Rowling got fully, fully cancelled. But still, we had probably two or three dozen emoji, I think. And we also had a lot of emergent behavior of like, if someone didn't like any of the emoji, they would just add an emoji before their name on their own.

[00:20:51] Al: That's fantastic.

[00:20:53] T: Yeah, it's funny, because now that you mentioned it, I feel like usually in many games, although, I really only play single player games for the most part. So, I can't really speak to how online games work. But typically, like any person or entity you see in the game is somebody that you could just approach and immediately start talking to and that's not always the case in real life.

[00:21:14] ELW: Yeah, I mean, I think this is different from the point you're making, but like a big problem we had, an unsolved problem that I still want to solve is, if a bunch of people are talking to each other, it is really easy in real life to signal whether they are like, open to a newcomer joining the conversation circle, or if they're having a serious conversation for just them. 

[00:21:35] T: Like the Pac Man, or whatever? The circle?

[00:21:40] ELW: That is a hard problem to solve in an online space.

[00:21:44] T: Yeah. I think really, all I would want off the top of my head is when somebody says something that I'm like, “Whoa, I can have one of those like, thing.” And then like, an exclamation point appears over my head. That would be great.

[00:21:55] Ar: It would be cool if you had like a variety, like fireworks for if like someone just blew your mind.

[00:22:00] ELW: Oh, yeah.

[00:22:01] Ar: And you have no words to describe it. Like you need them to know that that's how you feel.

[00:22:07] ELW: Yeah, like half halfway between like emoji reactions, and like video games that have elaborate dances.

[00:22:14] Al: Like an animal crossing style, emotion thing?

[00:22:18] T: Oh, my God, don't make me collect them all, because I won't. Just give them to me.

[00:22:25] ELW: You don't run around and collect them, if you're willing to you're willing to pay some money for some premium currency.

[00:22:30] Al: You just have to you just have to keep rotating your islanders and it's fine.

[00:22:36] T: So, Em, I know that accessibility is important to you. So, given that there's a variety of ways to communicate, I'm curious how you made all of those available to people who are using, like whether they prefer text chat, or they need to have audio. How did you make that available, if that makes sense?

[00:22:57] ELW: Yeah, for starters, even though the app was entirely text, it was relatively screen reader accessible. There's more we could have done. This was an open source project that we built over the course are like three months. So, like for next year, we want to hire an accessibility consultant to make sure we're where we think we are. But we had that baseline and different selectable color palettes to make sure that colorblind people or people with other vision issues can change fonts, that sort of stuff.

A lot of the audio and video issues ended up being relatively new, like we can talk about in a bit. So, we built our own video chat implementation that we ended up not being able to use, and we ended up new sort of throwing in a couple of Zoom rooms at the end. They are already explosive. If you want to video chat go here, which didn't really give us much more beyond what Zoom gives you a built in, but a lot of the tech I've been working on now, now that we're back to using our own video chat, I've got real time like AI powered transcription in place.

So, if you're in a room, there may be some people doing audio and video chat. There may be some people in text chat who can see each other. But also, everything that gets sent in video chat shows up as a text chat message, as well, like indicated that it is robo captioned, and like robo captions are not perfect, but I'm hoping that both serves a really important accessibility need, but it also helps bridge the divide so that it does not like a room as a single cohesive conversation instead of here that people text chatting and here are the people in video chat. 

Another good accessibility answer there is, so we further talk themselves. We submit to mimic the feeling of a real conference when it was time for the talks. We were a single-track conference, everyone moved to the theater room, and in the theater room there is like a Twitch embed on the page itself. So, you would just go there and you had the chat and the room if you want to do like Twitch chat style, giant group chat and you were watching the talks embedded in the social space itself, and we had a live human captioner. We've had that for years in person. So, we had the text captions from our live human captioner embedded in the page as well directly below the video feed.

[00:24:54] Al: That's a lot. That's super cool though. Did you have a way that during the live talks, if somebody wanted to step out, they could? They’re like closing the browser?

[00:25:04] ELW: The entire space was still open. So, you could move to any of the other rooms in the space that were not the theater. We had a little mini map where you can see how many people were in each room. So, if you wanted to go find someone to talk to while a talk was going on, you can see, “Hey, there are five people in this room, let me see what they're up to.” And then we ended up also, we had a little pop out button. So, if you still wanted to watch the talks, but also wander around, you could just pop out the video feed in a separate window without having to like manage it yourself and go to Twitch in a separate tab or whatever.

[00:25:33] T: Nice. Do you have any thoughts or plans on what you'll do with this space once the quarantine ends?

[00:25:42] ELW: Yeah. So, a lot of the feedback we got is people love this so much that they don't want it to go away. Part of that is definitely the accessibility again, of San Francisco being a relatively inaccessible place for a conference where you're targeting fans and indie game developers who don't have corporate conference budgets. So, there are a lot of people who are just thrilled to be able to participate for the first time. But also, people legitimately loved that social space.

So, we don't know what our plans are yet. For this year, we're still all digital. Once we're back in person, I suspect, we will find ways to throw alternating events, whether it is two events a year instead of one or switching off year over year or whatever. I think trying to have a digital physical hybrid event is inherently a flawed strategy. I don't think it's possible to do it in a way that the people who are attending one of the two events don't feel like they're getting the subpar experience. So, like we are definitely going to keep using our platform. But I'm also starting to use for other events. But I think that is going to augment rather than sit side by side with physical events.

[00:26:46] T: So, can you talk a bit more about what the process was like of identifying the core issues with the transition to virtual conferences that you wanted to address and how you are going to mitigate them?

[00:26:59] ELW: Yeah, so we started off, like the two things I was really concerned with were, as mentioned small group conversations and allowing that. And we talked to a lot of people who were very clear about I am not comfortable typing in a couple 100 persons Slack chat or Discord chat, and I will not participate in that chat and wanting to provide space for them. I was also deeply worried about this problem we discussed a bit of not wanting to spend more time sitting in Discord and Slack and Zoom or Twitch and using the same tools we're already using. The idea being that providing a novel space itself is inherently valuable because you're giving people a chance to escape, and this feels like something new in a way that a physical event space feels like something new.

So, we honestly started out with a pros and cons doc of here's what we get from Discord and Twitch or whatever alternate tools those are. Here's what we get from our own space. I think everyone else was pretty skeptical, and reasonably so of the work required to build our own thing. So in about a day, I threw together a first prototype of here's a text chat room, there's an embedded video stream in it, you can walk around from room to room, it was all built. So, this us all using Azure Signal R service and Azure Functions like a fun little serverless setup. So, we could like, even the small prototype could scale up to something like 100,000 people if we were willing to pay for it. Eventually, all of our scaling issues were the client-side JavaScript app, not the server side. But that prototype was sort of compelling enough that we said, “Great, cool. We think we should actually try this.” And everything from there was building stuff out seeing how it felt.

A crucial thing we did, is we threw a preview event. It was like an hour and a half long meetup basically. We invited a bunch of speakers to give five-minute preview versions of their talks. The idea being to serve as marketing for the event itself, but it was really just there to be a test of the space and ended up being a great event like more speakers than I thought were really excited to give micro versions of their talks. Attendees really loved it. But it also taught us a lot about how people engaged with the space. A lot of the initial decisions we made about how the space worked ended up being wrong, and that gave us a chance to course correct because it is really difficult to play test something when you need like 100 people on their baseline minimum to see how people react. And yeah, we just sort of barreled along until we had a far more complex software project. But I think we anticipated.

[00:29:26] T: Did you make any interesting or surprising discoveries?

[00:29:30] ELW: We grappled a lot with how much should the space look like Discord or Slack versus looking like a video game. We were concerned that people who weren't gamers were going to be confused by the interface, which it helps the word game design conference. It helps the word specifically a game design conference focused on this niche of games where most of the people who are attending are going to be super into this text only aesthetic, but it was still a concern. So, at first, we had a Discord or Slack style list of all of the rooms on the left-hand side and you could see names of people on the right side of like, who was there, it felt much more like a piece of chat software and that was a huge mistake. People did not understand the core chat metaphor of, you can only hear conversations for the room you're in. If you are currently in a room, you will not hear conversations that are happening in other rooms and there's no way to get back those conversations after the fact. As soon as we took away that left sidebar, and was just here as a mini map, it all perfectly made sense to people.

[00:30:30] Al: Yeah, I feel like, it's interesting how a lot of the chat software that we use these days is very much about like, we preserve the history, and you can always look back at things and like you don't miss any conversations. So, like going back to sort of that classic chat, like IRC style, where it's like, no, if you weren't there, you missed it. It's such a different experience for people who are used to modern day chatting stuff, that if it looked like modern-day chat software, it would throw them off, I think, and I can see that and I like that. 

[00:31:03] T: Yeah, I mean, one of the big communities I'm in is on a free tier of Slack. Regularly, there's like a contingent that's like, “Let's move on Discord, so we can have history.” I'm like, why do you want to have history? Why do you need to preserve the shit post for all of eternity?

[00:31:20] Ar: Because hoarding?

[00:31:24] T: Exactly.

[00:31:25] Ar: Clearly, you don't have the hoarding gene.

[00:31:28] T: No. This is the one place in my life where I can let go, because I don't have a choice.

[00:31:36] Ar: I'm a hoarder, come from a long line of hoarders. And as it turns out, if you are a hoarder, you also will hoard information, no matter how useless.

[00:31:46] T: That's a big struggle.

[00:31:48] ELW: Yeah, we talked a lot about which negative tendencies we were going to be endorsing where with our current design, there are people who are going to feel FOMO, and they are absolutely going to hate that. They want to be able to have all of this information at their fingertips. But conversely, this way, we are also freeing up the people who need to obsessively and compulsively check every single unread message bubble.

[00:32:12] Ar: I also think it better mimics real life. I can't hear every conversation all at once.

[00:32:20] T: You’re like missing out, Ari.

[00:32:21] Ar: And be like, “Can you give me a transcript of the conversation we just had with that dude? Thanks.”

[00:32:29] ELW: A lot of our feedback after our preview event was people who really wanted to be able to open multiple tabs and be in multiple rooms at the same time. It didn't work for uninteresting technical reasons. We didn't consider it, but we thought about like, should we should we allow multi tab support, and the answer is no, that actively makes the experience worse. We want to force you to be present.

[00:32:49] Al: Yeah, it really forces it to be more like the conference experience where you are you are in a room, here are the people that you can talk to right now.

[00:32:57] ELW: Yeah. We know we had a couple of community members who wanted to like host their own viewing parties and like they have their own community Discord, where people are going to talk about it. And we said, “Great, if you want to be in 10 conversations at once go to one of those.”

[00:33:09] T: I'm curious to hear a bit more about the design of the event from the standpoint of like, how did you give it the feeling of like having an opening and a closing? How did breaks work? What about like meals and like time zones?

[00:33:25] ELW: That is an area that I think we can do better at next year. But within this relatively early on in the pandemic, we basically structured it like this is very similar to what it would be in real life. We are roughly working hours pacific time. We will accommodate speakers who need to speak at certain times. But given our tech requires a critical mass of attendees trying to space things out to give different time zone coverage is really difficult. A consistent feedback is we didn't have enough social time. The people just wanted more unstructured social time, given that they weren't used to having the space where they could actually talk to people online. We had a couple of dedicated unconference sessions where people were encouraged to use Zoom and we had like, basically a post-it note wall where people could like post ideas for chat conversations, some people could upload them, and we would assign those to different chat rooms. So, you could go to this room in the space to talk about this and people loved all that and wanted more of it that we could give them.

[00:34:23] T: Nice Yeah, because I feel like the way a lot of conferences are run, if they have breaks between talks, which like Incidentally, if you like virtually as well as a FinTech conferences, where they're just like, “We'll just run all the talks back to back. There will be no problems there.” Is that like when they have the break, they just have that like, “We'll be back soon screen”, and then the chat just kind of goes dead because it's really just like live chat for the video and once the video is gone, there's not really any purpose to staying, I guess.

[00:34:53] ELW: Yeah, and I think for us, I think there's more work we can do. But a big point of the space was by giving people things to explore. When we said you have 15 minutes, I hear if you go to the client lounge, there might be something in there that might take you on an adventure. Or you can go to the kitchen and like mash the button on the vending machine that will give you a procedurally generated food each time. And we started seeing some emergent behavior. There was one attendee in particular, [inaudible 00:35:20] was like, “I'm going to be at this table in the kitchen, bring me an offering, and I will read your fortune.” So, you would go to them and like previously, you had to have picked up an object from somewhere else in the space, because there were all these objects you could pick up and carry around with you. If you offered it to them, they would give you a tarot reading. That level, into the fantasy is incredible.

[00:35:41] Al: Yeah, create a world and then like, other people go, “Oh, I like this. I'm going to be part of this world.” And then you go, “Okay, that's not expected. But yeah, great, keep going.”

[00:35:51] T: I also find it very amusing that there's tables in this virtual text only world because I feel like this was the last conference we went to, but I can't remember anymore. I vaguely have this memory of being at a conference where there were either tables and no chairs, and there were very few tables, or like no tables and no chairs, and we were walking around for a really long time trying to find someplace where we could eat.

[00:36:15] Ar: Yes, that was the last one. The workshop. We ended up like walking to like the complete opposite side of the building, and finding a tiny table outside.

[00:36:28] T: Outside, I think. And then we couldn't get back in because you're only allowed to use certain doors or something.

[00:36:36] Ar: Yeah. It was a whole mess.

[00:36:37] T: A lot of people ate alone at their desks, and it was –

[00:36:43] Ar: Because yeah, it was workshop day. So, like you had the option to just take your lunch back into your workshop room, but like, those are not conducive to socialization. Because all the desks are just facing one direction.

[00:36:58] ELW: And it's tough, because at an online event, it is easy to tell people, “Great, you can just eat food while you're watching talks, and it doesn't matter.” But being able to sit down and share a meal with a stranger is such an important place to meet people.

[00:37:12] T: Bond over, waiting for the coffee refills to come before the break ends. So, with virtual conferences, is there any kind of like after conference socialization, or is the idea that it's all contained within the event?

[00:37:26] ELW: We intentionally didn't want to host people in the space after the events. Because we had very strict code of conduct and moderation policies. Anytime the space was open, we had a dedicated on-call person, we didn't want to have to be responsible for that for an after party. There is a gap between theory and practice. We found like he was a Roguelike Discord, they're happy to host, go there, join audio chat or video chat or whatever you want.

In practice, after the conference ended, there were maybe a dozen of us who were just hanging out in the Zoom rooms that we had and that ended up being fine. Multiple organizers were there. It ended up feeling very much like the in-person vibes of like, the event is over, we've told people to go home. There are still people lingering, but we just didn't have security guards telling us they needed to lock up the space, which actually that is an interesting point worth noting, that we did explicitly have the ability to open and close the space. The conference started at 9 AM each day, if you showed up at 8:55, you could click login, but it would not let you in the space until we opened the doors. That distinction of the conference is happening versus a conference is not happening felt really important, partly for moderation reasons. But also, just giving people a threshold to walk through of now you are here.

[00:38:39] T: Nice. I mean, I don't think there's a virtual metaphor for this. But I feel like I'm always that person that arrives like a block away from the building at exactly 9 AM, and I'm running around the building in circles trying to find out which door is the right door.

[00:38:53] Al: So, you've talked about how you had some Zoom rooms, and you've mentioned that you were trying to implement video chat. Tell us about that. Did you get video chat working? Is that something that you're looking to improve? What's going on there?

[00:39:11] ELW: Yeah, so we thought it would be easy. You may be familiar with web RTC, which is a peer to peer browser-based API that like if you read the docs, it sounds like implement this API, and you get peer to peer video chat for free. In practice, it is significantly more complicated. We built out a naive implementation of that, and one out of every five connections would fail, and it turns out, that is a really common problem that is just like the way that consumer routers work. Often, you can't directly go IP to IP address and talk to each other. There is like a special kind of relay server you can set up yourself to fix that. But if you implement that, then you start running into performance issues. As soon as more than four or five people get into a room and you sort of add all of these problems on top of each other, and it turns out like there is a very good reason that this is a difficult technical problem that companies dedicate themselves full time to.

So, like we tried it at the preview event, it fell over for various reasons. We figured for now like dumping, here's a Zoom link at the top of a room description that you can switch from text mode to video chat room is far from perfect. Particularly, I miss being able to see who and how many people were in a video chat room before like diving fully into it. But it was the best option for the event itself, given how little time we had. I've been working on reading video chat, so I can link this in the show notes. I just wrote an article basically describing all these technical problems and the short version for my recommendation is unless you are a company whose core competency is video chat, use a hosted provider.

So, we're now using like Twilio has a has an all in one video chat thing, like it's still a bunch of work to integrate it and there's still a lot of really complicated UI and UX things to get right. But at least it solves the core problem of if there are 10 of us, and we want to have a video call with each other, we can do that without our network connections or computers blowing up.

[00:41:07] T: So, if people want to try your face for themselves, is there a way that they can run it on their own, or see it in action?

[00:41:15] ELW: Yeah, so there isn't currently a public version, I can just point people to. But if you're really excited and are an event organizer, the space is open source. There is more or less a like one click deploy this to Microsoft Azure button, and if you want to use it for your own event, there are then ways to modify the space like you don't really want to use the Roguelike Celebration space because we built that for Roguelike Celebration, you want something that makes sense for your audience. But it is relatively easy to deploy into customize. I'm working on a bunch of broader changes to make that much more easily scriptable like adding our own full on custom scripting language to let you do deeper interactions and all that other stuff. But big picture, playing with the space yourself requires some technical chops, not a lot of technical chops. It is easy to do if you're seriously considering it for an event otherwise not if you're just like idling curious.

[00:42:03] Al: And with that Em Lazer-Walker, where can people find you on the internet?

[00:42:07] ELW: I am Lazer-Walker pretty much everywhere, Twitter, GitHub, Twitch, wherever you might find people on the interwebs.

[00:42:16] Al: Awesome. Well, it is now time to move on to this week's picks. Ari, do you want to go first?

[00:42:27] Ar: I can go first. So, I just finished watching a series on Netflix called The One. It is a sci-fi series about a company that can provide genetically guaranteed matches that you will fall in love with. So, in this there's some sort of like they cracked some pheromones sequence blah, blah, blah. But while in theory, it sounds like a great thing. Imagine that you're married, and you are happy-ish. And then you're like, “Oh, but there's this service, I can guarantee that I will find someone I love.” And you can imagine what happens then. But yeah, so there's a lot of unintended consequences to this breakthrough, as well, as obviously, there's a whole mystery plot in the middle there, but it was a little cheesy at times, but I definitely recommend giving it a watch.

[00:43:19] T: If you don't have a genetic match, do you get turned into an animal and dumped in the woods?

[00:43:24] Ar: No. Fortunately, we hadn't gotten that far yet. But yeah, but not everyone gets matched. That is one of the caveats there. 

[00:43:33] T: Okay. That was a reference to a movie called The Lobster which was feed light and told me was one of the top rom coms you need to watch.

[00:43:40] Al: Wow. Tessa, what's your pick? Is it The Lobster?

[00:43:47] T: It is decidedly not The Lobster. I enjoyed the trailer of The Lobster and the first 10 minutes of The Lobster. My first pick is a book Called Get Together. I feel like historically, a lot of my picks have been around the books about community organizing, and this is another one in this case from Stripe Press. I think they also have an accompanying podcast. I haven't gotten my copy yet, but I am excited to read it. My second pick is Murder on the Orient Express which is a classic by Agatha Christie. I watched the recent movie for homework, don't recommend it. I listened to previews of almost all the audio versions available and decided on the one by Dan Stevens. So, I'm listening to it now. I already know the ending now but Dan Stevens is more interesting than the movie so that's what I'm doing this week.

[00:44:35] Al: Cool. Em, do you have any picks?

[00:44:38] ELW: Yeah, I have two picks for you. The first is a game called Gnosia. I don't know how to pronounce it. But it is a Nintendo Switch game. I think it might also be available for the PlayStation Vita if you're holding out to that.

[00:44:51] T: Yes. @ me next time, Em.

[00:44:55] ELW: So, it is like if you'd like Among Us and sort of Social deduction games where you're trying to sort out the liar, and you also like, full on anime visual novels. What if you combine them into a single game?

[00:45:10] T: You get 999.

[00:45:12] ELW: Yes, actually. So, this is explicitly like you're on this weird alien ship and you don't know what's happening and the game is like asking you to assign stats to yourself that you have no idea what they mean. But then it is explicitly like a game of Among Us or something like that, where you're moving around the spaceship playing different roles, and trying to figure out who has been infected with the Gnosia. So, you can, like put them into cryo storage and it is extremely weird, but extremely good.

[00:45:42] Al: That sounds very interesting.

[00:45:44] T: I definitely need to play that.

[00:45:46] Al: Yeah, that sounds right up your alley.

[00:45:49] ELW: It is rad.

[00:45:52] T: It just sounds like Alex was saying something about me. And I'm like, “Alright, Alex.”

[00:45:57] Al: You're super stressed. That's all I'm saying.

[00:46:00] ELW: And then the other recommendation I have is a book called The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker. I only read it relatively recently, but it shaped a lot of my own recent thoughts around gatherings and in person events and online events. Even if you are not an event organizer, if you are someone who has ever thrown a birthday party or held a work meeting, I think you will probably get something out of this. If you are more of a podcast person than a book person, she also has a really great New York Times podcast that is specifically about planning gatherings during the pandemic. Each episode is like, here's a group of people who wants to hold a Passover Seder. Let's talk about the ritual in the event of a Passover Seder and how to transition that to online effectively. Both are really good and really thoughtful.

[00:46:46] Al: Right. Yeah, that sounds really great.

[00:46:47] T: I own two copies. It's that good.

[00:46:52] Al: Alright, so my pick this week is there's a TV show. Okay, so first off, I like funny things and I like magic and illusions. So, there's a TV show called Penn & Teller: Fool Us. And it is, basically they get the best magicians in the world to come on and do magic tricks for them, and try to fool them and it is fantastic. Because it's Penn & Teller, watching other magicians in front of an audience and explaining to them how they did their trick, but you don't realize that they're explaining to them how they did their trick. But they always have something really positive and wonderful to say about a magic trick. Well, almost every single time there's a couple of people that Penn just goes off on and like full on is just like, I hate you. I hate your face, your stupid face. You fooled us, and I hate you. It's one of those like, there's a couple of times where that happens. It's in good jest. But it is it is fantastic. Because some of the performances are beautiful. And like there's a couple of performances that brought like Teller to tears, and it's like seven seasons now.

So, if you enjoy watching magic tricks, really good magic tricks, this is an excellent show to watch. And then at the end of every show, Penn and Teller do a magic trick for the audience. So, you can see –

[00:48:17] Ar: They’re illusions. Someone had to make the reference.

[00:48:23] Al: Thank you. So that is my recommendation this week. 


[00:48:27] Al: That's all for this week's episode. If you aren't following us on Twitter, head on over and find us @EnjoyTheVueCast. Be sure to subscribe to us in your pod catcher of choice, and if you have some time, leave a review. Finally, remember, the first rule of Vue Club is tell at least five or six colleagues about Vue Club. Thanks for listening and until next time, Enjoy the Vue.