Rezzed Digital 2021 has now come to a close. Given the unpredictability of the last two years, it was quite a relief to see EGX Rezzed going ahead, albeit in a different form to what we’ve seen before: for the first time, the indie games-centric convention was arranged to be hosted entirely online.
Needless to say, this led to a massive shake-up of the event’s formula. Such changes were unavoidable and necessary thanks to the unprecedented situation brought about by Covid-19. EGX Rezzed certainly was not the only convention to make the switch. However, while some larger events have stated that this shift might in some ways be preferable to the traditional, in-person formula, Rezzed holds a somewhat-unique position in the British gaming events industry. The result is that while Rezzed Digital had a lot to offer, it was also missing one of its key features. Let’s dig into why:
What is EGX Rezzed?
As a relatively small scale British games convention, it’s perfectly possible you won’t have heard of EGX Rezzed. To give you a little backstory, the event is a spin-out of the much larger convention EGX (formerly Eurogamer Expo). In 2012, EGX’s organisers, ReedPop, elected to start up a second exposition that focused specifically on PC and indie development titles, titled EGX Rezzed.
As a newer event with a much narrower scope, it’s little wonder that Rezzed pulls in smaller crowds than its parent expo; in 2018, ReedPop reported that Rezzed had seen record breaking attendance of 15,000. In contrast, the preceding EGX of September 2017 pulled in around 80,000 people. Regardless, Rezzed has become a staple of the London gaming community and takes place at the Tobacco Dock each April.
The event consists of two primary branches of content: the exhibition halls and the live panels. The panels are mostly made up of game developers and journalists discussing various aspects of the industry. In recent years, they have also included D&D Oxventure shows from the presenters of the Outside Xbox and Outside Xtra YouTube channels. In contrast, the exhibition halls are a series of rooms set up with a range of developer booths. Some halls are themed, such as one being dedicated to Sega titles, but the majority are home to a broad selection of development teams. Each booth typically has a few computers available for attendees to demo upcoming titles.
Sadly, Rezzed 2020 had to be cancelled at the last moment due to the changing conditions of the pandemic. In what is now clearly undeserved optimism, people who had bought tickets to the dropped event were given the chance to switch them for tickets to EGX 2020 instead, due to take place that October. When that convention was also cancelled, all ticket holders were issued a full refund.
To avoid a similar situation playing out this year, ReedPop decided to push Rezzed back to July and design it as an online-only experience from the outset.
The Shoulders of Giants
Rezzed is far from the first video games event to make the switch from in-person gatherings to online-only. Earlier this year, the largest gaming expo in the world, E3, did the same with a series of showcase livestreams. ReedPop themselves are no stranger to the market; last September they organised the first-ever, catchily-named PAX Online x EGX Digital to make up for the cancelled in-person expos.
Arguably, it’s not even the first time that Rezzed itself has been held as an online experience. While this year marks the first official Rezzed Digital, the organisers did arrange a series of Zoom call ‘panels’ in 2020 to replace the cancelled event. The series was called EGX Digital and ran from three days in March. The effort to host the event in some form was certainly appreciated, but the lack of time to prepare was obvious, and much of what would have taken place at the in-person meeting had to be set aside.
The need for such events has been obvious. During the pandemic, public safety measures and lockdown laws have put a firm stop to any large in-person gatherings. The safety of attendees, exhibitors, and organisers should always be the highest priority. If the choice is to have an event that doesn’t deliver quite the same level of interaction as normal or to have no event at all, then I think almost everyone is going to agree that the former is the better option.
And, in most cases, the results have been surprisingly successful and engaging. Together they’ve acted as tangible evidence of the gaming industry’s community spirit and its willingness to adapt. However, EGX Rezzed holds a slightly different position to most other gaming conventions and it is this uniqueness that has meant it was impacted more severely by these changes than might be expected. To understand why, we need to know why it is that people attend EGX Rezzed in the first place.
Why Do People Come to EGX Rezzed?
Attendees at EGX Rezzed can be easily divided into two categories, each with different reasons for being there: gaming fans and game developers.
The primary draw for fans at Rezzed is two-fold. First, there are the panels and live shows, which were almost universally successfully transferred to online livestreams for Rezzed Digital. Second is the opportunity to wander the exhibition halls, and it is this that was, naturally, entirely absent from the online event.
For most attendees, it is these gaming halls that are going to have the most appeal; a lot of the panels are crowded or may require separate paid tickets, and plenty of people come to the event with no intention of going to any of the organised shows at all. Instead, they come to investigate the exhibition itself, testing out early development games and chatting with their creators, as well as interacting with other fans they happen to encounter. It’s far from uncommon to walk around the Tobacco Docks and stumble across a group of total strangers screaming and shouting at each other around a game of Gang Beasts that they have all wholeheartedly become invested in, inside of three minutes.
The spirit of the event plays an integral part in each attendee’s experience. That’s not something that can be transferred to an online-only space, even with the organisers trying to set up dedicated social Discord servers.
On the other side of the board, you have the developers themselves filling space in the now-absent exhibition halls. Events like Rezzed offer two primary rewards for creators: the chance to advertise their new game to a crowd of self-selected gaming enthusiasts, and the opportunity to speak to said fans about their game while it’s still in development.
The former of these is certainly a huge benefit for developers. While Rezzed is smaller than EGX, it still enables creators to put their products in front of thousands of people. For indie developers especially, this is a great opportunity to establish a fanbase; a number of games that have appeared at Rezzed have been able to cultivate a small collection of fans early in development, who in turn drum up attention and hype before the launch of the game. This way, small-scale developers who can’t afford larger events can still grow their audience in a very organic way.
The relationship fans share with developers at Rezzed is not entirely one way, however. Yes, getting your product in front of consumers for advertising purposes is a vital step of game development, but Rezzed attendees can offer another, incredibly valuable resource: feedback.
A lot of the indie games present at Rezzed are titles that are still in development. They’re not usually in the early stages, as they need to be somewhat playable, but there’s typically a lot of work still to be done before launch. That means that developers have a golden opportunity to speak to gamers face-to-face and hear their thoughts on the project. This can be specific things, like identifying bugs in the demo, but can also branch out into more wide-ranging topics. If players comment that they were uncertain how to progress, then the developers may add more guidance, for example.
It’s clear when you’re at Rezzed that developers relish this feedback. As soon as you sit down to play a game, you’ll almost immediately have the developer at your shoulder. Every Rezzed exhibitor I have ever met was desperate to talk about their game and actively sought out players’ opinions. By putting both the creator and the consumer in the same room, in a relaxed and informal atmosphere, game developers are able to gather incredibly useful and valuable information about their work. All games in development will undergo playtesting, of course, but Rezzed’s focus on indie teams means that any additional feedback they can get could represent costs saved at a later date.
A similar sentiment could be said of any larger gaming event, but Rezzed isn’t entirely comparable. Its focus on indie development and its small scale provide a very different experience to that of more mainstream events. An attendee at E3 might get the chance to speak with some of the team from a major development company; at Rezzed, you can sit down with a game development student working on their very first solo title. It offers a level of personal connection simply not possible when discussing games being developed by large companies.
That type of interaction wasn’t possible this year. Rezzed was able to mitigate the issue of advertising indie games in development with their showcase streams, but the constraints of the medium meant that it was a much more one-way relationship.
The Future of Gaming Events
Given how much of an impact the pandemic has had on the world in general, trying to predict where we’ll all be in a year’s time feels impossible. ReedPop has said that they are ‘cautiously optimistic’ about EGX going ahead as an in-person event this October. At the time of writing, the UK has removed all restrictions relating to the pandemic. That means that, assuming the law doesn’t change again, there shouldn’t be any barriers to the event taking place.
Whether or not that means we’ll actually get an in-person EGX 2021 remains to be seen.
Personally, I have my fingers crossed that we will, and not just because I want to see people again. The switch to an online setting certainly has some advantages outside of the need for social distancing. In particular, I’m sure a lot of people living abroad were excited to attend an event normally unavailable to them. For the sake of people in that position, I hope that ReedPop continues to offer some level of online engagement.
However, for an event like Rezzed to function in the way that it was always meant to – providing a place for indie developers and fans to meet on the same level and discuss the games they are both passionate about – the in-person elements are indispensable. Without them, the sense of community that Rezzed has become known for just can’t sustain itself. Online streams of indie development showcases are very useful for spreading the word about upcoming games, but the lack of engagement really hurts that communication. I can’t help but feel like both developers and gamers have missed out this year on something really special. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that next year we can start to get that back.