Gamers in the New York area have something to look forward to this weekend: Play NYC 2021 is back as an in-person event following last year's shift to a digital format due to COVID-19 safety concerns.
First established in 2017, Play NYC is a gaming convention that is tailor-made for its home in New York City's borough of Manhattan. This event is the brainchild of Playcrafting CEO Dan Butchko, a man who has a fair amount of experience in building gaming events from the ground up.
The past year, however, has tested his ability to adapt to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Much like dozens of other major gaming events, Butchko ended up canceling the plans for the Play NYC 2020 in-person show and shifting to an all-digital format. Now it's coming back to Manhattan and the same Metropolitan Pavilion that hosted 2019's event — along with a well-crafted plan to help keep everyone safe.
Digital Lessons Learned
Last year's shift to an all-digital format had some upsides despite the problems of running a gaming convention as a virtual experience. Developers didn't need to worry about travel and logistics. Attendees didn't have to worry about parking or food. And, perhaps best of all, the entire digital experience was made free for everyone. That's not to say that last year's show didn't have some trouble.
"The hardest part, by far, was trying to bring over the in-person excitement and energy that is just so trademark of Play NYC and trying to translate that over to the virtual space and doing so in a way that was also extremely accessible to everyone," Butchko said.
"There's a lot of challenges this year. There's also a lot of wins and some exciting new stuff." —Dan Butchko, Playcrafting CEO
He and the Play NYC team have learned a number of important lessons about upping their production game for future events. I was curious: Would this year's show aim for a hybrid in-person/digital model similar to how Blizzcon has been run for the last few years?
"That's definitely one area I want to take a look at, to see if the demand is there and the real hunger is there for bringing more features over to a purely virtual sort of setup," he said. "This year did not feel like the year to reinvent the wheel in any way.
"Play NYC has always kind of been a hybrid event anyway with the in-person expo as well as our stage and stream."
The digital experience may expand to greater heights in future years, but Butchko believes this isn't the year to do it. For now, Play NYC is focusing on providing the best in-person experience it can. Running such an event while COVID-19 is still a very real concern, however, brings on some challenges of its own.
Having Fun and Staying Safe
Vaccination rates are definitely rising, but that doesn't mean that the pandemic is no longer a concern. Some areas are exploring another lockdown or the return of restrictions while other locales aim to keep things open. However you may feel about it, COVID-19 is still something to worry about — and Play NYC is prepared.
"We made [the decision to require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test] right out of the gate," Butchko told me.
"Proof of vaccination is absolutely paramount," he added. "And then as well, we have that additional acceptance of a [negative COVID test]. But in our case, we're only doing that for children under the age of 16 [or rare exceptions such as immunocompromised people.]" (Dan asks that anyone with questions about these policies direct their inquiries to the contact e-mail on the show's official website.)
The show floor itself will see changes, too. Last year's show had aisles between the booths that were around six feet wide. This year's show is doubling that distance, halving the number of booths, and requiring developers to regularly disinfect controllers, keyboards, VR headsets, and playing pieces for board games. Even this year's batch of Graffiti Games — a special selection of bespoke games created for the show based on a specific theme — are adapting to the pandemic. The focus for Play NYC 2021's Graffiti Games will be on local multiplayer as part of the spirit of bringing people back together.
Despite these extra requirements, interest in this year's show was still quite strong from developers. Butchko highlighted the Metropolitan Pavilion's generosity as a venue by allowing Play NYC to roll its rental forward to the following year, and that may have been a cue for the convention's decision to do the same — all of last year's booked developers had the option to attend 2021's event or get a refund. According to Butchko, the majority of game devs were still quite keen to show up — at least 65 developers will be turning up for Play NYC 2021.
Play NYC 2021 Gets Back On Its Feet
Plans are in place, the hall is booked, and attendees are ready to show up. The only thing left to do is to actually hold Play NYC, have a boatload of fun, and see what new lessons can be learned from running a show under these challenging conditions.
Mind, things aren't just changing for the showrunners and developers — attendees will have to adapt, too. Proof of vaccination (or a negative COVID test for under-16s and a handful of rare exceptions) will be required for attendees, and they must wear a mask throughout their time in the Metropolitan Pavilion. Most important of all is a change from last year's policy: Attendees won't be able to reenter the venue if they leave early. As long as you can meet those minimum requirements, you're more than welcome to buy a ticket and show up to this year's event.
I've always found a few interesting games making their debut at this show, and pretty much everything on the floor will be playable. The pandemic made going out and having fun all but impossible over the last year, and this upcoming gaming convention is one of the many small steps towards a return to normalcy. I'm excited to attend this year's show, and Butchko seems plenty excited to run it.
"There's a lot of challenges this year. There's also a lot of wins and some exciting new stuff," he said.
If you're in or near the New York City area, you can get tickets for Play NYC 2021 via its official website starting at $25 or your regional equivalent.