How many virtual conferences and events have you attended recently? Now compare that to the amount of time you’ve spent playing video games during the past few months. Not giving too much away, Patrick and I would probably agree that we’ve spent more time on the latter. With screen time dominating our lives and in-person gatherings largely on hold, how can we rise to the challenge of bringing communities together in accessible, refreshing, and fun ways?
In this episode of Community Signal, principal developer advocate Austin Parker shares how he used tools like Twitch, OBS, Discord, and yes, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, to throw a deserted island conference like no other. Austin doesn’t expect every conference from here on out to be hosted in the video game, but he does hope that the pandemic and his experience with Deserted Island DevOps encourages all of us to think outside of the box when it comes to creating experiences for our communities. In his words: “You don’t have to be an expert, you don’t have to be a master event planner. You don’t need $10,000 to go rent a ballroom at the Sheraton. You can make something that’s engaging, and creative, that people like, and people will come and listen to it. You can share knowledge and you can build a community using stuff that is either free or fairly inexpensive.”
Austin and Patrick also talk about:
- Pros and cons of in-person and virtual events
- The moderation tools, volunteers, and code of conduct that helped make Deserted Island DevOps happen nearly seamlessly
- How Austin grinded to get enough bells to pull off the conference
Our Podcast is Made Possible By…
If you enjoy our show, please know that it’s only possible with the generous support of our sponsor: Vanilla, a one-stop shop for online community.
How has the pandemic changed work for developer advocates? (2:30): “[Because of COVID-19], we’re in a world where there’s this antipathy or bias against large-scale events for the foreseeable future. And maybe not even on a month’s time scale, on a multi-year timescale, we really have to rethink what does it mean to be part of a developer community? … How do you build events and get people interested in events that don’t take you out of your normal routine?” –@austinlparker
Going virtual with attention to accessibility and inclusivity (7:53): “Virtual events as a longer-term strategy are actually really good. It’s very accessible. There’s a ton of people due to whatever reason, because of where they are in the world, because of a disability or because it’s unsafe, or due to their gender or sexuality, in-person events aren’t welcoming. A virtual event can be much safer for people to attend and much more accessible and egalitarian than these $5,000 hotel and plane and then $2,000 ticket [conferences].” –@austinlparker
Moderation as a continual practice (23:36): “Moderation is never going to be 100%. It’s never going to work 100%. [There will always be] the fallibility of technology and of people. Getting close enough is the goal and just fixing any mistakes we find along the way.” –@patrickokeefe
A few tools and a little creativity can go a long way towards creating memorable experiences (34:44): “The future I see [for virtual events] is one where people are using very easy-to-access prosumer tools in order to create unique experiences and build communities around those. It’s less [about using Animal Crossing like I did] and more you don’t have to be an expert, you don’t have to be a master event planner. You don’t need $10,000 or $20,000 to go rent a ballroom at the Sheraton. You can make something that’s engaging, creative, and that people like, and people will come and listen to it. You can share knowledge and you can build a community using stuff that is either free or fairly inexpensive.” –@austinlparker
About Austin Parker
Austin Parker has been solving –– and creating –– problems with computers and technology for most of his life. He is the principal developer advocate at Lightstep and maintainer on the OpenTracing and OpenTelemetry projects. Austin is the host of On-Call Me Maybe and co-author of Distributed Tracing in Practice, published by O’Reilly Media.
- Sponsor: Vanilla, a one-stop-shop for online community
- Austin Parker on Twitter
- Recordings of the content from Deserted Island DevOps
- Animal Crossing: New Horizons
- Community Thrive!: Virtual Summit 2020
- Deserted Island DevOps Postmortem
- Open Broadcaster OBS
- Elgato Stream Deck
- The Code of Conduct for Deserted Island DevOps
- On-Call Me Maybe podcast, which Austin hosts
[00:00:04] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Vanilla, a one-stop-shop for online community. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:25] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello, and thanks for listening. COVID-19 is forcing us to think a lot about virtual events. Planning them, attending them, and everything in between, but times of challenge can also lead to creativity, which brings us to today’s guest, Austin Parker. Austin’s the principal developer advocate at Lightstep. He hosted an online conference inside of the Animal Crossing: New Horizons video game for Nintendo Switch.
If you enjoy our program, please consider supporting us on Patreon at communitysignal.com/innercircle. You’ll join a group that already includes Luke Zimmer, Jules Standen, and Serena Snoad. Thanks, Luke, Jules, and Serena, and everyone who backs the show.
Austin Parker is the principal developer advocate at Lightstep, and maintainer on the OpenTracing and OpenTelemetry projects. Austin is also the co-author of Distributed Tracing in Practice published by O’Reilly Media. Austin, welcome to the show.
[00:01:13] Austin Parker: Hey, it’s great to be here.
[00:01:15] Patrick O’Keefe: Thanks for joining us. I want to talk about Animal Crossing primarily, but I wanted to back up a little bit because I feel like your event came out of a place where COVID-19 has changed developer advocacy. I wanted to ask you to talk about that a little bit in a general sense developer advocacy, how much COVID-19 has impacted it, and how that inspired the event.
[00:01:40] Austin Parker: Sure. It’s a really good question. I honestly don’t think we’ve seen the end of the impacts of COVID-19 on developer advocacy. Maybe the traditional way that people think about this is that if you’re a developer advocate, one of your primary responsibilities is to be where your developers are, and in the past half-decade or so, a lot of times that means, you’re going to events, you’re going to a DevOps Days, or you’re going to some big Kubernetes conference in a major city, and you’re participating in all these meetings, and round tables, and discussions and panels, and giving talks.
In some ways, that’s almost been the coin in trade of DevRel, because there’s a symbiotic relationship. You go give the talk and that’s why people show up to hear the talks, and also to speak to you. I think the big change COVID-19 brings is that if we’re in a world where there’s this antipathy or bias against large-scale events for the foreseeable future, and maybe not even on a month’s time scale, on a multi-year timescale, we really have to rethink what does it mean to be part of a developer community, and to have those interactions, and how do you build events and get people interested in events that don’t take you out of your normal routine?
The thing that’s great about a conference is that, hey, I’m in this new place, here’s a lot of people, especially out in the open-source world, it’s like, these are people that I’ve talked to on GitHub, or on listservs, or whatever, for months or years and now I can see them in person, and we can all hang out and have a drink. What does it look like when work becomes a series of Zoom calls and then conferences are also a series of Zoom calls? There’s nothing that’s special about it anymore. I don’t actually have all the answers. I think I tried something that was different, and people seem to like it, but I think that we haven’t really seen the end of the changes that are going to happen.
[00:03:44] Patrick O’Keefe: I think you’ve hit on why I really don’t enjoy virtual events in general. I’m not a developer. I know a little PHP and HTML, but I’m not a developer. I’ve hung out with them a lot, but I attended and listened into this event where the designer of The Haunted Mansion, the theme park ride, their dune buggies, the ride vehicles, and this person who did the set decoration way back when for Walt Disney in the ’50s, they did a virtual event, but obviously that’s not a professional thing. Professionally, I’m not a developer.
[00:04:14] Austin Parker: That sounds cool, though.
[00:04:14] Patrick O’Keefe: It was, it was fun and it’s right in my interests. I guess that’s the answer. I’ll attend that but as a community person, I spend a lot of time in front of a computer, much like a developer. When I think about going into an event, and a virtual event just doesn’t appeal that strongly to me. I haven’t been to one in all of COVID-19. In August, Marjorie Anderson, who’s a community professional, who’s been on the show, and is one of our Patreon supporters, has an event coming up called Community Thrive. That’s free to attend, and we’ll include a link in the show notes. I’m planning to attend that. I’ve registered.
I’m not really motivated to attend virtual events. It feels like from what you’re saying, there was already–of course everyone’s different, but just a general, in-person events are better and now we’re on the computer all the time. Now, there’s already that feeling of not wanting to do that, and now COVID-19 happens, and all the events are virtual, and it’s just adding on to that feeling even more. The desire to stand out and create something that people will find interesting, that just must be very hard right now.
[00:05:19] Austin Parker: I think you’ve hit on several really good points there. I’m trying to figure out which one I want to talk about. There are two ways to think about this, maybe not even two audiences, but there are two ways to consider this. As a speaker, and I’ve talked to other colleagues and people that are in the industry, and one thing that I’ve heard a lot of and I think even I, didn’t terribly care for beforehand, even before COVID, you would do YouTube videos, or you would record things and talk to your webcam or talk to your camera. You would do that and it’s easy enough to do that, but when it’s everything, when that’s your only way of interacting with an audience, it gets trickier.
I think with a talk, especially with a conference talk, so much of why people go to those, and I think so much of what makes them special is that you can see the audience. In a very simple way, it’s like if I’m standing on a stage with 5, or 50, or 500 people, I can look out and I can see, are they paying attention, am I being engaging? Having that connection with the audience, I think makes for a better talk.
Also, if I’m at a single-track conference, I’m listening to the talks before mine, and I’m thinking like, “Oh, that’s something that I want to call back to. I want to reference what that person said in my talk.” You make a note and when you get up there, you call back, you feel like, “Hey, as someone said in the keynote, or someone said in the talk before mine,” or whatever.
There’s a real risk, I think with virtual events that that cohesiveness breaks up from the speaker point of view. It doesn’t feel the same, it isn’t quite as engaging. Then from the audience point of view, I think a lot of people would already go to these in-person events, and would just say like, “Well, I’m going to listen to the talks later.” Because all of the talks, a lot of times they’ll get recorded, you want to just sit there and take it in later when there’s not all this other stuff you could be doing.
I think there’s a real concern about the persistence of these talks. From a DevRel perspective, if giving talks is like a big part of your job, and now all of your talks are going to be freely available on YouTube forever, the amount that you can reuse content goes down a lot. It changes some of the fundamental economics of the role as well, which I don’t think we’ve quite seen the end result of.
That said, I don’t want to disparage it. I actually think that virtual events as a longer-term strategy is actually really good. It’s very accessible. There’s a ton of people due to whatever reason, because where they are in the world, because of a disability or because it’s unsafe, or because due to their gender or sexuality, in-person events aren’t welcoming. A virtual event can be much safer for people to attend, and much more accessible and egalitarian than these $5,000 hotel and plane and then $2,000 for ticket and dah dah, dah, dah, dah.
I’ve always been interested, how would you square the circle? How would you make a good virtual event that people would like, and speakers would like, and developers would like, and just something different, that’s also good, I guess, to wrap up a lot of things. I think that was my inspiration.
[00:08:49] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s talk about your virtual event. Why did you include Animal Crossing? What’s the reason? What’s the inspiration?
[00:08:54] Austin Parker: What was the rationale? A lot of it was luck. I’m not going to pretend that I’m a marketing genius or anything. Animal Crossing, certainly for those first few months of COVID had a moment, and it’s still having a moment. A ton of people are still playing it but I think it was definitely the perfect game for that time when everyone’s stuck inside, and you want something that’s kind of charming and relaxing to play and kill time with. A lot of people were very interested in Animal Crossing, and a lot of people had Animal Crossing. Hopefully a lot of people that were in the DevRel field and would be interested in doing a talk had Animal Crossing so that they could really be a part of it. That helped, too.
[00:09:42] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s pause and take a moment to talk about our great sponsor Vanilla.
Vanilla provides a one-stop-shop solution that gives community leaders all the tools they need to create a thriving community. Engagement tools like ideation and gamification promote vibrant discussion and powerful moderation tools allow admins to stay on top of conversations and keep things on track. All of these features are available out of the box, and come with best-in-class technical and community support from Vanilla’s Success Team. Vanilla is trusted by King, Acer, Qualtrics, and many more leading brands. Visit vanillaforums.com.
Talk about the limitations of the game for something like this. I actually haven’t played Animal Crossing, and I feel like a lot of people listening probably haven’t either. The first point of connection when we talk about a virtual world might be something like Second Life, which is totally not what Animal Crossing is. It’s a totally different thing. You decided to do this thing, and I’m sure you just run into just limitations left and right.
[00:10:39] Austin Parker: Oh, sure. It’s definitely not what I would call a great event platform. There’s the saying, constraint sparks creativity. I think actually, those constraints actually helped make it a better event. Just to tell people, if you haven’t heard of Animal Crossing at all, what it is, it is a village simulator, a life simulator, more in the vein of something like The Sims as an example, but with far fewer game systems.
The basic loop of Animal Crossing is you have a character and you can decorate a house with various objects that you find or that you buy using in-game currency. You get that in-game currency by doing tasks. Things like fishing or catching insects, digging up fossils, and either donating to museum or selling them, doing tasks for NPCs in your village.
[00:11:37] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s a grind. It is a grind game.
[00:11:38] Austin Parker: Yes. It is grinding these simple tasks in order to get money to buy stuff that makes your in-game house look pretty. In the Switch version, the newest version, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, there’s a pretty robust multiplayer system where you can have up to eight other people across the internet, join your game session and run around your island, and emote at each other and play the game together.
That was one constraint that I had to deal with, which is the first challenge is like, “Well, I can only have eight people in the game session at the same time.” First off, how do people watch it?” That was fairly easy to get over because the way it works, and I think a link to my full wrap-up blog, where I talk about how I put all the stuff together.
[00:12:24] Patrick O’Keefe: I will and maybe that’s the easier lens to look at the limitation through, is the tech stack, right?
[00:12:29] Austin Parker: Yes. The tech stack, it wasn’t complicated, but there was a lot of fiddly little bits. I would say in some cases, to go back to my earlier point about this is the event that I would want to make, I was a big believer in like, “Hey, this should just be freely streamed out on the internet. There shouldn’t be a complicated registration system, or a lot of the trappings I guess, that you would see in a more traditional event,” because my thesis is, at least, or maybe not my thesis, just the desire I had was, “Hey, I want this to be extremely accessible to people that can just find it, click one thing, and start watching.”
Because I don’t know who my audience is necessarily. I’m not putting this event on, because I wanted to get leads from my sponsors or whatever. The point of this was like, “Hey, here’s an idea. Here’s something I’m put into the ether about what a different event could look like and be like.” I think from that metric, it was extremely successful. I think all the constraints about like, you can only put so many people on the island at once, and having to manage getting people into and out of the game session, and how are people asking questions, and so on and so forth. All those smaller challenges, I think actually resolved themselves very well. The ultimate whole that you got out of it was something that was very special.
[00:13:52] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s talk about the tech stack a little bit, just in the sense of understanding how things flowed. When people registered for the event, and they went to watch it, they were going to Twitch, right?
[00:14:04] Austin Parker: Yes.
[00:14:05] Patrick O’Keefe: On Twitch, they were watching a combination of feeds. They’re watching a game feed, where you had a mock conference setup that looked like a digital event, and then you were pulling in audio from other areas and visual from other areas. Talk about that coming together of the different technologies.
[00:14:21] Austin Parker: What viewers saw was a feed of the game that was composited using software called Open Broadcaster OBS. OBS composited the video out of the Switch, so the game world. Then I had a few graphical overlays to show who the speaker was, their Twitter handle, the title of their talk, things like that, that I could swap in and out. Meanwhile, all the speakers were in a Zoom call. What they would do is they would share their screen, or share their slides through Zoom screen sharing, and then I would capture that Zoom window in OBS, and I would overlay that on the Animal Crossing game world in OBS.
I had a little production deck, Elgato Stream Deck that just had some programmable buttons on it. I could use that to very easily switch from the slides taking up the entire output, the entire program feed, and then go back to one where they take up a corner. The whole idea was to give you a more produced feel. More visually interesting than just someone talking, and having the slides up, or talking and seeing their face.
Meanwhile, the speakers in the game world, they would get out of their chair. They would come up to a little podium that we had set up in the game world, that had a laptop. Like you said, it looked a lot like a conference center. I think my exact inspiration was a shitty Marriott by the airport or something. Sorry.
[00:15:49] Patrick O’Keefe: As someone who’s spoken to eight people in a room that could hold 500 in a Sheraton, I get it.
[00:15:55] Austin Parker: Yes. That was the vibe. There was a carpet that I found in the game that looked exactly like a hotel carpet I’d seen before and I was like, “Okay. This is the aesthetic I’m going for.” What I would do is look and everyone’s on the Zoom, the speakers would speak. I would actually pull the audio out of the Zoom call and use OBS again to merge all that audio together. That will just go out to Twitch.
Now, from the viewer experience, we’ve actually two different ways that people can interact. There was the Twitch chat, which is just this live feed of chat as the people are reacting to things or talking about it. There was also a Discord server that we set up for people to come in and do more in-depth Q&A. There was this idea of a hallway track where during a talk, people would discuss the talk as it happened. They would talk about like, “Oh, yes, that really resonated with me,” or, “This reminds me, had a similar problem and I solved it this way or that way.”
There was a dedicated Q&A channel. As our speakers were having their talks that we go through, and someone would have a question, they would put it into that Q&A channel. Then at the end of the talk, our hosts would look through the questions that have been submitted and ask a couple of them to the speaker while they were live. Then after it was done, the speaker would go and type their responses to any questions that didn’t get answered back into that Discord chat.
[00:17:17] Patrick O’Keefe: Talk about that chat a little bit. I know you had a code of conduct. I know you had moderators, and there was some thought put into that process. It’s always good to plan for things and not need them. In this case, I think you planned for them and then needed them, so it was good, it sounds like from the postmortem but just talk about that approach to moderating the chat and how you put it together?
[00:17:36] Austin Parker: I think you definitely hit there, it’s good to over plan a little bit, especially on something that is on a platform like Twitch.
[00:17:45] Patrick O’Keefe: You can have drive-bys, just people randomly pop into it that aren’t in DevRel even like, what is this? Here’s an F-word. Here’s, “I hate this person,” et cetera.
[00:17:53] Austin Parker: We wanted to make sure that we have a very safe and inclusive space. There was a couple of different tools. One was making pretty good use of the Twitch auto-moderation features. There’s a lot of built-in AutoMod features where we can automatically flag messages that it thinks are maybe not great. We also use a bot that had specific word filters on it, and just populate that with a list of language that we didn’t feel was inclusive to the event.
The Discord, the same thing. That had an open invite policy, so people could just click the link and join. Our chat moderators were looking at both. They were very empowered to sort of, I don’t wanna say shoot first ask questions later, but they were pretty empowered to shoot first and ask questions later. I’m a pretty big believer in you don’t have to immediately ban someone and let, but I feel like you get moderators that are pretty savvy about your platforms, then they will be pretty good at spotting things that don’t pass the sniff test. That’s mostly what happened.
I will say very happily, we didn’t have any major incidents. The automatic moderation in the Twitch chat did very well. I don’t know. Maybe this is a bias like people aren’t going to go through the extra effort to cause problems in a Discord, just because it’s an extra step, and the auto-moderation on the Twitch chat stopped people from driving by and dropping impolite language or whatever.
I think actually, I will say one thing that I thought was very good, and actually helped a lot with the event was the Twitch chat. This is something that is definitely a cultural thing, I guess, for Twitch versus people’s traditional event platforms. It’s basically this live feed. It’s people are typing whatever, and there’s a…people will clap, and they will applaud. They will make noise in that chat and that, I think, from the speaker’s perspective, from talking to them, actually was really good because they could see in real-time, “Hey, am I getting through to people? I’m making a point, is it landing?” That’s a critical piece of context that I think you lose in a lot of traditional online event platforms where either they don’t have that kind of functionality or the audience for most events is not the same. If you’re more professional, maybe you’re not. Maybe a lot of people just don’t know, if you’re not part of that Twitch generation.
[00:20:23] Patrick O’Keefe: I’ll say it’s a credit to Twitch that you had such a good experience with the AutoMod tool. It feels like I can’t go very long these days without bumping into a story about some algorithmic failure, and something gone wrong in some automated moderation solution. Nothing’s perfect, but if it worked pretty solidly for you, that’s a good thing. It’s something that, for example, I think about obviously, Amazon owns Twitch now, so they’ve got cash. I think about something like YouTube and YouTube chat, which I think is generally thought of as being terrible.
I don’t know if that’s changed recently, but YouTube comments, YouTube chat generally not seen as being a bastion of great conversation, and certainly a tool that maybe they would have had the money to develop at some point. Maybe they already have and I don’t know, but that’s good to know.
[00:21:07] Austin Parker: The one thing I will say, I don’t actually feel like we got it 100% right. I talk more about it in the postmortem, but I think maybe we were a little too aggressive in the moderation at first, and then we dialed it back a scotch. I think it’s one of the things that if you do these more regularly, and I certainly hope that I will be doing more events like this, and I hope that other people take it and run with it, but I would like to see an evolving consensus about this.
What is the appropriate level of moderation, and maybe even, I’m not saying Twitch is like the be-all-and-end-all of platforms to do these streams on, but I do think it has a lot of advantages, just in terms of accessibility for not only viewers but also broadcasters. It’s pretty easy to get started with Twitch. The quality of it was very high. I don’t think I had any complaints about people not being able to hear or see the video. I saw some screenshots where people had not as great quality. There’s some technical reasons about what’s available to free Twitch accounts versus partners or affiliates, but that’s not really here nor there.
I actually do know that something that Twitch is working on though, or something they’ve heard at least in terms of, “Hey, I’m a company, an organization, and I want some of these features that are normally only available to Twitch partners.” I think from Twitch’s perspective, they’re figuring how to balance that with people that have come through their platform in the way that most people have come through a platform, through streaming video games or crafts or whatever. It’s not a one-to-one audience, but they seem interested in broadening their appeal beyond, oh, this is just for gamers.
[00:22:56] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes. It was interesting. I logged onto Twitch and I should say, I’m not really a big Twitch user. I think I was on there actually to watch my brother who just started streaming games, and it was a nice thing that we could do to spend time, or in a sense, spend time. I could watch him play, listen to him talk, from across the country because I’m in California, he’s in North Carolina. It was a nice thing. He had some viewers. There was some discovering going on, it was interesting to watch that as someone who’s just, he’s brand-new, and has no followers on there, and yet, some people did just randomly just find him streaming a game and talking about it.
When I first visited Twitch, the featured thing in the center of the screen was somebody DJ-ing, him playing music, and it wasn’t even gaming. I think you’re right. Moderation is not going to be 100%. It’s never going to be 100%. It’s never going to work 100%. The fallibility of technology and of people either way. Getting close enough is the goal and just fixing any mistakes we find along the way. It sounds like you had some pretty good interaction at the event.
You mentioned something that I wanted to pull back from though real quick, which is you mentioned some people have a little bit of feed quality whichever for them. I have a listener who routinely works with people who have a poor connection or a lack of access to anything beyond basic hardware, which is great with Twitch, because you can just open it in a browser. I know this isn’t really an issue for DevOps, pretty much everyone you’re talking to probably has some good stuff and good internet. I was curious if you gave that any thought when you were thinking about this event?
[00:24:21] Austin Parker: I tried, at least the best I could to cover a lot of bases. One thing I believed in very early, when I started planning the event was like, “We’re going to have to have closed captioning. We need accessibility in that way.” I was very fortunate that my employer, Lightstep, offered to pay for human closed captions, rather than algorithmic ones. Day of the event, we had an actual human being that was captioning the stream for us, which was great.
My fallback plan was either algorithmic closed captions, or there was closed captioning off of the video on demand, so I recorded the entire thing as well, and then chapterized it and put it on YouTube. My fallback option, I guess, was, well, if people can’t catch the stream for whatever reason, because of timezone, or because of quality issues with their bandwidth, then at least they’ll be able to go watch it later on YouTube, and still be a part of the community, right? Because a takeaway is that we really developed very quickly this impressive community around it, between the mailing list and the Discord. I’ve been trying to not just drop that on the ground and walk away, right?
We’re still doing these smaller, Deserted Island sessions, which are smaller streams that gets less people, but we’re trying to keep this idea of like, “Hey, the really special thing we got here wasn’t just this Animal Crossing conference. It’s all these people come in together, participate, and be a part of it, and that and nurturing that has really been the big takeaway I found, is like, “This was a really valuable thing.” Having a conference was cool, but having all these people discovering each other and finding a common interest and getting involved with doing new things has been exciting to watch, too.
[00:26:12] Patrick O’Keefe: This ongoing conversation or community around Deserted Island DevOps, is that something that– I guess you just said you’re not trying to drop it, but it sounds like it exists in the Discord. Is it like a part-time community thing? Are there some moderators in there and just trying to see where it goes?
[00:26:28] Austin Parker: A lot of our moderators have continued to participate. The volume has gone down a lot. I think some of that also is it being summer, even in COVID-19 times, people have other things to do during the summer.
[00:26:40] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, sit by the window. [laughs]
[00:26:42] Austin Parker: Yes, sit by the window, look outside longingly, or if you’re in America, apparently just keep going to the beach and doing everything, right?
[00:26:50] Patrick O’Keefe: I live in California, as I mentioned. Orange County, I think just voted to open schools, and they don’t have to have masks for teachers or students I think is what I read today.
[00:26:59] Austin Parker: It’s exciting times.
[00:27:01] Patrick O’Keefe: Delightful.
One of the limitations you ran into in the game that I read about in the postmortem that was funny to me and I think I love you to talk about a little bit is, you said that you needed to acquire about two million bells, the in-game currency to pay for the expansions and furnishings that you needed to put together that, as you put it, shitty conference room, from the hotel. You did need to grind in a sense to get stuff, to buy the in-game stuff to make this happen. Talk about that a little bit.
[00:27:31] Austin Parker: It was about two million bells, and there’s a couple ways you could do this.
[00:27:35] Patrick O’Keefe: I know you didn’t want to talk about the financial transactions in the game or the market, but how long did that take you?
[00:27:40] Austin Parker: I think it took about two weeks really, and the way that I primarily accomplished it is, like I said, there’s a lot of tasks you can do in-game to get money, but there’s also something called the Stalk Market and the Stalk Market is that every Sunday morning, an NPC comes to your town that sells turnips, and it’s like a stock market. You buy low, sell high, right? However, the flip side of this is since it’s an online game, and prices are not global, so everyone’s island can have their own price.
What I would do is I would go and buy as many as I could, hundreds of hundreds of hundreds of them, and then just keep an eye on a lot of different Animal Crossing Discords and forums I’m in, and try to find places where I could sell them for, four or five times what I spent in order to quickly amass that many bells. There’s other ways you can do this. Some people will modify the system clock on their Nintendo Switch, so it’s a practice time traveling, in order to farm their own money without having to go online and do other things with other people.
[00:28:48] Patrick O’Keefe: How is that practice viewed?
[00:28:49] Austin Parker: There’s a split decision. It’s a game where you don’t get anything out of it that you haven’t put into it, right? At the end of the day, time-traveling or any of these things, you never win, right?
[00:29:04] Patrick O’Keefe: Right. If you’re cheating, you’re only cheating yourself.
[00:29:06] Austin Parker: I wouldn’t even say cheating. It’s just people want to experience the game in a different way, and for some people, that’s the way they want to experience it. I don’t have a problem with that. My personal thing was like, well, I don’t want to do this because, one, it wasn’t necessary. I just sat back in my head. I was like, well, the amount of time I would have to spend time traveling and doing all this other stuff, I could just rely on the internet, and ask people on Twitter or friends of mine that had the game. It’s like, “Hey, if you get a sell price of 400 or 500 bells, let me know and I’ll come over.”
A lot of times what happens people will do tips, right? I have 483 sell price, and people will come by and will leave like 10% or whatever as a tip, stuff like that.
[00:29:55] Patrick O’Keefe: Cryptocurrency. [laughs]
[00:29:57] Austin Parker: Basically cryptocurrency that, you know what, hey, I would say it’s more useful than Bitcoin.
[00:30:02] Patrick O’Keefe: [laughs] Now, how did this compare to your normal Animal Crossing play? How much more did you have to play during that two weeks than you would have in a normal week?
[00:30:11] Austin Parker: At the time, I probably played a little bit more. I will say, shameful admission, that I actually have not played Animal Crossing since the event. The two weeks leading up to it, I spent at least a couple hours a day in-game, either trying to farm money, or setting up the event space, or going through tech tests and making sure that everyone could connect. I looked at Animal Crossing, it was literally my job for a little while there, and I’ve been like, “Yes, it’s enough of that for now.”
[00:30:48] Patrick O’Keefe: You paid the price that a lot of facilitators pay, which is the question people ask me sometimes. It’s like, “Should I start a community about this thing I love?” It’s like, “Sure. Yes, there’s always room for another good community,” but when you do that, you get this new hobby and that hobby is managing a community. You better like that one because that’s what’s going to take up your time and the time you had for that thing you love, that the community is about, actually dwindles. [laughs] You paid that price, Animal Crossing, maybe, burned out a little bit, but that makes total sense.
[00:31:21] Austin Parker: I don’t know. I still really enjoy the game. I really liked both the ethos of what it is and also just the idea of like, oh, here’s this perfect little pastoral environment that you can immerse yourself in, that things don’t matter or an island where the things don’t matter, but it’s there’s no COVID-19 in Animal Crossing.
[00:31:42] Patrick O’Keefe: No, there’s not. Same for Dead by Daylight, which is what I play most days. It’s fun to play in new worlds and figure out how to use them in ways beyond a norm, I would say, but moving past that, and looking at Animal Crossing as a potential outlet to involve virtual events. You mentioned earlier, you said it wasn’t necessarily the best platform. Should someone do this? Should someone see you and what you did with this event and say, “Actually, maybe I should do that in my industry?” Is it something that more people should do?
[00:32:10] Austin Parker: I think it’s less Animal Crossing, and I think it’s more that I want people to be playful. I want people to look at the current situation in the world and not even just look at COVID-19 as this temporary blip. What I would hope is that people could look at and re-examine some of the base assumptions they have about what is an event? How do we bring community together? What’s important there? Think and look around them and say, “What’s the one thing or two things? What’s the different thing that I could do that is experimental, or that is going to try to move the needle somehow?”
Because, not to be a cynic or a pessimist about it, but if you look at the world, and you think about the challenges that we have as a society with things like endemic climate change, potential future pandemic events, just basic questions of safety and expressiveness, that might be difficult in person or might be not workable, we need to fix ourselves out of this mental pothole that there’s only the one thing to do things, or that there is one best way to do things.
You can be experimental, you can do a conference in Animal Crossing, and if people want to do a conference in Animal Crossing, then go for it. It’s obviously possible. I’ll be doing another one of these next year and hopefully, the production values will be a little bit higher. Maybe I’ll learn how to use Illustrator by then. I think the bigger things that I’m interested in is this idea of, if you think about a history of publishing, it’s easy to talk about the world wide web as being this revolution and people being able to publish things with blogs, and in microblogging, being able to create your own websites, stuff like that.
I actually go back a little further and I think about the original Macintosh, and the advent of desktop publishing, and how suddenly there was this ability for many, many more people to create things that were high quality and easy to reproduce. It wasn’t anymore, if you wanted to make a birthday card, you could go and do that on your dot matrix printer, but you could also make a newsletter, you could make a magazine. You had this really, mostly intuitive, or at least much more user-friendly tools than having to do manual typesetting.
The future I see here is one where people are using very easy-to-access prosumer tools in order to create unique experiences and build communities around those. It’s less Animal Crossing and more you don’t have to be an expert, you don’t have to be a master event planner. You don’t need $10,000 or $20,000 to go rent a ballroom at the Sheraton, right? You can make something that’s engaging, and creative, and that people like, and people will come to and listen to it. You can share knowledge and you can build a community using stuff that is either free or fairly inexpensive.
[00:35:28] Patrick O’Keefe: Austin, I look forward to reading next year’s postmortem and seeing what was the progress made over the year. I’m really thankful for you spending some time with us today.
[00:35:38] Austin Parker: Well, thank you for having me. It was a great conversation.
[00:35:40] Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking with Austin Parker, principal developer advocate at Lightstep. That’s lightstep.com. Watch his Twitch stream at twitch.tv/oncallmemaybe. Check out the event Austin hosted inside of Animal Crossing at desertedislanddevops.com and will link to his postmortem article in the show notes. Thank you to Serena Snoad for her suggestions for this program.
For the transcript from this episode, plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad and Carol Benovic-Bradley is our editorial lead. Until next time.
If you have any thoughts on this episode that you’d like to share, please leave me a comment, send me an email or a tweet. If you enjoy the show, we would be so grateful if you spread the word and supported Community Signal on Patreon.