Unparty at GDC: How to make some noise with a Quiet Party
What is Unparty and why you should care?
Unparty is a networking event for game developers held during the week of the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco organized by myself, Sam Seltzer-Johnston, and our fleet of volunteers.
Most GDC parties are implicitly exclusive by providing alcohol and often take place in a bar. This creates an age gate, and can be hostile to women, people of color, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and those who abstain due to religious purposes. Also they usually have loud music, which makes it less conducive to conversation and can be overstimulating to introverted personalities during a week of excess stimulation.
What Unparty offers is an anathema to game dev parties: no loud music, no alcohol, an inclusive environment, and an emphasis on conversation. Unparty is in its 4th year running at GDC and has been its biggest year yet, hosting over 450 attendees of 2300 RSVPs, and…
Well, just look at this video shared on Twitter:
So yeah: we’ve had reports that the wait was an hour long! There was a non-trivial percentage of people who were pretty disappointed with that, and we’ll have to do a better job addressing the line situation next year, but unexpectedly creating a smash hit is kind of a good problem to have!
Also, I want to emphasize, we’re doing our best, but this is all volunteer work and we had only 2 main organizers…!
(If you think you can do better and want to help out, get in touch: TheUnpartyCrew [at] gmail [dot] com)
So, how did we reach this point?
This is a chronological timeline of Unparty.
Just to set the stage a bit. I’ve been attending GDC as an attendee on and off since I was an undergrad Computer Science major and freelance game journalist in 2010. I’ve become familiar with the GDC landscape of overstimulation, the dark and noisy, alcohol-centric parties, and felt frustrated. “It’s so hard to talk during these things, and I can never get to know anyone! And why do I feel so exhausted?” I got better at meeting people at GDC over time as my career and I grew into my personality in my 20s, but at the same time I felt frustrated that there still wasn’t an event catering to my interests in meaningful conversation.
During this time, this coincided with my interest in introversion and reading Susan Cain’s book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts”. It seemed to hit the nail on the head about how Western culture pivoted from valuing introverted characteristics in a agrarian society a la the woodcutting Abraham Lincoln, to fast moving social mover-and-shaker types in large urban areas. This was typified by the success of Dale Carnegie’s book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. The difference in personalities could be defined by the reaction to stimulus: introverts are more reactive to stimulus, but are capable of intense concentration and focus as such, whereas extroverts are less reactive, and require more activity to feel engaged and interested, lest they become bored.
Perhaps the most significant observation related to Unparty was that despite the Western emphasis on extroverts, introverts are about 50% of the population. In an environment like GDC, that’s a hugely underserved audience and, if you want to think of it that way, indicated a potential business opportunity serving my people nonetheless. Win-win!
Lots of other observation about introversion in the book were very good to note as well (such as: introversion/extroversion can be defined on a spectrum, defined by cultural context, and environment). Additionally, my interest in providing spaces for others to have their own experiences may have been influenced by my interest in Daoism from my undergrad Eastern Philosophy class.
Anyway, so how did Unparty start?
2016: It started on social media…
At GDC 2016, I was thinking about how hard it was to find a quiet party so I did what nearly any introverted millennial would do at GDC, I went to vent on social media.
Specifically on the GDC Mobile App. To explain, GDC provided its own mobile app that provided details on the conference such as talks and maps, but also inexplicably had a mini social network where people could share posts and photos and interact specifically for the conference, like a lofi version of Twitter made specifically for this conference. It was a fun little thing!
Anyway, I went to post about the lack of quiet parties, and I found that other people had felt the same way. We commiserated about these feelings and eventually it came up, seemingly as an afterthought:
“Maybe we should do our own party. A party for people like us.”
It could’ve ended there, but I guess I like making things happen and not letting the conversation end there so I asked
Me: “What would we need?”
“I guess a time and a place.”
Me: “Like what kinda place?”
“A cafe I guess?”
I did a quick google search of the neighboring area.
Me: “Here’s 3 cafes nearby.”
“Ok, let’s meet at this cafe at this time!”
Me: I guess I should make a hashtag and Facebook event to keep things organized this.
“What should we call it?”
Me: “Uh, the GDC Casual Coffee Conversational?”
“Ugh, too long!”
Me: “What about Unparty?”
“Ok, do it. #GDCUnparty”
And with that, the first Unparty was born.
(Side note: As much as I would like to have records of these conversations, I don’t know if I’ve screenshotted these moments, and believe these posts may have been deleted after the event, so these exchanges may have been lost to the ages. If anyone from the first year of Unparty has screenshots of these conversations on the mobile app, please let me know. If not, c’est la vie.)
I went to the cafe and was surprised to see a few people already there. Pretty crazy how we’d never meet otherwise! More than I was expecting! What’s your names, how do you do, etc.
Then a few more people came.
“Wow, that’s cool.”
Then a few more.
Then a whole crowd of people showed up.
The cafe was about to close so we tried to figure out a place for people to meet. Someone suggested the Palace Hotel Lobby and we moved over there, and I changed the Facebook event to reflect that.
It was a gorgeous lobby, hotel staff provided drinks (for who? for us? for free??) and a singer came out, someone played game music on piano. A lot of people had a really great time!
Even early on, word of mouth was incredibly strong. There were already several dozen attendees with minimal promotion. People who I had no idea who they were were talking about it on social media. One example, I had a chance meeting with some friends from NYU Game Center, and they mentioned how they were mentioning it in their group chat. How they heard? I have no idea.
And even at that point the response was incredibly positive. Multiple people came forward saying that it was their favorite event of GDC.
Unparty was starting strong, but how do we continue this as a tradition.
I didn’t think of it for another year.
2017: A series of escalating events
So, I had kinda assumed that it would all happen the same way again, with people crowdsourcing it. So during GDC the following year, I asked on social media who was organizing it. And everyone gave the text equivalent of shrugging and saying “not it.”
You’d be surprised how easy it is to become head of something when no one else wants to do it.
So I made the Facebook event again and started posting on social media and thought things would be fine, we’d do the Palace Hotel Lobby again.
At that point, I felt since that it was starting to become my responsibility to make sure things went well, I decided to check out the Palace Hotel Lobby on the off chance something would get in our way.
Sure enough, it was reserved for a reception for a large bank. Welp! Time to be an organizer!
I asked the hotel staff if there were any alternatives. They offered a hallway, and maybe renting rooms upstairs before weakly suggesting checking other hotels.
Having some time before my next shift as a Conference Associate (GDC’s convention staff) that year, I decided to go check those hotels to see where things would go.
What resulted was a series of escalating events where I went from looking like a dorky kid with long hair in a t-shirt not knowing how to answer any questions, to getting referrals and haggling prices with 4 star hotels in Downtown San Francisco. It’s too long to cover in this postmortem, but if you catch me in person sometime, I can tell you the whole story.
Also if there’s enough interest I can give a series of tips and takeaways about negotiating in a separate article.
Long story short, I signed a contract for a venue with a game room with skeeball, shuffleboard, mini basketball, and pool tables. It was also within my budget. (While I was wheelin’ and dealin’, I came up with a figure based on estimations I made of public donations, donations from friends, and what I was willing to put in of my own savings to keep this event going.) I wasn’t sure if anyone else would show up, but Sam, one of my friends from the first Unparty, showed up early and told me that worst case scenario, we’d split the costs of the venue for the whole night with our software engineer savings and play a ton of skeeball (not a bad consolation!).
Thankfully, a lot of people did show up and we covered the costs in combination between digital donations and a big thanks to Sam. Thanks Sam!
The event was continuing to grow and would come back the following year, but we couldn’t plan on going on crazy wheeling and dealing adventures the week of. If it was going to grow, we’d have to organize.
2018: The Tipping Point
2018 marked the moment that Unparty was becoming a real thing and not just a scrappy operation. We were starting to scale up.
I drafted people into the Unparty staff in Facebook messenger and we discussed options for venues and promotion and such.
The venue from last year seemed to have changed hands from the last sales rep, and they quoted us at a multiplied figure way beyond our range. Some additional searches resulted in my renting and art gallery on Peerspace. They had a shop inside selling art books for pop culture and were on brand as well. They also asked us if we wanted to take down the paintings… “Uh, please leave them up, they’re perfect!”
I did some minor reach outs for sponsorships. A tweet on social media and a follow up with audio studio A Shell in the Pit got us our pizza sponsor (who intended to deliver the food and offer vegan options, which they made good on, thanks a bunch!). I reached out to my connections at Babycastles and in lieu of cash sponsorships, they offered a Zine Library and, in fabulous Babycastles fashion, a “Digital Zine Librarian” played by Frank DeMarco (see photos below).
Some other fun things included adding a looping video to fit the chill but counterculture tone of Unparty (what would later become the “Video Garden”) and promotional videos on social media.
We got a better idea of attendees about 600 RSVPs on the Facebook event for a venue capacity of about 150. The event was 4 hours long, so divide total attendees by number of hours to get an idea of the throughput. Additionally, we moved away from the GDC Mobile App and promoted on Facebook and based on the number of RSVPs, we didn’t want any additional promotion. Also, without our intervention, our event started circulating on GDC party lists and discords. Nice!
In addition to online RSVPs, we signed people in for the event with pen and paper and got 250 sign ins that night. A two fold purpose: One, to get an idea of how many attendees showed up, which is important to reach out to sponsors in subsequent years. Two, we gave people the option of providing their email so we could get an audience of enthusiastic people to build attention early for next year. At that moment, we also asked for cash donations at the door, which ended up covering the costs without needing to ask for ticket prices.
For the event itself, we did announcements, checked in that everyone would travel home safely, and finally got a real survey of hands of how people heard of Unparty. Facebook had a few. Twitter had less. And it turned out word of mouth was the overwhelming amount of the room! We also introduced the shush mechanic. Guests could propose a shush wave and others could join in to lower the volume. It would be a moment for people who arrived to the event who saw the shush mechanic and be delighted and was still manageable. (The following year, the Shush mechanic was less fun and less effective. Oh well.)
The following day, I got into the aftermath. I was interviewed by a journalist from Unwinnable for 30 mins and as a result, Unparty received its first press mention, specifically as on part of an inclusive non-alcoholic counterculture at GDC open to women and minorities.
Word of mouth was always strong, but this year also marked how people seemed to know about Unparty more regularly. One stark example was when an Indie Megabooth exhibitor told me he had heard of Unparty, not once, not twice, but on three separate occasions from separate people. There were also people who said they wish they had gone to it instead.
There was a sense that this was going to keep growing as more people heard about it, so we had to get ready to scale up. How much so, we weren’t ready for…
My biggest lessons this year:
- I needed to feel comfortable asking for help (especially if we were going to scale up… more on this later)
- We needed to reach out to sponsors earlier.
- In general, we needed to take this more seriously and handle a larger audience
2019: A sleeper hit
2019 was the year that things got serious.
By the end of it, we had over 2000 RSVPs on Eventbrite, 300 on our Facebook Event, 450 sign ins, 6 sponsors, a larger venue, and venue costs covered between our donations and sponsors (supplies are another thing).
The biggest logistical decision made was asking for more help and other stepped in, such as Jason Li who I met at PixelPop, and Sam stepping up as the Lead Co-Organizer of Unparty. This helped things immensely and it would not have been anywhere close to what it was without Sam’s help.
The biggest decision in terms of increasing attendees was switching from solely a Facebook Event to Eventbrite. This probably affected the event in an innumerable number of ways: discovery, perception of the event, and who knows how else.
We also built attention earlier on, starting weeks earlier with launching the Eventbrite page privately, only reaching out to our email list from last year, and Sam sharing the event on the Train Jam Discord. It already started racking up RSVPs and making it to GDC Parties lists without our sharing it.
Then we launched the public Eventbrite to coincide with the Facebook Event, linking ticket sales on the Facebook Event to allow free RSVPs and donations. Eventbrite continued to draw the majority of the attendees, and given how crowded it was, maybe it was for the best that the Facebook Event didn’t have as large a reaction. We initially had no cap for RSVPs (or just so large that it was effectively no cap) but we decided to cap the free RSVPs at 2000 on the off chance we’d hit it, which was incredibly fortunate because we did.
Since it was easy, we also launched a dedicated Twitter and Facebook page.
We also reached out to sponsors, which got easier as we were racking up more RSVPs. We had a slow trickle of responses at first starting with groups who knew of Unparty and us already and other corporate sponsors who said it was too short notice (in general sponsors are needed months ahead of time). Then other unknown sponsors became more interested by the Sunday of GDC when they saw our email blast announcing 1300 RSVPs. By the end of the event we had 6 sponsors lined up.
To scale up, I recruited friends throughout the week and at the event who were willing and able to help out. We had about 18 total staff members as a result.
Anecdotally, Unparty seemed to be a big deal. When I’d introduce myself to people, this year it felt as if people already knew what Unparty was immediately when I mentioned it. Then, during Unparty, a bunch of friends messaged me all at once telling me it was a huge hit, the line was around the block, and much congratulations were had.
Tip for Facebook Events: It didn’t take off with just sharing it on Facebook. After a long while of having less than 10 RSVPs, I used Facebook’s Invite Guests button to start with first wave (people who’ve attended or heard of Unparty or are invested in Unparty), then inviting the second wave (people who would go if they knew other people I knew who were going), then the Facebook’s virality for the third wave kicked in (“Notification: X of your friends are interested in this event”).
This time we also formally announced that we were a #saferGDC space and that we wouldn’t tolerate harassment. We haven’t had any reported incidents at an Unparty so far, but we do want people to feel comfortable coming forward to us if something happens.
We continued trying to keep things fun too. Sam purchased GDC ribbons (“Shhh…” for attendees, “Unparty Crew” for staff members, very handy for figuring out who was who). This time, we couldn’t find a pizza sponsor so I ended up fronting the pizza costs. We avoided announcing that there would be food beforehand as per Sam’s insight that people would expect there to be food, but it felt like the pizzas were inhaled within 60 seconds anyway. I also created a relaxing music playlist (which we turned off and would’ve been too hard to hear over the crowd) and expanded the video looping playlist into the full-fledged “Video Garden”. I added more memes, quotes, gave shout outs to our sponsors, and also adding Featured Guests. The Video Garden Featured Guests were featured clips of gameplay footage that fit in the Unparty ethos (social anxiety, introversion, parties, introversion at parties, etc). I personally reached out to the creators to see if they were interested and received their permission.
Video Garden Featured Guests were:
- Pet the Pup at the Party by Will Herring
- Interruption Junction by Squinky
- Small Talk by Pale Room Games
- As it is by Egghouse
And once again, let’s thank our sponsors:
- Sheep’s Meow
- Matthew Kagle of Vacuum Genesis
- Raindrop Games
Another shout out to Shell in the Pit Audio for being pizza sponsor the previous year.
And for those of you who care about this sorta thing:
# of Attendees
115 Sign Ins (Sign in Sheet)
329 Eventbrite Checkins
444 Total Checkins
18 Staff Members
462 Total Attendees
2000 Free Eventbrite RSVPs (Sold out!)
57 Paid Eventbrite RSVPs
2057 Total Eventbrite RSVPs
105 Interested Facebook RSVPs
158 Going Facebook RSVPs
263 Total Facebook RSVPs
2320 Total Online RSVPs
Income (approximately to within 1%)
25% Eventbrite donations
8% Digital Donations (PayPal)
Loss of $715
So we’ve found that Unparty has significant demand and growing it is no longer the problem. Our main issue is currently the opposite, how to scale up without losing the quiet ethos emphasizing conversation? Having more people and having a quiet atmosphere are diametrically opposed, so it makes sense why so many large parties use noise as a feature, it’s virtually unavoidable.
We have a few approaches we’re considering that different people have brought up. The “simplest” is getting a larger venue, which will certainly cost more, but reaching out to contacts at corporate sponsors months ahead of time will make things easier. Beyond that is tough: Noise cancellation materials, multiple venues, multiple rooms, artificially limiting attendance via RSVPs and time-based entry, are all considerations, but it’s essentially an unsolved design problem. After all, people criticize Disneyland or Comic Con for increasing the ticket prices and resulting in increased expectations and lowered satisfaction from guests when they face the immense crowds. What do you do when you have too many people who want to physically go to something that’s one of a kind without being exclusionary and/or creating a price ceiling?
We’re considering a low cost ticket as a default, but we do want to continue making the event financially accessible to low income folks. (If we continue to take it at a minimal loss per year, we can afford to keep growing it.)
Every year of Unparty has been an experiment with no guarantees. Someone had asked me personally why I do it. It isn’t a profit motive. (Certainly not at this point…!) What I can say is that it has had a very strong positive feedback loop as it continues to grow, its potential influence in the world is multiplicative compared to my past projects, and that it’s the change I want to see in the world. I do lurk for the reactions on social media and seeing some of the very meaningful moments that people share is very rewarding. In general, when people talk about Unparty they’re genuinely enthusiastic to talk about it or even just when I tell them about the idea of it, and those have been the ultimate rewards.
Ironically, I’ve positioned myself as a person whose job is to be stressed out in order for other people to relax, which I’ll try to balance out more in the coming years.
Until then, let’s keep it quiet, folks.
Stay in touch!
Follow The Unparty Crew on social media for more updates
If you’re interested in helping out as a volunteer or as a sponsor or even just want to say a good word (we like hearing those), email us at TheUnpartyCrew [at] gmail [dot] com.
You can also contact me at contact [at] charleshanshuang [dot] com.