An unconference is really a series of discussion rounds. You get together at the start and decide on some topics you want to talk about. Then you split up into discussions of manageable size before finally reconvening and presenting your results to everyone. During discussions, you take notes, ideally on a whiteboard or flipchart.
I really like it as a format, as the topics tend to be more varied and the discussion more lively than in a traditional conference with pre-defined talks.
The plan was to facilitate this kind of thing. Because the unconference needed to be stuffed into the final hours of the final day of Ludicious, I had about three hours. This meant setting a pretty ambitious time plan. It was going to be more of a taster unconference than the real deal. I also incorporated a section of "open mike" five-minute talks at the start to provide material for discussion.
What ended up happening?
Because the unconference was right after lunch, I scheduled a half-hour between 13:30 and 14:00 for people to arrive and get to know each other. This way I could start with the schedule at 14:00 exactly. Quite a lot of people - about 40 - turned up pretty quickly, so I put on some slides with conversation starters and jokes. Ultimately, I was able to start the conference ten minutes early.
The mood was generally really good - chatty and interested, and not as tired-out as I'd feared people would be after three days of conference. We had lots of different attendees too, everything from well-known local game developers to people who'd dropped in out of interest. We even had three professors turn up who'd somehow been invited to the unconference while at Davos.
The mini-talks at the start worked well. We had a big range of topics, everything from the practical to the esoteric, and the five-minute time limit kept things moving. Some of our visiting profs did struggle with cutting their talks down to five minutes, but we had enough slack time that I could be lenient with the timer.
With the talks over and the board full of suggested topics, it was time for the discussion sessions. I'd worried that having only a single room was going to make multiple parallel sessions hard, but in practice, each session could gather in a half-circle against a wall with a large piece of paper stuck to it acting as a place for notes.
And indeed, we had a bunch of good discussions. We covered game engines and marketing. There was an in-depth discussion of pain in games. I ended up starting a quick discussion on the Indie Bubble and Steam late in the day. People mingled and didn't just stay with the people or topics they knew. And when we had to vacate the room, a dozen of us carried on to a nearby restaurant and continued talking, very fruitfully, for a few more hours.
I had fully expected the time plan, which called for strict 30-minute sessions with short breaks in between, to slip. I had not expected it to be utterly destroyed.
One of the professors, having given a very interesting short talk about biofeedback and games, started a discussion session on the same topic. Except it wasn't a discussion, it was an extended version of his talk. Nor did it stick to the thirty-minute mark but rather ballooned to about an hour in length. I wasn't quite aware of just how one-sided it was until later, as I was running around tending to the unconference as a whole. Apparently, people could hardly get in a word edgewise. I dropped by repeatedly, first asking the participants to make notes - and then asking them to please wrap up the session.
When they finally did dissolve, any semblance of the time plan was gone. Most of the participants either left for good or went to get refreshments, and then dribbled back into the room quite a while later. I eventually managed to encourage the creation of one or two other groups, but the damage had been done.
Also, in terms of session topics, we ended up with way more than we could possibly address. I'd been worried that people might be shy about proposing topics, so I really encouraged them to propose, but we ended up with a huge list. The only topics that actually were discussed were ones that had a clear champion who'd start the discussion circle. In theory, anyone was allowed to start one, and there was free space to start more, but in practice, people didn't. What was meant to be a very egalitarian system ended up with a few strong personalities dominating.
First, as annoyed as I am at this professor for turning the unconference into an impromptu lecture, it was ultimately my fault for not setting better boundaries. In general, I was so busy trying to encourage people that I failed to enforce rules. So this is what I want to change next time:
- Longer sessions. Part of the reason why the timetable failed so badly was that 30 minutes is simply not long enough. Use 45 or 60 minutes.
- Strictly enforce session length. Give a 10 and 5 minute warning. Force sessions to end on the clock, using a vuvuzela if needed.
- Watch out for individuals dominating sessions. They should be discussions, not lectures or ads.
- Make it clear that passive listening is insufficient. Participants should contribute or leave.
- Make people who propose discussion topics responsible for starting the session: finding a physical space, writing down the topic on the flipchart.
- Force sessions to make notes. If there's no one with a pen next to a flipchart making notes, stop the session until there is. Make it clearer why notes are critical. (Because you're doing this session for the benefit of everyone who attends.)
- Leave plenty of buffer so there's enough time for the wrap-up session.
On the whole, we had a really good time. The core concept of discussion rounds worked really well, and people participated enthusiastically.
I very much want to organize another games unconference soon so I can apply the lessons learnt here. More details will follow, but the plan would be to have another one, not associated with Ludicious, in about half a year's time. So - stay tuned?