HandmadeCon 2015 Wrap-up
By Anna Rettberg
Casey Muratori
Best. Coding. Con. Ever.
Well, OK  —  that means almost nothing coming from me, because I designed the whole conference to be nothing but the thing I love most about programming conferences: asking great programmers about what they do. So I guess you can’t take my word for it.
But what you can do is just look at the Wikipedia entry for HandmadeCon 2015, which clearly states that it was an incredible event where people from all over the world gathered to hear some of the best game programmers in the industry talk to us about how they do what they do, bracketed by a bunch of awesome local gatherings where Handmade Hero regulars got together and met each other in person for the first time.
Wait, that’s not what it says? Well, look, it’s Wikipedia, anyone can edit it. Someone probably accidentally deleted it. Honestly, it was probably Jimmy Wales. I don’t know who he is but his face was definitely on the page when I looked, so I feel like he’s probably at fault here.
Anyway, the point is, HandmadeCon 2015 was way more awesome than I ever could have predicted, and I’m still kind of shocked at just how much love there was for such a tiny little endeavor. It was one of the most inspirational conferences I’ve ever experienced, and everything from meeting in person all the folks who watch Handmade Hero to hearing Ron Gilbert explain that they had hot-loading on the original SCUMM VM in 1987 made me excited to be a game developer all over again.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for HandmadeCon 2016 :)
Best. Team. Ever.
Although HandmadeCon was designed to be as low-overhead as possible, there’s still a ton of things that had to go right in order to make it happen. They all did thanks to a lot of great folks.
First, let’s just get this out there: the speakers were amazing. I had so much fun talking with Tommy, Mike, Pat, Jon, and Ron, I really didn’t want it to end. Their willingness to candidly share their expertise and experience with us was really what made the conference work, and I am so greatful that programmers like them are willing to take time out of their schedules for something like HandmadeCon. I hope they’ll all consider returning next year!
Second, I think we’re all going to owe a huge thank you to Neil, who took it upon himself to bring two extra cameras and an audio recorder to the con so we could have lots of redundant video and audio capture. As you’ll read about in just a few moments, this may end up being very important for preserving the content of the conference.
Third, because we had so many attendees, I was really worried about how long it would take people to register and get in. We had a very tight timeline, so in practice there was less than thirty minutes total for over 250 people to get wristbands and get into the venue. But when I arrived early to start setting up, I found Miguel, Aaron, and Alex (who somehow isn’t on Twitter yet?) camping the entrance, and they graciously offered to solve the registration problem. Like a human implementation of a B-tree, they made their own signs, divided up the attendance list for fast processing, and somehow managed to chew through the huge line of people in such short order that everyone was comfortably seated and ready to go well before the 10:30 start time.
Fourth, the speakers were kept fed and hydrated thanks to several kind folks. Ginger made an emergency run to retrieve my forgotten  —  and absolutely essential  —  coffee-water mixture. Ruben brought imported chocolates and Luxemburgerli all the way from Switzerland. Some folks whom I didn’t even see left chocolate bars on the speaker table for us. And Miguel even brought some Chartreuse which, of course, we couldn’t drink on stage, but now that we’re off stage…
And fifth  —  and I am not making this up  —  me and the speakers would have had nowhere to sit if it weren’t for Molly Rocket’s very own Anna Rettberg, who helped me wheel two of our task chairs over several downtown Seattle blocks so we could use them for the conference. Yes, this gets you a lot of funny looks from passers-by. But, on the flip side, it makes waiting at stop-lights a lot more comfortable, because you can just sit down and relax.
The conference was live-streamed, and we’re working on getting raw videos up.
A lot of folks asked beforehand if the conference could be live-streamed. I tried pretty hard to get Twitch or YouTube to come and stream it for us, but it never materialized, so I read The Internets and tried to see if we could do it with equipment we had lying around the office.
The “streaming solution” I came up with turned out to be an old laptop plugged into an external capture box and a TubeMP mic pre-amp we had at the office for temporary voice recording. These were used to stream a feed from the venue mixer board and the Canon DSLR we use for reference photography at Molly running on Magic Lantern with the sticky-half-shutter mode enabled.
If this sounds like the biggest kludge ever, that’s because it absolutely was. I tried pretty hard not to even mention the fact that we were going to stream the conference, honestly, because I was pretty sure there was no way it was going to stay up the whole time, and I didn’t want people to be too disappointed.
Yet somehow, shockingly, the janky tangle of wires did stay up the whole time, and apparently people were able to watch the whole conference from home! I have no idea how that happened, but I can only assume the ghost of Scott Baio was watching over us. Wait, is Scott Baio dead? I think he might actually still be alive… look, it doesn’t matter whether Scott Baio is alive or not, the point is that he was watching over us, and that’s why the stream worked.
But unfortunately Scott Baio, or Scott Baio’s ghost, left a little bit earlier than we would have liked.
You’ll note, if you re-read the previous big bold callout sentence thingee that we use to try to make this blog seem professional, I said we were “working on” getting raw videos up. Now you may wonder what “work” needs to be done to get a raw video up, since it’s raw  —  by definition it must not require any work, right?
Unfortunately, that turns out not to be the case when the library’s A/V “technician” unplugs the power on the laptop before you’ve had a chance to go up and close OBS, which of course leads an old laptop with very limited battery life to quickly burn through its remaining power and shut off, killing OBS dead and leaving the video file corrupted.
Now, why someone would unplug the power to something without asking whether it was safe to do so is a good question. Some answers to that question could be, “because I don’t know how electricity works  —  I thought there would still be plenty left in the wire to run the laptop for several hours”, “because I don’t know that computers need electricity  —  I thought this cable was just decorative”, “I was trying to save the planet by reducing coal emissions”, or perhaps the more likely “because I just don’t care what you’re doing or whether this will affect you adversely, I just want to unplug this thing so I can say I’m done and go home.”
Well, whatever the lame answer is, thanks for that, now we have a 9 gigabyte stream recording on the hard drive that we may be able to recover, but it’s very unlikely, because of course the design of MP4 and OBS conspire to ensure that, in the oh-so-rare case that a video recording gets interrupted, heaven forefend you could ever expect the existing recorded data to be usable. That would never do!
We should still have some good recordings to use, though.
Obviously we still have the Twitch-archived stream, and the audio quality on it is actually quite good, so that should serve as a good way to watch the conference right away if you missed it. We also have the OBS recordings of the whiteboard computer, so those should be usable as-is. And most importantly, thanks to Neil heroically taking it upon himself to show up with two extra cameras and an audio recorder, we actually had redundant video from multiple angles, and it is highly likely those recordings are all intact. So we’ll try to get those up soon, too!
Same size, more time.
With one HandmadeCon down, I certainly have a lot more information to work with for planning the next one. For the most part, HandmadeCon 2015 was everything I hoped it would be, so for HandmadeCon 2016, really all I want to do is refine it. I’ll be thinking about what that means over the next few months, but here are some brief thoughts about it to give you some idea of the direction.
No forced growth. I really liked the size of HandmadeCon 2015. I think it was just big enough to have a great crowd and a great mix of people, but not so big as to become unruly or impersonal. With over 250 attendees, that’s enough so that the ticket sales cover venue rental and speaker travel, and that’s really all we need to run the con, so I will likely refrain from doing any more publicity for it. If it grows a little, no worries, but I definitely don’t think the conference would get better from trying to publicize it widely just for the sake of bigger numbers.
More time. I wished I had more venue time for the conference this year, but the planning was done in advance and I didn’t expect the ticket sales to be as large as they were, so I tried to keep the venue rental costs low. Now that I know HandmadeCon attracts such a large audience, I can expect the ticket sales to be higher, which means I can rent the venue for longer and include more breaks, more time for lunch, and more time for mingling. These are all things I would have done this year if I’d be able, so it’s a no-brainer for next year.
Two days. Along those same lines, having five speakers in one day may be too much time, especially once there are longer breaks, and it might be nice to do something more like eight speakers across two days. Originally, I was assuming very few people would travel to attend HandmadeCon, and it would be mostly people from the Seattle area  —  but boy was that a bad assumption! In truth, I met almost nobody at HandmadeCon who hadn’t traveled at least from another state, but often from another country. People traveled from as far away as Spain and Israel to attend the conference, and at that point, it seems like it really makes sense for the conference to span more days, to help make it worth the travel time. Plus, spanning multiple days would let us try some cool things, like having questions submitted on-line from day one that could be answered on day two.
One official gathering. Finally, I had a great time meeting everyone at the unofficial gatherings folks organized around the conference. There was a great dinner on Friday night where we took up half the restaurant with HandmadeCon attendees, and I got to talk to tons of folks from the conference Saturday night at the hotel bar across the street from the library. I didn’t check the time but I think it was 2AM by the time I got home. These were awesome additions to the conference that people took it upon themselves to organize, and I hope we have even more of these at HandmadeCon 2016. I’ll even try to make a central posting place everyone can check to find out about gatherings people are organizing. But, because none of them will probably be at places that can house the entire conference attendance, I’d like to augment the ad hoc gatherings next year with at least one officially rented gathering place where people know they can go and hang out with everyone from the conference.