Google I/O was this past week, and while there were still the usual announcements and information dump, the pandemic made the show online-only. Normally, people from across the world descend upon the Shoreline Amphitheater to learn about Google’s new products and developer initiatives, swap stories, and network. But none of that could really happen this year, at least not in person.
Google often tries to “gamify” these tech trade shows (I’ve been known to sometimes get addicted to them), but this year Google I/O was an actual game, called Google I/O Adventure. This is Google I/O, with all the booths and information you would expect, but rendered in a 2D, top-down, MMO game that you and everyone else virtually attending can run around in. The game has a rolling chat window for nearby players, and tables in the game world start up a private chat for everyone sitting at them. It was sort like a Google I/O version of Second Life or an MMO Animal Crossing that runs in your desktop browser. I/O was only three days long, so most of the hustle and bustle of I/O Adventure is over, but the world will still be online for the next month.
When you start the game, you first go through character creation and can only pick basics like hair, skin color, and a few options for arms and legs, including wheelchairs and some robot parts. The game is a collect-a-thon though, and scattered across the virtual Google I/O during the convention were all sorts of accessories that fit into various cosmetic items slot. You could stop by the Android booth and get a cool Android hat or get an offline dinosaur doll from the Chrome booth. There are NPCs to talk to and mini-games like golf, fishing, and a few music games. The controls are dead simple: WASD and that’s it. If you want to interact with something, walk into it.
The booths are laid out like at a real trade show, advertising new features and APIs that developers might be interested in. You could walk around and get links to YouTube videos and blog posts, and some items were handed out via quizzes that challenged your knowledge of the new announcements. Part of how Google gamifies real-life trade shows is with collectibles that help guide people through a show and get them to visit booths they otherwise wouldn’t be interested in. The same process works in the virtual world: users want all the items, so they end up in booths that otherwise normally wouldn’t step foot in. You could look at a webpage full of links and get all the same information, but I/O Adventure is more of an information discovery system that happens while you’re playing.
Actual Googlers are hanging out at the booths, just like at a real Google I/O (or at least they were during the three days of the convention), and you can bounce questions off them or get help with things through the chat. Googlers are all labeled with a colorful “G” above their heads, denoting they actually knew what they were talking about. (I was given a scarlet letter that said “Press,” so everyone knew not to talk too much when I started asking questions.) You can even fill out a lanyard so people could click on your character and see your job title, company, and even links to your Twitter or Github.
We’re all stuck at home due to COVID, but this game/chat system really went a long way to replicating the social aspect of a trade show. I was regularly bumping into friends and chatting with people about various parts of the show. I even virtually met the game’s creator, Google Developer Advocate Tom Greenaway. Hi, Tom!
I/O Adventure has a really interesting way of treating location: it doesn’t really care. You are free to fast travel all over the place via a menu that will teleport you to every booth and area of interest. Your location is stored in the URL, so any bookmarks you make in the browser are game and location bookmarks. This also made meetups easy: just share a URL, and it will launch the game and stick you in the right location.
Since this was an event for developers, it really feels like Google wanted you to hack your location via the URL. The URL in the address bar suspiciously changes with every step you take, shouting at the user “HEY! I bet your location is in here!” It turns out the URL is base64 encoded, and decoding it reveals an x/y coordinate system. Knowing that, you can craft your own URLs and suddenly, you can go anywhere! Feel free to walk through walls or get stuck in stuff. There is even an inaccessible island that you can only get to via a URL. If you ever get into trouble, the fast-travel system can teleport you back to safety.
Even though the I/O Adventure the world will still be online for the next month, the big downside is that Google shut down the chat system once I/O was over. The company said it wouldn’t be able to moderate the chat. You can still have fun hopping around the world though—if you want to try it yourself. Be sure to wave at me if you see me run by while I’m trying to 100 percent it.
Listing image by Google I/O Adventure