At this point in 2020, online events are bread and butter. Concerts, standup shows, family holidays — pick your streaming service and buy your tickets. After nine months of puzzling through how to host a safe event, many creators and producers are building virtual venues that take the online game to the next level, helping virtual events feel more like an approximation of the real thing, but with twists that only online experiences can bring.

What It’s Like to Enter a Virtual Venue

There was a small velvet rope and a red carpet outside of PianoFight bar, but no line yet. Across the street, the frame of a bike was locked to a stanchion. A spotlight shone into the night sky. A banner was draped across the bar’s simple marquee: “Grand Opening.”

“Hey!” said Duncan Wold, the bar’s owner. He’d been working on getting the bar ready all day — an info table, places to donate to the bar, even a photo booth. His avatar was dressed in a cape, and had a pumpkin head. “Welcome to our third location,” Wold said. San Francisco, Oakland, and now, as Wold put it, “URL.” Wold’s avatar stepped inside the virtual bar, and I followed.

“It’s kind of like Zoom, except you can walk,” Wold said as we steered our avatars into PianoFight using our keyboards’ arrow keys. Inside, it looks like a real bar meets NES game. 

You can still hang in the bar at PianoFight — virtually.

How to Build a Virtual Venue 

Wold pays to use the digital tool Gather.Town, one of several virtual world-building tools online (another popular one: Online Town, which is free but with less customizable elements). With Gather.Town, event creators build customizable, interactive 2D spaces that allow anyone with a computer, an invite link and a password to walk around and enter proximity video chats with other users. Walk up to someone and their chat pops up on your screen. Walk away and they fade and then disappear. It’s a virtual world, on video call, and it costs a few bucks per head, on a sliding pay scale depending on customization and event size.

Wold built the basic structure of the Gather.Town PianoFight digital bar. An artist who bartends there, Justin Gomes, spent dozens of hours replicating the real-life bar in digital form, down to the chalkboard drinks list, the bathroom stalls, giant bear mural behind the bar, the stages in the back, and even the bricks. (He also upgraded the digital version with a roof space and baseball diamond out back.) The space has stages where hosts, musicians, or comedians can perform and broadcast their audio and video to the whole room. Sitting at the bar or a table enters you into a private chatroom only with the others around you. Interactive elements in the shape of gift boxes allow users to watch videos, enter silent auctions, or donate money. Wold had already hosted successful standup comedy events and the grand opening, selling tickets through Eventbrite. “I walked into the basement area, and there was this improv group, standing by the couches, where they always stand to warm up before shows in real life,” Wold says. “The magic here is that it reminds people of the space.”

You Can Also Create a Venue in an Existing Virtual Space

There are other virtual world-building tools — even ones created before the pandemic. Minecraft, for instance, is a great place to meet up online, and not just for gaming groups. First Code Academy, an online educational institute where kids from five years and up learn coding skills, computational thinking, and entrepreneurship mindset, has been hosting Minecraft parties since the beginning of the pandemic. 

“Since classes are now one teacher to one student, we wanted a place where our students could safely meet and interact with each other,” says founder Michelle Sun. Up to 10 kids at a time can join a private First Code server and take part in a “build mission.” Tickets usually cost $10. They also host Roblox party — different game, same idea. Build, mingle, have fun.

Retired teacher Vito Rinaldo founded TOF Productions as a Zoom-only music venue.

A Virtual Venue Can be as Simple as a Video Chat

Creators are also using more traditional streaming services — Zoom, for instance — customized with an interactive experience in mind. Vito Rinaldo, a 73-year-old retired teacher, created TOF Productions, paired up Zoom and Eventbrite, and created The Tree, a weekly virtual nightclub for live music shows. The customization means musicians can see and hear their audiences while they perform. It’s a light touch that makes a performance feel up-close-and-personal for both performers and ticketholders. All net proceeds go to the musicians. 

Building a Virtual Space Pays Off

My visit to PianoFight came a few days after the virtual grand opening of the bar’s URL location. It’d been a smashing success. Wold had raised around $5,000. “Not enough to pay San Fran rent, but it’s $5,000 we didn’t have before, and that helps,” he says. Just as important, the customers, and the bar’s culture, had been reaffirmed. The bar’s been hosting standup comedy shows frequently. “Some people hang around until 5 or 6 in the morning,” Wold adds. “Some things don’t change.”

At First Code Academy’s Minecraft parties, staff have focused on making sure students make a new friend at every event. Sun and her team set up new coding challenges on the server to make sure every event is fresh and unique. For a Halloween-themed party in October, they built a haunted house for the kids to go through. Sun’s started playing Minecraft in her free time, to relax, sometimes with teammates. “It’s an incredibly versatile platform, especially in creative mode, where you can let your imagination run wild,” she says.

Since launching, TOF has raised $18,000 through ticket sales and donations alone. Rinaldo’s favourite performances — those where artists are set up in studio spaces, with prime audio and light show options — are happening more frequently as musicians get the virtual performance thing figured out.

PianoFight URL had one newcomer bound to be a barfly. After interviewing Wold at the digital location, I bought a ticket to BrainPowerHour, a pop culture trivia night and drinking session. My fiancée and I returned later for date night. It was a jarring experience to stumble upon groups of strangers via avatar-steering and automatic video chat, but eventually, we got used to it and even ran into some old acquaintances. We drank on our couch, but not alone. Trivia was a blast. It was pleasant and odd, and a great night out at the bar during a pandemic.

Ready to open a virtual venue? Create your next online event here!