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Ad infinitum: Handling community curation on a cosmic scale in Dreams

Media Molecule editorial manager Jen Simpkins explains how the studio supports the budding developers behind the ever-expanding Dreamiverse.

The premise of Dreams is simple: make whatever you can imagine. Of course, nestled within those five words is the sprawling infinite. You see, unlike Media Molecule's previous franchise, Little Big Planet -- which allowed players to work within the confines of the LBP universe -- Dreams allows players to make everything from individual game assets to entire franchises.

In a similar fashion to other player-driven platforms, Dreams has managed to gamify the art of game development, with users across the world populating the ever-expanding "Dreamiverse" with a diverse and unique array of creations that others can take for a spin. The studio itself has also collaborated with users to bring new tales to life, having recently launched a new game project called Mega Penguin that was produced in-house before being opened up to the community.

As someone who has only ever peered into the swirling maw of the Dreamiverse from time to time, it seems like one of the biggest challenges of maintaining a proliferating platform that actively encourages its residents to explore endless possibilities comes with curation.

Supporting and engaging with Dreams creators to spark inspiration and foster positivity would seem like a Herculean task, but it appears to be a challenge the PlayStation-owned studio has tackled with aplomb. Fascinated by that assured and infectiously upbeat approach to community management, we caught up with Media Molecule (Mm) editorial manager Jen Simpkins to learn how the studio is working to encourage the next generation of game developers to, well, follow their dreams. 

Game Developer: I'm always amazed by the breadth and quality of the Dreams creations you surface. I can only imagine there's a huge number of projects floating around the Dreamiverse, so I'm curious to know how you go about unearthing those gems while sifting through the sheer amount of content out there?

Simpkins: There is so much going on in the Dreamiverse at all times. It's not just games (including platformers, shooters, visual novels, puzzle games, walking sims, 4x strategy, JRPGs, shmups, roguelikes and plenty of bizarre new genres) but everything else in between. We're talking short films, animated series, entire albums of music, sculptures, paintings, helpful gadgets for creators and players, curated museums showcasing other dreamers' art, "coMmunity-created" challenges to make vinyl figures or pieces of a pixel art mosaic, even blueprints for houses being built in real life. So yeah, all of that - and sometimes it's in VR.

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It's a HUGE curation task, and with Dreams there are layers to it. Curation for Dreams is not just about making sure the most interesting, original, high-quality creations make our front page on DreamSurfing, or are written about on our editorial blog, The Impsider. It's a big part of it - we want to serve our present Dreams audience, as well as to bring in new ones. But it is also about making sure we represent and support as many aspects of, and people in, this community as possible - from the more established and experienced creators, to people who are just getting started. Having Media Molecule and others in the community recognize your work can be really validating and motivating for our creators; happy creators hopefully means they stick around and we all get to see even more brilliant, unusual and inspiring stuff from them.

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That balance between serving the players and nurturing the talented, highly invested community of indie creators in Dreams is exactly what drew me to working at Media Molecule. It was also why I wanted to start The Impsider! I know from my experience working in video game journalism how much a write-up can mean to developers. Similarly to Roblox or Minecraft, Dreams creators don't get a lot of coverage in the wider media - the way online media works means it's hard enough for game journalists to make time and space for indies, let alone indies made within UGC (user-generated content) games - but anyone who takes the time to look through some of these creations will see they deserve their time in the spotlight.

Our creators spend time and energy making beautiful things in Dreams, and that effort deserves recognition. The various forms of recognition that we at Media Molecule can currently provide - Mm Picks, Impy Awards, a front-page banner or playlist feature, and editorial in the form of more in-depth reviews and creator profiles, as well as weekly review roundups - hopefully encourages them to keep going, keep improving, and keep doing their own thing. If they do, that's great news for us, Dreams and everyone playing it, as our ecosystem of cool creative stuff keeps developing. More people to meet equals more possible collaborations equals more stuff for everyone to enjoy.

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It's our responsibility to support and promote the scene Dreams has birthed, because players invest time in our game, and also because plenty of the wild ideas and brilliant minds popping out of this thing might well go on to have an impact on the wider sphere of video games. (We're actually already seeing creators take Dreams concepts into different game engines, and walking into game development jobs because of their experience with this tool.)

I'm grateful we have the resources to do this for ourselves in an official capacity! There's been a big push recently to hire towards curation, with me coming aboard to set up and manage our in-house editorial, and the addition of two dedicated content curators, Alasdair Mitchell and Jacob Heayes, who are the minds behind the enormous post-launch improvements to our Mm-created front page in Dreams.

How do we find the good stuff?

The community support aspect of curation in Dreams is very important, and so the number one thing - for me, at least - is to try to seek out "the good stuff" from as broad an array of sources as possible. While we have a wonderful, vocal, friendly and tightly-knit community of creators that we can often rely on to bring us word of the latest cool thing, we also endeavor to look outside of the inner circle. A more diverse pool of sources means a more diverse result, which is exactly what we want. Neither players nor creators want to see the same creators featured over and over again - it's key that we search out and celebrate the hidden gems, too.

Here's a handy bullet-point list of how we try to do that here at Media Molecule:

  • We now have a dedicated curation team whose job it is to play the game. A lot. We will spend hours sorting by 'New' in-game and just seeing what comes along, so that you don't have to if you don't want to!
  • We compile our findings into collections for themed playlists that live on the front page of DreamSurfing, or that are shown off on our CoMmunity Creations Twitch streams (every Thursday at 5PM BST!). Ally and Jacob do a fantastic job of this, and it directly helps editorial - so, er, me - identify great stuff that I can then curate down further for editorial coverage.
  • We use Dreams' in-built social media platform. Mm devs are often known to the community, or identify ourselves in our profiles, and encourage players to use the 'Send to dreamer' function to send us their creations. We can also sort content by various in-game parameters (e.g. amount of likes, trending etc).
  • Very often, us Molecules will use Slack to send each other our favorite things we've found in-game. We have a very useful web portal called indreams.me, from which all publicly-released creations can be shared and queued up - or even instantly launched - in-game, which makes this simple.
  • We'll spend a lot of time lurking the hashtags on social media: #DreamsPS4, #MadeInDreams, etc. It's kind of like our own little Screenshot Saturday for Dreams, with creators sharing progress updates and footage, swapping dev tips, and players making recommendations to the rest of the community.
  • r/PS4Dreams is fairly active on Reddit, and we find that different kinds of creators and players prefer to gather and share progress there. Browsing that subreddit gives us access to a different part of our community, and to creations that we might not necessarily see on, say, Twitter.
  • Dreams' Twitch community is delightful, and we see a nice mix of 'play' and 'create' streams. It can be illuminating to drop in on one of those and see what game is making a bit of a splash on Twitch, or get an early look at a promising project being developed live. Again, it's important to not just check in with the most popular community members, but also to see what's going on in the streams with a lower viewer count - sometimes the coolest hidden gems are being worked on there.

Game Developer: More specifically, what qualities have you personally learned to look out for during your time at Media Molecule? What sort of projects tend to inspire other creators and spark joy in players?

Simpkins: We need to keep our particular missions in mind for supporting Dreams, which then help us set our own parameters for what "the good stuff" means in Dreams. We're keen to bring in new players by foregrounding things with more mainstream appeal, but we also want to bring useful, interesting and inspiring things to the attention of creators and community members to help them feel like they're getting the most out of Dreams.

Here are just a few characteristics that tend to rise to the top of our curation parameters for Dreams:

Realism

Anyone with a passing interest in Dreams will have noticed that the more realistic-looking creations attract lots of attention from people outside of the Dreams community. Creations such as John Beech's high-fidelity carpets, BADROBO82's gorgeous waterfalls and bamboo groves or more recently, sanderobros and SDorin's open-world driving sim Frontier are the things that tend to make media headlines.

Credit: Tren, by John Beech

This makes sense! Realism is a very accessible entry-point into Dreams for people who don't know much about it - anyone can look at a picture of a chameleon made in Dreams and go "Yep, wow, that sure is what a chameleon looks like! I didn't know Dreams could do that!" and enjoy it without too much more investigation or time commitment.

Credit: Camille The Chameleon, by julio_grr

This happens to align nicely with the way content consumption works on the Internet nowadays, and how sites are modeled around it. People like to see or read about things they can recognize or relate to, and to engage with them quickly, before moving on to the next thing. (Recreations of popular games or IPs also tend to do well for this same reason. Due to copyright reasons, we can't promote these creations, as they go against our community guidelines.) Of course, this kind of media attention is great for Dreams and our creators!

Polish

It's more of a vague concept, but it's something that anyone with experience playing games or knowledge of any artistic discipline can identify. Realistic graphics are but a small subset of this. Dreams' shmup scene is a great example: these creators (such as Paulo-Lameiras and BOthegrand) know a genre inside-out, and how to utilize Dreams to make their 2D shoot-'em-ups smooth and satisfying to play.

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Credit: Starfighter Gemini, by BOthegrand

There are the Pig Detective games, which offer multiple hours of point-and-click gameplay, sharp writing, and great character design without sacrificing the quality of any of the elements. LOCK is a first-person puzzler with a level of depth and design ingenuity that honestly stands up to games such as The Witness.

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Credit: LOCK, by Pixel_Gorilla

CyberSheepFilms' ongoing animated series Noguchi's Bell is another example of a professional level of quality being achieved in multiple aspects of a large project: facial animation, voice acting, cinematography.

Credit: CyberSheepFilms

These are a few examples of projects with bigger (well, for Dreams at least, which in reality is anywhere from five collaborators and up) teams; on the other end of the spectrum are the creations often made by just a single person who's spent time perfecting something much smaller. It's important to us to lift these up, too - not every game has to be a huge, multi-disciplinary epic to be "polished," and the inverse is often more common.

Credit: Afterimage, by rocky_with_a_gun

Then we've got projects such as The Idyllium, a first-person museum that is a testament to its creators' knowledge of how to create a surreal, shifting digital space that works in tandem with the sculptures and paintings it's displaying, art and magical architecture augmenting each other in turn.

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Credit: The Idyllium, by Helekosi, ZIIQ and Bevis2

We have musical tracks (and entire albums) that display a deep understanding of composition and dynamics. We have community-curated collections that continuously keep track of releases in the Dreamiverse or pull together useful asset packs, and show great judgment in how they categorize, organize, and present.

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Credit: Gouldian Free Fall, by RAKeogh

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Credit: Thermo-Friendly CoMmunity Popit, by Pookachoo

As with everything in Dreams, even just this one categorization has so much range - but that "polish" element they all have in common is a deep understanding of what exactly they're setting out to create, and how to execute it to a visibly and tangibly high level of quality using Dreams' toolset. Ensuring that these top-tier creations get Mm Picks, editorial nods and feature in our playlists on the front page not only mean that new players can experience how comparable Dreams creations are to things made in other engines, but also give other creators aspirational examples to work towards - and specific names to reach out to for tips or collaboration opportunities.

Novelty

Dreams is extremely well-suited to allowing creators to prototype weird, fresh ideas VERY quickly. What if you could peer through portals to see an alternate version of reality that might allow you to solve puzzles in your current reality? What about a 3D-turned-2D platformer where you're spiraling into the center of the screen towards the end boss?

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Credit: The Path Of Illusions, by Todu

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Credit: Purgatory Panic, by surrounded_

How about a speedrun of a fictional game, live-commentated by a character called The Squealing Gamer? Or a psychedelic combination of hacky sack and Breakout? You might have heard of TannicAlloy, too, who creates real-world gadgets that work with Dreams to come up with working pool tables and perform motion capture.

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Credit: Hognautica Speedrun, by sulky_tardigrade

Credit: Hacky Sack: Brick Breakers, by spiYdrz

That kind of free-form design jazz and improv humor is exactly what we want to encourage - it's why we run plenty of in-game Community Jams, for example - and to highlight through curation. Dreams is certainly not all about who can make the most professional-level thing: it's about players feeling comfortable and supported in their experiments. Anyone who knows the indie scene knows that some of the best games were born from game jam prompts or silly in-jokes with friends. Dreams is an indie dev incubator all its own, and we want to make it a space in which our creators feel happy to splash around for creativity's sake, or to continue tinkering with ideas in Dreams - and outside of it, too.

Functionality

A bit of a boring word for a very cool flavor of Dreams creation that serves players in a practical way, both in-game and out.

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Credit: Twitch Chip, by the_Timme

VORiUM's Imp Lamp is a gadget that attaches to a creator's imp (read: cursor) to help illuminate the sculptures while they're shaping them in a more precise, flexible manner than our own in-game "studio lighting". The_Timme's Twitch chip, meanwhile, works with the PlayStation Remote Play app and a custom-made C# app to allow chat commands, rewards and events on Twitch to directly interact with the Logic in the chip - and, therefore, whichever controllable creation the chip is attached to in Dreams.

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Credit: Community Events TV, by Bella_Iris

Bella_Iris' Community Events TV is a continually updated appliance that lets you literally tune in to a selection of the community-run events, jams and initiatives currently happening in the Dreamiverse. We've seen Dreams players create game jam idea generators, and even blueprint their dream homes using this software - before then actually making them in real life.


Credit: Mat Sky

The applications of Dreams are so wide, and we really want to celebrate this kind of innovative thinking through curation and encourage others to think outside of the box - promoting these creations have the potential to impact people's lives in entirely different ways to games and art.

Heart

One of the most important things we do is keep an eye out for the more personal projects from Dreams creators. Dreams isn't just a dev incubator - it's a social media platform and there are a lot of things made in Dreams that serve as a means of self-expression. Anything that allows our community to communicate with each other in positive ways and understand each other is something that should be celebrated and encouraged.

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Credit: Pride, by markjkirkham

We see a lot of wonderful diary-type creations that allow us to really get to know creators and what's going on inside their heads - Pride by markjkirkham, I Dream In Pink by AphroditesDream and FluffynSassy's beautiful song I Don't Know Why come to mind. Dreams' music scene in general is also filled with this kind of honest self-expression.

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Credit: I Dream In Pink: A Visual Short, by AphroditesDream

What's more, there are games or pieces of art out there in the Dreamiverse that are a little rougher around the edges, but are clearly made with a huge amount of care and thoughtfulness to the best of a creator's current ability. When you spend enough time among a community as we do, you come to realize just how much some creations mean to the people making them. It's always worth supporting passion, and giving the beginner creators and rising stars their moment in the sun: that's how you see some of the biggest improvements and the most unexpected creative gems eventually come to light.

Game Developer: Dreams is an unashamedly community-driven experience, and Media Molecule has worked to bring folks together in a variety of ways. Players and creators can gather on the Dreams forums to follow projects and find collaborators, celebrate the work of their peers at events like DreamsFest and DreamsCom, and stay in the loop by keeping a keen eye on The Impsider. What have initiatives like those taught you about community engagement -- both in terms of successfully generating positivity within the playerbase, and gathering useful feedback for the dev team?

Simpkins: It's definitely taught us that our community, collectively, are capable of a LOT - they can conduct their own events, just as the existence of DreamsFest proves! And they can do it so professionally that people often assume it's an Mm-created event - DreamsFest is a musical festival developed and performed by the community, spearheaded by the brilliant beardofcats88 (who has been developing much of it live on Twitch).

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Credit: Dreamsfest, by beardofcats88 and the Dreamsfest team

They've also taught us that community engagement is vital to evolving these kind of events in a myriad of ways. Throughout 2020, and into this year's events, we used community feedback on them to help improve and iterate the experiences. The reason the elevator system was a part of All Hallows' Dreams last year was based purely on players wanting a quicker way to explore DreamsCom 2020, and the Impy Hub (an evolving in-game space leading up to the 2nd Annual Impy Awards) existed because players loved having that kind of area in All Hallow's Dreams. It's been one of the most exciting parts of these events for us, knowing X exists for the community, because of the community.

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One of the more amusing aspects have been when community members have let us know on social media that they'd love to see a certain feature as part of the event, without knowing that's exactly what we have planned. Take the Impsider's DreamsCom companion magazine as a great example - a couple of days before launch, we saw community members wishing for a 'brochure' to help guide them through the show. It's really exciting to know we're in tune with our community on aspects like this.

Outside of the events, community feedback and engagement has really shaped Dreams into what it is today. It's a constantly evolving game in terms of the content available to players, so we aim to keep things moving as regularly as we can via our patches, as well as the content we ourselves are releasing. Since launch, we've released 30 updates to Dreams (big and small!) that have been based on community feedback, suggestions and more. These have included big features such as VR, or events such as DreamsCom, the annual Impy awards or Megapenguin Rehatched – but of course, we've also released smaller patches that deal with quality of life updates or bug fixes our community have reported on the forum.

Game Developer: What are some of the practical challenges you've faced when organizing ambitious digital events like DreamsCom or DreamsFest? Some tips and tidbits that might be useful for other studios looking to engage with their community in a similar way?

Simpkins: Organizing huge amounts of endlessly varied content from hundreds of creators, and making sure it all works as intended, is a mammoth task - big shoutouts to our QA team at Mm, who take the lead on this work. Our community designer Jamie Breeze managed to program some automation for setting DreamsCom booths into place this year, which turned out to be a huge time-save in some respects, although it caused a few hiccups too. It's very difficult to automate anything perfectly, but at least having a head-start when you're dealing with this volume of player submissions has proved useful. We also had players submit their booths and demos via an official form on indreams.me this year - I think last year, booths were just sent to Mm in-game, which quickly turned a bit hectic. We're still working out our own best practices as to how best to organize big events, as it's still fairly new territory for us!

Curating for Legal is also a huge undertaking for events specifically, as we don't want to be promoting content in them that infringes copyright or falls out of our age rating. This can bump up against our creators' creative intention from time to time, but we aim to increase community knowledge of what's permissible and ultimately it's become less of an issue for our collaborations.

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We also want to make sure they're for everyone, beginner creators and people who want to come and play something amazing. Take Hallowe'en: for our All Hallows' Dreams event we offer a pumpkin to carve as well as a more ambitious project, and last year it was creating a room of a haunted house. Then our team works to add the features, polish, and Mm magic to make it feel really spectacular. Last year we built haunted houses, a spooky pumpkin patch, added costumes and more (we even have some new twists planned this year). It's exciting that everyone can create something, even something small, and feel a part of a big official event. It makes Dreams truly unique and we've seen community pick up and run with this through their own collaborative events - and you'll find people from Mm participating in those, too.

Game Developer: Have there been any community initiatives that didn't quite work as intended (or maybe didn't get the go ahead in the first place)? If so, what did you learn from those experiences?

Simpkins: Community events are a lot of work to put on, and events such as our annual Impy Awards, community expo DreamsCom and Hallowe'en celebration All Hallows' Dreams are all still really new - so they're always a learning experience!

A big learning from last year's DreamsCom that we addressed this year was regarding player flow through the expo. We had a great feature last year where if you visited a player's handmade booth, you could press a button to instantly play the demo for their game. The way that exits in Dreams work, however, means that after you were done playing you'd be booted out of the convention and had to re-enter.

This year, we decided we'd use our new curation superpowers to create a dedicated DreamsCom front page, through which you could check out everybody's demos and trailers; the idea was to make it feel almost like a show floor in itself. While we missed out on having the ability to instantly jump into a demo from someone's booth, it was interesting to see how much it actually preserved the feeling of being at a convention when you weren't getting constantly reminded that you were inside a game.

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Recreating the feeling of being at a real game event digitally was something we could focus more on this year through editorial support, with developer sessions and live demos on our livestreams, and a show companion magazine featuring writeups of some of the best demos to try, booths to visit and activities to take part in. We had a really positive reaction to this approach of creating a full virtual show atmosphere, and it's given us some useful ideas for next year - hopefully we can continue to improve and combine in-game functionality and real-world coverage to get even closer to making Dreams events feel like more than just a playable update.

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In terms of stuff that didn't go ahead: we actually had an idea for an event that was almost identical to community-made musical festival Dreamsfest. It was put on the back burner for various reasons and shortly after, Dreams player beardofcats88 and crew announced that they were working on Dreamsfest! With a creative community like this, stuff like that happens more often than you'd think, which is pretty cool.

Game Developer: Dreams is a unique beast in that it's part game platform and part game engine, and I was impressed to see a Dreams project get nominated for a YGD BAFTA recently. I'm keen to learn a bit more about how you engage with creators specifically. For instance, do you try and prepare them for the pressure that might come from having their project spotlighted, or how to deal with a sudden influx (or exodus) of players? You know, the highs and lows of being a game developer.

Simpkins: We were all thrilled to see Finley's YGD BAFTA nomination for The Little Ninja!

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Credit: The Little Ninja, by Mystical_Vortex_

We also recently saw Anthony Cristiano win the Freeplay Student Game Award for The Snowgardens, which was another huge moment for all of us.

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Credit: The Snowgardens, by HalfUp

On the community team - and throughout Mm, really - we have a close relationship with our community creators. We're in direct conversation with them almost every day via our livestreams, via emails and DMs offering support and answering questions. When particularly impressive Dreams projects capture a wider audience, we and Sony PR are on hand to help navigate PR and media coverage. We want to make it easier for our creators' work to be recognized in the wider world, and we have a ton of plans regarding how we move forward with this in future.

Our Outreach team at Mm is able to work even more closely with individual Dreams creators when they come on board to help us develop official in-house projects - creators are, of course, paid for their time and expertise. Our playable collaboration with Mercedes-Benz made headlines recently, a game directed and designed by Dreams creator Scott Vanderburgh (aka the_burgervan) and made with our help. Scott joined our company Slack for the duration of development, and that meant we could help guide him through a lot of the practicalities - and challenges! - of partnering and collaborating with a well-known brand and gearing up for a commercial release, with everything that involves: client meetings, the QA and player test processes, even media interviews.

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As far as big breakout moments that might overwhelm our Dreams creators, I think we've yet to have one - but I don't doubt it's coming, from everything I've seen come out of the Dreamiverse so far. The free-flowing way this dev space works means it's ripe for a moment where a wild idea comes along and captures everybody's imaginations! We're already working behind the scenes at Mm to develop ways that we can provide more support to players working on Dreams projects with breakout potential.

Game Developer: Finally, I'm wondering how you'd like to see Dreams evolve moving forward? We've seen some other game creation platforms like Roblox birth projects so successful that it resulted in the creators actually establishing their own game studio. Do you think Dreams could head in a similar direction? Is Media Molecule prepared for that?

Simpkins: There are lots of people forming their own game development teams in Dreams already, which is great to see! We do have a commercial beta program that we're starting to see more groups apply for - for example CyberSheepFilms, who are setting up a Kickstarter for Noguchi's Bell, allowing the team to raise the funds needed to ensure they have the time and security to put lots of hours into a really ambitious project.

We're also seeing some creators take concepts that they've found success with in Dreams to other game creation tools to work on - ManChickenTurtle's Twitch platformer Slice is one example with its followup being made outside of Dreams, and we've had several Dreams players develop concepts in other engines for release on mobile platforms. Dreams is also such a great development sketchbook, and it's heartening to see creators using it to make prototypes for things that they can then take away and develop further.

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Credit: Slice, by ManChickenTurtle

It's really exciting to see evolution in both of these directions. We'd like to help more creators monetize through our commercial beta program, but we're also thinking very seriously about how we can allow creators to be supported more directly in a way that makes sense for Dreams and the creative ecosystem that's developed in our community. That culture is a big part of why Dreams is such a lovely, welcoming, creative, and collaborative scene right now; it's also very delicate. We have a lot of different views among our playerbase regarding monetization that we need to take into account, and so we've got to be really careful about how we would implement something like this, on top of it already being a complex feature to implement.

Again, it really comes down to that balancing act we perform as we work on Dreams, which I think is so unique in terms of being a legitimate indie game development platform and engine, AND a creative social hangout where openness, accessibility and shareability without roadblocks is key to the experience.

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