Creative Assembly and SEGA’s Tim Heaton: “What we have is an opportunity to share knowledge.”

Last Friday, SEGA Europe and Creative Assembly hosted the first ever SEGA Dev Day – a new conference that brought together developers from across Amplitude, Creative Assembly, CA Sofia, Hardlight, Relic, Sports Interactive and the newly acquired Two Point Studios.

The first conference was focused on three tracks: programming, design and production, all featuring speakers including Brenda Romero, John Romero, Linda Fane, Kate Gregory and Bjorn Toft Madsen.

To explain the motivations for and future of the SEGA Dev Day, we spoke to Tim Heaton, Studio Director at Creative Assembly and EVP of SEGA Studios about this brand new conference.

Tim Heaton, Studio Director at Creative Assembly and EVP of SEGA Studios

Why are you having the first Sega Developer Conference now?

We have a breadth of incredible talent across the six Sega West studios, with around 1100 developers in total. We recently estimated that across Creative Assembly, Amplitude, Hardlight, Relic, Sports Interactive and Two Point Studios that amounts to around 4.5 thousand years of game dev experience. That’s a huge resource that we want to draw on and share with one another.

The planning for SEGA Dev Day started around the same time as I started the role of EVP of Sega Studios. My focus is very much looking at that shared learning across SEGA’s development studios. A lot of the time we are seeing similar challenges, and of course solutions; it just makes sense to have a platform to talk about these and from that more solutions and more innovation emerge.

Are you getting everyone to attend? That’s quite a logistical challenge!

For the first year we’ve kept it very focused; Programmers, Designers and Development Managers. We want to ensure we hit that quality mark; get the content right, get the format right and create an atmosphere that encourages this shared learning. Too often I’ve been to conferences where, while the talks may be good, the atmosphere just feels uninspiring. We were clear from the beginning that Dev Day would drive excitement and creativity. 

So now our plan is very much to expand on this model, iterating, improving and always focusing on the best outcome for our people. This year across the tracks we had approximately 300 attendees, when we expand to include our artists, that figure could be over 1000. That’s a big logistical challenge and we are fortunate that Creative Assembly has set up a solid foundation to build on, in establishing the first one.

How are you choosing what talks/sessions are going to be of most benefit to the group as a whole? And what will the balance be between external and internal speakers?

We wanted the main focus of the event to be inter-studio discussions. We definitely wanted to bring in external speakers to inspire and share their experiences. That brings a slightly different dynamic, and makes it very interesting for people but the main goal was also to build connections and share learning across the studios. There was such a willingness for honest and transparent sharing (the benefit of having an internal conference), and that really came across in what we got out of it.

With that in mind, we set out to secure an external speaker for each track; Brenda Romero on Design, Kate Gregory on Programming, and Linda Fane on Development Management, and looked to our internal experts for other content. Of course, there was some flexibility with this, and we jumped at the opportunity of welcoming John Romero too. Having the external speakers around during the whole event was really special too, providing opportunities for people to meet well known names that they look up to, and discuss things in depth – an opportunity something like GDC rarely provides.

Internally, our speakers submitted their talks, these were anonymously ‘graded’ by our discipline directors from across all SEGA Studios. That way we followed a fair process and were able to ensure that the final content hit the mark for our audiences. Of course, game development is so specialised it’s difficult to have, for example, all design talks directly relevant to all Designers. However, through this process, even those that weren’t directly relevant were still very interesting.

Crucially, of course, we recognise it’s the first year and we’ll listen to all the feedback from our developers and see where we can improve for SEGA Dev Day 2020. 

The studios obviously have their own cultures, how do you respect those, while at the same time making them all feel part of something larger?

Sega has a very strong view on studio culture. We think it’s vital that each studio retains and develops its own culture, it’s at the root of the success we’ve had and for me is one of the most interesting elements of making games. We’ll never want to provide generic identities and we don’t even want to soften any of the edges. What we do have is an opportunity to share knowledge. We sometimes forget how isolating working in a single studio can be and we all have a lot to learn. 

We plan to further build networks of people to share knowledge and more formal processes to capture that. Currently we are looking into how we can offer secondments of individuals between studios. Sega Studios are based in Vancouver, Paris, Sofia and the UK. It’s a great opportunity for people who want to see some of the best places in the world. 

There’s a lot of developer conferences already, will this limit your staff’s participation elsewhere?

Absolutely not, in fact, Creative Assembly has a great track record of supporting conference attendance; this year alone we sent over 20 developers to GDC, and approximately 180 have been to other conferences this year. Sometimes they’ll be speaking but a lot of the time it’s about their personal career development. 

Holding our own conference amplifies these benefits, it’s the next step in our learning and development plans; a focused day of learning unrestricted by external media considerations that benefits everyone at our studios. 


About Chris Wallace

Chris is a freelancer writer and was MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer from November 2019 until May 2022. He joined the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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