How the London Games Festival is establishing the “games capital of the world”

Michael French, Head of Games, Games London

The London Games Festival is making a very welcome return this year, taking place online and in person from Friday the 1st April to Sunday the 10th of April. And after the challenges of the last two years, we certainly approve of Games London’s mission statement of making London the “games capital of the world.” And not only because one half of MCV/DEVELOP happens to be based here.

As with every year, there’s a whole host of events taking place over the nine day festival, with highlights such as the Games Finance Market, the BAFTA Games Awards as well as the brand new consumer event, W.A.S.D.

Festivities kick off on the 1st, with an outdoor exhibition at Trafalgar Square showcasing, among other things, the games chosen for this year’s Official Selection. We’ll let Michael French, head of games at Games London take us through it.

“Games London runs the umbrella brand festival,” says French. “We see it as like being akin to London Fashion Week or London Film Festival. It’s an umbrella brand that lets other events under it, and we run some of the events ourselves. I’ve been running it since 2016, and it’s a really, really useful way to do it. It means that things like W.A.S.D. can join the schedule, BAFTA Games can join the schedule… It’s just overall a really good mix of content.”

Kicking things off is the aforementioned outdoor takeover of Trafalgar Square: the event’s ensemble collection showcasing some of the games in their official selection.

“Given the current mood right now, it’s not a come down and play games sort of thing,” says French. “It’s out in public, representing the game sector, representing the diversity and creativity here. It’s pictures, illustrations, artwork, all revealing that.

“We’ve also got a conference day on April 4th, called The Next Level, that’s looking at the future trends, some of the obvious stuff and some of the non obvious stuff – so yes, things like the Metaverse. But also the four day work week, AR… all sorts of things that you can think of.”

GAMES FINANCE MARKET

David Lilley, founder of W.A.S.D. producer Roucan

And of course, it wouldn’t be the London Games Festival without the Games Finance Market, one the festival’s leading events that helps developers find investment, running from the 5th to the 8th of April for both in person and online meetings.

“Another big event of ours is the Games Finance market, which we’ve run since the festival started in 2016. That’s where we match up studios with investors, which has been massively successful for us. It’s part of the reason why we’re primarily funded by the Mayor of London. So our plan is to make London the games capital of the world. To do that, businesses here need investment and support. We get really good attendance from VCs, publishers, angel investors, all kinds of people who want to put money into games, businesses and games projects.”

The return to an in-person Finance Market is certainly a welcome one, having been forced to take place online in recent years.

However, that’s not to say that the move to online during the pandemic was unsuccessful – the digital festival alone last year created over £20m in business. But with 97,000 people turning up to the last physical event in 2019, it can only serve to broaden the opportunities.

It’s foot traffic like that which has helped Games London to create a business pipeline of nearly £90m for participants.

BACK TO THE DOCKS

While all events are created equal, I have to admit that W.A.S.D. already holds a special place in my heart. The event’s tagline, “A new video game event made for you,” might as well have been hyper-specifically written for me.

And it’s perhaps not for the reason you’d immediately think. Sure, I want to aimlessly wander around a consumer game show, talk to developers and play games. Absolutely. But there’s more to it than that – with W.A.S.D. marking a return to a well-loved venue. You see, W.A.S.D. will be taking place from the 7th to the 9th of April at Tobacco Dock, the former venue of ReedPop’s sadly departed EGX sister event, Rezzed.

The announcement that Rezzed was to be replaced by EGX Birmingham caused a howl of grief among certain industry types. Rezzed may not have been the big-ticket item next to its bigger sister EGX, but Tobacco Docks has long been beloved – and not just because of the McDonald’s nearby (though it helps). In fact, the announcement that W.A.S.D. had secured the venue was a remarkably well timed one – attracting an influx of excitement to the new event. For David Lilley, founder of W.A.S.D. producer Roucan, the decision to take place at the Docks was an easy one.

“There needs to be a large-scale consumer activation for the London games industry,” says Lilley. “There is a need to do a strong event at Tobacco Dock. It’s good timing. It’s never going to be a massive blockbuster event, although it could host massive blockbuster content, because that’s part of the gaming market.

“You know, I was responsible for Rezzed [when Lilley was head of events at ReedPop from 2019-2020] and W.A.S.D. is just a natural progression from that. If there was a chance that there wasn’t going to be an event at Tobacco Docks, then we had to step in and put one on.”

Much like its spiritual predecessor, W.A.S.D. will be a welcoming space to games of all sizes.

“You can bring anything,” says Lilley. “We just announced that we’re doing curios which is a collection of independent products curated by David Hayward. It’s a chance for smaller indie devs just to come and show their wares.

“Plus, we’ve got the more mainstream people with the likes of Devolver, Thunderful, Team17… those kinds of brands. The London Games Festival needs that kind of play at the heart.”

We know we certainly can’t wait to wander around Tobacco Docks once again, and we’re surely not alone in that, judging by the excitement around the event.

“I think that’s the proof though,that people really enjoy events when they can go to something and they’re safe,” adds French. “And I think that venue specifically, Tobacco Docks, people have become quite attached to it. It’s one of the hearts of the London Games Festival.

“Events like W.A.S.D, they’re destination events. People will travel to these things, when they’re good and when they matter. The festival is good, it all matters. One of our other motivations is to encourage people to come to the city. People were coming to our old events in the before times, and treating it like a trip. I think they’ll do the same with W.A.S.D”

That isn’t all that’s going on at this year’s festival, of course. The wide array of events means that Games London can represent the different faces of the industry – working under a realisation that games can mean a great number of different things to different audiences – and indeed, expand the recognition of games as an art form.

“There’s another event in the schedule called Now Play This, which has been running since the festival was founded. It’s very different to an event like, for instance, W.A.S.D. It’s much more about artistic and playful experiences.”

Now Play This, described as a ‘festival of experimental game design,’ is taking place at Somerset House from April 8-10th. The event is themed around the relationship between games, play and democracy – and will feature both on-site and digital exhibitions, as well as a design camp.

“A lot of global games art practitioners go to Now Play This. It just reaches a very different audience. People who might visit Somerset House, but wouldn’t necessarily go to a games event – and suddenly realise they understand the potential of games.”

COME TOGETHER

As event organisers ourselves, we’re well aware that there is huge demand for industry events to bring us all together again. That said, it’s difficult to talk about these things without addressing the elephant in the room. With many of us now triple-vaxxed, things are certainly looking rosier than they were this time last year – but Games London is still very aware of the need to ensure all its attendees feel safe. Thankfully, the events industry has come a long way in adapting their events to better suit these difficult times.

“Humans need to meet face to face to do business,” says French. “I mean, we did an outbound mission to Slush in Helsinki, back in December. Just as the Omicron wave was taking off. Over there, I saw how you could run an event super safe. It’s possible to do it even under those slightly more stringent times. And we’re coming out of that now, So I think that the industry wants it, and consumers want it.”

“I think in order to do successful matchmaking, you really need to meet people,” agrees Lilley. “Because you just don’t get it the same online as you do in person. a lot of it’s based on personality,  and a lot of it’s based on recognising physical traits. I think that being back in person will be a big deal.”

While events like these have certainly been missed, Games London has done good work over the last two years, while adapting to the pandemic.

“We were given the go home order two weeks before the 2020 London Games Festival,” says French. “We’d already picked an online platform, and so we were quite lucky in the sense that it already had video call options on it. And I think two weeks in, everyone was a bit stir crazy in the first lockdown, and were just relieved to go to something to connect to people and see familiar faces. The learning there for us was that you can use technology to solve some of the issues that came from the pandemic. Not health wise, but solve the issues that it was creating. “It became very difficult for the industry to do any good bizdev in those two years. A lot of these deals are done in conversations, they’re done at a meeting over coffee, or at Tobacco Dock or somewhere else. That stuff just didn’t happen anymore.”

Hybrid events like the London Games Festival feel like the best of both worlds in a lot of respects. To many of us, online-only events haven’t felt quite the same as being able to speak to each other in person. From both a business point of view, but also just a social one – lots of us have missed physical events.

But that doesn’t mean the increased accessibility of digital events has to go away. Online events opened up the 2021 Games Festival to people from all over the world, people who, for one reason or another, may not have been able to make the trip to London to attend in person.

“So last year, for the 2021 Games Festival, we did that entirely online. We actually ended up having more international visitors last year online than we had when it was a physical event.

“Because suddenly, people can connect to London from home, wherever that home is, wherever on the planet they are. And so we had delegations from South Korea, Sweden, and Switzerland… which have got these little pockets of indie game creators, and suddenly they felt part of the festival.

“So we’re doing that again. And I think I think we’ll have a mix of a mix of them coming in person, and another set calling in. This new world has meant that we can make London more accessible, and make the Games Festival more accessible.”

And with that accessibility in mind, with a wide array of events available both online and in person, this year’s festival is shaping up well, and I’m sure I’ll be seeing many of you in London this April.

But be it online or in person, Games London is certainly doing good work in expanding its audience, and further boosting its mission to make London the games capital of the world.

“There’s a diverse range of events,” notes Lilley. “I mean, look at the BAFTA Games Awards. They’re literally the most prestigious games awards on the planet. I know, other games awards may be available – sorry MCV!”

How dare you, Lilley.

“But they’re on the same journey as the rest of us. They’ll have a live ceremony in person, and there’ll be people in the room – but they’ll also broadcast it. And if you look at what they’ve done in previous years, especially in the 2021 ceremony – they’re finding new audiences.

“I think that’s the great thing. We do the festival, and we’re all working together and individually on our own projects. There’s really some great events in the festival.”

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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