The GameHorizon Conference in Gateshead attracts attendees from across the business spectrum in order to discern where the future of the games development industry lays. Stuart Richardson spent time with the event’s advisory board to find out more…
What distinguishes GameHorizon from other industry events and conferences currently tempting sector professionals?
Carri Cunliffe: GameHorizion is unique in that it is the only executive-level conference that we have in Europe. It offers people really high-level networking, the chance to meet the real decision-makers in the games industry. Those delegates also come from quite a wide range of games companies. You can meet people there from social games companies, casual games companies, high-end publishers and a great deal of representitives from independent games companies as well.
The conference isn’t just looking at the games industry, but we are also observing trends from other industries to work out a ‘best practice’ for our own. This year we will be looking at the music industry and observing how they changed from the big record labels to digital distribution of their music to creating community fanbases through viral marketing.
Simon Prytherch: From my own perspective, it’s probobly the one conference I go to where everyone I meet is worth meeting. They are all peers or at my sort of level, running a studio, or executives and publishers. The speakers are great, and the networking oppourtunities are amazing.
Darren Jobling: GameHorizon isn’t insular. It doesn’t presuppose that our industry has all the answers for our industry. It looks at other people to see what we can learn from them.
What can attendees expect to gain from GameHorizon?
Gareth Edmondson: Having been to various conferences, this one is more interesting because it is aimed at an executive level. It’s more interesting in terms of what talks are on for people at my level. You really do get something out of listening to other studio managers, or people high-up in Microsoft or Sony or whatever. Everything is set at a much higher level.
Jobling: It sounds bizzare, but GameHorizon is an uplifting experience. I always walk out of there a lot more upbeat an optimistic than I was when I walked in. That’s two-pronged as well, firstly you get to talk to and hear from other companies facing the same issues as you are, so you know you are not alone. Secondly, a lot of solutions are bandied around. There is no pessimism when like-minded people are working together.
Prytherch: I like to go to conferences that are inspirational, and promote tangental thoughts. GameHorizon has always given me that. That the speakers come from both within and without of the classical games development industry, and they are always inspirational. Last year we had Richard St John, and that was probobly one of the most memorable talks that I have ever been to. He came on after lunch when everyone was full and tired, and before long everyone was on their feet.
Jobling: This year we have people like Mark Schulman, who has been the drummer with various bands like Velvet Revolver and is currently drumming on Pink’s UK tour, and I think that you can guarantee that no other European games conference will have people like him coming in from other industries and talking.
Cunliffe: The conference gives executive level people the chance to take time out of the office. It’s not just about networking, it’s also about the chance to find out what is going on in the future of the industry. It lets executives think about what direction they want to take their companies in over the next few years. You don’t really get to think about that kind of thing when you are in the thick of developing a game, so it kind of allows for some time out.
How is this year’s event tailored to reflect current trends and challenges in the industry? For example, has a theme been set?
Cunliffe: Well GameHorizon is always forward-thinking. The three main areas we always look at – which are quite broad – are the future of the industry in terms of technology, the future of the industry in terms of business models, and content.
This year you will see that there is quite a diverse set of talks. It’s as if the industry is sort of being split into two halves. You still have a lot of interest in the high-end graphics and triple-A titles, but we are also seeing a lot of the social and casual games coming up and making a lot of money. The industry seems to be becoming split between those two areas.
Jobling: The event looks at stuff like transactions and social gaming and that sort of thing. It was quite a considerable time before most other people picked that up. We look at what is going on in social gaming, and how that applys to what others are doing currently in the console market. We look at the oppourtunities there, there has been talk already about digital distribution, but what are people doing now?
Prytherch: Talking briefly there about the music industry, personally I think that they handled the transition into digital distribution really badly. It will be interesting for me, in general, to hear the lessons they believe that they have learnt from that. We can learn from their mistakes.
What is everyone looking forward to the most at this year’s event?
Cunliffe: There is a guy called Jesse Schell, who is CEO of Schell Games. I am particularly looking forward to him because he did an absolutely amazing talk at the DICE summit earlier year. His talk at GameHorizon is called ‘Roadmap to the Game Apocalypse’, and he will really be digging deeper into the issues that he discussed at DICE, looking at how games are going to impact our everyday life in the future. I think that is going to be really interesting. I am really excited about that one myself [laughs].
Edmondson: Peter Molyneux is always interesting, isn’t he? It’s always a rollercoster with him, and one that I look forward to.
Ed Bartlett: I’m most looking forward to Tom Rothenberg, from the McCann Erickson ad agency. They handle all of the marketing for Microsoft and Xbox, as well as everything for Peter Molyneux. I think a lot of the developers and independents that are coming through now are starting to understand the need to consider the marketing aspect in their appeal to consumers even from the concept stage. I think marketing is important from then all the way up to the publishers, and I don’t feel that you see enough people talking about that at development conferences. I think we will see some wide-eyes when they show some of the work that they have been doing there. That company has always been pretty cutting-edge with that.
Prytherch: I’m also looking forward to Tom’s talk. The marketing angle doesn’t appeal to me so much, but there is also a guy called Scott Foe who has a varied background in creating a wide variety of games. He also writes an active blog on the web as well, which is very interesting reading.
Cunliffe: Apparently he’s been called the ‘Tarantino of the games industry’. I’m not massively sure what that means, but he is a bit out there.
Jobling: I’m excited about Mark Schulman, the drummer. I’ve heard him speak before and he always has something interesting and relevent to say. The stakes are on as well to see if, as the motivational speaker, he can be as popular as Richard St. John. His drum kit is definitely going to be amazing!
Cunliffe: Someone else who has confirmed this week, actually, and was excellent on a panel last year, is Nils Holger-Henning from Bigpoint Games. Bigpoint are one of the biggest web browser game companies, and he will be talking about new business models and new technology, so that should be very interesting. People can definitely learn from the kind of huge success which they have had.
Bartlett: They did some amazing stuff with the tv networks in Germany. They used some of the free air space on the cable channels to broadcast the games that were being played online and use that as reciprocal marketing. I think from that they have been aquired by NBC, the big network in America. They’ve done some incredible things.
Jobling: One of the really interesting things will be how the likes of Bigpoint, with their 110m registered players, plans to do battle against their rivals in the likes of EA with all their IP, I think that is going to be really interesting as well.
Why was Gateshead selected as a location for GameHorizon?
Mark Carrigan: From the council’s perspective, we have long been a supporter of arts, creativity and culture. We built the Angel of the North here, we have a huge regeneration stratergy in place cetered around buildings and the creative industries in Gateshead. We have a designated business centre called the International Business Centre which is home to a lot of start-ups. Obviously we are delighted that we have the likes of Eutechnyx here, Atomhawk, and we are soon to have an international online games developer moving to Gateshead as well.
Part of the regeneration stratergy is to build a section designated the ‘Creative Quarter’, in which we are building something called the Northern Design Centre which is all about housing digital and creative businesses. We are really working to bolster the economy with creativity, and games are at the forefront of our minds. We look forward to helping more startups and encouraging collaboration along the way as well.
Jobling: A lot of people come up to Gateshead for the first time with a lot of negative, preconcieved ideas, and we have been a little lucky that so far every time we have held the conference the weather has been great. An American guy came up to me last year and told me he thought it was better in Gateshead than in the south of France!
Obviously there is also a big cluster of game developers here that have developed naturally. GameHorizon is a great, big network connected to all the other related networks in that field. It is where GameHorizon is naturally based. The council here is also very forward-thinking. Everything that people associate with Newcastle actually belongs to Gateshead, the Angel of the North, the Baltic, the Millenium Bridge, the Metro Centre and The Sage are all owned by Gateshead.
Cunliffe: We always have lots and lots of positive feedback from people about the activities and facilities in Gateshead, the cultural aspect, you’re right next to the Baltic art gallery, everybody always says there are wonderful facilities. It’s a great place.
Carrigan: If any developers are interested in setting up a business or seeing what sort of support is available from Gateshead Council, I would be delighted if they wanted to contact me at email@example.com.
Prytherch: From the perspective of someone who lives in the Midlands and travels to Newcastle and Gateshead a few times a year, including for the conference, I can say that it really is, and I don’t mean any offense by this, but it is shockingly beautiful. It is just a really high-quality location.
What does everyone see as the key challenges and opportunities effecting the games industry today?
Bartlett: The industry has gone through a weird transition in the past ten to fifteen years, it became huge overnight and now has compressed again, consolodation has happened and a lot of new platforms have come out and have flourished with the online market and digital distribution and so on. Now there is a great oppourtunity for people to flesh-out that ecosystem and find new nieches that can be filled with interesting content, and there are a lort of challenges in doing that all from scratch once again.
Look at all the people who have suddenly appeared from nowhere, like Moshi Monsters for example, who have become a huge, talked-about franchise from nothing.
In the past a lot of people have created games because it appeals to them, but now a lot of people are creating commercial prospects with games, and there are a lot of oppourtunities for that kind of development for the industry.
Jobling: The key challenge is obviously the change that is coming along for the traditional console-style developers. However, that change is very much going to be a good thing. Console developers can really focus on console quality in the near future, looking into things like the free-play market, which we will be specifically looking into at the conference as well.
Cunliffe: Yes, we have a panel on that. Mark Rein and Nicholas Lovell are in it. They will be looking at the kind of high-end graphics that consoles are using compared to the casual gaming platforms and social games and so on that use lower end graphics and focus more on content.
Bartlett: People need to look at the risks that will be appearing during the transition to online and digital distribution. There will be a natural fall-off of mainstream consumers as people are unable to access certain content or platforms because they don’t have the right technology or connection speed, whatever it is. There will be an oppourtunity for people to create new content there to fill those gaps as well.
Jobling: For the first time ever venture capitalists and other sources of finance are really interested in what we are up to. You’ll see a lot of analysts, reserchers and the like coming along. For the first time ever they are expressing a real interest in the games themselves.
Prytherch: Everything is moving over from retail to digital distribution, and this isn’t a quick process. Many consumers will still only but retail disks, so for us the key challenge is finding a balance between the two things, discussing digital downloads and retail distribution for publishers as well.
Edmondson: Having worked in the games industry for a number of years, we have gotten really used to change. Change is just part of what we do all the time, because the industry changes so dramatically and so often. The change and the challenges that are occurring at the moment are just a part of our natural evolution, which are creating oppourtunities and forcing us to think differently and for the better.
The games industry has always been really good at that anyway. We haven’t always been a console and disk-based industry, for example. Change is what we do.
Prytherch: One of the main changes is that developers who have been producing games that get launched and then forgotten about are changing from that development model into a service model. Providing a service is something totally different, that is something that will be going on for years to come. A lot of developers aren’t geared up for that, but are trying to change their business internally to prepare to take that on.
Jobling: That’s true, but that is a very similar issue to when games went from 2D to 3D graphics. The difference is that now there are that many more people involved. We still have to look at the new skills required and the new people we need to get on board, it’s just for a different reason.
Will casual gaming platforms like the iPhone, and browser-based online games ever compete graphically with current generation console gaming?
Prytherch: Why do they need to compete? Most people don’t play a game for that, or at least not that alone. Certainly that is not why people play Farmville. As long as the graphics appropriately represent what they are doing, these people care more about the social aspect of gameplay.
Bartlett: If you think about Farmville, that kind of a game really wouldn’t benefit from a Super Mario Galaxy style of control and view setup. It would be unessesarry, so I agree with Simon on that point.
Edmondson: People are always going to want to exploit hardware as much as they can anyway. There will be improvements in the visual quality of the handheld stuff, but there will always be a place for the simple pick-up-and-play titles. There is room for both.
Jobling: Certain games can gain something from high-end graphics, but there are others where nothing is added to the experience.