What Do Game Developers Actually Get Out of Game Conventions?
We went to EGX in Birmingham to ask a host of video game makers about the stress, strains and strengths of the modern convention.
Conventions can be intense: the press of people, the overwhelming smell of body odour, the overpriced, undercooked food. But they can also be an excellent way to make and meet friends. They're a strange mixture of competition and community. We caught up with some of the game developers attending Birmingham's EGX in September 2016 to find out what they actually think of the whole experience.
Christophe Carrier – Level Designer for 'DISHONORED 2'
"Conventions have a lot of noise and it's difficult to speak to people. It's difficult to have conversations like this one, basically, where you can develop what you're thinking [about the game].
"I used to be an actor – I'd be on stage, and it's the same feeling. You've rehearsed, you learn your text, and just before it starts, you're backstage, and you're like: 'Why am I here? What am I doing?' It's kind of the same feeling, because this is the first time everyone is going to see your work. But it's exciting at the same time, because you see people play it.
"We have play tests, of course, but it's not the same thing. The people there know that they're not judging us, but to test the game and give us information. But here, it's like: well, play it, and tell us what you think. It's awesome and stressful at the same time."
Don't you ever want to jump in when someone isn't playing the game 'properly'?
"Of course, every time! But I don't. If the players get frustrated and that's in the information we get, then we have to deal with it, whether it's too late or not. But until the end there's always something you can do, right?"
Phil Duncan – Co-Developer of 'OVERCOOKED'
"The first day of a conference is always the worst, because it's like, 'this controller's not working,' or, 'the hub we've got isn't the right one'. You need to send people off to get the right pieces. But, actually, the first day of EGX has been a lot less stressful, because the game's out and there's not that fear of 'which build do we bring' and 'is it going to work with this PC' and all that kind of stuff. If it doesn't work now, then we're in serious trouble!
"The major difference between pre-release and post-release showcasing is the stress. The very first convention we did when we took a prototype was the Norwich Gaming Festival – a really small thing but it's really great, really fantastic, and it's free to all the public.
"We were there with a laptop, showing the game on a TV, and every time it broke or we found a bug, we had to fix it there and then on the laptop. You're sat there and people are like, 'Can I play?' 'No! Not yet! One second!'
"We've had some horrible bugs, hard crashed, and times when the game just completely dies. We had one bug originally where you could throw away the fire extinguisher and you couldn't get it back, and the whole kitchen would catch fire and the people playing would ask, 'What do I do now?' All we could do was shrug. And I kind of wanted to leave it in because, well, you threw away the fire extinguisher. That's nobody's fault but your own."
Alex Rose – Developer of 'Super Rude Bear Resurrection'
"I wouldn't do EGX if it weren't a press thing, and I wouldn't do America. The thing is you're never going to get enough footfall, and it'll never translate into sales. I know there are some people who bring merchandise, and they can sell enough of it that they can make a profit. They can go to PAX and it'll pay for itself, and it's a bit of free advertising, so it's really worth it for them.
"But I really don't think that a booth is always worth it. Only a few indies succeed, and most of them don't. I could spend £3,000 on promotion here; instead, I pay the £750 for a single booth, and save the other two and a bit grand to put back into the game. I'd rather push the money into development and into things that'll make it a better product; but then I come to a show and because I've got a smaller booth, now my game's going to look worse.
"I save money where I can, I pay myself very little, and I stay in one-star hotels so I can do many shows as possible. I maximise this budget to make sure the game as good as possible. It's difficult without a publisher – they'll go, 'We're doing PAX, and EGX,' and they'll just put you in every show and do PR for you. But the downside is they take 100 percent of your game revenue until they're paid back, then they'll take 40 percent or whatever forever. I signed with Creative England, and from that I got to Sony, and now I would never sign with a publisher, because I've got my budget, I've done it all myself."
Ola Holmdahl – Developer of 'Little Nightmares'
"I know relatively little of the UK indie scene, in comparison to the Swedish one. Back home, I know quite a lot of people and how they work.
"I think the UK has had a lot of really interesting success in the indie scene. The ebb and flow of the UK games market – you had that crash a while back, a lot of people out of work, and spreading out across Europe and Canada, and then returning when things picked up or forming new outfits, and building new things – has created an interesting atmosphere.
"In Sweden, all the indies are coming from game development, or they're enthusiasts who did an engineering degree, and do games in their spare time. The Swedish indie scene is also a lot younger than the UK indie scene."
How do you put together a demo for a show like this?
"First off, what do you have? You look at the code that you have ready, and you find the pieces that are interesting and that represent core aspects of the game you're making. Then you assemble that in a designed experience, but save some of the best stuff for later.
"Also, you don't want to make it too hard, because people get stuck and frustrated, and they haven't had the time to go through the full game or half a game to learn the skills that it's meant to teach you. But also you don't want to make it too easy, because then it's not worthwhile. It's a big balancing act."
Steve Mayles and Mark Stevenson – Art Directors on 'YOOKA-LAYLEE'
Mark: "I was always heavily into art, that was always what I decided I was gonna do. I left school after O-Levels to go to college to do art, much to the disappointment of my teachers – it was something that back then wasn't really seen as a viable career. I ended up doing graphic design, and I'd always been heavily into games as a kid, but I'd kinda lost interest at that point. I guess I was getting into girls and beer and stuff. But I got back into games at college, and thought: 'That's what I want to do.' I ended up at Rare, which was just down the road. It was back in the days when Rare still advertised in the local press."
Steve: "I did A-Levels, not sure what I was gonna do, and one of those was art. My brother had just got a job at Rare a few years previously, doing testing and then design, and he said it was a fantastic place. It seemed like a convenient step to make."
How does it feel when your game is on the show floor at a place like this?
Mark: "There's some nervous anticipation because of how people are gonna take it – because you're working on something in isolation, it's easy to lose perspective. But one of the interesting things about how the industry's evolved is that we're now more involved with the media, and the fans and the community. After doing the Kickstarter for this game, with about 80,000 backers, we've got a responsibility to them."
Steve: "Sometimes the fans know the games better than we do. It's great to see it when a player says that something they've seen in Yooka-Laylee is better than a comparable thing in a previous game we worked on, Banjo-Kazooie. It's great to read that level of detail."
New, on Motherboard: Video Game Actors Crunch, Too
Jeff Spock – Narrative Director on 'Endless Space' and 'Endless Legend'
"There's an awful lot of intelligence out there, and a lot of intelligence in our community, which is why we work with them so much. It's just great to come out and see. I know how our dev team reacts to the changes we make in terms of design, but it's really fascinating to see people pick up a game who've never played it before and see what they do, see what they think.
"The thing with procedurally generated games like ours is that people find things you don't expect, and that's wonderful. The game system is working right. But often, they can't figure out what to click on to make the ship move, and it's like – 'Excuse me, if you right click on the thing...' It's a mixture of comedy and whatever, but you're always nervous. You put your baby out there, and they say, 'Oh, that's ugly.' Or, are they gonna say, 'Oh, that's cute'?
"Conventions for me have two purposes. Firstly, you wanna sell the game. And if you wanna sell the game, EGX or Gamescom are great, because there's a lot of people, you can put a lot of PCs out there, and it's a really good business environment. But I don't get that feedback of how are people doing narrative design. What are the amazing narrative indie games I haven't heard of? Let's talk shop over beers! I miss that, and that's a very specific thing, and that's hard to find."
Michael Richards – Producer of 'THE BUNKER'
Allan Plenderleith – Writer/Director and CEO of Splendy Games
Simon Sparks – Executive Producer and CEO of Splendy Games
Simon: "My favourite thing about conventions is seeing these faces and people you've met at various parties and stuff, but you don't necessarily do any business with them. They are unhelpful to me, and I am unhelpful to them. We're acquaintances and drinking buddies. These are the events where we meet. I love meeting people in the industry and catching up with them. They end up flying the flag for you and defending you. The first night's night out is always really good, because you mix."
Allan: "It becomes like a mobile circus going round to all the different conventions around the world and meeting up with the gang. The good thing about us coming here as relative newcomers was coming into a community that's pretty welcoming and friendly and open."
Simon: "I've done a few conventions. There have been a few where I've been by myself and definitely not enjoyed it as much. You just stand there going, 'What am I doing?', traipsing around with half a game, hoping that this person is going to turn up for this meeting and they haven't... But it's much nicer being with friends. It's harder to maintain enthusiasm otherwise."
How do you feel when people are playing your game?
Michael: "Your heart's in your mouth because you've made this thing, we've all made it with love and tried to make it the best thing we could do with the budget we had. We want people to like it, and have the reaction that you really hope people would have when you wrote the game.
"It was interesting for a new style of game like The Bunker, first of its kind out there in this form, to see how long people would get on it for – whether they get bored, whether they disappear, or whether they lose themselves. So if you let them play, we can see how long they go for."