"I'm going to roll up my sleeves, because I know you don't trust me."
Randy Pitchford is midway through his keynote to open Brighton's Develop, a gathering of (mostly) independent games-makers from around the world, held to share inspirations and initiate new working relationships. He's performing a magic trick. The room is equal parts amused and confused. Keynotes are supposed to set the tone of an event, and the Gearbox Software CEO (and, it turns out, former magician) seems to be leading with a trick based on three-card monte.
Some applaud, while others in the audience send snarky tweets. Why is this the keynote?
The magic routine is a trick too, a feint, leading to a greater point about how developers can catch a lot of flak for their games. It's a thinly veiled reference to the vocal criticism that Gearbox, and therefore Randy himself, has attracted across the internet in recent years and months, delivered under the speech title of "Why We Fight". The talk is enthusiastic, self-deprecating and tonally confused. And however much he might highlight those players who've loved Gearbox's critically panned productions, no amount of Pledge will ever polish the epic turds that were Aliens: Colonial Marines and Duke Nukem Forever.
Moving swiftly on: what was the best thing about Develop 2015?
Maybe it was the positive future the event spelled out for the gaming industry. British culture minister Ed Vaizey took to the stage to confirm the government's continued commitment to video games, highlighting the success of tax credits (which we looked into last year) before reeling off some impressive stats.
"UK consumer spending on games is almost £4 billion," he said. "The games industry has contributed almost £1.5 billion in gross value added to the UK economy, and almost 25,000 jobs. I hope it's the case that tax breaks are helping projects go ahead that wouldn't otherwise have happened – and certainly not in the UK. There has been an explosion of games companies: the number has grown by a fifth every year since 2011, according to NESTA, driven by mobile games."
While the UK government might not get games, necessarily, it does get money. Vaizey described the UK as one of the "world leaders" in games, and claims that they're as important to British culture as cinema.
Maybe it's because I've been doing this a long time, but presentations that come pitched as "Big $ in Japan" or "Monetising Free-To-Play" trigger my cynicism alarm. But the behind-the-scenes look at how games get made that Develop provides is invaluable for many of the executives and business owners that attend. And if it all sounds a little dry compared to the gaming spectaculars of E3 and Gamescom and so on, it's worth noting that there's a great deal to like about Develop even if you're not in the process of actually making your own game, or paying for one to get produced.
I know I found much enjoy, anyway, despite the focus on the bottom line. Mediatonic developer and Heavenstrike Rivals lead writer Ed Fear showed pictures of Taylor Swift during a presentation on greater narrative design; Maia-maker Simon Roth enthused about treating employees like actual people; and Vlambeer's Rami Ismail managed to attract the attention of Gamergate's Sauron-like Eye by pronouncing in his rousing second-day keynote: "We are developers, not gamers. It's okay to admit this." (Watch it here.)
These are passionate people that are serious about what they do. But they're also people that it's easy to identify with. So, while it might be "the business" that gives Develop its brain, it's the people who show up that resonate longest. They're the ones that give this event a heart. And that's its best part.
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From the enthusiastic first-time journalist handing out business cards in the press room to the speakers and indie developers showing their games on the floor, coming to an event like Develop lets you meet so many incredible people under one (albeit rather large, Hilton-branded) roof. Its impact can be seen around town. Central Brighton's not particularly big, so the ripple effect from Develop taking place in one of its larger hotels turns the city into a sea of games-folk. Every lunch is taken with friends, and every evening there's a different party to go to. You're always meeting people, be they old friends reconnected with over a drink or entirely new ones who share your love for an amazing new game.
The first game I see at Develop is Spilt Milk Studios' Tango Fiesta. Company founder Andrew Smith has rented out the boardroom of a hotel several doors down from the Hilton Metropole housing Develop. Tango Fiesta is running on a laptop resting on the room's table, with wires and controllers sprawled out across its surface like it's some kind of Wi-Fi-enabled octopus.
Smith is as excited about his game as he is about the '80s movies he's ripping off, left right and centre, for its source material. "I've tried to put a pun in every line of dialogue so far," he says with a grin. "There's a skip button too, if you can't face the pun-ishment."
At Games by the Sea, a local community-arranged evening taking place after Develop's Wednesday schedule's finished, hosted at a pub just down the seafront (and regularly held when the conference isn't in town, too), Boneloaf's James Brown is showing off Gang Beasts, a game that's been doing the rounds at many recent events. If you've seen it once, it's never forgotten – it's the one with the cute characters trying to knock each other off a variety of silly environments, pushing each other into huge grinders or splatting opponents into road signs while riding on the back of trucks. It's impossible to watch without getting sucked in, and it's silly in all of the right ways.
But as the game edges closer to launch, Brown is looking at how he can make it an event piece so Boneloaf has an excuse to keep bringing it to places like these. "We made a stress test with 15 game controllers," he tells me. "When we finish the full game we want to make a special build with support for significantly more players than the standard one- to eight-player Steam build, to use at large-screen events like Games <3 Cinema in Berlin and Fantastic Arcade in Austin."
Inside the Hilton, Dan Pinchbeck of The Chinese Room is convincingly talking up the local indie studio's (it's based literally up the road in Preston Park) imminent PS4 exclusive, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. He uses the word "community" – that's what his new game is about, in a way. The player needs to uncover what happened to the rural community that has, like most people in the whole world, vanished. He's not into laying down a prescribed story, admitting that "we're not very good at doing stories, as an industry, and most of our characters are just cyphers for mechanics," preferring instead to let the player find their own path through the game. "The most powerful tool is the player's imagination. We're releasing the story from the shackles of being a mechanical tool."
On stage beside Dan is Ninja Theory's Tameem Antoniades, currently working on mental health-themed Vikings-versus-Celts adventure Hellblade. "Mental health is still a taboo subject in games," he says. "So you have to do your research. I never realised how vivid hallucinations can be for those who experience them, and they're something that can't be switched off." He explains how Hellblade's protagonist, Senua, will be tormented by terrifying visions – and these will be truthful, based on her experiences. "You have to feel that she's real," he adds. "You have to bond with her." Everybody's Gone to the Rapture and Hellblade are indie productions, but both have big-budget looks. They could both soon be saying something genuinely new in the mainstream gaming market, and that kind of progress, nurtured by events like Develop, is to be celebrated.
Later, Dan Da Rocha, the creator of Q.U.B.E. and forthcoming puzzle-platformer Hue, talks about his last five years as an indie dev. He was initially inspired to get into games-making through attending Develop, and while a lot of the advice he offers might qualify as simple common sense to many in the room, his words about the return of "double-A" games, the likes of No Man's Sky and The Witness, really resonate. Games like these, games like ...Rapture and Hellblade, are so far from what some gamers consider indie titles to be. They're not pixel art and primitive mechanics, but rich and enveloping worlds ripe for exploration. "Indie" has become as good as meaningless as an adjective preceding "game". It stands for attitudes, for ethics and ideologies, but it's no longer a pigeonhole for a genre. Many at Develop would say that it never was, but it's time for the mainstream to wake up to that fact, too.
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I could tell you several more stories to have been spawned by just a few days on the south coast, amongst this community of creators. Like how I spent my final evening of Develop in an ice cream shop in the centre of Brighton while a games composer unwittingly smeared chocolate all over his white T-shirt. The employee behind the till was the first to notice, exclaiming in a loud Italian accent: "Look! Just like a baby!" #Likeababy isn't trending yet, but it's going to remain the most memorable ice cream I've had for a while.
Develop reinforces the feeling that the games industry cares, that it's driven by people, not profits, and that even though it can be rough for developers just starting out, there's a wonderful support network for them to call upon. Ed Vaizey's right to celebrate the money that the British games industry adds to the nation's economy, but on an individual level it can be a low-paid practice, unless you happen to be someone like PewDiePie. (He lives in Brighton, but he's not spotted once – a shame in a way, given one talk's clarion-like confirmation that YouTube is the place where younger gamers get the most information on new releases.) So if you work with games, you have to love them, as there's a strong possibility that they're not going to make you your fortune.
Away from the bullshit that gets said about video games on the internet, or more specifically the pointless wars over technical specs or developer-outlined objectives actually turning out to be impossible to achieve (you know the chatroom, messageboard and social network arguments I'm on about), there's a palpable sense of community to independent games making. Develop shines a positive light on that, on this group of people who actually do really want to make the best new Call of Duty that they can, or the next indie megahit, or even put forward ideas to help Randy realise a Duke Nukem that isn't a stagnant shitshow of cruel misogyny and dated design (as reported by the Guardian).
Roll your sleeves up all you like, Randy, but you didn't quite get away with that particular magic trick.
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