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Brighton Develop Conference 2011

Brighton Develop Conference, as its name might suggest, is essentially a great big get together for all of Europe’s thriving community of developers where they can mingle, share knowledge and even have a little fun (charity poker game and free beer, anyone?). This week was Develop’s sixth year running (although the Develop Awards are in their ninth), and thanks to an enthusiastic recommendation by Mr Chaloner I was lucky enough to be sent along by Fresh Egg on Wednesday (the day ostensibly dedicated to “tackling the issues, tools, tricks and techniques of game development and offering practical advice and solutions to take back to the studio”). Scarcely believing my luck, as a consummate video game devotee it was an offer I couldn’t refuse (and I’m so glad I didn’t).

 

Armed with my conference pass, Portal hoody and Sack Boy to get my back (literally; he spent most of the conference poking out of my inexplicably huge backpack... which also neatly avoided any questions about his somewhat conspicuous attire), I set out for the conference’s seafront location: the sumptuous Hilton Metropole.

Upon arrival I mingled with my fellow conference goers as seamlessly as I could manage (which, in hindsight, was probably not very seamless considering the presence of the aforementioned hitchhiker’s backpack), heading to the first session I’d planned to attend: Games:Edu’s opening seminar entitled “Why You Need Us More Than We Need You”. Chaired by Kim Blake of Blitz Game Studios and Dr Mike Reddy of the University of Wales Newport, it promised a lively open discussion on the relationship between the games industry and academia.

The session was kicked off by Dr Mike with this video; sage advice indeed.

The crux of the debate was essentially why the games industry did or didn’t need the academy (and vice versa), and a lot of good points came up during the course of the discussion. I also found out a whole load of interesting facts (and opinions) during the session, as well as wishing all the more that I had sufficient maths skills to undertake a computer science degree (I’m practically dyslexic as far as numbers go, as I informed Team Crunch when they tried to teach me how to use their nifty new maths game app and ply me with cupcakes at the Expo, the scoundrels). The aforementioned facts included:

  • 6 years – The average “life expectancy” of somebody working in the games industry
  • £3.6 billion – How much the games industry was worth in 2011
  • 50% – How much the computer science degree uptake is allegedly down by
  • 1% – A rough estimate of how many artists get a job, pay or even picked up at all

It was theorised that there was a risk that students would inevitably be let down by the industry they hoped to become part of, with costly universities degrees not necessarily supplying them with all the qualifications video games companies are looking for (or the jobs that their academic institutions often promise will be available following their studies). There was also mention of the so-called “Three Es” integral to all current video games degrees:

  1. Employability
  2. Entrepreneurship
  3. Enterprise

Companies definitely want the best students (although it is still possible and even probable for those with thirds to find employment), and while certainly not of all of them will get the jobs they want it was said that around one (or sometime even two) in three graduates would find some kind of profitable employment following their time at university (profitable is definitely a key word; rarely do entry level positions at video games companies pay well). Indeed, it was even posited that there may be an overemphasis on skills and qualifications, the requirement for a good portfolio above all else being repeatedly cited by some debate participants. Dr Mike also pointed out the importance of creativity and experimentation in order to keep the industry fresh and ensure its future success, something that is arguably provided for during the course of academic study.

 

The first break saw Quizzel (star of Relentless Software’s brand new app Quiz Climber) and friends distributing bacon butties to hungry attendees outside the Metropole.

Next stop was a business seminar (I tried to mix up the tracks I attended) entitled “Money for Good Games”. With the support of the Wellcome Trust (a charitable organisation who offer to fund the development of games with a biomedical theme), an impressive panel chaired by Tom Rawlings comprised of Alice Taylor, Dr Demis Hassabis, Jez Harris and Paul Canty discussed the use of games in the wider world in such fields as education, medicine, mental health and death. However, let’s not forget about the aspect of fun in video games. Indeed, Alice Taylor was keen to emphasise the importance of fun in educational games and beyond, saying: “If you’re bored, you’re not learning”, as well positing that Facebook games such as Farmville were “training wheels for real games”, these often causing players to seek out other, more meaty video game fare in the future.  It was also interesting to find out that, according to research, 52% of players think of moral and ethical questions during play... so perhaps people really do care when they’re hurling their villagers to their deaths in Black & White (one of Demis’s past projects). Additionally, some research done for the BBC in 2005 allegedly revealed an almost 50/50 gender split in gaming, the latter statistic arguably quite contrary to the usual assumption of all gamers being male.

Lunch was next (alas, I sadly didn’t attempt to sample the delights of the Hilton’s menu), and after eating my traditional serving of tuna and rice I headed up to take a look at the Expo (a full list of attendees can be found here). There I managed to sample a few of the indie Develop Awards entries (the guys at Muse Games very kindly giving me a free copy of Creavures on Steam as well as a poster), get unintentionally shot down by Bungie (they asked for my rather unimpressive credentials – despite me stating that I wasn’t looking for a job – before inviting me to take as much free stuff from their stall as I wanted, seemingly as commiseration) and have a nice long chat with Mark O’Connell of The Creative Assembly (who are based in my home town of Horsham).

 

Shoguntastic!

I next ventured into an art-focused session entitled: “Fable: The Journey – The Evolution and Preservation of a Distinctive Visual Style”. Chaired by Tak Saito, lead artist at Lionhead Studios, it tracked the evolution of the so-called Fable experience, as well as explaining their decision to focus so heavily on Kinect development (and their switching to using the Unreal engine) in the series’ next game. Saito’s presentation slides defined the franchise’s style as follows:

  • British
  • Black/adult humour
  • Chunky-ness
  • Curves
  • [A vibrant] colour palette

He also spoke of art director Paul McLaughlin’s vision of “a heightened reality” and the importance of maintaining “a beautiful and consistent aesthetic”. Fable: The Journey is apparently going to aim for a more “rural, rugged” setting (otherwise known as “primitive 18th century Britain”) than its predecessors, apparently following the adventure of a youth – the ostensible odd one out in his tribe – as he sets out by himself accompanied only by his trusty horse and cart. Saito also explained the often long and gruelling process of developing the game’s character-rich visuals while making sure that everybody on the art team is on the same page via a series of regular meetings (weekly for character art and daily for environmental).

Next I had to make a difficult decision: “Engineering the Total War AI: From Soldier to Battalion” or “Showtime!”, the conference’s art keynote. I chose the latter in the end as I wasn’t sure how technical the coding talk in the Total War session was going to get (sorry, Mark!); I am a naught but a humble copywriter, after all. Also “Showtime!” was being chaired by Iain McCaig; that was kind of a clincher for me. An excellent – and very animated – speaker, he told us of his humble beginnings doing art for Games Workshop (part of a design for a bag he did becoming the company’s iconic logo) and how he ended up working on the likes of Terminator 2, Harry Potter, Star Wars and much, much more.

During the session Iain emphasised the importance of storytelling in all aspects of game design (this being a subject close to my heart due to the topic of my MA dissertation), and insisted that “everyone can draw. It’s your first language!” As well as showing us a few never before seen exclusives such as an unused pitch trailer for John Carter of Mars and the first ever publicly released still from his upcoming film The Book of Secrets, Iain also treated us to some stunning live drawings (one of which he invited the audience to contribute to as a lesson in collaboration, afterwards signing it: “A drawing by everybody”) which he gave away at the end of the session. All in all it was a pretty awesome experience.

 

Sack Boy with one of the conference’s fetching purple goody bags.

The final session of the day for me was “Turning Ink into Brink” with Splash Damage’s Edward Stern and was primarily concerned with writing in video games (another particular interest of mine). Stern – who provided a wealth of tips learned throughout his time in the industry – suggested that “being a hack is a good thing” (this preventing you from getting too involved and thus potentially wasting both time and money), also emphasising the importance of being able to write your way out of any corners you may be forced into. Key points included:

  • Knowing your audience
  • Realising that it is the story of the player’s experience; they are the author, not you
  • Achieving immersion without forcing narrative onto players
  • The importance of conflict and power dynamics in a story

Stern also shared what he thought went well and not so well with the company’s titular latest release, and when asked as to whether there was a sequel in the pipeline said he was unable to comment (although I do believe I saw a slight knowing smirk).

To summarise in brief: I had an utterly amazing time at Develop Conference 2011. The absolute icing on the cake for me, though? Getting to shake hands with Notch (also known as Markus Persson), creator of Minecraft, after I spotted him hanging around outside the Metropole following the conference. If only my phone battery hadn’t died so I could have taken a picture to commemorate this momentous occasion.

So instead I have this one from a press release featuring Notch being Notch (and picking up an award or three while he’s at it).

Last (but definitely by no means least), a huge shout out to the Develop Conference associates/red shirts; all of you were incredibly helpful, even returning my oft abused iPhone after I managed to leave it behind after a session (I think it made a suicidal dive out of my pocket as I got up to leave).

Above all, thanks to Fresh Egg for giving me this amazing opportunity!

Now, about next year...

 



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