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A NGJ15 report: Diversity across shifting sands

My personal, heavily subjective experience and reflections about Nordic Games Conference 2015.

Laura Bularca, Blogger

May 26, 2015

27 Min Read

Nordic Game Awards, with Cara Ellison awarding Krillbite's Among the Sleep for Best Artistic AchivementNordic Game Awards, with Cara Ellison awarding Krillbite's Among the Sleep for Best Artistic Achivement


We only have two eyes. We can only be in one place at a time. Yet the world is this big thing, where something like Steam, with its - how much, now? - 15 million-ish users, is nothing but a speck of dust in this sea of 7 billion people, all searching for happiness and consequently, the notion of having fun. We are so incredibly, humbly limited, and these limitations shape our perceptions of pretty much everything, including games and game development.

I honestly believe that if you can make games, you are probably privileged. You certainly can not make games if you live in a place ravaged by war, or somewhere where the concept of electricity or running water defines what you call luxury. But between that and, let’s say, the quality of life in the Nordic region, there are so many shades of living. And this is why I often feel like I know nothing… and start to philosophise in my mind about this huge amount of games not yet done, which could save me, at least a little bit, from this shameful ignorance.

And I think I’m not alone.

I’ve just got back from Nordic Game Conference. I’m tired. I’m happy, hopeful and energized. I love. I feel humbled. I am frustrated. I question and critique. There is nothing fully rosé in this world…. and I know nothing, no one really does. But this conference made me feel as if I am not alone in these doubts and wishes. Here’s why…

My personal context and journey towards the Nordic game magic


Before I begin, you need to know some things about me: for a big part of my life, I desperately dreamed to be a part of the Nordic game development scene, because of a bunch of games that I very much admire, such as Sanctum, Minecraft, ittle Dew, Magicka, Mirror’s Edge and more. And in retrospect, I made some really dangerous decisions along the way, to get here, ignorantly aiming for a specific situation involving lots of creative, indie sort of things, and I was so incredibly fortunate to land exactly where I dreamed to be. Being born in communist Romania, starting to work in a very weird, very poor post-communist Romania, and being privileged enough (read: damn lucky) to be involved as a journalist in the Romanian gaming scene, the Nordic scene in general and the Nordic Game Conference in particular was always a distant utopian kind of dream to me.


A few happy Pieces from Pieces Interactive visiting NGJ15A few happy Pieces from Pieces Interactive visiting NGJ15


I always imagined game developers as this one big happy family, all connected and working together out of a desire to shed some magic in someone's mundane life, and allow everyone to feel heroes, feel strong, dream, live and explore the unimaginable, or rather the kind of experiences that are impossible in the real world. And I always imagined game developers as brave creatures, working against conventions and norms, risking their own welfare provided by a good, well paid profession, to spend their time creating this magic, because, at the time, must have been some 17 years ago, I couldn’t imagine someone actually making a living from making games. So I placed this idea of game development above life, and attributed super human qualities and expectations to game developers, and somehow these thoughts lead my journalistic career astray from the conventional preview, review and news writing and into exploring what game development really means, and later into game development itself.


However when I crossed the fence into game development I realized, in a rather painful manner, that game developers are people like me, living their life in mundane steps like me, pressured by mundane obligations like paying the rent or putting food on the table, like me. I also felt that we are all connected by a passion that makes us crunch like crazy and accept lower salaries, which nonetheless still does not distill the fact that living is expensive, yet we are willing to go to great lengths and to compromise an awful lot, including creative integrity, just to chase this elusive dream of providing magic.


But we are the result of our own very limited perception, and our brain is wired towards survival, which often translates to selfishness - and we often become trapped by what we love, and blind to the outside, heavily subjective and defensive regarding the work that we do. Which is why, I guess, my mind invented this close correlation between a high quality of living and a certain quality of games that involves a lot of integrity and creative freedom - why do you think so many out of the box games come from the Nordic region? I wanted to experience that, and somehow Nordic Game Conference, being the place that gathers all those developers who create games without an imminent pressure of living on the street or not having food, seemed something able to provide answers and confirmations to all my naively utopian1 assumptions.

And it did. To some extent.

Diversity across shifting sands

Turns out that Nordic game developers are also people, like me. And, just like all the people in this world, some are driven by an insatiably creative passion, some are driven by cold business facts, all of them need to eat, most of them don’t really have to worry about it, and many of them live a highly privileged life that is, nonetheless, much more expensive than in most parts of the world, and comes with a bunch of downsides. Which is why it’s perhaps as crazy of them as it was for me to choose this uncertain road of game making in an increasingly competitive, dizzyingly shifting, shockingly opaque industry just sobering up from the realization that white young males are not the only ones willing to experience or create this virtual magic we call games.

And this effort to wake up was obvious in the rich speaker panel as well as in the attitude of everyone that I interacted with there. If anything, what dominated this year’s Nordic Game Conference was the notion of diversity, in the industry, in the games and in the attitude, a notion that, thanks to people like Rami Ismail, exploded a little bit beyond the borders of male versus female representation, and into this humbling realisation that the world is big, and game developers have a painful Western world root and a fairly one sided perspective of making games, and everything that games encompass, in general. And as game developers, we are certainly a little blind, a bit non empathic towards this sea of people with widely different perspectives than us, building barriers we are completely unable to see. I say this because of Rami’s mention of Farsch, a game no Westerner could have done because no Westerner lives through or could ever grasp the significance of this carpet sand cleansing adventure, and because of Cara Ellison’s New Wave Games Criticism which presented a culturally far wider way of looking at games, something I anticipated, expected and had high hopes of, having read her work.


The Diversi panel composed of Ann-Sofie Sydow, Annika Fogelgren, Åsa Roos, Dajana Dimovska, Karin Ryding and Rami Ismail

The Diversi panel composed of Ann-Sofie Sydow, Annika Fogelgren, Åsa Roos, Dajana Dimovska, Karin Ryding and Rami Ismail

The Diversi panel composed of Ann-Sofie Sydow, Annika Fogelgren, Åsa Roos, Dajana Dimovska, Karin Ryding and Rami Ismail


The games industry goes through a revolution, an awakening, and this includes everything from all sides - developers, press, publishers, literally everything. And it was obvious to me, at Nordic Games, that everyone is at some step in this process of opening their eyes, me included, and that many of us still crave to create magic whilst still keeping our eyes closed - the blissful ignorance provided by not realising what you do not know. The”awakened”, however, have gained a powerful voice, one that was prevalent, sought for and celebrated - so many talks revolved around this subject of diversity, openness and breaking of conventional barriers, and if you look at the games presented and awarded, almost all explored a completely non sexual, non racist, non exclusive kind of game philosophy, like Size DOES Matter, or came from unusual perspectives like Among the Sleep.


MachineGames receiving their Best Nordic Game prize from Cara Ellison

MachineGames receiving their Best Nordic Game prize from Cara Ellison


But every conference runs on the fuel provided by business as usual, aka money. And whilst the game developer community shares a lot of love, and I mean the kind of love only shared passion can generate, dreamy, naive, world changing, the kind that makes me eager to go to work every morning, all players involved also have the money quest on the back of their minds, and are in various stages on that quest as well. There’s the ones with empty pockets and something done-ish, seeking funding for their project; there’s the ones who broke through but still not quite able to rest in this money quest; there’s the really picky ones able to offer money for a lot in return, as well as those aiming to fit somewhere between the cracks, providing various levels of value to everyone involved, at a price often mismatched to the capabilities of a freshly formed creative team - who perhaps are not their aim. Finally, there are those who made it (aka is able to put food on the table through his or her game dev related craft) one way or the other, and I include press in this category too, because no poor dreamy games journo ever has the funds or a powerful enough voice to afford the Euro 550+ price tag of this conference.

What I perceived as different at Nordic Game compared to other conferences - and keep in mind that this was my first attendance here - is actually the abundance of opportunity for game developers and the insanely high level of support provided for all attendees. It felt as if everyone grasped that providing something of genuine value generously has merit; meaning, really useful tips and tools and deals offered cheaply or - preferred - for free. And for those that are currently in a life stage that goes beyond money, and perhaps quantifies itself in things like influence, network or status, Nordic Game almost felt like a competition about who offers the best and the most practical advice. And it also felt the seekers, or those on the receiving end of the side, have a life perception that sometimes prevents them from truly grasping the incredible richness of what they receive. As I said, we are very, very limited entities, living in a dark room, and on various levels of awareness regarding a light switch somewhere.


Experiencing Nordic with friends - Sara Casen, organizing the Wacom art competition, and Vic Bassey who runs the NorthlandSquare.comExperiencing Nordic with friends - Sara Casen, organizing the Wacom art competition, and Vic Bassey who runs The Square


To summarize my lengthy, perhaps confusing analysis, here are the ideas that Nordic Game left me with:

  • the struggle for diversity in the industry reached new heights and surpassed new barriers; it’s no longer just about getting ladies to play and make games

  • conventional ways of doing game dev business are shifting. If you want to be successful - and perhaps success doesn’t necessarily involves getting rich - you have to be open, genuine, truthful and early in doing this

  • there are still a lot of people following the old ways of making games, including a traditional concept of sterile marketing PR and business, and some of it still has its merits. I wonder if we aren’t perhaps too quick in shedding away all old practices, as we all strive to strengthen the notion of professionalism in game development

  • there is an incredible, tangible feeling of love and friendship across the entire Nordic game industry, and a feeling of everyone being in this together, which generates a lot of help, collaboration and plain good times. I think this something that comes across in the games made here, and perhaps the most important reason for the local success stories that became so popular across the world

My personal highlights

Armin Ibrisagic - Game Designer/ PR Manager , Coffee Stain Studios

“What I learned about marketing from Goat Simulator”


Coffee Stain's Armin Ibrisagic bashing the sterile way of interacting with fansCoffee Stain's Armin Ibrisagic bashing the sterile way of interacting with fans


I know Armin personally and, in a small sense, my life is intrinsically connected to Coffee Stain and the success of Goat Simulator. Sanctum was one of the reasons for which I struggled to be where I am, and I was in their offices a day before their first video went on YouTube, exchanging ideas (and this meant in a large extent joking) about the potential upcoming success. So I guess I am biased in naming this talk my most favorite one, though I must confess that I have never seen Armin on a stage, passionately sharing knowledge.


What impressed me about Armin’s talk was the genuine, honest and humble approach, backed up by the notion that marketing is an abused term that hides something quite simple and deeply truthful: provide something of value for your audience, and your audience will return the favor. As proof, Armin showed detailed Facebook data for their successful Goat Simulator page, dissecting popular posts from unpopular ones. Shockingly ;), it seems it’s not sexy at all to share traditional, boring patch notes, whilst half a million people are more than happy to share a goat for no reason. And that when you engage with a community, it really helps to put yourself in the reader's shoes, and really think what you as a normal person would share and engage with. The popular content is one that provides value (and in this case, fun is a value) not only to you, but to your friends - you share what you think would make you popular in your network. Who’s usually in someone’s Facebook network? Even if you are a gamer, or a game developer, it's a safe bet that not all your Facebook friends are gamers or developers; you might have your family, your highschool doctor friend, your boss or colleague, so the act of sharing is a direct communication with all those people.


Another valuable lesson from Armin’s talk is the power of acting like a normal person your fans, including the toxic ones. Too often the communication between game developers and gamers is treated in a sterile way (Thank you for your feedback, we will take it into account…), often out of fear of “PR mistakes”, whatever those mean. So as a gamer you get empty words, meaningless interactions when, in the end, the connection made by the passion for games is there, and your fan and you are just that: two people engaging in something of interest for both. So act as if you were talking to your friends, and act natural, including responding truthfully to toxic comments, as you would in real life.


Here is proof that goats can respond to people on Facebook, like a normal real life person

Here is proof that goats can respond to people on Facebook, like a normal real life person


At the end of the talk, Armin was asked if he feels Coffee Stain could ever be perceived as a serious game developer after a title such as Goat Simulator. I understand where the question is coming from, but in my mind, I really want to meet serious doctors, and lawyers, and book keepers, but game developers? I’d like them as crazy as they come, as funny, as passionate, as out of conventional thinking as possible. So honestly, I don’t really get this drive towards seriousness in video games.


This being said, I also think that Coffee Stain constantly demonstrated professionalism. Yes, maybe Goat Simulator is buggy and crazy and definitely not the kind of game you want to take screenshots of to display in an art gallery, but they have always been extremely up front with that - to the point that they encouraged people NOT to buy the game (I mean really, who does that?!). Yet they have been there for the community, and reaped the rewards of what I perceive to be an extremely genuine, considerate and professional attitude towards their fan base, always there to respond to every comment, and then talking at events such as Nordic Game about providing content that people will truly enjoy and share for the benefit (and/ or laughter) of their friends.

Alysia Judge, News Editor, Pocket Gamer

“How to get journalists to cover your game (without resorting to hitmen)”


Pocket Gamer's Alysia Judge trying to convince game devs not to hire hitmen Pocket Gamer's Alysia Judge trying to convince game devs not to hire hitmen 


I loved the charisma of this talk and the very practical tips offered from the perspective of one of the biggest games press sites out there. This was really a “how to contact press” workshop, and having been in Alysia’s shoes for quite some time, every tip she gave resonated with me deeply.


It’s simple, really: games journalists are people, too (duh!) and their business prerogative is to find interesting, engaging, unique stories to write about. They depend on games and game devs to exist; it’s a symbiotic relationship, and they welcome developer contact, but also get a lot of it, in various, tedious forms.


So Alysia did a great job to give an insight into the games press life, mentioning the heavy amount of e-mails they get and dissecting the general actions that make a press journalist look away from a developer message. I am using her tips to provide the gist of her talk:

  • inability to target the correct outlet (if you want your game reviewed, target sites that review games, or even better, sites that review games similar to yours)

  • unconvincing e-mail subjects that make boosting claims or are too vague to provide interest (concentrate on what makes your game unique; if you were a press journalist, what about your game would capture your attention)

  • message text that does not help the journalist to do his/ her job quickly (long e-mails, links to far too much content, grammatical errors)

  • prevalence of text over screenshots and videos (a game is easier to see than to describe, especially when you make claims about your features and content)


The practical tips to make a game journalist happy are:

  • game is relevant to their target audience

  • mail subject reveals something unique and interesting, or to the very least, is clear (like Game Title to be released at Date X)

  • message is short and helpful (keep it at about 500 characters and bullet points help)

  • screenshots and videos are placed directly in the message (the journalist can directly see what the e-mail subject promises)

  • limit yourself to one link, and press kits help

And finally, Alysia also urged game developers to have an actual PR strategy, which includes starting to contact press at about one month before launch.

Cara Ellison, Freelance Writer

New Wave Games Criticism

Cara Ellison preparing to say good bye to video games journalismCara Ellison preparing to say good bye to video games journalism


This was the talk that got me the most excited to go to Nordic Games Conference. So I had extremely high hopes from Cara, generated by following her work and social presence for a long time, and also by a deep belief that games press is going through perhaps the most painful revolution in this industry.


And whilst all my expectations were met, this talk was Cara’s good bye to video games journalism, at least for a while. It was a deep, lyrical, heavy cultural essay, imbued by a desire and a struggle to fit games into a far wider cultural context, citing examples of games clashing with politics, and the efforts those game developers go through for that. It pointed out that the traditional games press, and what the general expectations of it are, is limited, opaque and ruthless to the idea of quality, meaningful writing and writers, which is why she, just like Kieron Gillen, decided to step away from these conventional barriers. It always seemed obvious to me that Cara struggled to look at games from a different perspective, how games make you feel, where games could lead you in life and what intrinsic, deeply rooted view they can change, or explore or reward, and it seems to me that she is leaving right in the moment when this kind of journalism starts to make a mark.


But I understand her struggle and respect her decision, which is actually why I am writing this piece. If I want something more from the conventional press, if I crave for games with deeper, darker, more serious meaning, if my expectations of game developers include superhuman perspectives…. the surest way to make this happen is to find my voice, and just write.

Bonus - The Winners

I always struggle to quickly find the winners of the whole shebang post conference, even though the Nordic staff did an excellent, quick job of listing them here. Nonetheless, here is the list I also captured, with really bad pictures to prove it and with my personal favorites, where it is the case:


Bonus bonus is the art competition ran by Wacom with the theme Blue Shift, inviting anyone willing to try out the new Wacom tablets and to submit an art piece with the chance to win a table at the end of the conference. As you can see from yet another bad picture, all the entries were pretty amazing and I had a really hard time deciding where to cast my vote.


Really hard to choose a winner for the Wacom NGJ15 art competitionReally hard to choose a winner for the Wacom NGJ15 art competition


I attended Nordic Game Conference to generate awareness for Sweden Game Arena, which is a concept I am deeply in love with, because it works relentlessly to create a game development hub and scene that seems very much in line with my heavy idealistic expectations from this industry. Sweden Game Arena is an umbrella name for something that involves game education, research and development, concentrated but not limited to a small city called Skövde, which gave birth to many amazing studios and games. But this whole terribly long article is entirely my very subjective take.


My friends and colleagues laugh because they are awesome and also because we had the coolest booth!My friends and colleagues Magnus Ling, Kenneth Alfelt and Johan Hermerén laugh because they are awesome and also because we had the coolest booth!


Our fresh new Incubator studio Mindblown excelling at showing their game Rising IslandsOur fresh new Incubator studio Mindblown excelling at showing their game Rising Islands


Daniel from Guru Games, about to launch Magnetic: Cage Closed, demonstrating how you get home after NGJ15, and Vic Bassey showing Paradox branded beer, one of the (biggest) reasons for this tiresome situationDaniel from Guru Games who are about to launch Magnetic: Cage Closed, demonstrating how you get home after NGJ15, and Vic Bassey showing Paradox branded beer, one of the (biggest) reasons for this tiresome situation

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