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Event Wrap-Up: Austin Game Conference/Women's Game Conference

Game Developer Magazine's Jill Duffy takes a look at the recent Austin Games Conference and associated Women's Game Conference, exploring both general game industry and gender issues addressed by the sophomore event held in the "blazing Texas sun".

More than 1,400 people attended the Austin Game Conference (AGC) and Women's Game Conference (WGC) in Austin, Texas, September 9 and 10, according to the organizers of the first event. The turnout, estimated to have doubled last year's, felt lighter than that, however, as the group was contained to only one side of the Austin Convention Center. In a short walk down any of the main hallways, you could find a gaggle of Texans, mostly elderly, following the direction of small poster boards leading the way to the other convention: the 2004 Federation of Genealogical Societies Conference. Most AGC attendees agreed that the show was smaller than expected, especially the Technology Pavilion and Attendee Lounge.

Of course, because the show took place in Austin, buzz lingered on Acclaim, who locked developers out of its Austin studio about two weeks before when it filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Former Acclaim employees might not have known at the time, but at least two companies present at the show were actively recruiting new Texas talent.

Unlike the protocol of most other conferences, most attendees spent their time listening to panel discussions rather than walking the show floor. Alienbrain, Nokia, Midway, Activision, and a handful of other companies also held booths, although their presence at the conference was in general minimal.

Game educational institutions The Guildhall at Southern Methodist University, University of Advancing Technology, Austin Community College, and the Academy of Art University all held a booth slot. Representatives from The Guildhall actively advertised one of its scholarships, which is given to aspiring female game developers, and announced a new scholarship recipient at the show.


The Austin Convention Center, site of the Austin Game Conference and Women's Game Conference.

As for the actual lectures, it's important to note that, according to AGC literature, the Austin Game Conference was specifically focused on the "needs of professionals focused on next generation game development in multiplayer internet-based games and mobile games," a fact not necessarily obvious given the name of the gathering. Hence the MMOG-heavy lecture and roundtable structure, something that helped give some drive to the relatively small conference.

Since the conference's panel discussions were disparate, small, and narrowly focused, they let attendees participate in very specific topics, intimately. The sessions fell under seven categories, including mobile, which was billed as a standalone conference, although it was clearly integrated with AGC. The categories were: Online Design; Online Production; Online Tech and Art; Online Service; Console; Development Pipeline; and Mobile.

The keynote address on Sept. 9 for the AGC, given by Scott Henson (Microsoft Xbox) and Glen Van Datta (Sony, Computer Entertainment) was well attended. Each speaker addressed the crowd with a PowerPoint presentation that highlighted how their respective companies are positioned to turn a profit, glossing over the topic "The Massively Multiplayer Console is Coming."

Henson broke up his PowerPoint presentation with a short film of quotes (read: sound bytes) from 2004 GDC attendees, almost exclusively male, saying what they really want out of their games. Henson summarized that the features these players desire-by and large more advance graphics, speed, and so forth - are changing from "nice" to "necessity."

PlayStation MMOGs "are really here," said Sony's Van Datta. Despite the extremely blatant corporate, advertising speak, the audience seemed to tolerate Van Datta and Henson's comments.

Other roundtables or lectures included "Keeping customers happy," "The Challenges of Persistent Gaming on Consoles," and "Building Massively Multiplayer Games on a Budget," and a combination of interesting speakers and a small audience kept the proceedings interesting and well focused.

Elsewhere, the WGC - the first women's game conference in America - opened its track with a brief address by Conference Chair Sheri Graner Ray and Kathy Schoback, vice president of content strategy at Infinium Labs. Unlike the AGC keynote room, which was set up like a standard auditorium (orderly rows of chairs and a podium at the front), the WGC keynote contained about two dozen large, round tables that could seat at least 10 people at each. Although the keynote was supposed to take place in a room set up like the AGC keynote room, after it was moved to the more informal setting, speakers and attendees agreed that they preferred the tea room setup because it encouraged participants to converse before and after the panel discussions.

At the WGC, all the panel sessions took place in the same room-the one set up to facilitate follow-up discussions after each panel. In one panel, audience members were asked to identify themselves (by show of hands) as being either in the game industry, aspiring to be in the industry, or other. Easily more than half acknowledged that they wanted to work in the industry, many indicating that they worked in complementing fields, such as digital arts, graphic design, or film. However, knowing the audience's makeup, most speakers seemed to tailor what they said to address them, sometimes allowing the developers in the audience to contribute facts or anecdotes as well.

Discussions on the first day at the Women's Game Conference were: Identifying the Issues; Getting to the Top; Work Sessions on Topic (where table discussions focused on specific topics that were decided in a previous panel); and a Work Session and Report Out (where each table then presented its discussion and solutions identified with the conference, allowing for any final questions as well).

Recruiting service Mary-Margaret.com sponsored a party Thursday evening, and the crowd that filled the multitudinous rooms at The Copper Tank bar on Trinity Street seemed a greater mass than the attendance of the first day of the conference.

Friday, the AGC opened with a keynote address on Virtual Property in the Age of Wonder by noted virtual world economist Edward Castronova, and the WGC opened with a slightly delayed keynote from Patricia Vance, president of the Entertainment Software Rating Board.

After more than 15 minutes of delay due to a technical problem, Vance spoke to the crowd sans slide presentation and speech. She ad-libbed from an outline of her speech, telling personal stories about her three daughters and how they, as females, interacted with toys and the world differently than a few young boy who spent a day at her home. "Women play differently than men," she said, connecting her story more directly to the game industry. She added that, although women play differently, they are not for the most part in the studios creating the games that they would play, or implementing their ideas on how they would want to play a game differently.

Vance's talk slowly drifted away from the issue of women in gaming when questions were opened to the audience. Audience members instead asked questions about the ESRB, possibly indicating some level of unfamiliarity with it (seeing as many, likely, do not currently work in the game industry, as illustrated the day before by the informal audience survey). However, the question and answer period did illustrate that the audience was interested in learning more about the industry, not just the role and future role of females in it.

Another WGC conference panel later on Friday was titled "The Right Man for the Job May
Be a Woman … But How Do We Find Her?" Clarinda Merripen of Cyberlore, Margaret Wallace of Skunk Studios, Linda Powers of NCsoft, and others discussed specific methods they use to accrue a diverse applicant pool. Wallace said, "We don't specifically look to hire a woman. That would be illegal."

Merripen offered her company's trick of using the words "woman or man" instead of "person" when writing up a job description because it "communicates the friendliness of the work environment to women."

Another sound piece of advice from "The Right Man" panel was to explain lapses of employment on your resume, especially if you took time off to have a child or raise a family. Interviewers might not ask about it, but you should take the initiative to explain your circumstances.


Inside the Women's Game Conference.

Throughout the WGC, the value of having a college degree on one's resume was touted, as was the value of having a mentor, once employed. Most panelists, including recruiter Robin McShaffrey of Mary-Margaret.com, agreed that a degree on one's resume illustrates that the candidate is capable of completing long-term goals, a trait game businesses want in candidates no matter their specific field. Finding a mentor once employed allows game industry professionals to learn the business from a different perspective and from someone other than their direct bosses.

By Friday afternoon, a wall of heavy clouds finally occluded the high and blazing Texas sun, although AGC and WGC attendees might not have known it inside the convention center, where the conferences' wind-down times actually seemed a bit more lively than the kick-offs. Possibly, conference goers nowadays have to remember what to expect when they hit the smaller shows - the E3 antitheses.

The business is still younger than three decades, and certain issues of gender-bias in the field are grossly simplified: does this mean the game industry has settled in its ways too soon or does it indicate ample opportunities for future improvements, slow-going as they may be? Questions such as these, steeped in theory, philosophy, and ethics (or sometimes heretical ideas) hung between attendees, sometimes verbalized, and sometimes only loosely pointed to.

Audio recordings of all the panel discussions for AGC and WGC will soon be available for purchase from the organizers online at www.gameconference.com/index.html.



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