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GDC Europe EIGS Roundtable: What's the state of European indie dev?

A few of the judges behind next week's second annual European Innovative Games Showcase at GDC Europe sit down to talk about what matters to European indie game makers.

Heads up, European game makers: some of the most innovative and intriguing indie developers in Europe will be showcasing their work at GDC Europe next week as part of the second annual European Innovative Games Showcase.

The nine games featured in this year's showcase were selected by a coterie of judges from across the industry, and the winning developers will be offered full Speaker Passes to GDC Europe as well as the opportunity to give a 5-minute microtalks at the final session of GDC Europe's IGS about the nature of their work.

It promises to be a great session, so if you're attending GDC Europe in Cologne next week be sure to make time to see it --  last year's inaugural EIGS is viewable now in video form on GDC Vault if you'd like a taste of what's in store.

To get a better sense of the EIGS itself, we sat down ahead of the show with a few of its judges -- game designers and showcase organizers Lea Schönfelder anJonatan Van Hove, GDC Europe Indie Games Summit advisor Kitty Calis, and Dutch indie developer/advocate Zuraida Buter -- to talk about the nature of European indie game development and the evolving role of the EIGS.

What's the current state of the European indie game development scene? What makes it unique, and how do you think it compares to other regions?

Lea Schönfelder: It's kind of hard for me to answer this question, because I have always seen myself to be part of a worldwide indie community. Like in other regions, I think we have a whole variety of directions that indies explore.

Looking at games and mechanics per se, I wouldn’t be able to tell big differences between European games and games from other parts of the world - at least at first sight. Looking more on a structural level, I see a lot of indie studios rising, especially in the Nordic countries, that are working on new and edgy projects and at the same time want to -- and often manage to -- live off their craft.

Then of course there are the classical more radical artistic game designers, who work in classical game design, or other jobs, at the side, or are able to finance their projects through public funding.  I think one specialty that we have here in Europe is quite a lot of cultural funding. which gives us the possibility to work on and live of projects that wouldn’t be a good idea to invest in from a purely economic point of view.

Kitty Calis: The fact that Europe exists out of all these different cultures, languages and countries is both what makes it unique, but also what makes this a hard question to answer. As far as you can put game development into scenes or trends, you definitely notice differences between games made in different countries and cities, but even then it's hard to put a label on things.

In the Netherlands you'll find the experimental, almost awkward games made by Adriaan de Jongh right next to straight up entertainment games like Awesomenauts. Like Lea said, in a way we're all just part of a big world-wide scene. The distance between Copenhagen and Berlin is the same as the distance between Copenhagen and San Francisco: to your nearest internet connection.

Jonaton Van Hove: The European scene has been well represented at international events, and at the same time is drawing in people from all around the world to strut our own stuff. I think on the whole there's some amazing things coming out of Europe, on all fronts.

I think one of the things that sets us apart is the growing support from regional funds, governments and organizations for games and interactive projects. Not only are there more funds being allocated, the old trope of "games need to have a purpose" seems to be fading a little bit. Creative Europe, a program started by the European Commission in 2014 and revised in 2015, has 2.5 Million Euros to give to European companies. At the same time, local governments are supporting our growing network of game events.

I've only ever lived in Europe, so I can't really compare out of personal experience, but telling people from other parts of the world about how things work here, they are often astonished. We're very privileged over here, compared to many other places, but that doesn't mean we should stop working at it. I'm glad to see the EIGS return this year, as I feel a forum like this is very useful to give global visibility to the next generation of European inventions and inventors in the field of games.

Zuraida Buter: To me Europe is a very fascinating region with so many different countries with their own backgrounds, culture and histories. When I was handling the European region for the Global Game Jam (2010-2014), we started out with just a couple of locations, but it quickly grew to over a 100 locations in just a few years. It was always super exciting to call the local organisers in the different countries and hear about the game industry in their cities and regions. Some had no industry to speak of and grabbed the GGJ as an opportunity to get people interested in game development and it’s amazing to see communities springing forth from there.

So on one hand there are the more 'established' regions like the Nordics and the UK that have a history of a strong game development industry from which a lot of indie people hail. They have a lot of knowledge and experience which they can use to build on and find new and innovative directions for their games. On the other hand there are a lot of up and coming regions that try to grow a game development community and industry.

They find different ways of supporting communities and stimulate game development, be it through the government, individuals, education, small start-ups, collectives etc. They can build on their own existing infrastructure of other fields or take inspiration from existing communities and game industry in other countries.

There are quite a few events popping up around Europe in the past few years that cater to different and overlapping groups: Game jams that take place in unusual places (castles, islands, a tour bus etc), game dev retreats on islands, pop-up events at festivals that usually don’t feature games. There are events that explore ideas from theatre, play, art, performance, literature and many other fields as a way of looking at game design or that take play back to the streets and the city. All of these bring people from different backgrounds and cultures together which makes for interesting connections and collaborations. Like Lea said there is quite a bit of cultural funding in Europe that can people help explore ideas and projects that might otherwise not be a feasible path.

As said before: different countries with different cultures are relatively close by. In the beginning of this year Major Bueno (Germany) took a van and crossed 11 countries to make games in game jam weekends with different individuals in these countries and made documentary episodes out of it. They will give a talk at GDC Europe, everyone should definitely have a listen!

And there is so much more happening in Europe! So to me it’s quite an exciting region to be part of.

Why do you think regional events like the EIGS are important, and why should they exist alongside international indie showcases like the IGF at GDC?

Lea Schönfelder: We want a lot of people to make innovative games, so we need a lot of platforms where those ideas can be shared. There is a tendency for some excellent games to get a lot of publicity at all kinds of different events; restricting some of these events to a smaller region can have the positive effect that developers who - for whatever reason - can’t succeed in an international competition, still get the possibility to present themselves.

There is also a very practical reason why the European Innovative Games Showcase is a good thing, and that is to keep the community alive. Events like this always attract not only the participants of the showcase, but also our Indie friends from all over Europe. We should be in touch a lot to keep each other updated, share ideas and encourage each other to keep on making games.

Kitty Calis: Making such events accessible to as many people as possible is very important. The reality is that flying to San Francisco or Tokyo is something most developers can't easily justify, while perhaps a train ride of a few hours is more realistic.

Giving local scenes access to their nearby communities, and a view into what the rest of the world is doing can really help everyone along, create new collaborations, inspire, and broaden people's perspectives!

Jonaton Van Hove: I personally never intended EIGS to be a competition, but rather a celebration. 

The development community is still growing every year. Schools are churning out hundreds of game developers and designers every year, and regardless of whether they'll all find work, they'll probably make some great things. As long as there's no saturation, meaning we see the same projects at every event and the events are well attended, I see no need to stop having regional events.

Europe is a pretty big region, and incredibly diverse, and I think it's crazy that we have to travel so far to get validation, when both the creators, the audience and the curators can also be found right here.

Zuraida Buter: With about 50 countries in Europe, each with their own languages, cultures, histories and governments, the European continent is already very international. It’s super interesting and inspiring when you get to meet each other! 

To be able to grow as a developer, studio, industry or community it’s important to have access to a diversity of voices and different levels of experience to gain new insights and get inspiration from. Even though we have access to different communication tools that make the world a lot smaller, it’s always wonderful to meet people in person and share ideas, experiences and find opportunities to collaborate.

Up until the last few years, game developers from Europe had to travel across the ocean to find conferences and events that gave them the opportunity to meet, showcase and discuss their projects and practice with each other. To be able to find an event near you that gives you access to all this is super valuable.

Like Lea said, events like this also give more projects the chance to shine. Different events and platforms can highlight different aspects of game development and innovation which in turn can ‘level up’ the industry as a whole. If you look at the breadth of events that are organised in Europe at the moment, ranging from playful interactions to more traditional game design and development, then the future looks very bright indeed!

The second annual European Innovative Games Showcase will be held next Monday at GDC Europe. Organized by UBM Tech Game Network, GDC Europe, now in its seventh year in Germany, will take place next Monday and Tuesday, August 3rd and 4th at the Congress-Centrum Ost in Cologne, Germany, co-located with Europe's biggest video game trade and public show gamescom.

Gamasutra and GDC are sibling organizations under parent UBM Tech

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