The first edition of Gamasutra's new 'The Euro Vision' column
sees our new UK-based correspondent Jon Jordan taking on Leipzig attendees' "no news is no news" approach, EIEF's false-alarm keynotes, and the importance of being student-driven.
Fall of Festivals
August is the traditional month off for us Europeans - just try getting hold of a Frenchman on his office phone. No such luck for the hardworking games journalist however (and if that description isn't an oxymoron, nothing is).
But while headlines weren't being made at the Leipzig Games Convention
in Germany, there were other games festivals trying to find their way in the world. Headlines or not, sadly I couldn't make Leipzig, due to a last minute aversion to flight, combined with domestic discord, plus I'd already signed up for the Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival
Still, it doesn't seem like I missed much. Nintendo remains coy about its plans - since when did telling us how much Wii won't cost become a PR campaign? - while Sony was keeping its powder dry for what the whole industry must be hoping will be an explosive Edinburgh Festival
itself, the largest and longest-running collection of arts festivals in world.
The main problem with running a public games event though is you need a lot of the paying public attending to make the financial math work. Otherwise, you have to look for other funding sources to help out.
In previous years, the public bits of EIEF were supported by the likes of Nintendo, EA and Microsoft, but with the big guns reducing their marketing spends to proprietary displays of largesse, the options to underwrite such costs have narrowed. For example, the main reason Leipzig's Game Convention goes from strength to strength is the huge support it gets from governmental bodies.
As part of the former East Germany (Leipzig's Zentralstadion was the only Eastern stadium to feature in the recent Soccer World Cup, fact-lovers), there's plenty of restructuring funds available. Cut those out and the Games Convention would probably drop as quickly as every other commercially-run games event seems to do.
So there was little cash available for EIEF this year, even in Scotland, which is well-known for its support for creative industries. Instead, the organisers cleverly took the cost-effective route of hiring a centrally-located four-screen cinema for the day. Most of your AV-equipment comes as standard, plus there's plenty of nice seats. The public program consisted of game screenings including well-attended playthroughs of The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar
, as well as the obligatory How To Get Into Games Sessions for interested yoof. Everyone had fun.
False Alarms And No Surprises
Combined with this was the industry event. A two-day gig, it started with a bang as a faulty fire alarm during the keynote from EA's executive veep David Gardner cleared the building. The venue for the first day being historic - the Royal College of Physicians - it wasn't long before there were four fire engines on hand to confirm yes, it was false alert.
It was a shame as Gardner didn't get to fully flesh out his chosen subject of Seven Predictions For The Future
, although to be honest, it was only interesting because he’s a senior exec who oversees EA's worldwide studios and was talking about issues such as games for girls, in-game advertising and user-created content. In-and-of-itself, this was not rocket science.
What did interest me however was Gardner's assertion that new talent entering the industry will be fast-tracked to leadership roles in a much shorter learning curve than has previously been the case. One reason this is important is because as the one of the biggest companies in the industry, EA churns through a lot of talent every year, and hence needs to do a lot of hiring, which typically means graduates and other out-of-industry specialists.
Yet the graduates I know who have joined EA direct from college found the dynamics of working within such a huge company daunting, and many have left within a couple of years. Somewhat unfairly, EA also suffers from an 'evil empire' status, thanks to various employee lawsuits and the infamous EA spouse case. Anything it can do to improve its reputation in this area will be worth it.
Rise of Students
Linked to this part of Gardner's speech is the growing quality of students being produced from the myriad college games courses. This is another important factor for EA as it attempts to become more innovative in the way it creates new gameplay features as well as entire game designs and concepts. One example is breaking down the development process into small cells of developers who can quickly iterate; something being practised at EA’s LA studio.
The real payoff however is combining the enthusiasm of young blood with the opportunity to commercialise the ideas they’ve worked on during college. The phenomenon of Portal
- an indie-released game from students at the DigiPen Institute of Technology
in Redmond, soon to be commercialised by Valve - is the most notable example to date.
For its part EA is already working closely with the Entertainment Technology Center
at Carnegie Mellon, while in the UK, it’s been involved in the Dare To Be Digital student competitoin at the University of Abertay Dundee for a number of years.
Caught In Flux
Coincidentally, the award ceremony for the seventh Dare To Be Digital
competition was held in Dundee, (a hour north of Edinburgh), a couple of days before the EIEF. Together with representatives from EA, Rare, the BBC, and Autodesk, I had the pleasure of judging seven games produced by student teams, who'd spent the previous ten weeks creating working prototypes. These teams had been reduced down from a total of 24 who entered the first stage of competition in the spring.
The designs ranged from an action platformer for the Nintendo DS, to a 360-degree magnetically-based stunt racer and RTS game created around the concept of running your own religious cult. My favourite however was Flux
, from guest team Log2n,
based out of Algoma University College in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. A cross between a Jeff Minter musical visualisation, with a touch of Tetsuya Mizuguchi's cultural sharpness, it was exactly the sort of student project that could (and probably should) find itself on Xbox Live within the year.
So let's forget about physical festivals, and let the creativity flow. Like this column, everything good's going online anyhow.
[Jon Jordan is a freelance games journalist and photographer, based in Manchester, UK. He's currently learning to skateboard - it's a mid-life crisis thing.]