Well hi. You look well. The fact that you’re a savvy reader of Ready Up leads me to believe that you, like me, are quite a fan of playing video games. But have you ever considered taking a path that leads to creating your own games? Or have you ever wondered what decisions, mistakes and discoveries led to the creation of the games you and I love?
If so, you might be interested in the Develop Conference, an annual event where some of the key movers and shakers of the worldwide games industry (and mere mortals like you and me) meet and learn from one another, sharing ideas, war stories, contact details, and celebrate each other’s successes. If you’re at all interested in making games or in how games are made, it’s an incredible place to be.
So – as a fellow member of the professional games industry and an avid gamer like your good self, I went along. Among the seven talks my pass allowed me to attend on the day, three stood out especially – you’ll find these detailed below, followed by my verdict on the day as a whole.
Beginning with a deceptively cloudy day, I walked into the familiar concourse of Brighton’s Hilton Metropole hotel. Not familiar because I’m the sort of guy who can afford to stay in Hilton hotels – I’m really not – but because the Brighton Hilton has played host to the Develop Conference for eight consecutive years now.
Held over the course of three packed days, the conference largely takes the form of numerous presentations made by people with something to say about games, whether about their creation and production, or their reception and responsibilities. Like its annual San Francisco equivalent, GDC (the Game Developers Conference), the Develop Conference also features a showcase of incredible indie games, recognises achievements via the Develop Industry Excellence Awards that are dished out, and generates a fair few hangovers in the form of several parties – both official and not.
But unless you’re rather well-off, getting in to the Develop Conference is a little harder than you might imagine (not literally – the Brighton Hilton isn’t up a mountain or anything). So it was with a heavy heart that I clicked through the Develop Conference website, scrolled past the higher-than-I’d anticipated pricing for day passes, and thought I’d have to miss out. Until, that is, I stumbled upon the Indie Dev Day, hosted on the last day of the conference. With entry costing literally a third of the standard Day Pass ticket price, and featuring speakers responsible for some of the most interesting and noteworthy indie hits of the last year, the choice was a bit of a no-brainer.
So, back at the Hilton, pass in hand, I walked along a lavishly decorated corridor toward the first talk of the day.
Indie Keynote: The Room With a View
Taking a seat in the large darkened ‘Room 2’, the air con reminded me that, for the first time in years, Britain was indeed experiencing summer… something that would become more apparent as the day progressed.
Following a short introduction, noted games journalist Guy Cocker took to the stage with Barry Meade, formerly of Bullfrog, Acclaim and Criterion – speaking today as one of the co-founders and commercial director of Fireproof Studios.
Starting as an independent development studio primarily funded by carrying out work-for-hire jobs (work-for-hire meaning that larger games studios would pay to outsource work on their current project to Fireproof), Fireproof would eventually go on to make The Room, the critically and commercially successful iOS hit.
With two million sales under their belt, The Room was also the worthy winner of Apple’s 2012 Game of the Year award and the won the BAFTA for Best British Game of 2012; Barry Meade and the studio he co-founded are fantastic examples as to the merits of becoming an indie game developer. He spoke at length about how Fireproof were formed, the difficulties they faced, the successes they shared and let us in on what they’re working on next – among a few ideas they’re toying with (Barry coyly avoided spilling any beans on those), Fireproof are soon moving on to a follow-up to The Room, unsurprisingly.
At the end of the on-stage interview, the audience were offered the chance to ask questions. My hand raised, one of the event staff handed me a mic.
After opening by asking for tips on completing the fourth puzzle in The Room, to which Barry was kind enough to laugh politely, I asked if there was anything he and his team would do differently if they were to make The Room again, knowing what they now know. Barry paused for the longest five seconds of my life before responding, with a smile – “No.”
In that case, I asked, what were the key lessons learned from making The Room that will inform the development of the sequel. “The best that any game designer could ever hope for is to be in charge of their own game, in charge of your own destiny and making money on your own, for yourself… We proved to ourselves that on our own, without any effort from anybody else, we can make a living and make a success from our game. We don’t want to mess up that formula – it’s pretty good.”
With a couple of minutes to spare, I made my way to the next talk on the list. Squeezing through the busy expo – the Develop Conference’s only free-to-experience element – I made my way up some stairs to ‘Room 1’, which would play host to the rest of the Indie Dev Day talks that my pass allowed me to attend.
Giving It All Up To Start Fresh
Entering the space, Room 1 was a stark contrast to Room 2, befitting of the typically lower-budget productions indie devs are associated with, and perhaps an indication of one reason that the day pass for these talks was notably cheaper than a pass for the ‘main’ conference sessions.
Quietly checking his presentation was ready was Aj Grand-Scrutton, a really likeable guy who’s done incredibly well for himself. Glancing at the conference schedule, I thought his name was ‘Aj’ as in sounds-like-‘badge’ – turns out he just prefers that lowercase ‘J’.
Quite easily my favourite speaker of the day, Aj introduced himself to the room with a humble laugh, billing himself as the CEO of Dlala Studios (pronounced, as you’d probably imagine, ‘Da-la-la’) albeit with the self-deprecation to point out that this time last year he was working out of his mum’s garage, her washing machine to one side, his nan’s freezer to the other.
Over the following forty minutes, he went on to describe his journey from graduating at university, to sending out countless applications to development studios, to working as the IT Technician at a timber merchant (which, he said, “…is just as glamorous as it sounds”). From there, he went on to eventually work for the award-winning studio Jagex, before working on social games at Bossa Studios – where he was one of a team who won a BAFTA for ‘Monstermind’ (Best Online Browser Game 2012).
Then, in May last year, Aj decided to take the plunge, leaving Bossa on reportedly great terms to start his own studio with his friend and business partner Craig. Within seven months of co-founding Dlala Studios, Aj eventually found himself working with Microsoft, developing Janksy for Windows 8 and dispelling many of the myths (which he previously believed himself) that Microsoft aren’t interested in indie development – it turns out, through his first-hand experiences, that actually they are. No, really.
Under the guidance of Microsoft’s Soho-based studio Lift London – itself made up of many prestigious names in the games development community, several with 20+ years experience – Dlala have effectively been groomed from an uncertain start-up into a small studio with a future. As far as Aj’s presentation was concerned, it sounded like a too-good-to-be-true proposition – except it was, and is, entirely true.
At the end of his talk, I had a chance to ask Aj if he had any tips for aspiring game designers.
“The biggest mistake I made before trying to get into games is that I didn’t do enough time on the ‘folio.” he said. “I made that typical excuse of ‘Oh, but there’s coursework to do – I don’t have the time’ – and then I spent, like twelve hours a day on Halo. So a ‘folio I definitely would’ve worked on… Game designers here would probably tell you how hard it is to just walk into design jobs.” Aj concluded that “The best way you show off your work is through something that someone can play, interact with and love. You know, Unity is a great example: their community is brilliant and there’s always people looking to do small turn-around projects – so get yourself out there. Start pimping your wares, effectively.”
How to Win at Kickstarter (or Fail Gloriously Trying)
Hosted by Nicoll Hunt, developer of Hard Lines and the forthcoming Fist of Awesome – expect to hear more about that in the coming months – and Byron Atkinson-Jones, formerly of EA, Sports Interactive and Lionhead but now working solely on his own game Cyberspace Fugitive, each gent took an honest approach to what went well and what didn’t go so well in their respective Kickstarter campaigns. Where Nicoll surpassed his funding target by 238% of his original £5,000 goal, Byron in fact didn’t reach his target, but has managed to generate funding for his current project from the resulting buzz caused by his Kickstarter bid.
Nicoll’s presentation was especially impressive. Instead of the traditional Powerpoint (or equivalent) presentation, he instead plugged his tablet into the room’s AV connection and walked an in-game version of himself from Fist of Awesome through the images that accompanied his key talking points. He openly admitted he stole the idea from Media Molecule who, at a previous GDC talk of theirs that Nicoll attended, did the exact same using Little Big Planet to deliver their presentation.
Two of their key points: a Kickstarter campaign’s video is utterly vital, so it’s worth taking time over, and don’t be in a rush to click the big ‘Launch’ button – it’s important to get it right, rather than to get it done.
In one of the more thoughtful touches of the day, Byron closed the joint presentation by mentioning a friend of his, another indie developer, who had recently fallen incredibly ill. Byron brought out a ‘get well soon’ card and invited everyone in attendance to come up at the end of the talk to sign the card.
After their talk, I asked the pair – should the first high-profile game funded by Kickstarter turn out to be pants – whether they thought there was a risk that the Kickstarter bubble might burst. “We’re in a phase at the moment where there’s a kind of a Kickstarter fatigue,” Bryon started. “Everybody’s backed projects; no-one’s seen them come to fruition… Games take a long time to make, and the backers of those games don’t necessarily realise that. Hopefully those games’ll be ok.”
Round-up – the other Indie Dev Day talks attended
Mike Bithell, creator of the critically acclaimed and award-winning game Thomas Was Alone, talked us through some of the key lessons learned in developing Thomas. Mike made for an exceptional speaker – warm, witty and wise. One of his biggest regrets with Thomas was that he wished he could have added a level editor – a possibility he’s definitely exploring with his next game.
Henry Hoffman, co-founder of Mudvark and one of the team behind Mortar Melon offered tips on keeping a whole game’s design easily visible and evangelised developing for HTML5.
Dan Pinchbeck, co-founder of The Chinese Room – responsible for Dear Esther and the forthcoming sequel to Amnesia: Dark Descent – let us in on the importance of doing what you love, devoting your time to endeavours you think are worth such personal investment, and the benefits, both personal and professional that come from doing so.
Elaine Reynolds, who previously worked at Traveller’s Tales and Lionhead, went on to describe how she set about founding her new company Simteractive in her native Ireland, stressing the importance of creating both a compelling game and a sustainable business if you wish to succeed.
So, after a busy day of learning useful things from fascinating and successful people – would I recommend you considering attending the Indie Dev Day or the full conference next year? Let’s look at the cons before the pros – it’s always nicer to end on a high point. There were only two things I wasn’t a fan of throughout the whole day: Room 1 itself and the lack of time to explore the expo.
Having started the day in the cool and somewhat soothing Room 2, Room 1 was a stark surprise. Harsh overhead lights, stained ceiling panels and a couple of persistent flies buzzing around gave the room a little character. But the complete lack of air con on what became a sweltering day and the need to shut the room’s doors to block out the noise of the expo hosted just a stone’s throw away – thus containing the room’s heat – made the day significantly uncomfortable for those of us sat in Room 1, which hosted six of the seven Indie Dev Day talks. Fortunately, those delivering the talks made everything more than worthwhile.
The other notable downer was, due to the short breaks between sessions, the only way to actually browse the expo on the day with enough time to talk to people, try out the indie games on display and gain something from doing so was to (1) skip one of the talks you had paid to sit through, (2) skip lunch or (3) pop to the expo the previous day, which wouldn’t be an option for many attendees. A pity really, as many stands looked to be worth visiting.
But please don’t let those minor inconveniences alter the facts – for less than £100, I got to hear some incredible do’s and don’ts from some of the most prominent indie developers currently working in the UK.
Without any hesitation – I would highly recommend attending the Develop Conference. If the full conference pass is out of your budget, or if you’re interested in forging your own path as an indie, then the Indie Dev Day is utterly essential.
The 2014 Develop Conference is due to take place in Brighton between July 8th and July 10th – I’d suggest marking your calendars. Give me a shout if you think you’ll end up going.