Bank loan from Nigeria? Spam. Diamond inheritance from the Ivory Coast? Spam. Game summit invitation from Ghana? Spa … huh, Ghana? Seriously, I was invited to speak at a game industry summit in Ghana last year.
There’s nearly a game event going on somewhere in the world every day of the year. From the bursting-at-the-seams, 180,000-plus otaku fest that is the Tokyo Game Show every September, to the 20 nerdcore indie developers that stuff themselves in an Oakland barn to code experimental games over an Indie Game Jam weekend, there’s just no shortage of expos, festivals and conferences that cater to all things game.
As a game industry professional, I pull about one major and one minor event per month, give or take an event. And that’s when I’m trying to limit my travel! Quite literally, I could pack up my bags on New Year’s Day and jump from one country/event to the next and not make it home for the following holidays.
That may sound crazy, but most folks are simply not aware of the range and diversity of events that take place in the game industry. For every consumer-facing Leipzig Games Convention, there are a hundred academic conferences where scholars present on the hegemony of play or the latest in AI research. For every all-encompassing Game Developers Conference, there are niche boutique conferences covering a single topic like leadership. For every QuakeCon gamer tournament, there are a dozen government-sponsored business development events.
With their popularity and number steadily growing, let a frequent flyer offer a guided tour of some standard event formats:
Expo: An expo is a large-scale event where primarily game publishers are showing off their upcoming game roster. While the classic E3 was “closed” to the public, the current approach is to restrict only the first day to trade and then open the floodgates to gamers for the remaining days. Some expos are approaching the 200,000-attendee mark over the span of a few days. Current examples of expos are: E for All and Penny-Arcade Expo in the U.S., TGS in Japan, Leipzig in Germany, ChinaJoy, G* in Korea, Game Convention Singapore, and Go3 in Australia.
Conference: Game conferences usually focus on lecture and panel sessions presented by industry professionals to share knowledge and expertise. Some conferences are quite large (e.g., GDC attracts upward of 15,000 attendees) and cover every possible aspect of the game industry, while other conferences will take a more niche approach and either focus on a specific geographic region, or a specific discipline. Some examples would be: Montreal International Game Summit, IGDA Leadership Forum, Nordic Game, CEDEC in Japan, Develop in Brighton and Game Connect: Asia Pacific.
Academic: Similar to the conference format, but with a more formal and rigorous process for reviewing content, academic conferences are likely the most plentiful format. Often focusing on very niche aspects of game research, there are countless small, academic conferences taking place throughout the year. SIGGRAPH and DiGRA are two of the exceptions that are larger in scale and are more cross disciplinary in nature. Other examples would be: FuturePlay, the European Conference on Games-Based Learning, University of Florida Game Studies Conference, State of Play and Ludium.
Tournament: Pretty standard game tournament style event or “con” events that primarily attract competitive gamers and the consumer-oriented brands trying to market to the gamer crowd. Main examples here are events like QuakeCon and BlizzCon, along with all the pro league-style events.
Biz-Dev: A more narrowly focused style of event for business development (kinda like professional speed dating) between game publishers and developers, these are often referred to as “game connections.” The Lyon Game Connection was the first the take this approach, which has quickly spread.
Festival: A bit of a catch-all format for activities like the Independent Game Festival, the GameCity festival that takes over in Nottingham for a week or the touring Video Game Live! concert. Often, festivals have a more independent or artistic flair to them.
Often, an event will incorporate more than one format under the same roof. In Leipzig, for example, the emphasis is on the game expo. However, they also have a trade-only section specifically for companies to do business development, and they host a mid-sized developer conference in parallel. Mixing different sub-formats is a way to draw more attention. The old E3 was really the master of convergence like this; given its sheer size and momentum there were always countless sub-events and side activities going on in Los Angeles during the week of the show.
Interestingly, the range of entities that organize and run all these events is just as diverse as the events themselves.
Some events, particularly the enormous logistical nightmares, are put on by media companies in the actual business of running events. The Game Developers Conference is owned and operated by CMP, a massive media conglomerate with global reach. Leipziger Messe, an event management company, runs the Leipzig Game Convention.
Conversely, many events are hosted by non-profit industry associations and trade bodies. Famously, the Entertainment Software Association (which primarily represents American game publishers) organizes E3. Alliance NumeriQC, a trade association for Quebec-based digital media companies, runs the Montreal International Game Summit. Similarly, educational societies or specific universities organize most of the academic events.
In some cases, governmental agencies step in to get things started and serve as the primary sponsors for an event. This is usually done in the hopes of stimulating new business and/or improving the skills of existing workforce.
In other instances, there’s no formal organizing entity at all. At the festival style events and jam-type gatherings, the approach is very informal. On the other end of the spectrum, game companies themselves are often the ones behind the major “con” events (like Blizzard and id Software).
So, who the heck goes to all of these events?
In the case of the expos and the tournaments, clearly a lot of gamers and fans show up to participate. On the game industry professional side, the vast majority of workers are fortunate if they get to go to a single event in any given year. Often, it is a select few (e.g., the director of business development or product marketing manager) that takes on an inordinate amount of travel. Often, the goal is to get on a continuous global circuit to stay front-of-mind with potential business partners or the press in the various regions/markets.
In fact, for rank-and-file developers, lobbying to go to GDC or other learning oriented conferences often becomes an internal battle as people politick their way to be the sole team member to make the trek. It’s an even harder sell if the given event is in a particularly remote or exotic location, or raises immediate boondoggle alerts (e.g., the event is in Las Vegas or on a cruise ship).
Once again, governments and support agencies will often step in and provide assistance for local studios and staff to travel to some of the major events. Though, these “trade missions” are usually focused on the business development aspect.
Amazingly, for an industry that is based on creating digital/virtual worlds we still heavily rely on the value of meeting face to face. Whether it’s to close that juicy development deal, or be inspired by today’s most brilliant designers, or just to frag a competitor next to 1,000 of your best friends, it’s more fun to do it together.
Jason Della Rocca is the executive director of the International Game Developers Association. (Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the IGDA.) He posts notes and photos of all the events he goes to at RealityPanic.com.