On 3 November this year, the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth will open its doors not to the usual gazers of underwater life but to the growing number of gamers emerging in the South West. Organiser and MD of Remode Studios Ella Romanos explains why the coastal region is making a mark on the fast-growing gaming industry.
The South West is currently home to a number of independent creative studios – many of which were set up within the last five years. Remode is a relative veteran at four years old, and Mutant Labs, Swipe Entertainment and Clockwork Cuckoo were all established in the last three. The region certainly has a reputation for producing extraordinary talent, but not all those who begin their journey complete it here.
About a year ago, the team at my own gaming studio, Remode, started a conversation with fellow game designers Mutant Labs and Korash Sanjideh from regional creative funding body Creative iNet about how to retain creative talent in the area, and bring the audiences from London and elsewhere in the UK to see the innovation that was going on right under our noses, amongst the beautiful downs of Devon.
The conversation inspired us to put on what we expected to be a low-key gathering of like-minded gaming enthusiasts called Extended Play 2010. Instead, it turned out to be a sell-out event with more than 100 people and influential speakers from around the UK getting together to talk about the growth of the games industry in the region and what challenges this posed, such as building a network that connects the region to the rest of the UK.
We wanted to capture the energy from that evening by launching a full-scale games festival to support, enhance and promote gaming and other creative industries in the region. Thanks to generous support from iNets Southwest, the University of Plymouth and Plymouth College of Art – as well as months of planning and booking with Designed in Devon – we are now just a couple of weeks away from opening the doors to the South West’s first ever major games festival.
The Extended Play 2011 festival will open with a VIP event hosted by Richard Wilson, CEO of the UK’s largest representative body for the gaming industry TIGA, before delving into two days of game showcases, panels, jams and workshops with speakers including the BAFTA Award-winning Ian Livingstone OBE, Guardian games critic Keith Stuart and Education Commissioning Editor from Channel 4 Jo Twist.
Visitors will be able to get a rare glimpse not just at some of the rarer underwater creatures resident at the National Marine Aquarium, but also at that elusive species – games developers – as they build games in real time, their flickering computer screens exposed to the public. Local creative companies will be able to take part in a Boot Camp with leading industry figures helping them stimulate growth and harness innovation in their own young businesses, and as days turn into nights, participants will find themselves with a bespoke Explay festival cocktail in hand taking in the sights and sounds of Plymouth’s nightlife.
The festival is going to take place during a particularly exciting time in the games industry. We chose the theme of “games as a service” for the events this year, because the way we consume games is changing dramatically and fast. As games evolved from arcades to consoles to digital distribution, games designers have become better at giving users what they want, making it easier to play wherever and whenever they desire. Service games have been the natural next step, and no game has demonstrated this better than Farmville – the “online chore” that in 2009 was played by more people than any other game in the world.
Zynga – the studio behind Farmville – may get criticised for destroying creative design associated with high quality games, but they have brought more people to gaming than anyone else. While players will eventually become bored with the content, Farmville has presented game developers with the biggest consumer base. Farmville has created the commuter gamer, the housewife gamer, the gamer who does not self-identify as a gamer. And the games they are interested in do not contain big budget graphics or Hollywood voiceovers. They are simple, addictive and perfect for independent start ups to create. They revolve around worlds that can continuously be improved and tinkered with through add-ons, downloads and extra levels. Local gaming studios should grasp this opportunity and use innovation to grow the industry as well as their own business. The games as a service model has not been around for very long, but essentially creates a theoretically infinite long-tail where users can keep paying and playing. And because the games rely on community building rather than product distribution, small gaming studios can retain more of the ownership, in turn motivating them to keep on innovating.
I don’t think anyone does it better than the small, young studios growing in the South West, but the aim of the Extended Play festival is not just to showcase local talent but to connect and collaborate. We hope to attract attendees from around the world and are working to complement other UK gaming festivals such as Develop Indie Day, Flash on the Beach and World of Love.
Most of all, we hope to build on the great assets we already have to inspire a new phase of development for both the regional and national gaming industry. Here’s to new games that will have even more players than Farmville!
Extended Play Games Festival 2011 takes place at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth on 3–5 November. It is a free event and open to the public on the afternoon of Saturday 4 November. Visit the website to book a place.