Nordic Game – Review

First I have to apologize for hijacking this great outlet of outstanding games reviews to something as banal as a blog post about a games conference. The truth is, I can’t be bothered with setting up another blog and, additionally, I feel that it is time for notplayed.com to diversify!

Well then! Nordic Game, the biggest industry show in the region. You could have fooled me. Despite the show being in its 9th year, this was the first time I managed to make it there and I had very high hopes.

The Nordic games industry is huge. As a region it’s second only to the UK in Europe in terms of game developers – and that’s despite only encompassing around 25 million people.  You have your obvious big hitters such as DICE, IO, Avalanche and Ubisoft (in the form of Massive). On top of that there some other quite well known studios such as CCP, Remedy, Funcom (let’s ignore the fact that the majority of their development is in Montreal now) and Starbreeze. But above all there are a massive number of smaller studios, both established and new. And that number is growing.

So one would think this would be the best possible place for a games conference. A hotbed to network, show off products and share information, culture and technology. On the face of it, and judging by the program, that certainly was the intention.

There was certainly not shortage of talks. But having over 40 talk scheduled in 2 days across 5 rooms really meant that scheduling became a problem and most people were unable to see all they wanted to see. It also meant that time frames were extremely tight and often Q&A segments could only accommodate 2 or 3 questions.

So clearly, a 3rd full day here would help. Why not add the Wednesday in full? The number of speakers is great and just about right really, but spreading them out over 3 days could mean slightly more time for each talk. It would also allow the organizers to reduce the number of rooms needed – which again means people don’t have to pick one out of 5 choices for every time slot.

This would also solve another problem. Horrible room allocation! 2 of the 5 allocated venues were so close to each other that we could hear the other speaker. It did solve the choice problem, but not in a good way.

Speaking of venue… Slagthuset in Malmö is a wicked building, a great venue, but it is tiny. It took less than 90 seconds to walk from one end of the exhibition section to the other. I timed it, and that was with a lot of people in there. This really meant that those (few) companies who actually bothered with booths, had little space and there really was not much to look at.

Some of the bigger companies had a booth, but where not showing much. Most seemed to be mainly concerned with recruitment (which is great), but it felt like a job fair more than a games conference. Hats off to all the indie and smaller scale developers there – a lot of them showed off their wares and there were some lovely new games on show!

Judging by comments made during the Gala Evening event, everyone hails Nordic Game as one of the best industry events of the year. Why then does the show, now in its 9th year feel like a start up? Poor timing and bad use of available space aside, the organization alone was simply shocking. There is no other way to say this. Arriving at the venue we had to find the way in. There were no signs, no posters, and no banners. Once inside the main auditorium entrance was a single door, hidden between 2 booths. The sign actually telling people which room it was, was completely obscured by the Remedy booth. Fortunately my colleagues either had the program on their pad or printed out. The official program was apparently somewhere between Hamburg and Malmö and I finally got one on my way home on Friday (surely as low quality as the program turned out to be, this could have been done locally, like in a Nordic country?).

But I think the thing that irritated me, and many of my colleagues, the most, was the behavior of 2 of the presenters of the event. The primary host appeared to be Jacob Riis, acting Communications Director of Nordic Game. Initially I watched him with amusement when he introduced the starting keynote speech on Thursday. Talking mainly about getting drunk on the Indie party the night before and declaring his love for his boss, he was more about flamboyancy than substance. A great keynote by Randy Pitchford later though and all is forgiven.

Once we got to the Gala Evening, things took a turn for the worse. I can’t say for sure, and I don’t want to slander him here, but Jacob certainly appeared to be heavily intoxicated. Slurred speech in parts, a couple of stumbles and a few embarrassing anecdotes; not really what I was expecting from the opening of the Nordic regions only award and grant ceremony.

The start of the evening was all about handing out grants for start-up companies and new projects. The Nordic game fund is really quite considerable and it’s a great way of enabling young teams to get off the ground. This year, over 6 million DK (roughly half a million GBP) was awarded to some outstanding new talent and studios. Little time was given to this though and grants winners were announced, got their framed grant letter and then ushered off the stage quickly. This all happened between the starter and the main course. People seemed unsure if it was socially acceptable to chew and applaud at the same time. Heck what am I saying; obviously people in the games industry don’t care what is socially acceptable.

At least that was the impression the presenter for the coveted Nordic game awards gave. Morten Skovgaard gave the following statement on the Nordic Game website:

“With the Nordic Game Awards typically being preceded by the consumption of considerable quantities of beer in the lobby bar, certain prize winners have been known to exhibit rather interesting stage behavior during past award shows. I do not expect otherwise this year, and I shall do my very best to keep everyone in line and make the show an entertaining one.”

Morten obviously has a very different view of what entertainment is. And if anyone needed to be kept in line it was him. In over 12 years in the industry I have seen some messed up people and heard some questionable remarks, but in all that time I have never once witnessed such a slew of sexist, derogatory and immature statements. Made during the highlight of the show no less.

I will spare the details here, but Morten gleefully recounted stories of games parties, booth babes and remarked positively on the size of breasts on female games characters. He turned heads alright, though for all the wrong reasons. Hats off to the female developers which were present, for not throwing beer bottle his way. Instead they kept calm, shook their heads and waited patiently until all awards were handed out.

It was, quite simply, shocking. Even more so, as in some of the keynotes we heard through the first day, the male to female ratio in the industry was commented on, with large studios actively trying to hire more women, and some of them stating it being very hard. I wonder why that might be….

I am taking a stab here, but my guess is that it has a lot to do with the fact that the industry as a whole is just completely immature and full of sexist men who start gawking and become awkward as soon as a woman enters the room. Unless of course there is alcohol involved, in which case awkwardness gives way to aggressive, loud and obnoxious behavior in an attempt to cover up immaturity and insecurity (yes I am exaggerating slightly, not every male developer is like this).

And if anything, this is where Nordic Games really succeeded. It clearly showed that aspect of the games industry. Focus seemed to be on getting wasted, being loud, being hung over and making sexist remarks.

We love to compare ourselves to the movie industry, we strive to find recognition for the art and entertainment we produce (and once again, what comes out of the Nordic region is among the best there is), but at the same time we fail to understand what holds us back. We are like kids, given the keys to the toy store. We, as an industry, have success. And we celebrate through excess. Put one of these kids in charge, in a position where they become a (semi) public figure and, with few exceptions, they revert back to primal instinct and quite literally go feral.

What should be a celebration of talent, a sharing of knowledge and insights, a place to meet people and swap ideas, turns into a contest of who can drink more and who can be louder and tell the wildest stories. It’s times like this where my own industry disgusts me.

Having said all this now though, I do want to point out a few highlights of the event. There were redeeming features after all. These came in the form of a few keynote speeches I had the pleasure to attend, and which were highly informative.

Interestingly enough the event started on a high for me (after actually finding my way there and getting registered).

Randy Pitchford gave the opening keynote on studio culture and image at Gearbox. This was a well rounded presentation highlighting the difficulties of raising a brand new studio, leverage skill and experience and the constant work to reach and maintain profitability. Randy made some great points and constantly re-iterated the fact that every studio is still a business and the only way to continue to live the dream is to make money in order to finance that dream. Gearbox manages this by sticking to a few core franchises (own IP), while trying something new from time to time to keep things fresh and expand experience.

Dorian Kieken from Bioware gave an interesting, if somewhat flat, talk on building a studio culture. It was interesting to see some statistics in terms of employees and rate of growth, but for my taste Dorian spent too much time on pointless examples and there was just not enough material in the chat.

Nathan Jurevicius on the other hand had a lot of material. And it was amazing. Nathan took us on a great journey of character development, from initial idea and concept to various commercial outlets, ranging from toys to film and game. He gave us detailed examples for both his major IPs (Scarygirl and Peleda) and highlighted how the characters transformed during their lifespan. Impact from commercial venues, new ideas, feedback and expanded knowledge all transformed his work to what it is today, and it is still evolving.

The last session for me on day 1 was with Andrea Philips on games and transmedia. This turned out to be probably the worst keynote of the week for me. It was not really that she did not have some valid points, obviously 2nd and 3rd screen transmedia (expanding your product through other media) is a hot topic and something many studios look at today. The reason it was just a bad talk was her actual presentation. Focusing more on her love for transmedia and certain types of games (in an attempt to win over the people in the auditorium), her arguments were shallow and she did not really present one relevant example. At the end of a talk like this, i would have liked to walk away and have some ideas on how to achieve transmedia success with my current project, not just know transmedia exists and is cool.

Day 2 also started extremely well. The horrible gala experience fresh in my mind and surrounded by hundreds of hung over people, many of them un-showered, sweaty and reeking of alcohol, did not really make me feel positive about sitting through another day of keynotes.

But Jonathan Jacques Belletete gave what was easily the best keynote of the week. Jonathan is the art director at Eidos Montreal and recently shipped the new Deus Ex. His talk was all about art direction and originality vs. remaking existing art. He was refreshingly open and presented great ways of how to achieve an original art style for games. I am not an artist, but after that talk I wanted to become one!

Tim Willits was up next and talked about Rage. He talked a lot. Everything he said was pretty much common sense stuff, and horribly presented. An hour wasted.

Carl Vikman was the second to last session for me and he gave a great keynote on how audio in battlefield came to be. In particular I loved the fact that for him, and the DICE audio crew, it seems to be more about people and ideas than tech. He was also very (VERY!) open about how the team created the awesome sounds of Battlefield. Nice to see not everyone holds their cards that close to the chest. As Vikman put it “make better sounding games, it’s good for the industry!” – And I could not agree more. Very lively talk and great Q&A session at the end.

The last talk I attended was with Phil Fish who had recently shipped Fez and also stirred up a bit of controversy. Admittedly I went in there expecting to meet an arrogant designer with little to share. The first 20 minutes, where he rattled through his presentation, reading the text of his iPhone appeared to confirm this. But the Q&A session that followed showed an entirely different person. He was open, insightful and had some great tips for start-ups and designers alike. He was also very honest about his personal issues towards the end of development and the following media outbursts. Hats off to the guy!

All in all then it was great to hear some of these industry people talk about their experiences and ideas. Most of the talks I went to, I got something out of. But overall, Nordic Games as the only show in the region, it was a major disappointment. It’s an event I will probably avoid next year and perhaps check in again in a few years’ time to see if it has matured slightly.

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