SXSW: A developer's perspective

SXSW: A developer's perspective

By John Nash

March 25th 2011 at 1:00PM

What can devs gain from an event that has little to do with conventional game design? Lots, actually, as Blitz Games Studios explains...

[John Nash is Blitz Games Studios design director]

I didn’t really know what to expect when I and three of my compatriots caught the nerd bird to SXSW in mid-March. I was interested in experiencing the spectacle for myself and see why SXSW has started to reach the consciousness of the wider development community, and as I sit here piecing together the geek-infused information torrent I gathered whilst there, I’m glad to see a picture forming.

It’s a Size Thing

Assembling the anecdotal rants, conversations, editorial and my own experiences of being there, one thing is clear – this is a conference in transition. 

SXSW has started to move somewhat from its achingly cool roots as it celebrates its 25th year for the Music strand and its 15th year for Interactive. Attendance was at least twice that of last year by all accounts but it seems that delegate numbers for the interactive conference now surpass its famed music strand. This will surely change the feel of the event and there will most likely be a few casualties among the core advocates and bloggers but the fusion of film, music, games and many thousands of creative technologists still makes for a heady concoction that delights and infuriates in equal measure.

Being someone who has attended and spoken at most of the major industry conferences, I was initially unsure of what a game developer could gain from an event with such broad content that appears to have little to do with conventional game development. But as the games industry faces the latest time of reckoning in its volatile history we’ve returned to Blitz’s long-held belief that ‘conventional’ game development is not what’s needed to survive and thrive.

Open minds are the order of the day so the Blitz crew pushed through the doors on the first day ready to make the most of this rare opportunity to mingle with the convergent entertainment massive. The good news is that we all came away having learnt a truckload of useful and inspiring stuff, so we’re here to explain why all developers serious about rising to the new challenges ahead of them should be Austin-bound next March.

Summary

If I had to boil down the whole dang thing whilst wearing my big hat of marketing spin, I’d say it was a conference that talked about how to make a socially-engaged, trans-media, location-based community experience in the real-world game layer that ultimately affects positive real world change. Yes, yes, I know this sounds truly awful, but it really does capture many of the takeaway messages from the conference.  Don’t believe me? Read on…

The Game Layer

For me there were a number of common themes that ran through the conference and several high points that underlined them. In a bright and impassioned keynote, Seth Priebatsch (founder of SCVNGR) verbalised very succinctly our collective realisation that Facebook now effectively owns the social space and that the new land of opportunity is the ‘game layer’ on top of real life. This is the wake-up call for the industry and firmly establishes that the contemporary mass market gamer expects to be able to play their games on any device, at any time and concurrently with all their virtual communities. 

Excluding, say, the top 40 per cent of profit-making large-IP games houses, most development studios stuck in the old ‘publisher funded boxed product’ paradigm must take note; it’s time to change your outlook, processes and strategies. Now that we begin to understand the specification of truly multi-platform social game experiences, we all wait to see who creates the killer app that executes the theory. And thankfully it may have also triggered the demise of the phrase ‘gamification’ and for that I’m truly grateful. The ‘game layer’ has become the game changer – pervasive gaming has finally come of age, good times.

Social

For the last couple of years ‘savvy’ developers have demonstrated their ‘vast’ knowledge by diligently dropping the word ‘social’ into pitches, blue skies and talks. Well, this year SXSW has broken that subject area wide open into a number of more specialised topics backed up with some real thinking.

The bottom line of the social aspect of gaming is that the industry is finally working out that the community is smart and cannot be ignored. Hollow promises, poor customer support and inflated marketing just don’t cut the mustard anymore.  Social games are about building engaged communities grounded in trust, credibility and context.  They are also about delivering real-time persistent experiences beyond the game that are personalised to them. Many of the talks and panels also evangelised the power of games to affect social change. Blake Mycoskie’s captivating and uplifting retelling of the story of Toms Shoes also sparked a number of interesting debates on how to use games for positive change. The gaming community as a whole is capable of realising great things, both individually and as a group, if it’s prepared to seize the opportunity.

Convergences

One of the greatest pulls for the event is the evident fusion of games, music and films, although owing to the different dates of the strands, this isn’t quite as fluid as it could be.  This tri-media melting-pot did seem like the best event to talk about convergence though. Right now there seems to be a pitched battle between games, the internet and TV to discover, or at least define, the next ‘kind’ of entertainment experience. SXSW covered these aspects well, particularly the convergence of social media and television.

The fact that conversations about interfaces, back-end systems and domain ownership were heavy in the air following several presentations is a testament to the thinking in this space. Much like the game layer however, everyone is looking for the killer app that can truly demonstrate the perfect multi-screen experience.

Sessions

Between the four of us attending from Blitz HQ this year, we represented game design, community management, PR/marketing and business dev and SXSW’s credentials as the connected indie conference ticked many of our criteria boxes for attending. As with most conferences, the quality and relevance of the sessions varied greatly but most sessions yielded at least a few nuggets while others were useful and inspirational in equal measure.

The packed programme offers up as many as 25 different sessions at every time slot so if there’s one piece of advice I’d offer to future attendees it would be to set aside a good amount of time before you go to research the speakers and plan your time effectively.

The real secret to gaining the most from sessions though is to listen for the hooks that will trigger your thinking in new directions. This has always been a conference about looking forward and you’ll only get the best out of it if you approach it in that way.

If you’re prepared to match your strategic requirements to relevant sessions, have back-up sessions in place and truly listen to the messages and read between the lines, then there’s a huge amount to be gained at SXSW.

Trade & Burn

The tri-media feel of the show was well represented in the accompanying trade show. A good number of products and services covering film, music, games and other emerging industries were there to vie for our attention. On the flipside, the ScreenBurn arcade provided a little bit of light relief to the proceedings by giving anyone the opportunity to see and play a few indie games.

Though the indie game scene lies at the heart of the interactive strand of SXSW, the growing ‘mainstream’ shift of the festival was evident as many of the big game industry players have increased their presence. This overtly commercialised feel of what was seen to be the indie arena was a disappointment for all of us. It felt like the ‘big’ companies don’t really have a forum to be present, so they’ve muscled in on the indie arena and that in my view is a real shame. It felt like a healthy portion of publisher with a side of indie. We’re hoping to see this balanced a bit next time.

Audiences

One of the refreshing differences between SXSW and most other mainstream game dev conferences is the anatomy of the audience. Of course there are a lot of game and web developers and the usual core bloggers and journos, but many of the people there are either on the fringe of creative entertainment or from a completely different sector. In fact one guy I spoke to made wallets from sailcloth and was looking for more information on metrics and analytics for his website.  It’s truer than ever that there’s more to the games industry than just the games industry, and SXSW’s divergent audience and session subject areas speak to that clearly, for those prepared to listen.

World of Geek

Being a fully paid-up game industry geek, SXSW had a very strong connected community feel for me. From the touch screen info points to the fully app-supported scheduling and session feedback system all set against a backdrop of unusually loud twitter noise, SXSW didn’t disappoint.  Even when we were chewing down on lunch we weren’t alone, flat panels constantly streamed a Twitter feed that either aided or hindered one’s digestion. And as an aside, I know we are now all children of the tablet computing age, but it was surprising to see how big Apple’s dominance really is. I’ve never seen so many iPads and iPhones in one place – I knew I should have bought those shares back in the 90s...

General musings

So, ‘trans-media’ and ‘gamification’ are out while ‘game mechanics for life’ are in. It would seem that terms were judged as rigorously as theories and individuals at SXSW. Over-subscription to some sessions is still a problem, even to the extent that one queue waiting to gain entry to a session created the first ‘flash-session’ in an adjoining room until the officials came to spoil the fun. On a completely unrelated note, the quality of the freebie ‘shwag’ was nowhere near as good as it should have been. Sure, there were a few blue LED powered bits and pieces, but come on guys, let’s get a little more creative with the promo giveaways, you have no idea how well they work on this audience. There are still a large number of people using that strange marketing vernacular that really grinds my gears … if I hear the phrase ‘let’s dive deep on this and re-sync’ again, I think there might just be an international incident. It’s also nice to see that poster, badge and sticker bombing is still alive and well. The clingfilm-wrapped pillars attest to the heritage of this much loved art form. The power of a good flyer or badge still reigns supreme!

Bonus Hidden Conclusion

So, when all of the QR codes have been torn down and ‘free hugs’ signs have been relegated to the trash, should games developers go to SXSW? Well, there is a lot of content across a wide breadth of subjects, all well-organised and situated in a great city. Preparation, quick thinking and a willingness to talk to anyone are absolutely vital to success. The rate of growth in attendance though could well be its greatest threat. If the session attendance space problems and overall quality benchmark for content are not maintained and improved then there will be long-term issues. For a conference that’s all about the community, it would be a shame if that same community begins to judge it harshly.

SXSW is a festival that in many respects still retains a feel of cutting edge thinking and community involvement. For studios like ours that strive to find inspirational new thinking to take us to new places and keep us vital, SXSW is a must-stop venue now. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to any other game developer serious about pushing themselves and making the transition to producing the engaged community game layer experiences of the next five years. The fuel of our industry is ideas; those ideas come from creatives like us when we’re inspired. SXSW is one of the key places to source that inspiration so I’d urge you to send your staff next year.

http://sxsw.com/interactive, March 9th-13th, 2012