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Nordic Game 2010 Coverage

Thu 29 Apr 2010 4:26pm GMT / 12:26pm EDT / 9:26am PDT
Events

All the insight and news from Europe's essential development conference

For this year's Nordic Game, taking place this week, we're updating our coverage in this event blog. Every time we hear something interesting - either formally or less so - we'll post it here, with the latest updates at the top.

But we also want to hear from you - if you're at Nordic Game, or you want to react to things we're writing, drop us a line and we may add your thoughts to the blog as well.

Thursday, April 29

18:26 CET / 17:26 GMT (Matt): As if Epic's Mark Rein wasn't loud enough, for the final session at Nordic Game the organisers gave him a big red trumpet to honk down. The freeform panel was an excuse for mini-rants on industry trends and points raised during the two day event, with the panellists blowing their trumpet when they disagreed with statements from moderator Tobias Sjogren. Rein hollered over everyone else on the stage.

The first statement - indie developers are not the new black, and big publishers will once again rule the earth – prompted a fairly diplomatic response from Rein, who pointed out that indies can make money on smaller channels until the distribution method becomes valuable, which is when the big boys step in.

"For the most part the best developers in the world are independent because they have a vested interest in what they're doing," he said. "But sooner or later the big guys with the big bucks will control the distribution channel. It becomes valuable in itself. Soon we'll have advertising spots for iPhone games on TV. The big brands and those big games will suck the life out of those platforms for those that don't have the money for marketing."

On the subject of whether games retail will die, Rein said that he didn't expect traditional bricks and mortar stores to go anywhere this generation or next. With the emergence of 3D TVs, consumer will want even more high specification games, and it won't be possible to sell these products via digital channels because they'll consist of between 50 and 100 GB of data. "It's too awkward to download, games will still need to be on Blu-Ray even though we never needed it this generation, it'll be easier to drive to the store and pick a game up," he said.

And finally – should we do away with publishers and give the money to the developers directly? No, argued Rein, because then you would end up with developers that can make great games but they wouldn't be able to sell them. Publishers are still vital to marketing and distribution, he argued. Marketing muscle is everything. He pointed out that "Call Of Duty and The Sims are the best selling games on the iPhone because the marketing money is ploughed into it."

14:27 CET / 13:27 GMT (Matt): The first thing that stood out about the social session at Nordic Game was that the three panellists were all from triple-A, hardcore gaming backgrounds. Jarle Snertingdalen from Funcom's social division was previously working in MMO Age of Conan. David Nisshagen, currently working at female-friendly site Stardoll has worked at Funcom as well as DICE on a version of Battlefield for the Korean market. And Planeto boss Martin Walfisz was previously CEO on World in Conflict developer Massive Entertainment.

Why were they in the social market now? For Nisshagen it was the ability to turn around game ideas in such a short space of time.

"I spent three years on Age of Conan, thinking and writing down on paper what would be fun. The idea from paper to test took years. It might be a brilliant idea at the time, but it didn't mean it was great in the game," he said. "You almost become scared to innovate and test."

"I moved towards the free-to-play model, where ideas developed within a month. Then moved to virtual worlds where it happens within weeks. And then at Stardoll we can implement in days. And the numbers tell us what's good and what's bad very quickly," he added.

Walfisz was attracted to the lower risks of social gaming. "When a product tanks, it tanks when you've spent all the money," he said of traditional console gaming. “With social games you can tweak the game and get it going. If that's not possible we can kill the product quickly."

Snertingdalen discussed the issue of making money from social gaming, and said he was a firm believer in the free-to-play model with microstransactions over subscriptions. "Have some set of virtual goods or actions or services that consumers can spend money on a daily basis."

Nisshagen didn't dismiss subscription models of social games, and pointed to Disney's Club Penguin as an example of parents paying for a service easily without the daily spend of microtransactions.

"The parents pay for their child to play in a safe environment. Adults don't want to be poked 'can I have this hat, can I have these clothes?'," he said.

There was also talk of the next generation of social gaming, with Walfisz expecting triple-A console titles such as Call of Duty to begin incorporating social aspects – a player's kill streak could be tweeted to his friends – prompting players to pick up their controller and join friends online to rise to the challenge.

"The big boys will move in," he told the audience. "All games will become social. That's what the big boys are learning from the social gaming space. Even the big triple-A titles will need to think on their feet and realise what's fun before they've spent 80 per cent of their budget."

He also warned smaller developers to make the jump to social games now before costs rise and the market becomes dominated by bigger companies. "Development costs are going to rise because consumers are going to expect higher quality. The window is going to close in the next couple of years."

12:11 CET / 11:11 GMT (Matt):PAN Vision – the biggest indie distributor of boxed games in the Nordic region – has announced a new digital publishing division focused on talent in the Nordic countries.

The company said it will help local digital developers with traditional publishing needs, such as funding, marketing and localisation to "provide the strength needed for global success in the tough competitor landscape within the different digital markets."

The company is set to announce its first two games in the coming weeks, as well as details of a number of other partnerships that have recently been signed off.

11:01 CET / 10:01 GMT (Matt): Today started with an interesting insight into the philosophy and attitude of Remedy Entertainment, creators of the upcoming psychological thriller Alan Wake. Saku Lehtinen, art director at Remedy, said that although the game has been in development for over five years, fundamentally the game hasn't changed a lot from the original vision. He also said to remember that the team is only around 50 members, "We're a small team compared to Assassin's Creed. Their whole cinematic team is bigger than our entire team," he said, and joked that "when we started Alan was looking for his girlfriend. In all that time she's become his wife."

The company is happy to remain small, as it allows it to be agile and more creative than other developers, said Lehtinen. "When you are small and nimble you need to take advantage of that. Big guys are like a juggernaut that goes in one direction and make games with a cookie-cutter method. Small and nimble allows us to be unique."

The game is built on three elements – story, gameplay and art – all of which are surrounded by in-house technology. "We stand on the wide shoulders of the lead programmer. Whenever we think of design we always think of the realisation of what can be achieved with technology," he said.

But it's story that drives the entire production, added Lehtinen. "Remedy is very exceptional that the story is placed so far forward. Some companies keep the level design as their backbone. Story is our backbone. Whatever we do it comes down to the story. The script is the master document. Games are usually like porn films – the skeleton of a story with lots of action." Adding, "...or that's what the big boys tell me."

Showing slides of an office space plastered with worksheets and whiteboards, Lehtinen pointed out that the team obsessed over every element of the game to maintain consistency across the project.

"The idea has not changed but the game went through several iterations. One bullet point was debated for hours. When you have that design philosophy the leads can then be in sync and go to each team and start creating a very coherent end result. This mad scientist stuff is important," he added.

Despite the obsessions of story and character, ultimately, Remedy has always been focused on creating franchises and brands.

"Remedy has never thought about anything other than building a franchise," offered Lehtinen. "The whole business model is about building a franchise. Our motto has been to be amongst the best action game, technology and game franchise developers in the world."

10:25 CET / 9:25 GMT (Kath): The ceremony for this year's first round of Nordic development grants has taken place and funding of DKK 3 million allocated to six games companies.

Those picked were Rocket Pack, based in Finland, which was awarded DKK 600,000 for its casual browser-based MMO Cats vs Dogs; Prodigium Game Studios, also in Finland, awarded DKK 550,000 for Floorball League, and Swedish developer Toltec Studios, awarded 250,000 for its action/puzzle game The Ball.

Three Danish companies also received the grants - Tactile Entertainment, awarded DKK 500,000 for The Wolf in the Iron Forest, a game based on an animated film; Press Play, awarded DKK 500,000 for Tentacle Horror, and ZAXIS, awarded DKK 400,000 for game You've Got Snail.

In addition to receiving funding for the above projects, two applicants were granted additional funding of DKK 100,000 each to improve their applications.

The application deadline for the second support round of 2010 is midnight on September 1.

Wednesday, April 28

14:40 CET / 13:40 GMT (Matt): David Gardner, ex EA and Atari, and now leading London Venture Partners, has said that a company must have a strong set of values to succeed. Speaking during a wider panel at Nordic Game, he said it was essential to "police" the company values, and if that's maintained it can help a company grow.

"You have to have a very clear set of values that are more than posters on the wall. You also have to police your values when people violate those values if they intentionally have low integrity, if they intentionally do things that are destroying the company values - you have to say 'you're not part of this, you have to go'".

He said that decisions based purely on financial results rather than company values are harmful to a business, and used EA's fallout with the original Call of Duty team as an example, although parallels with Activision's current situation are also obvious.

"The mistakes I've witnessed in the past is that sometimes we promote people just because revenue was big," he told the audience. "We knew that there methods were wrong and we saw teams like the Medal of Honor team go off and become Call of Duty. That was a huge financial mistake, ultimately. You have to be extremely strong around your values and that is very tightly coupled to the vision. Then you can grow quite big organisations because those things scale enormously."

The old Bullfrog business was a good example of maintaining values, said Gardner, who pointed to that company spinning out to Electronic Arts, Lionhead and Media Molecule, all of which are creating "world class" product.

13:24 CET / 12:24 GMT (Matt): In a relaxed and informative opening keynote, Playfish's Kristian Segerstrale laid out five lessons he's learnt when acting as an entrepreneur in the games sector ("My mum is still waiting for me to get a proper job"). It was actually six lessons, but the audience didn't seem to mind.

Lesson 0: If you want to be a successful entrepreneur, don't try and win the market today. You will lose against the competition. Think 3-5 years ahead. Think forward, not about what's out there now.

Lesson 1: Think like a chief financial officer. "Even I find this boring but it's important," said Segerstrale, adding that he always imagines CFO's to look like Darth Vader. Develop a financially led operating model. If you don't do this your company will not survive over time. It's an insurance policy, he said. Understand and manage risk in a hits driven environment. You will get to insure you get to make games tomorrow and get more users over time. How? Look for leverage - can you make operations more efficient or find more ways of increasing revenue? As important as making a game is, ensuring you can have a future as a company is vital.

Lesson 2: Create great product. It sounds obvious but you've got to be number one or two in the category you go after. There's no point being number five. If you don't believe you can do it, you need to try a different category. Attract the best team, specialise, love your product and polish, polish, polish. Make sure you protect the IP you're making.

Lesson 3: Kill product ruthlessly. Don't let it develop if it's not going in the right direction, no matter how much you love the product. It's a resource drain. Avoid bad product because you need a high hit ratio. Implement green light gates on projects, assess constantly. Make these formal processes. Get everybody's input. Don't see a kill as a failure. Playfish has a kill ratio of 30 per cent.

Lesson 4: Build a platform. Develop adn document tools, technology and processes to constantly improve your efficiency. Think about creating a company not just creating a game. This gives you a better operating leverage and you can scale by hiring junior people to follow those processes rather than higher skilled people to create from scratch. It brings the costs down. Automate everything that can be automated.

Lesson 5: Be a numbers ninja. Playfish collects a billion data points a day. It's so much data that it's challenging to figure out what questions to ask from the beginning. Learn to test everything with numbers. Embrace rapid, iterative design. It makes better games, it helps you execute better every day. Create culture around experimentation with numbers. Collect everything, analyse what you can. Get a rocket scientist on board who will relish this data. Make sure metrics are measuable, but not vanity metrics.

12:46 CET / 11:46 GMT (Matt): During the Entrepreneur's Panel at Nordic Game, former Kuju boss Ian Baverstock said that raising capital from traditional finance routes is difficult because venture capitalists don't understand such a hits-driven business as videogames.

He also said that developers should never partner with financiers that are cautious with the money, and that its possible to take advantage of investors because they are actually willing to take more risks – more than the developer – because they're not tied to a project for a long period of time.

"When you start trying to raise money, investors are more willing to take more risks than you are," he told the audience. "They're not wedded to it. They're the opposite. They want you to succeed."

He also added that floating a developer on the market was a very bad move, "disastrous" in fact, referring to Kuju Entertainment being floated on the stock exchange back in the late 1990s.

12:38 CET / 11:38 GMT (Matt): Before the main keynote began, Fred Hasson, previously at TIGA, now Game Capital, and involved in chairing the entrepreneur track at Nordic Game, asked the attendees to consider taking advantage of the rapid changes in the business – digital opportunities, new business models – in order to achieve success before an influx of new entrepreneurs flood the market.

His point was that there are a lot of money eyeing up the games business, and if those already involved in the sector don't take advantage of their own skills, they could lose out to new players. Established game makers are already in a better position, said Hasson, because they have the passion and emotional involvement in the business of creating and making successful videogames.

"You're in a privileged position," he said. "The people out there who don't know very much are interested and they are less emotional about games."

"It's about giving people a start into how you make your passion into a business. You need to be open minded about how some of these ideas might compromise your passion. There is a way of being business-like and still maintaining your passion for games," he added.

11:12 CET / 10:12 GMT (Matt): The morning began with Eric Robertson of the Nordic Game Program making an appeal to the audience to help put an argument forward for the future of the conference. The Nordic Game Program is set to end in December next year, and Robertson asked all attendees to think of possibilites for the future of the event.

"We need your help in making sure that the proposal we're putting forth to politicians is of a menu of things that can be done in 2012 and beyond," he said. "To be a continued utility for the Nordic industry and the wider business. How can it be build further on – I like to think of it as an expansion pack – it shouldn't be more of the same, we need to spearhead efforts."

Robertson also hoped that all attendees would help "close the gaps" in the industry and become a little less competitive in the interest of advancing the business. "You can make a little bit of an extra effort to reach out and help someone," he said. "Be a little bit more inviting. I know you want people to buy your stuff, but look at it through other people's eyes. We should close the gaps just a little bit."

Tuesday, April 27

10:00 CET / 9:00 GMT (Matt): I'm not arriving into Malmo until later tonight, so unfortunately will miss this evening's indie showcase, but that should leave me fresh for the first full day tomorrow.

The event kicks off with a a keynote from Playfish's Kristian Segerstrale and his five lessons for game entrepreneurs. If you can't attend the keynote, or need a heads-up before tomorrow, we've just published our interview with Kristian here. The entrepreneur theme is carried forward later on in the morning with a panel featuring David Gardner, ex-EA and Atari, and Ian Baverstock, who's only just moved on from Kuju Entertainment. It should be interesting to hear what these experienced vets see as upcoming business opportunities over the next couple of years.

The afternoon is going to be taken up with two sessions - Guillaume de Fondaumiere's look at movie and games converging, which is sure to be a passionate and enlightening talk knowing the Heavy Rain team. I also want resolution after (spoiler alert) my Heavy Rain characters either died or had to be sectioned despite my hard work. And after breaking free of a deep Trials HD addiction, developer Red Lynx's case study on the Xbox Live smash is a session I'll allow myself to geek out at. It might knock me off the wagon, though.

I haven't seen a lot of Alan Wake apart from the basics, so am looking forward to the Remedy keynote on Thursday to soak up the atmosphere and get warmed up for the release next month.

Muskedunder Interactive's No Country For Old Games session taps into the the current social gaming hype with ideas on how to design a game for social and casual audiences, and designing games as a service rather than a product. Following that session and on the same theme is a round table on social gaming, and I suspect will be well attended by developers looking for new avenues to pursue. Adrien Cho's look at the production process of BioWare's Mass Effect 2 later in the afternoon will look at the complete opposite of casual gaming, highlighting the processes behind the big budget blockbuster.

So that's my initial plan, but I'm keeping it loose. These Nordic events are usually pretty chilled out and a little off the hook, so I'm hoping there is going to be a few surprises over the next two days. If you see me around, say hello.

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