As a publisher of indie games, Devolver Digital has always made events an important part of its strategy.
In a conversation with GamesIndustry.biz that took place after the indefinite postponement of the Game Developers Conference but just prior to the cancellation of the Electronic Entertainment Expo, Devolver's Andrew Parsons laments the lack of a GDC this year.
"It is a shame because you can't really make up for that face to face contact," Parsons says. "Our industry is pretty much defined by that stuff, really, despite how fancy meeting tools are and online conferencing tools. You just can't make up for meeting with people."
In some ways, Devolver is well positioned to deal with the loss of GDC and dearth of industry events on the calendar in the midst of the novel coronavirus crisis. The company works remotely anyways, so its staff is already well-acquainted with working from home. And while many of the meetings with partners that Devolver would have had at a show like GDC will be handled through Discord, Skype calls, Google Hangouts, and the like, Parsons is feeling the lack of personal touch most keenly when it comes to the developer pitch meetings that had been planned.
"Meeting a developer in person... is so crucial to understanding if you want to partner up or not"
"Meeting a developer in person, regardless of whether they're pitching or not, is so crucial to understanding if you want to partner up or not," Parsons says.
Even so, Parsons tries to look at the bright side.
"To be honest, a pitch is always a hard environment within which to understand a game fully," he says. "It's a very heightened set of circumstances. Often a developer might be nervous. They might be working on the game right up until that moment. So it's always a moment where we feel we need to go out of our way to make sure developers feel comfortable to pitch to us. So Skyping with someone or doing a screen share, they might be more comfortable sitting at home and sharing that screen than they might have been walking into the pitch room at the GDC space."
And "provided this thing doesn't rumble on for too long," Parsons said the company would still try to have some face-to-face time with its developers, whether that be at future events or flying out to wherever they live.
But events aren't just for meeting partners and developers. Parsons said Devolver has always tried to put events at the forefront of its marketing strategy for games, and it's an area that has become increasingly significant over the years.
"I remember the days when myself [and Devolver co-founders] Graeme [Struthers] and Nigel [Lowrie] would be rocking up to events with a couple laptops and a trestle table saying, 'Hey, do you want to see this stuff?' Or in the very early days, it was just Nigel and Graeme in a suite trying to show people Serious Sam," Parsons says.
"If you look at our recent PAX showing, you'll see we have a full crew of complete professionals who deal with multiple titles, the logistics of moving developers not only throughout the show but internationally, and we've added merch into our lives. It's a testament to the creativity and quality of the games that people go nuts for Devolver merch, and it's all based on the IPs of our developers. People just go crazy for merch based on Pedro, Enter the Gungeon and that kind of thing."
And while Parsons says consumer events are a great way to get games in front of potential customers, they're effective for other reasons as well.
"We'll only ever attend a show if we are sure it's going to bring the right amount of press eyes to a game," Parsons says. "If we take a game to a show like PAX -- while fans should definitely get hands on with the game and you can get impressions and watch the game being played -- we have to ensure that journalists, streamers, content creators get plenty of coverage, detail, and face time with the developers."
Parsons concedes that the disruption to the industry's events calendar has forced the company to change its plans in a number of ways.
"What we're trying to do is go out of our way to ensure that on the press side at least, they're getting as much game time as possible"
"Realistically, what we're trying to do is go out of our way to ensure that on the press side at least, they're getting as much game time as possible," Parsons says. "That's Skype calls, it's Hangouts, it's being provided with builds, plenty of high-quality assets and B-roll, whatever they need to ensure they can create the most rounded message."
Whatever the work-around is, Parsons says it's imperative the press gets whatever they need out of it the same way they would by going to an event.
"These days, content creators and streamers are such a powerful influence in the media that when it comes down to it, you need communicate with those guys," Parsons says. "You need to share, to be open and say, 'Do you want to talk about this game or have a play?'"
Ultimately, Parsons believes the industry does need face-to-face communications. Even if pitches or press outreach can be done without it, something is inevitably lost in the transition.
"When it comes down to it, the human element of games is I think the most interesting aspect of the game," Parsons says. "You're always going to get access to things like screenshots, trailers, B-roll, whatever. But if you meet a developer and they've got an interesting story to tell, they come from a cool background, or you get to know them from a personal point of view, that's going to be far more interesting than how many guns are in the game.
"That's a more interesting take, and that's what you get if you sit down with a developer in a slightly less formal context. It's a real shame to miss out on that."
In light of E3's cancellation and the widespread self-isolation and social distancing measures adopted in numerous countries, we reached out to Parsons last week to see if the company's plans had changed as much as the surrounding world.
"We are still very much in the process of figuring things out," Parsons said. "But as always, our plan is to support the developers in whatever way we can during this time."