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GameHorizon's Carri Cunliffe

The conference organiser discusses the big themes and speakers for 2010

As one of the most important events in the games industry executive's calendar, GameHorizon - which is set to take place for a third year at The Sage in Gateshead in June - has this year attracted a range of big name speakers, including Peter Molyneux, Ian Livingstone and Mark Rein.

To find out more about this year's event spoke to GameHorizon head of sector development Carri Cunliffe, who revealed what the big topics will be, how the event has evolved since last year and which sessions delegates should be most looking forward to.

Q: So, to start with can you tell us about the main theme of this year's GameHorizon?

Carri Cunliffe: Well, the GameHorizon conference, every single year, looks at the future of where the games industry is going. And I would say that over the last couple of years a lot of the sessions have been about the move to digital distribution.

That isn't just about creating social games or multiplayer online games, there's also going to be an interesting section on how that's working with console as well. I think that everybody has seen that there's a shift to digital distribution in one way or another. We'll also be looking at business models as well in that area.

Q: What sort of feedback did you receive following last year's conference and how have you responded to that feedback to make the conference a bigger success this year?

Carri Cunliffe: A lot of the feedback last year was very positive and was saying that what people really like about the conference is the fact that they can meet decision makers all in one place. And the other thing that they like is that it does look forward.

You go to a lot of other conferences and they're analysing games that have already been released – how they were put together, the narrative, the programming, or the animation – and what people were saying is that they want to look into the future and delve further on.

So this year we've got a really great, inspirational guy who did a wonderful speech at DICE Summit back in February called Jessie Schell who's a complete visionary and genius. He's the CEO of Schell Games and he's also an academic at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and he's going to be talking about the road map to the games apocalypse. Basically he's going to be looking at the impact that games are going to have on our every day lives in the future. It's very focused on the long term and what's happening but also he's a designer, so he'll be looking at that too.

The other thing that companies said that they wanted to know more about was things that we'd touched on, like business models. So we had a session on freemium last year and we've got Rick Gibson from Games Investor Consulting looking particularly at what the future trends are for business models in social gaming.

Q: Why do you think it's important for industry executives to attend GameHorizon if they're already attending events such as GDC?

Carri Cunliffe: Basically because it's a kind of environment where they get the chance to sit back and listen to what's happening in the future of the games industry, and it gives them time to think about the strategies that they should be implementing in their businesses to take their businesses the next step.

Other conferences have multi tracks so it's a little bit more complicated and, as I said, they don't tend to look forward as much.

The other thing is that they're networking with the same people all the time throughout the whole of the conference so they get to build really weighty relationships with people. If I go to GDC for instance, there's just so much going on and although I do meet people when I'm out there I often feel like I have to actually make the meetings beforehand. You don't tend to run into as many people or build up the relationships throughout the event because you're not with them all the time.

GameHorizon is single track, people don't have to think "well I'll go to this session in the morning..." It's just one programme throughout and, from the minute they arrive at the conference on the morning of the 29th to when it finishes on the 30th, we take them through everything. There's a wonderful ease. They just attend in one place, there are network lunches in one place, there's a big party on the first night and we also have leaving drinks. There's no thinking other than thinking about where their businesses are going.

Q: This is the third year the event has been held in Gateshead – what's been behind the decision to continue to hold the event there?

Carri Cunliffe: Some of the feedback we got last year was how astounded some people were that Gateshead is actually an attractive location... Gateshead and Newcastle are separated by the Tyne and a lot of the stuff that people associate with Newcastle is actually in Gateshead. The Sage, which is the venue where we have the conference – a beautiful music venue – people always think is in Newcastle. The Angel of the North is in Gateshead. The Millennium Bridge was built by Gateshead.

So there's lots of things in Gateshead and the venue itself is spectacular and it's on the river and the whole of that area has been redeveloped and is beautiful. It's just a really nice location to hold something like this.

Q: Presumably the local games businesses based there are happy to have this focus on their area as well?

Carri Cunliffe: Yes, well GameHorizon is based in the North-East of England but we do partner a lot with other networks in the UK and particularly in the north – we do a lot of work with Game Republic and also with North West Vision and Media who looks after the North-West games companies. There's a strong presence from the UK but particularly from northern companies, which makes life easier for them as well because they don't have to physically get on a plane and fly over to the west coast of America or whatever to meet people.

The actual delegates themselves are a mix. There will be international delegates so we'll have people from France, Germany, Holland, Canada, US... there will be a good mix of people.

Q: I was going to ask how much you try to attract international attendees. It sounds like it's important for the conference?

Carri Cunliffe: Yes. If you look at our speakers even we've got a complete mix. We've got Nils Holger-Henning speaking from BigPoint Games, which are based in Germany, and we've got speakers from America like Joseph Olin and Scott Foe and Jessie Schell who I mentioned before. We've got some UK speakers as well! Oh, and Yohei Ishii, who is from CCP Games. He's American but we're going to have a contingency of people from CCP, so Iceland – although they also have an office in Gateshead.

Q: Presumably you've tried to get experts from across different sectors of the industry – social, mobile etc. Are you happy with the diversity you'll be offering?

Carri Cunliffe: Yes – we've got people who are visionaries looking at the longer term, then we've got people looking at certain aspects of games so we've got Michael Acton Smith who's talking about how they've built their social game Moshi Monsters. I also mentioned Nils Holger-Henning, so they're web, browser-based gaming. Then we have Darren Jobling from Eutechnyx talking about their experience moving from console to online games. We also have Tom Rothenberg talking about aspects of marketing in the games industry. So there's a good mix, and we've also got a session looking at how the music industry can teach people in the games industry about the move from physical distribution to digital distribution. We'll be looking at what went wrong in the music industry and how they can learn from that.

Q: Do you think the event is as relevant for people working within smaller companies or start-ups as it is larger businesses?

Carri Cunliffe: I think that anyone who works in the games industry would be interested in the GameHorizon conference programme. It's fairly diverse, but it's about the business of games. It's mainly about what you need to be a successful games company and how you're going to get there. And also what are going to be the big things over the next five years.

Q: What do you hope that people will take away from the event with them?

Carri Cunliffe: I think that we're in the middle of a big change in the games industry and there's still this kind of tension between people who are saying that console games are going to be around forever and people who are saying that it makes sense that digital distribution is not just around the corner, it's here now and everybody needs to bear that in mind. So I think that what people will take away from here is how diverse the routes to market are for digital distribution and the great things that it can do for business models and marketing as well.

Q: You hold a lot of different events as well as GameHorizon. How do they fit together and what are your future plans for events?

Carri Cunliffe: Moving forward, what we're going to do mainly is we're going to have the GameHorizon conference, which is an executive level conference, and then we're going to have a conference in March or April which is just about independent studios – that's called State of Independence and it's going to be happening in York again next year.

Over the year what we tend to do is different types of smaller events which attract a national audience and are really just to help our members so they tell us what they want to hear and what's going to help them and that's what we do with those events.

Carri Cunliffe is head of sector development at Codeworks GameHorizon. Interview by Kath Brice.

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