Now in its fifth year, NLGD's Festival of Games, which takes place in the Dutch city of Utrecht, bills itself as Europe's most effective business event for anyone wanting to make a profit from digital games.
This year the event will be bigger than ever, with an audience of thousands expected from Europe and beyond and a line up of speakers that include Dave Perry and Ian Livingstone. GamesIndustry.biz spoke to the event's founder Seth van der Meer to find out more ahead of the doors opening on June 3.
Q: The Festival of Games is now in its fifth year - how has the event evolved since it began?
Seth van der Meer: Initially it started as a very national focused festival. When we started in 2005 the games industry in the Netherlands was just emerging and the companies were scattered around, there wasn't too much of a networking event. So we thought it would be a good idea to have a yearly event for Dutch companies to meet each other and to strengthen our network.
So that was really the start of what was then called the Dutch Game Days - a very national focused event. And then what happened was that both the national and local governments noticed this event and they valued it. The Dutch government really focuses on what they call the knowledge economy - the creative economy - and they see the games industry as the poster children for that economy. So they wanted to subsidise it to make sure that it would grow, not only on a national level but also to get international attention for the Dutch industry.
So that was sort of the second stage of its development. We got government support in 2006 and onwards. In 2006 it was one year's support then later on we got enrolled in a programme to get a four year subsidy and we expanded the festival out of the Dutch boundaries and created a more European focused event.
Q: So it's become a much larger event and one with a more international focus over the past few years?
Seth van der Meer: Yes. In terms of size, when we started, it was just 200-300 people getting together, exchanging ideas and doing a little bit of business. And what changed was the focus and the size. And this year we expect up to 3000 people of which about 40 per cent will not be Dutch, but coming from Germany, France, the UK, Denmark, the US and even Japan.
Q: What sort of feedback did you receive from attendees last year, and how have you used that feedback to improve the event this year?
Seth van der Meer: Well, if you look at last year's event there were a couple of activities which received different feedback. So one of our biggest events is, of course, the conference and at last year's event the conference was focused a lot on alternative reality games, augmented reality, so using other means of gaming, not just video gaming but also using the environment as a game platform. And although the sessions were rated pretty highly, some of the feedback that we got from developers was that they were expecting more business knowledge.
While they really liked the topics - they were the same things they're doing right now - they wanted to hear from people who had already made it in the industry or who had business knowledge about how to monetise your game or how to choose the right engine or how to find sweet spots in the market that you can develop your company in. They were really looking for that kind of business-orientated knowledge. Very focused on "okay, I have a game company and I want to have a game company next year and I want to have one in five years that's even bigger." So that was the most important feedback we got I think on the conference side.
The other was that, we started a matchmaking event last year called Pitch and Match which is a three minute meeting between a buyer and a seller and that received very good feedback and they wanted more of that. So most people who went to a Pitch and Match last year - there were about 50-55 companies - most of them returned this year and now we're looking at almost 100 companies taking part at this year's festival. So again, the focus is on doing business rather than contemplating visions on game design or art.
Q: So a lot more of the sessions and the focus are aimed at executives and people running businesses, both big or small?
Seth van der Meer: Yes, I think that, in our opinion and also in the feedback that we receive, it also has something to do with the economy right now so people are looking for a quick return on investment. They're basing their decision to go to our festival, or to any conference, on what it brings to their company right now or tomorrow rather than longer term investments in developing a vision or a game or gaining inspiration.
Today it's about how to get money as quickly as possible or how to sell your game as quickly as possible or how to monetise your game. I think that's one reason. The other one is that, if you look at the events in Europe, a lot of them have sprung up over the last couple of years so it's also a matter of having a unique profile - not being the next European GDC or something but trying to find an angle that's different.
Q: A lot of the conferences this year seem to be focusing on digital distribution. So have you tried to do something different or do you really need to cover it since it's such an important issue?
Seth van der Meer: Well we chose our theme a little under a year ago as being everything online. Not just the business model but also taking into account the online part of gaming - so playing together, getting user feedback through forums and stuff like that.
It's becoming such an important role also for the development of your game, not just on how you monetise it but also on how you create and play games. That will be the focus of our conference this year, so yes distribution and monetisation through online models is definitely a part of it but also on how this creates new opportunities of developing games. For instance, incorporating user feedback into your game designs.
Also one of the things that we see, especially here in Holland, is the crashing boundaries between, for instance, television and games. We see here a lot of interest from the television industry to learn how game makers can attract so many players, and that's something that the television industry is looking at. We have a couple of topics on that as well.
Q: You mention it's something you're seeing a lot in Holland, but do you think that topics you're covering like the TV one are really relevant for all European games businesses?
Seth van der Meer: I think if I look at the countries close by - the UK is a bit different because you have quite an established industry which is also very focused on console games, or at least it was for the last 10-15 years - like Germany, Poland and Denmark, I think they're sort of facing the same challenges. They can relate to the same things that we are facing here as well.
I think it's quite new for Japanese or Korean or US companies. In some ways they're behind but of course in other ways they are very much ahead, but on topics like social networking and games, television and games, I think those are really European topics. It's more focused on development studios that are smaller with smaller budgets who are trying to make use of new ways of either making money or using new user groups that they can attach to games - women, elderly people, more casual types of gamers.
Q: In the UK the biggest problems our industry faces are related to education, the lack of tax breaks and the loss of talent to countries such as Canada. Are those issues you also face in Holland?
Seth van der Meer: Yes, but education not so much. One thing the Netherlands has always had is a very good education system and there are many institutions that offer game design and programming courses. But as for tax breaks or governmental subsidies, I think it's closely related to the European agenda where we see, for instance, film, music and other related industries getting a lot of support financially.
I think that opening that up for game developers would be something that is a topic here in Holland, but tax breaks hasn't been much of an issue here. Not as strongly as I hear it from the UK or Canada. It's discussed but most Dutch developers are focused on where to find money in the market instead of finding a tax break.
Q: What do you think people are going to take away from attending the Festival of Games that they might not from events such as GDC Europe?
Seth van der Meer: It's always difficult to compare yourself to GDC but what I would like for them to get is a conference that is truly European so based on the agenda that European developers and publishers have - that will be something. The topics that are covered at our festival are really the topics that are relevant to them because they are in the same situation.
But for us it will also be that they found real business - developers finding publishers to sell their games and publishers finding interesting developers. Or that they learn how to make the most of their game or their company; that the knowledge that they found here really helped them make a decision on should we go for casual games or should we go for online consoles or iPhone and why are we doing it. And why choosing a platform can either help them to make more money or make better games.
Q: In the five years since you founded the conference the focus must have shifted significantly to social networking, casual and online. Has that been a surprise to you?
Seth van der Meer: No. Because that's why I think the agenda that we have fits especially the Dutch very well but also many European countries. I mean there are a couple of very good triple A developers making great games but they are a minor portion of our games industry. Most of our games industry was already, five years ago, very focused on casual games and mobile games so we have been working with different business models for five years already. A company like Spil Games, which is one of the largest casual games portals, originated in the Netherlands for instance.
I think this different perspective on how to make money in the games industry if you do not have a $20 million budget that's something that fits our industry very well, especially the Dutch who have always been very creative in trading and going to places all over the world. It's something that hasn't changed. What did change was the attention that we got five years ago for these kinds of topics from other countries. Now we see that the interest especially from the US and also Japan is raising so we have quite a lot of visitors from the US this year to see what we're up to.
Q: Are you pleased with the diversity of speakers you have for the conference? Which ones were you particularly pleased to get?
Seth van der Meer: That's always a difficult question. It also depends which perspective you have. I would say, of course, David Perry - it's great that he's speaking. But what I really like is that we've got a lot of local developers speaking from inside television and games - people that are doing great things.
We're also very proud of the sessions from Xsens, the motion capture company that originated in the Netherlands who did most of the work for Alice in Wonderland. It's something I am personally quite proud of because they made such a big contribution to such a movie.
I also really like the speech from Erik t' Sas - he has a speech about how his MMO company failed. Eight years ago they started with Spellborn which was supposed to be the next World of Warcraft. A lot of money went in there and it became a really very interesting game but it failed dramatically. The fact that he's willing to share why it failed I think is something that's very valuable. From my own background I know that learning from your failures is often better than learning from your successes. So it's something that I think will be a very good speech.
Seth van der Meer is chairman and founder of the NLGD Festival of Games. Interview by Kath Brice.