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Embracing the Fringe - Edinburgh gets Games

Last week saw the Edinburgh International Games Festival return to the Scottish capital for a second year, with an extended programme of events that staked a claim for videogames as part of the Fringe. <i>Rob Fahey</i> assesses the festival.

Put any group of games industry professionals in the same place for long enough, and it's almost inevitable that the conversation will eventually turn to the question of gaming's place in the wider pantheon of popular culture. For years, the industry has acted like any youngest sibling in a distinguished family - bemoaning the fact that it isn't taken seriously as an equal by its elders, but simultaneously being desperate to jump on any opportunity to ride the coat-tails of the music, film or TV industries to commercial success.

The pollination of ideas has mostly flowed from movies and music into games, and rarely back out; any industry conversation on the topic will discuss the wealth of successful movie licenses, and will try to politely ignore the particularly awful efforts of directors such as Uwe Boll and Paul Anderson at bringing popular games to the silver screen. Likewise, many games have been enhanced by licensed music, but only a handful have created classic soundtracks of their own.

Of course, this is something that has been changing gradually for some time, as videogames become a more accepted part of popular culture every day and the industry's bottom lines, as well as its manifest creativity, attract the interest of its peers in music, movies, TV and publishing. Nowhere, however, has the maturing of the games industry into a fully fledged member of the media family been more obvious than at last week's Edinburgh International Games Festival, as interactive entertainment returned to the Scottish capital's world renowned festival for a second year.

Northern Exposure

For a start, there's the simple matter of the location and timing of the EIGF events. The Edinburgh Festival - which incorporates the better known Fringe - is a meeting of creative minds from all manner of entertainment industries, incorporating everything from film and TV to comedy and books. Placing videogames in this heartland of the creative industries is both a logical step for the industry, and a major statement on behalf of the organisers of the event. Games, as a creative industry which entertains tens of millions of people, deserves its place in the sun (well, the rain) alongside other mediums; and even if EIGF isn't officially recognised as part of the overall festival yet, it certainly feels like part of the wider event.

The EIGF programme is made up of three main events; Go Play Games, an exhibition at the city's Royal Museum which invites the public to come along and try out a selection of the best released and upcoming games; Game Screenings, a number of public sessions at the Odeon cinema on Lothian Road where game creators show off their forthcoming creations; and the Game Conference, a two-day programme of lectures, panel sessions and networking opportunities at the Edinburgh International Convention Centre.

Games in a museum? Games in a cinema? Small steps perhaps, but there's more evidence of the maturing of the industry, and the way in which it's being embraced by the EIGF organisers, right there. While the choice of venues might just seem logical in some ways, there's still something of a thrill about seeing crowds of children, teenagers and adults pack into a cinema auditorium - the home territory of the movie industry - to hear about Lara Croft, or see world-first public exhibitions of The Sims, Football Manager or LEGO Star Wars (the hit of the programme, by all accounts).

Nurse! The screens!

Indeed, if we were to pick one element of the EIGF to single out for special praise, it would be the Game Screenings programme. Here is something genuinely new and exciting, a chance for the public to see the people behind the biggest upcoming games and to put a friendly, human face on the developers who create the entertainment they're so passionate about. On the flipside, it's a unique chance for the developers to show the fruits of their labours in a way which film-makers have enjoyed for years, but which has always previously been deprived to the games industry, and perhaps more importantly, to interact with real consumers - not rooms full of jaded industry types, or eternally unreliable focus testing groups - weeks or months before a game hits the shelves.

If it sounds good in theory, it works even better in practice. Whoever had the wonderful idea of putting an articulate game developer and his latest opus at the front of a cinema screen and inviting the public along for a chat deserves massive kudos for giving games a new creative outlet which will hopefully now become a regular fixture of all industry events, not just future Edinburgh Festivals. The public obviously loved the idea, with young and old (well, okay - young and middle-aged) turning up for the presentations, and clearly hugely excited to be seeing games ahead of their launch dates, and even to be in the same room as the creators; and for those giving the presentations, the experience of showing their titles to the public, and hearing the kind of questions that would never in a million years be asked by an industry audience, was a refreshing and energising one.

Take for example the presentation on The Sims 2 given by Neil Young, the general manager of EA's Maxis studio. This was the first chance that members of the public have had to see the Sims in action, and an enthusiastic crowd gathered to see the screening. Young is a charming and affable speaker; he engaged the audience with a combination of an in-depth discussion about how The Sims came to be and what the goals of the series are, anecdotes from the creation of the first game and its aftermath, and a hugely entertaining - and somewhat risque - live presentation of a scenario in the game modelled after the popular Fawlty Towers sitcom. A few seats away during the presentation was a young boy who had been brought along by his father; and each took away different things from it - two generations of gamers, enthralled by the chance to see a game well ahead of its ship date, and to hear one of its creators speak. After the presentation, Young was surrounded by enthusiastic fans who asked questions such as whether they would be able to keep pets in The Sims 2 - a far cry from the press presentations that such speakers are used to. That enthusiasm from the audience, in a nutshell, is why the Game Screenings are such a massive success.


Young himself is a huge fan of the EIGF concept. "It's one of the few legitimate looks at the medium as an artistic form versus simply a platform for doing business," he told us last week. "Embedding the EIGF within the greater Edinburgh festival I think also servers to help support the overall message that our medium is an art form, no longer the domain of spotty teenagers, but appealing to a broad, ever maturing audience who want to be moved by their entertainment."

That theme, of games as an art form and a cultural phenomenon that can stand side by side with other media, was continued into the conference event - a two day programme of lectures and panels which covered a diverse range of topics, many of them quite a long way from the "beaten track" of most game conferences, and some of them distinctly in the "just for fun" category - such as a Dominik Diamond hosted session called "Pitch Idol" in which teams from various industry sectors pitched new game ideas to a panel of developers, and a quiz session titled "Never Mind The Console Box" which finished off the event on Friday afternoon.

However, there were serious topics to be discussed as well. Steve Schnur, Electronic Arts' charismatic worldwide head of music, opened the conference with a fantastic keynote that explored the changing relationship between the music industry and the games industry. Bringing his previous experience at music industry bastions MTV and Capitol Records to bear, he gave the audience a fascinating insight into why artists and labels alike are coming around to the idea that games may be the most important medium for their work, and why inclusion in a videogame is rapidly becoming the modern equivalent of having a music video for a track - with artists such as Paul Oakenfold and Snoop Dogg creating original songs for forthcoming EA games, and many others clamouring to be included in the soundtracks.

ESA president Doug Lowenstein closed the first day of the conference with a strong keynote on the future of the industry and a frank and interesting panel session with a number of other industry luminaries, and those who braved their hangovers on Friday morning were treated to Seamus Blackley and a panel of experts talking about the cross-over between the games industry and the Hollywood studio model - the recurring theme of videogames' place in the world of media being raised once again, although perhaps 10.30am on the morning after the night before might have been a little too fragile a time for such lofty topics.

Production Values

A lot of things went right for the conference. For a start, the line-up of speakers it attracted was both diverse and impressive; perhaps more importantly, the quality of the presentations was excellent. The EIGF committee made the wise decision to assign a producer to each session, rather than allowing the speakers to manage the whole thing themselves; this largely meant that, with a few exceptions, sessions were focused, well planned, and were not allowed to turn into sales pitches or worse, ego trips. It's a move that other event organisers in the industry would do well to replicate.

However, the conference this year did suffer somewhat from being extended to two days, rather than the one-day event which was held last year. As such, the event not only became harder to justify as a trip out of the office, but also suffered from a significant amount of padding in the schedule. Some presentations just looked good on paper, perhaps - a panel on virtual cash in online worlds sounded like a good idea, but threatened to become an interminably boring love-in between some well-meaning individuals who earnestly believe in this daft little corner of the industry, were it not for the timely, sensible and often hilarious interjections from Electronic Arts' corporate communications VP, Jeff Brown.

Other sessions simply felt like they would be more at home in the public screenings programme, rather than in an expensive industry conference event. Dominik Diamond's Pitch Idol and Ian Livingstone's Console Box quiz both fell into this category, as did a discussion on future control systems hosted by Future Publishing's James Binns. A little more careful selection of events, and an expansion of the screening programme, would have seen a tightly focused and hugely interesting one-day industry conference, and a much more publicly accessible EIGF for people simply interested in games.

Festival Fever

Flaws with the conference programme aside, the Edinburgh International Games Festival has indisputably grown and matured over the past year. The development of more public-facing events is a key part of this maturing, and it is this that will eventually see it becoming a recognised part of the overall Edinburgh Festival; and the Game Screenings concept and programme is, ultimately, a triumph for the festival. More focus on those events which are aimed at the public, and less on the industry conference, is that Edinburgh needs in the coming year - but there's little doubt that the Festival is well on its way to creating a unique and extremely important event in the calendar of the videogames industry, and of the media industry as a whole.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.