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Focus On: The European Developer's Forum

The first week of September is going to be a hectic one for the games industry in Europe. What was, for years, a week with one major trade show - ECTS - has now expanded into a confusing mass of competing and complementary shows, conferences, forums, events and acronyms. At one end of London is the traditional axis of the ECTS trade show and the GDCE developers conference; at the other is the Game Stars Live consumer show and the EGN trade show.

The European Developer's Forum is a development conference which is set to run alongside the EGN and Game Stars Live events at the ExCeL convention centre, and it's attracted a number of the biggest names in the industry to speak - with Ion Storm's Warren Spector and Bioware's Ray Muzyka to give the keynote speeches.

However, in a calendar which is already not short of established game development conferences and workshop events, EDF has its work cut out to stand apart from the crowd - and that's where Jeremy Longley comes in. A veteran of the UK development scene who cut his teeth at Bullfrog before moving on to co-found Lost Toys, and is now at Kuju's London studio, Jeremy is the chairman of the steering committee behind the EDF event, and when we caught up with him at the Edinburgh International Games Festival last week, we found that he has big plans for how EDF will differentiate itself from every other event around.

Uniting Europe

"The EDF was set up by, and the original idea for the EDF came from, the board of TIGA," Jeremy explains, on the topic of the thinking behind the event. "The TIGA board members met, and really decided that Europe was really lacking a really strong, European based developers conference."

"Without going into the politics too much of why that was felt - that's been documented elsewhere - we basically decided that we needed a conference that was set up by the European development community, for the European development community, and focused at real world developers, the people at the coal face," he continues. "So not just for the businessmen, the CEOs and execs who end up spending most of their time at conferences and being visible, but also for the people who sit there and graft at the games on a day to day basis."

"With that in mind, TIGA approached a number of people to form a steering group for that, which I chair. The purpose of the steering group is essentially to shape and mould the conference itself - the focus of the conference, the topics, the speakers - and to make sure that we had the most relevant, up to date conference that we could possibly get."

Distinguishing Factors

With the framework for the event in place, Jeremy and the rest of the steering committee set to work to create an event which would be more technically focused than any other conference currently on the industry's calendar.

"Obviously, this is the first year, and this is something that we'll definitely build up into being a very considered, decisive, focused conference," he tells us. "For the first year, we've tried to keep the remit quite small, because we wanted to get what we do, right. We've kept it, to simplify it down, to a programming track, an art and design track, and a business and management track. That obviously encompasses the bulk of the areas of development."

"We've found very specific, highly talented individuals that really know their industry, and the challenges that we all face throughout development. We've brought them together to create a very detailed technical conference. We're staying away from all the random speculation about what the industry might be like in ten years time - this is a conference about now. This is a conference about saying, what problems am I going to face in the next year? If I'm starting a game, writing a game, what am I looking at now? How can I be better at my job?"

Within that context, the committee has also found space for a dedicated day focusing on an often-ignored but hugely important topic - game music and audio. "I'm very pleased to say that we've managed to put together an Audio Day," Jeremy says. "It's one of the things we're most proud of, a day focused specifically on audio - as far as I can tell that's the first time that that has happened in Europe. We're getting a very good response to that."

Know your Audience

Of course, while this approach may sound very appealing to programmers and other developers "at the coal face," as Jeremy describes it, there remains one major problem - namely the wide perception that it isn't coders and artists who go to conferences, but their bosses.

"That is the whole point, that's what we're trying to address," Jeremy says animatedly. "We want to make something that the real developers can go to. It's designed so that studio bosses might say; 'here's why I should send people to this - if I send people to this conference, they're going to come back better people, better developers and my company will be better as a result'. So that's how we're appealing to the people who are actually going to be paying for this. For the actual developers themselves, hopefully we've put together a programme that addresses issues that they face on a daily basis."

Of course, most industry bosses will be at ExCeL during EDF anyway, thanks to the other events being organised for the venue during the first week of September. "EDF is obviously part of this very large, and quite wide-ranging, series of events, with EGN, the TIGA Content Market, and Game Stars Live - which of course is massive," explains Jeremy. "And of course, all EDF attendees can have access to the other events as well, so you're part of the whole rest of the show that's going on there."

However, there won't be much cross-over between what happens at EDF, and the plans for EGN. "The actual EGN conference stuff is, I believe, aimed at a much higher level - it's more for games industry professionals, if you like," he says. "We've tried a little bit to avoid too much overlap between us. The EDF is much more a serious development conference for developers, as opposed to just general issues that the games industry faces. They're attached to the business side - publishing, marketing, legal and stuff like that, which is a much broader remit."

Pitch Away

One major problem faced by most development conferences is that it's all too easy for speakers to use them as an opportunity to make a sales pitch to a captive audience, rather than addressing their subject matter correctly. Jeremy nods when we mention this factor; it's a problem which the EDF committee has seen, but they believe that their planning can prevent it from being an issue at the conference.

"Clearly, if you're not careful then things can turn into that, but we've tried to stay fairly well away from it," Jeremy explains. "Often the relevant experts, the people that know the most about the issues are people that are working for companies that are selling stuff, but as far as we're concerned, it's important that this conference does not become a sales pitch for stuff. Clearly, though, when you're setting up a talk, you can't prevent people from referring to their products as a point of reference."

"As an example," he continues, "we have a session which is being chaired by Criterion on how to practically use middleware. This is because - and I wanted that session because - there are a whole host of middleware things that people use, not only rendering engines but physics, scripting languages, sound and music libraries, we will have AI plugin solutions that will be better and more usable, networking APIs. So from a coding point of view, I think it's a very valid topic, because if you're the programmer who has to integrate these APIs into your game, how do you deal with that? How do you work with code that you've never used before, and that you don't necessarily even trust completely? It may or may not work, it may be a beta version; do you trust it to be fast or not? What things should you be looking at? And I'm very happy for Criterion to chair that, because they have a lot of experience of people working with software that they've created, and they know the issues that people face."

On a similar note, there will be no commercial area within the EDF section. "We don't want this to be a commercial show like that, so we've not offered people the opportunity to set up stands within the conference area," says Jeremy firmly. "This is a trade show for developers to get involved and discuss the real problems that they face, not to be pitched at."

"We're trying to keep it focused purely on the actual development issues people face," he reaffirms. "It's a workshop, it's a training session, it's for people to learn and to improve the skills that they have, and that they need to make better games."

Political Intrigue

While Jeremy's role is to shape the conference, rather than dealing with any politics surrounding it, it's hard to ignore the fact that industry politics will be coming to a head in a number of different ways in London this September. One thing the EDF is keen to defuse before it even arises, however, is any perception that the event is in any way designed for independent developers only, to the exclusion of publisher studios.

"Clearly the event is co-owned by TIGA, because TIGA feels that the independent developer needs a conference - but it's absolutely not exclusive, this is aimed at all developers," according to Jeremy. "So yes, absolutely, it's also aimed at the many internal studios which exist in the UK. We've been talking to all the major internal studios, working out what challenges they also face, and looking at the ways they train internal staff and how we can complement that with a series of lectures that will help them too. We really do want people from publisher internal studios to come along as well."

On the more contentious issue of the cross-London split, which will see ECTS and GDCE happening on the far side of the city from EGN and EDF, but on the same days, Jeremy is pragmatic. "Clearly it's not an ideal situation," he says. "But the reasons that it's come about are well documented. After this year, when we've seen what happened, we'll be able to sit back and see how things went, and we'll be able to form a much better strategic plan. Clearly the industry can't support two conferences like this at the same time on an ongoing basis."

"My goal, as chairman of the EDF steering committee, is that when all is said and done at the end of this, people will go, 'that EDF, that was a great conference - best conference I've been to in Europe,'" he concludes. "That's all that I can do, and frankly leave the politics to others."

The European Developers Forum will run from September 1st to 3rd at the ExCeL Conference Centre in London's Docklands. More information can be found at the [European Developers Forum website]

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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.