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London Calling

Stop talking amongst yourselves and start addressing the crowd.

The games industry, for all that it relies on cutting-edge technology, media and communications, isn’t very good at talking to people. Specifically, it’s got a rather odd attitude to communicating with its consumers - a rather stunted and unproductive approach to public events and product demonstrations that can leave the business looking socially awkward at best.

In fact, what the games industry is best at is talking to itself. A glance at the events calendar for any given year reveals a host of forums, conferences and expos at which the industry gazes in deep contemplation at its own navel, but remarkably few points at which it actually goes face to face with its consumers.

Things are getting better, of course. There are big public events on the calendar in the three biggest markets - Europe has Games Convention, America has PAX and Japan has TGS, and members of the public are welcome to all of them. Some individual companies love talking to their loyal customers, too. Blizzard has been lauded in this column before for its willingness to be open, honest and discursive in front of huge audiences of consumers, for instance.

In many ways, though, this is still the industry which thought that it was fine to occupy the LA Convention Center with multi-million dollar stands for a week, and not let any consumers in unless they blagged it. It’s the industry which is happy to let intermediaries handle that whole tricky business of product sampling - for years, largely the preserve of magazine coverdiscs and pods in specialist retail stores. You’d think the interactive entertainment industry would be better at, well, interacting.

That’s why it’s been interesting to watch the development of the London Games Festival over the past couple of years. At the outset, this so-called festival was a perfect example of the games industry’s reclusive tendencies.

Having billed itself, in essence, as the capital’s games “season”, it proceeded to largely fill up with events that you could only get into if you were already in the games industry. More navel-gazing - great! (Honestly, if the industry actually showed any real sign of adopting best practices or standards in the wake of these events, their proliferation might seem a touch more justified.)

More recently, though, the balance is shifting. Now, no declaration of interest is really needed here - it won’t have escaped your notice that two of the Festival’s public-facing events this year, the Eurogamer Expo and the Career Fair, are being run by the sites which publish this column. However, combined with the Video Games Live concert and Electronic Arts’ takeover of Trafalgar Square for two days to showcase major forthcoming titles, these events do at least provide consumers with some places to actually interact with the industry and play forthcoming games over the course of the Festival.

This - or at least, a vastly expanded and better supported version of this - is exactly what the games business in the United Kingdom needs. Despite a few brave efforts, Britain has failed to create a strong, consumer-focused games event - but rather than trying to take over an expo hall for a few days, a programme of events around the capital has the potential to pull in far more consumers and earn far more media exposure.

If anything, following the implosion of E3 - and faced with the amazing expansion of the industry’s demographic reach and the corresponding opportunity to win genuine legitimacy with the public at large - London finds itself in a position to define the model for gaming events of the future.

Organisers of various other arts and culture focused festivals learned a long time ago that if you host a concentrated event in an exhibition centre, it attracts a small but dedicated hardcore audience - leaving you preaching to the converted, little more. If, however, you overspill the convention centre and instead trickle your events and installations into the city’s public spaces and across a broader calendar, you’ve suddenly got a festival on your hands - supported by local government and attracting interest and attention from people and media outlets who would never have dreamed of going to an expo at ExCeL or Earl’s Court.

This year’s events programme isn’t a bad start, but even more ambition is required. Video Games Live is a perfect example of what should be going on during a games festival, but these ideas could go so much further. London’s museums, art galleries and performance spaces are ripe with opportunity as showcases for videogame arts and culture. Street art installations could drive interest and inspire people to find out more about the events. Contests and competitions could involve consumers rather than just asking them to spectate. For one week, London itself could become a canvas for the craft of videogames.

Moreover, it’s absolutely vital that the industry break this bad habit of talking to itself, and start seriously working on talking to the rest of the world instead. We no longer want for people who can talk passionately and intelligently about interactive entertainment - and any publishing exec who still thinks his developers are mole people who shouldn’t be allowed out to address the public needs to quickly check which decade he’s living in.

Public lectures, talks and presentation from game creators would be well-received and well attended - especially if supported by a week of cultural events and media coverage. And of course, each of these events would be a sponsorship opportunity, a chance to put new and upcoming games in front of huge numbers of consumers - many of whom are exactly the people that existing sampling strategies utterly fail to reach.

The London Games Festival, at this moment in the development of the industry, represents a golden opportunity on several levels. Culturally, the business has a chance to establish itself as one of Britain’s leading creative industries, and as a cutting-edge medium rather than a maligned range of overgrown kids’ toys. Commercially, brand new marketing and communication strategies are simply waiting for sufficiently intelligent and innovative companies to come along and exploit them.

It will require a little bravery. Talking about design and creativity in front of consumers involves embracing a degree of openness which few games companies are comfortable with at the moment. Moreover, a successful games festival would need to leverage the uniqueness of interactive entertainment - and letting go of the coat-tails of the film industry, standing on its own feet and declaring pride in its own accomplishments isn’t something the videogames business is very good at presently.

Yet these, too, are essential steps as the industry matures and takes its rightful place among the other creative media. Perhaps they won’t be taken in London - but as the buzz around this year’s events confirms, a real opportunity exists. With a little vision and a little courage, the London Games Festival could grow into a genuine turning point for the perception of this industry - and make a significant contribution to its commercial success into the bargain.

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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.