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Looking Ahead to Develop

Owain Bennallack, chair of the Brighton conference's advisory board, talks about the plans for this year's event

The Develop Conference in Brighton has cemented itself as one of the key stop-offs on the industry's world tour calendar with its aim of bringing interesting and topical issues together with tangible career-improving advice.

This year's event in July will be its fourth, and here advisory board chair Owain Bennallack explains what some of the focus will be on this year, and what the new Evolve day is all about. Develop's changed a fair bit over the past three years - last year seemed to be well received?
Owain Bennallack

Yes - when we first started Develop the jury was a bit out on whether or not the UK could support another developer conference, because it had been tried before, but then it had gone away again. I think it's fair to say that the British are a bit more reserved, not just in terms of temperament but also professionally - they don't just bound up onto a stage and jump about.

But I knew a fair few people having worked on the magazine Develop, so I was able to reach out to people, and Susan Marshall, who's the conference director, knows billions of people from her time at GDC.

So we got people in, and I almost went down wondering if there would be anybody there - I knew we'd sold tickets, but... though the enthusiasm and the will to have a networking event was immediately apparent, and Brighton was a cool place to go to. It went pretty well.

The second year - difficult second album - but I think the second year built on the first year, but the thing we really got right in the third year was that we had a bit more in the mix, more bullet points would be a good phrase - there were more things for people that perhaps weren't rank and file developers

What we've tried to do with the conference is really make such that if somebody goes there, they can go back to work with the ability to do their job more effectively. That's not always compatible with creating the world's sexiest run of headlines, though, so that balance is difficult - finding something that can cater to both the event as an event, and the event almost as piece of a career development.

It's been going in the right direction, and this year we're doing some exciting new things, but it's against a backdrop of an economic downturn. It is tough balance - there are a certain number of people coming through the door, but you also want the event to sound appealing to people who stayed at home, so you still need those headlines to make a splash in the media...
Owain Bennallack

A particular difficulty comes when reaching out internationally. The UK's a fairly small place, people tend to know each other, and most developers know the conference and can make a decision on going there.

When we try to bring people over from the US, big names who will happily speak to 250 people in the US, we can tell them they can come to speak to hundreds at Develop, the cream of the crop of UK developers, and the event just doesn't have that level of international awareness yet.

It's getting there - we've had excellent speakers from Japan, we've had Ken Levine from Bioshock, people from Valve and Microsoft - great people speak. But does every US developer know that Develop in Brighton exists and consider it in the way a UK developer would? I don't think that's happened yet, we won't get 10,000 US developers flying in, but it would be helpful - the more they understand that it's an opportunity to speak to Europe, the more likely they are to come and take part.

We don't want to create something that's 'all sound and fury, signifying nothing,' but we do need to accept that there needs to be some spice in the mix. Do you think, with the economic downturn, that companies will sanction as much international event attendance as they might have last year?
Owain Bennallack

I don't think that we're seeing that yet, but it would be too early to say to be honest. Conferences are strange in the way that they develop a snowball effect. I think in general the whole idea that the games industry was going to escape from the economic downturn was wishful thinking, really, based on the economics of twenty years ago - when kids bought games machines and their parents bought their games.

You can't have something that's integrated into everyone's lifestyle, and at the same time expect that not to take a hit when people's lifestyles take a hit. It's the price that you pay for becoming a mainstream media pastime.

I think it's true - companies are feeling the pressure. There are financial reasons too. Publishers, for quite tedious financial reasons - that don't necessarily have anything to do with games not selling, it's more to do with credit markets, and so on. All you can do is put together the most compelling content you can and hope that it's sufficiently tantalising.

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