In July 2013, the Develop Conference hosted a programme of over 80 sessions, tracking the current videogame industry developments and trends. For three days, the renowned annual conference (organised by Develop Magazine, a trade publication with a circulation of 300,000) welcomed videogame professionals from around Europe to Brighton, in a programme shaped by and for some of the key figures in the industry. As part of the Copyright and Games project, and having made some initial forays into literature on the development of business models, creative platforms and payment mechanisms, Develop provided an opportunity to see exactly what the industry was talking about, and how they were discussing it with one another.
Dave Raynard’s presentation on competitive karaoke game SingStar provided the first in-depth discussion of what was to be a dominant theme of the conference, that of the “freemium” or “free to play” (F2P) business model. Raynard spoke of how offering customers a free gameplay sample before charging for additional desirable content (in this case new songs) could provide a sustainable business model where purchases are integrated into players’ gaming experience: the social and communal benefits of the game resulted in a core group of repeat spenders. Harry Holmwood later discussed this model in relation to the Japanese market, where some mobile games feature an average profit per user of up to $300 per month. The British industry’s awareness of the mobile platform’s potential for success was reflected in their attendance at relevant panels: where in 2012 there was a strong interest in the possibilities of Facebook as a gaming platform, for instance, now very few took an interest, preferring instead to discuss smartphone and tablet game production.
Yet this focus on F2P monetisation was tempered by Lee Schuneman’s assertion that regardless of one’s business model, a great game is a great game. Initial conversations with independent developers prior to the conference had made us aware of a tension between viewing games as either an artistic endeavour or as part of a business, and developers’ concerns in wanting to produce material of creative merit in addition to being financially successful were readily apparent at Develop. Such concern fed directly into Elaine Reynolds’ presentation, where she criticised those mobile games without artistic integrity, and offered instead a view that monetisation need not be unethical or to the detriment of creativity. Reynolds argued that one needn’t place artistic and business concerns of creative works in direct opposition, and there is certainly scope for developers to embrace and exploit new sources of revenue without compromising their artistic vision.
Considerations of the creative process were also evident in Robert Sloan and Drew Wilkins’ talk, which detailed the production of their web game based on animated Channel 4 series Full English. Detailing the challenge at having to work with a number of stakeholders – including Full English co-creator Alex Scarfe, voice acting talent, artists, and animators – Sloan and Wilkins made evident that the extent of creative freedom afforded to a developer can depend on just how “independent” that developer is. For example, when given a prominent platform – such as the Channel 4 website – legal and economic concerns become a far more integral part of the production process. One’s position in the industry would seemingly determine the extent to which these concerns are implemented.
The importance of being able to listen to those in the cultural and creative industries talk to their peers cannot be underestimated. Prior to this event, we had an idea of some of the current pressing topics of the video game sector. What a conference like Develop allows is the opportunity to see how these topics are being responded to in a tangible manner by the creatives themselves. Moving forward, with one of our project deliverables including hosting a roundtable event for industry professionals, the topics discussed at Develop will allow us a useful point of entry for the further deliberation of pertinent issues.