It is Time to Stop what you have been doing [part 1]

leave the herd and stop doing it

It is Time to Stop what you have been doing

There are two good excuses for going to trade shows
technical knowledge and business knowledge. I’ll examine both as they affect
start-ups and innovators in computer and video games, and hopefully show you
ways to make the $5,000 cost of getting to a trade show for a week (including
beer!) much better value for money. I’ll also dig into what a world in which
games are released on 3 to 6 month cycles means for innovators and trade shows.

For most people in the computer games industry, the main
reason for going to trade shows like E3 is to see the latest shiny PC and
Console games on display from the major manufacturers. The real problem with
these from the point of view of a start up is that the products of the major
studios and publishers are rather like huge works of fine art, 7 years in
gestation, and only able to exist in an ecosystem that has massive up front
payments from distributors supported by monster advertising budgets. They rely
on complex deals with hardware companies (especially the major processor and
graphics manufacturers) as well as complex financial engineering (especially in
terms of leveraged finance, tax breaks and pseudo-debt in the form of deferrals
and royalties).

In short, trying to learn anything useful to a start up by
looking at the major releases is akin to a craftsman blacksmith from
Hinkley-cum-Stow visiting a Russian Aluminium Foundry.

Worse, the trade shows completely belie the time taken to
deliver a product. Software advances visible (and audible) in a released
product were thrashed out in the lab up to seven years previously, worked on
for several years, and probably only refined into a working engine and toolset
two or three years ago. What you are seeing is the shadow cast forward by
historic innovation.

I’ve taken people from other industries to games shows and
they are always amazed that so much information is shared. “In our business
that technical stuff would all be locked under NDA and patents, and you’d be
dismissed for talking about it in public”. The gamer mentality is always to
share, always to be consultative and open, and long may that continue. However,
trade shows are just too far behind the real innovation curve for that
information to have real value: the real value is still in the lab.

There are ways for start ups to get closer to innovation.
GDC takes you about a year closer to the start of things. Developers will be
showing off products that are in a solid beta release phase (about a year from
release in most cases), or, in the case of a brave few, perhaps even alpha

So, despite that, nothing really useful on the start up or
technical innovation side can be discerned from major trade shows likes E3 or
GDC. You need to get closer to the source to find that, innovators should be
aiming at SIGGRAPH, which shares innovations that might only be a year or two
old (just out of the lab, but already working).

Which leaves attendance at major trade shows as the computer
games cultural equivalent of browsing a fine art gallery: intellectually
amusing, but ultimately utterly pointless from a technical point of view.

Save money: don’t go to shows to learn anything technical,
go to Siggraph, or even University open days (which are ‘free to $50’) such as
Georgia Tech, or Tayside or similar.

You might think that the good news is that Trade shows also
have lots of Indie games, iPhone games and other light casual games, and they
are not only rising fast (and will soon swamp the dinosaur console and PC
traditional games sectors), but their very short lives mean that what is on
display is much closer to the point of innovation technically. “Aha!” you might
say, “I’ll go learn from them, and start an Indie games company”.  Close, but still no cigar. The problem is
that Indie games are made and release on an approximately 18 month timetable,
and therefore the annual recurrence of trade shows means what you see is
already a whole game cycle behind the leading innovators. Even worse in iPhone
and mobile games, where people like ngMoco are releasing games on a 3 to 6
month development cycle. We are now in a world of annual trade shows, but where
that covers two games release cycles. If you rely on trade shows, you are
missing half the story!

Having knocked the ‘technical value’ argument on the head,
what about the business learning?

Well, there is some. I doubt there is anything new to write
about the economics of traditional games publishing (other than to write its
obituary sometime in the coming decade). Games companies, and especially
developers are wonderfully keen to share information technically, as we noted
above. They are also good at sharing business learning. OK, when I say ‘they’,
I mean developers. Publishers have never really been open or honest about how
they really make money, but they are becoming increasingly irrelevant in a
world of streamed games, developer-publishers, Facebook and AppStore. Which
means developers are learning about publishing, but they are retaining their
open and sharing culture, which means there is genuine and valuable information
on business models (both current and emerging) to be gained, even at shows like
GDC and E3.

Is that the reason for spending money on flights, hotels,
beers and passes? Well, it is one of them.

The real reasons go a little deeper