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Can game developers survive in London?

Posted: 09.20.04

ECTS Welcome

THE CROWDS WERE THIN at ECTS in London.

How many game exhibits and conferences does one city need in one week? Well, it's London it's the first week of September, and the answer is six. Six!? You gotta be kidding, right? Wrong—six.

Out in the West End in the understated but always charming Earl's Court sandwiched conveniently between the Brompton Road and Earl's Court tube stations, the CMP Game Developer's Conference (GDC) ran upstairs while downstairs was the traditional ECTS conference, and one block away at the comfortable Ibis Hotel the Khronos Group ran their DevU workshops and lectures on using OpenGL ES for games in handhelds (see story, p. 1). Then (way) over on the East End in the ExCel Centre at the Docklands the European Games Network (EGN) ran two rival (to ECTS) shows, the European Developer Network and the European Developer's Forum, along with GameStar Live, a consumer games show that was open to the public.

Sony, which used to take the corner space of Earl's Court during the ECTS show, was a magnet and drew the faithful to the area, allowing them to stop by ECTS while they were in the neighborhood. That was brought home to ECTS the hard way a couple of years ago when ECTS went out to Docklands and suffered an attendance drop of over 50%. No doubt they're hoping the same fate will be experienced by EGN this year. However, this year Sony took their show on the road, and when they park it will be north of town near an amusement park in Alton Towers where we think they will try to create a San Francisco Metreon-like experience.

Our estimate for ECTS is about 5,000 people came—the final count won't be available for a few weeks, we're told. Visiting the CMP GDC was a lonely experience, and it looked like Microsoft's XNA all-day session drew about 120 people. Going down in the elevator around 2:00 I shared it with six people, each carrying four unclaimed lunch sacks in each hand—about 40 butter-soaked sandwiches for the homeless. However, an hour or so away out in the Docklands the place was hopping, with the usual big-name exhibitors including EA and others pulling in the crowds buoyed by the GameStar lookie-loos. But, it was a royal pain for both visitors and exhibitors, because no one wanted to ignore one show over the other so a lot of tube time was spent by all going back and forth.

And while ECTS and EGN work out the details of mutual suicide, Germany's annual games convention in Leipzig of late just got bigger and better, drawing over 35,000 people to the massive arched-roof convention hall.

In addition to the selfish gamesmanship by competing exhibitors, the demise of Acclaim added to the confusion. With its shutdown, Acclaim ("Mortal Kombat," "Turok and the Worms"), a major game developer founded in 1987, put a bunch of Brits on the street. Some of them might go to Yorkshire to look for a job at one of the 18 starving game developer companies up there, and even though Criterion got picked up by EA, we hear the welcome mat isn't out there either.

With six major platform types (hand-helds, mobile phones and PDAs, consoles, PCs, and arcade machines) plus various online opportunities, you'd think the game development market would be thriving. The market's doing OK in Japan, we're told, and France seems to be all right as well; the U.S. is holding its own, but England seems to be overpopulated with developers.

But there are plenty of game players, in the U.K. as well as the rest of the world, and they have a healthy appetite. But the developer community hasn't figured out how to satisfy that appetite, and the consumers are voting with their credit cards. You can't build an industry on sequels, and the independents are (still) underfunded and underappreciated. No big publisher wants to take a chance. No chances, no new customers. No new customers, no need for game developers. (After all, what does it take to do a sequel—new texture maps, a couple of shaders?)

And if all we're going to get from the publishers is sequels of old DirectX 9 SM 1.0 games (EA says no to SM 3.0), we sure as hell don't need more than one game developer show in any country, let alone in tiny England.