Latvian gamedev conference

April 13th, 2018

When my husband and business partner Jake Birkett is invited to speak at a game development conference in Latvia, my interest is piqued. I realise that my knowledge of the games business in this part of the world is extremely limited, and of course I want to find out more.

Thanks to generous sponsorship from GameInsight, the one day event in Latvia’s capital, Riga, is free to attend, and attracts over 100 game industry professionals and students.

What about Latvia?
Latvia is a little country with big ambition. This small Baltic nation has a population of fewer than two million and an interesting cultural mix, partly as a result of historical rule by neighbours such as Sweden, Russia and Poland. Even so, Latvia has retained its own Baltic identity and language.

The Latvian Game Association (LSIA) was founded in 2014, although some of its members had been active since 2007. Its remit is to promote the development of the Latvian game industry and mutual cooperation between game developers, in addition to education. The industry also gets support from sources such as the Latvian Agency of Investment (LIA).

Getting started
Riga is famous for its nightlife and so some of the speakers were out late sampling the local beers and karaoke scene. Our hosts from Gamedev.lv are generous with their time and have the event well organized.

Imants Zarembo kicks off with his recent experience of getting a game on Steam and working with a publisher. Zarembo works at Soaphog Game Studio, a team of eight that spent around four years developing roguelike dungeon crawler Rezrog, which won the Latvian “game of the year” award back in January.

One of his key takeaways is to throw out early prototypes: “we made practically all the mistakes we could make,” he admits, “we kept building on the same base.” He also advises other devs: “be serious about your marketing.” The publisher experience still boosted the project and facilitated localization: despite various twists and turns taken by the business, the game has broken even.

PR and marketing advice

There is no shortage of great PR and marketing advice on hand, like the excellent PR primer for gamedevs by Agnieszka Szóstak, founder of PR Outreach based in Warsaw, Poland, complete with a launch timeline.

Further marketing advice is on hand from 11 Bit Studios’ senior writer, Pawel Miechowski, based on the strategy deployed for standout pacifist game, This War of Mine.

Miechowski has over 20 years’ experience, and goes into detail on how to create a “brand book” for your game title, the significance of selling emotion to create a marketing impact, and the importance of a consistency through all communications.

His strategy paid off in terms of garnering considerable coverage from the mainstream press, he says. The takeaway? Set the marketing tone from the very start of your project and don’t be afraid to market only to a specific audience: “If you try to make a game for everyone, it’s going to be a game for no-one,” he concludes.

A tale of two studios
Next Brjann Sigurgiersson (Image & Form Games) and Jake Birkett (Grey Alien Games) offer contrasting talks on game studio survival and strategy. Sigurgiersson describes using the same game world and intellectual property (IP) and switching genres to create a series of games, as Image & Form has done successfully with its Steamworld games.

The company increased the price of its later games, such as Steamworld Dig 2 and says the advantages include reusing the same tech, creating for the same, engaged community and continuing to iterate.

The downside of making a game series? “If you aren’t careful then it can be boring, your skills don’t evolve much and it feels like creative suicide,” says Sigurgiersson. “You could be restricting your consumer base.” However as a business model incorporating self-publishing and a growing studio in Sweden, it works well for his team. “Strong IP is key – life is too short to make bad games,” he concludes.

Birkett’s talk drills down into the revenue per hour for indies as a key metric when judging the success of a project. Using data harvested from a large number of other developers as well as from Grey Alien Games’ recent projects such as Shadowhand and Regency Solitaire, he shows that there is considerable risk for many indie developers in over-long development times, and also shows how to estimate future sales on Steam based on the first week of sales. (There is also a version of this talk on YouTube.)

The takeaway is that remaining light and agile and keeping project turnover brisk is a sensible strategy in the current market.

Ari Pulkinen then treats conference attendees to a talk on branding through music, followed by a retrospective on a significant career in concept art by Bjorn Hurri. The final, high-energy talk is by Riga-born Anatolijs Ropotovs, CEO at GameInsight, with almost 20 years of game industry experience.

Leaving on a high note

Ropotovs started out operated his own gaming community site, then went on to develop games and user experience on various platforms, including social city-building games and current mobile mega-hit, Guns of Boom. He manages large teams and has many millions of players.

The key advice from his talk was that it’s OK to fail. Keep innovating and moving forward because anything is possible.

I’d go again
It’s an invigorating message for the developers gathered in Riga. The quality of projects in the prize gamejam is high, and as we spill out to the local bar the talk is animated and the ideas continue to flow.

The afterparty in full swing

For many, the next stop is a similar event in Tallinn in neighbouring Estonia, and after that, Casual Connect in London.

I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this event in future…I have learned a lot, met some great people and have also caught some of their energy and enthusiasm, which leaves me brimming with ideas and ready to dive in to work when I get back home.

by Helen Carmichael

A bonus picture of Jake REALLY enjoying the Latvian dumplings

My week at GDC 2018 – Part 2

April 1st, 2018

I got persuaded to dress up at the Indie Mega Booth.

This is the second blog post about my 8th GDC trip. The first part can be found here. In this post I will describe what I did each day and link to some of the talks that I enjoyed.

Monday

I woke up pretty early and snuck around getting ready for GDC whilst Brian got his beauty sleep and then headed to the conference to pick up my badge. I bought an Indie Game Summit badge because that gets me into the talks I’m most interested in and also the indie summit is a good place to meet old friends and chat.

The first talk I went to was the Failure Workshop in which two devs talked about failed game launches. It was honest and interesting. Then I went to Jeff Vogel’s talk which was basically about his 24 years of making indie RPG games. It was hilarious and amazing. Best talk I saw for sure.

I hung around until Jeff’s fans had all departed and then went to lunch with him and some other devs including Tarn Adams of Dwarf Fortress fame.

We went to the food court in the Westfield mall which has tons of options, though getting seats for a group of 6+ can be tricky. Jett and Tarn camped out on a two person table and gradually dragged in new tables whilst everyone else ordered their food, which was a valid tactic. I went to a place called “The Loving Hut” which has nothing to do with sex. It’s just a vegan Thai food place. Very nice.

I also got to meet an old friend and casual game dev, Joe Cassavaugh. Since meeting at a GDC dinner years ago we’ve both exchanged info which has made us quite a lot of money in the casual game dev space. Another example of why going to GDC in person is valuable.

Lunch in the food court.

After lunch I went back the indie summit and watched a talk by Erik Johnson about his meta analysis of games that sell on Steam and various correlations. It was good and afterwards I introduced myself to him as I felt we had similar nerdy data interests. He’d read some of my blog posts and we agreed to meet later in the week for a chat.

Then I went to Starbucks with some indies including Gabriel Del Santo who recently organised the online #ProIndieDev conference which I did a talk for. It was his first GDC and Rami Ismail helped get him there at the last minute. He was super-stoked (that’s an Americanism) to be there and meeting loads of indies.

Who is that cool guy in the middle? (photo credit: Cliffski)

I failed to get back to the conference to see any more talks but I can’t remember why. I think I went to check out the Day of the Devs area to look at the games. Then I ended up going to an Irish pub with Geoff Newman, who is actaully Irish, and Paul Kilduff-Taylor, who I always seem to end up having deep conversations with, plus some other indies.

Then Cliffski and I popped into a Thai restaurant to say hello to a huge bunch of indies who were finishing a meal organised by Keith Musenik. This was followed by dinner in *another* Thai restaurant with Chet Faliszek from Bossa Studios and his friend Alex. I really enjoy the food in SF, so much variety and good stuff!

Next up, we took an Uber to an indie party. Cliffski bailed immediately as it was too noisy, but I found a quieter room and caught up with old friends until I lost my voice. I walked back to the hotel with Colin and Sarah Northway, which weirdly I also remember doing last year. They must have the same “time to go” internal clock as me.

So yeah that was just Monday, it was busy as hell, but good.

Tuesday

I got breakfast at the hotel with Ichiro, Cliffski and Alexander Bruce (he made Antichamber). I had a terrible cup of tea, but the buffet was pretty good (and someone else paid, which was nice). I had one course of potatoes and eggs, then another of pancakes with syrup!

Next up was a relaxed chat session in Ichiro’s suite about RPGs. Jeff Vogel hosted it and then we mingled and talked more about RPGs. I probably could have done this all day tbh as RPG stuff is firmly ensconced in my mind since making Shadowhand.

I can’t remember what I did for lunch, it’s possible I didn’t have any. Sometimes that happens if you message all your friends and they’ve already eaten and you don’t want to eat solo.

So in the afternoon I went back to indie summit for a couple more talks. First I saw Tyler and Chris from Redhook Games talk about their parnership whilst making Darkest Dungeon. It was a funny and interesting talk and at the end they mentioned how it was like a marriage, which I found amusing because I *AM* married to my business partner, Helen, and much of what they said resonated with me.

I stayed in the same room for a talk by Zach Gauge about building games that can be understood at a glance. He’s made quite a few solitaire-sytle games for mobile and so I introduced myself to him and he’d heard of my solitaire games too.

Then it was back to Ichiro’s suite for a talk about simulation design led by the guys who made Project Highrise. I haven’t made a simulation game before (well I was part of the team that made one called My Tribe when I worked for Big Fish Games) but I think it’s a genre I might want to explore because a) I find it interesting and b) I think it can do very well on Steam if you get it right.

Luke Hodorowicz (Banished dev) had just arrived in town and so Cliff and I went to dinner with him at a decent Italian restaurant. I ordered 3 sides of chicken, mashed potato and veg. It was epic and healthy! Luke coded Banished, made the graphics and even recorded the sound effects himself by going into the woods near his home and hitting things. Impressive work!

Then I went to the Humble Party where I had a chat to the founders Jeff and John (I knew them from the indiegamer forums before they started Humble). There’s an upstairs bit with comfy sofas away from the noise below, so I went up there and had a chat to John Polson (formerly IndieGames.com editor) about Humble Originals and publishing. This was one of my business goals for GDC. Even though I wasn’t pitching anything specific I wanted to stay on John’s radar. He’s got a knack for finding great games to fund/publish and a couple of my friends are being published by Humble.

Finally I went back to the hotel and up to Ichiro’s suite to just hang out and chat with a bunch of proc gen devs who had just had a session there. I’d have liked to have gone to that session but the Humble party was a higher priority for me due to aforementioned reasons.

Proc gen devs in Ichiro’s suite.

Wednesday

In the morning I went to the top of the West Hall to check out the Indie Megabooth which is where I got my picture taken whilst wearing a ruff (see photo at top of post). Then I bumped into Keith Nemitz and tested out a prototype board game that he is making. I was very tired and feeling a bit under the weather and it was hard to follow the rules, but that made me a good playtester!

Feeling hungry I popped down to the 2nd floor to get a banana from the cafe and bumped into Anatoly Shashkin (@dosnostalgic) and we had a chat.

I had lunch at the tea room in Yerba Buena gardens with Alexis Kennedy and Lottie Bevan who are making Cultist Simulator. The seem like very nice people. Also, this was the *first time* in 8 years of going to GDC that I had a decent cup of tea, although it cost $8, so yeah.

Furthermore, Paul Kilduff-Taylor ate my smoked duck sandwich leaving me with his avocado atrocity. I don’t know how that guy can run a studio when he can’t even eat the right flipping sandwich. Perhaps his TARDIS-like brain isn’t concerned with earthly matters?

Indie speed-dating (networking)

After lunch I spent most of the day in various sessions in Ichiro’s suite. I even ran an indie speed dating session where indies paired up and chatted to each other for 5 minutes about what they’ve done and about how they might be interested in collaborating on projects in the future. There was also a session about funding and I chatted to Ron Theis who is involved with Indiefund.

Then there was an interesting session about Exercise and Mental Health in which Ian Stocker (Escape Goat and more) evangelised about the effectiveness of cold showers. Though I came up with the idea for Shadowhand’s turn-based combat in a hot bath, so I think I’ll leave him to his cold showers.

Dinner was pizza in an Italian restaurant with Cliffski, Paul, and Brian. Brian retold a story from his youth that literally caused me physical pain due to laughing so much when he told it to me the night before. Then Brian and I went to the Darkest Dungeon 5 year anniversary party in a bar’s dingy basement which seemed appropriate.

Finally I ended up in Ichiro’s suite again and tested out someone’s game prototype and gave them some feedback and ideas. I also discovered that Ichiro had a special hot drinking water tap in his kitchenette and so I managed to make a decent cup of tea with my own tea bags that I brought to GDC from England. This was a highlight of GDC for me.

Thursday

I took Ichrio to breakfast (at the expensive hotel buffet) to say thanks for organising his cool thing all week. Then I checked out of my hotel and was almost late for a meeting with Erik Johnson (to further discuss Steam sales stats) because the woman checking me out told me that “Provinciano” was a really popular show in the Philippines and she was showing me photos of the actors but I didn’t know how to politely extract myself from the situation.

I bumped into Xalavier Nelson, writer and friend, at the Metreon food court.

Then went to lunch with Cliffski and Tommy Refenes of Super Meat Boy fame. We just went to the Buckhorn Grill in the Metreon food court and Tommy got me a chicken burger that was pretty good. It was super busy though and we were lucky to find a seat.

Next up was an important session at Ichiro’s about about Steam. First we formulated a bunch of questions that we wanted to ask Valve and then Tom Giardino (from Valve) showed up and we hammered him with questions. He was very helpful and it was informative. On the way back to the conference we asked him more questions and I herded him and various indies around a human shit on a crosswalk, such are the delights of SF.

At the IGF pavillion with @StarlightSkyes (Photo credit: @StarlightSkyes)

I didn’t have much time left so I dashed down to the Expo floor for the first time that week and beelined for the IGF pavillion. This is a great place to meet devs who are exhibiting games but also just to bump into devs (and press) randomly. I managed to meet lots of old Vancouver friends including Matt Thorson and Noel Berry (who had won the IGF audience award for Celeste the night before), and Alex Holowka who won the grand prize for Night in the Woods. That’s actually his second IGF win because he won it with Aquaria a long time ago.

I also met some Shadowhand fans. I met quite a lot during the week, which was really nice. Also several people recognised me from my 2016 GDC talk and they stopped me to tell me how useful they found it.

I bumped into some ex-Vancouver friends at the IGF pavillion.

Then I went back to Ichiro’s for one final session about basically being old and grumpy. Sadly I had to head to the airport mid way through the session. So I made my goodbyes and jumped on the BART.

Btw, I met lots more people who aren’t mentioned here, so sorry if I missed you out, but this post was getting a bit long to mention everyone!

Heading Home

Annoying, I was invited to a bunch of cool things on Friday but I had to miss them due to flying back on Thursday. Oh well.

The flight back was hell. It was cramped and I couldn’t sleep and I had a weird medical episode on the way back which resulted in me lying on the floor to stop from fainting. Then after landing it took a further 6 hours to get home via bus, train and car. I *really* hate that journey and at the time it’s almost enough to put me off going to GDC again, but by the time the tickets go on sale, the pain has faded and I end up going again.

This last week I’ve been getting over jet lag and doing a bit of work here and there and reflecting on my GDC trip. It was great fun seeing everyone again and making new friends, plus I met my business goals of speaking to various people that might be able to help money come my way later on.

Anyway, good times but very tiring as well. I definitely want to go again, but I wish I could afford to fly business class. So yeah, here’s to making some hit games soon!

GDC Verdict: Recommended

My week at GDC 2018 – Part 1

March 31st, 2018

It began to snow on the day I was due to fly to GDC

In this blog post I’ll talk about my 8th GDC trip, how much it cost, and why I went. In the next post I will link to some of the talks that I enjoyed.

To get to GDC I have to get a car to a train station, then a train to a bus station, then a bus to the airport, then a plane to GDC, then a BART to my hotel. It takes a *long* time and costs a lot of money and is not pleasant, so why do it do it? Because GDC is great and I have a blast which outweighs the pain. Also, bizdev etc.

How much did it cost?
- Indie Game Sumit pass = $375 (you can pay way more for other passes, or less and get an Expo pass)
- Flight from London to SFO = $910 (economy class)
- Train, Bus and BART = $140 (plus a bit of car fuel)
- Hotel (1 night solo and 4 nights shared with friend) = $1060
- Food = $175 (lots of people bought me meals so that helped with the cost)

Total = $2660 (£1900)

I only stayed from Saturday night to Thursday night this year but in other years I’ve stayed until Saturday. This was to save money because if you pick flights on certain days they cost less and other busier days cost a fortune (e.g. Sunday to Friday), and of course more days = greater hotel cost.

My company is strapped for cash this year and many people probably wouldn’t have spent the money in my financial situation, but I view it as an investment, and I have enough liquidity to make it happen, so I went.

The one big saving I could have made was to stay in a cheap hostel I guess, but at my age, that’s just not for me. I need a decent quality place to stay in, but still on a budget. So sharing with a friend in a good hotel is a nice way to achieve that. I’ve stayed in some real dives in dodgy areas in the past but I don’t want to do that any more.

Some people asked me why my wife and business partner, Helen, wasn’t there. And the answer is twofold: 1) the cost would double and we simply cannot afford that, and 2) we have two childen that need looking after for a week. Helen could go instead of me, but I basically know way more people and will get more out of it from a bizdev point of view than her, and that compounds itself every time I go of course. Helen goes to UK-based events with me instead, and sometimes to events on her own. In fact we will both be at Rezzed in April, so say “Hi!” if you see us.

What were my goals?

I am between games at the moment since the Launch of Shadowhand in December, and so I didn’t have any new games to show to press, nor any prototypes to pitch to publishers. I didn’t even have a nearly finished build to get feedback on from game dev friends, which is what I did last year with Shadowhand.

So I didn’t set up any formal meetings, but I knew there would be several events I should go to in order to chat to people who may be able to help me out financially in the next year or so. However, I did make a list of people I wanted to meet and who had expressed interest in meeting me, and I managed to meet most of them. Also, I just wanted to reconnect with existing friends and make new ones in case opportunities crop up in the future.

I often explain to people who have never gone before that you get more out of GDC the more you go. This is because you reinforce the connections you make each year and make new ones. Plus you get to know which are the talks and parties most suited to you and your objectives. Also you get to know the “lay of the land” and figure out the best places to hang out and eat, and the places to avoid.

Therefore I don’t GDC as a single event with some kind of tangible ROI because it’s more like advertising in that repeated exposure brings benefits which pan out over the long term. I’ve received invaluable advice about the market and my games, got games in two Humble Bundles (which have paid for all past GDCs), met press/streamers, met influential indies who helped me out in various ways, and just got a big inspirational boost. Plus it’s a nice “holiday” in a completely different place from Dorset (where I live), though it’s not relaxing, it’s hectic!

Peak San Francisco: could this guy be a CEO of a tech starup?

Saturday

I got to the airport early because I was paranoid about snow disrupting my various transport methods, but it turned out the journey there was fine. However the flight was delayed for 2 hours due to ice on the wings and runway. The flight (British Airways airbus from Terminal 5) was fine as I had an aisle seat and no one sitting next to me – result! I watched 5 movies, had a couple of gins, was dissapointed by the tea as per usual, and didn’t sleep.

It’s a bit too expensive to get a taxi or Uber from the Airport into downtown and so I got the BART which is a noisy old train system that runs around San Francisco. It’s so noisy I have noticed locals getting on there with earplugs inserted!

I was most amused in my befuddled state to see the guy in the photo above roll onto the train with his weird skateboard thing at one of the stops. In my mind he personified San Francisco perfectly. He was a bit flustered and his trousers were hanging off his arse revealing some bright red underpants. He had three model aeroplane kits under his arm and he plonked himself down on a seat and began to scoff pistachio nuts and throw the shells on the seat beside him. There was a “no food” sign right next to him.

After he finished the nuts he had a big swig from his 500ml bottle of sprite and then broke into a large bag of gummy worms. At this point, as the woman in the background of the photo began to give him serious stinkeye, I began to theorise that he was probably a CEO of a tech start up. Eventually he got up, red arse on display again, and rolled off to his corporate headquarters.

I got to my hotel about 10pm and thought I’d probably fall asleep immediately but somehow I stayed awake until midnight on my laptop, which was good in terms of keeping me in sync with the 8 hour time difference from the UK.

Sunday

On Sunday I woke up at 6am-ish and waited until 8am when I ventured out to Starbucks over the road for breakfast. I could have got breakfast in the hotel but the buffet was $33+tax, so er yeah, no I didn’t do that.

I arranged to meet a friend (Matt Gambell, RPG Tycoon) at the mall to potentially buy some new trainers as my current ones are getting a bit old. But when I got to mall but it was closed until 11am and so I bailed on that plan and went to SF MOMA (Museum Of Modern Art), which I really like going to (this was my 3rd time).

I visited the MOMA last year and most of the exhibits have changed since then so that was pretty cool. I used to think modern art was bullshit, and to be fair, I still think some of it is. But I’ve learned to appreciate it now. I just sorta of stand there and let it wash over me and see what it makes me feel. Sometime nothing but other times it can be quite trippy especially the huge orange and blue Rothko in the museum.

After that I met some friends for lunch including Dave and Janet Gilbert from Wadget Eye Games (they make point and click adventure games). It was a quiet Chinese restaurant recommended by Ido Yehieli of Cardinal Quest fame. The portions were huge and I couldn’t finish mine.

Later in the day Ichiro Lambe from Dejobaan Games showed up at the same hotel I’m staying in and showed me the fancy hotel suite that he hired to have “relaxed chat sessions” with other developers in. I ended up going to quite of lot of the sessions during the week and they were great!

Then we hit up the hotel bar and I had a cocktail which contained strawberry and jalapeno flakes. It was awesome. So much so that I had another one later.

Brian Provinciano (Retro City Rampage) showed up at the hotel and because I was sharing a hotel room with him Ichiro and I popped up to the room to say “hi” but Brian was sorta naked in bed chilling out.

So Ichiro and I made a hasty exit and went for another Chinese meal in China town with some friends of his before ending up in the hotel bar again to greet Cliffski (Positech Games) who had just flown in. He was pissed off because he’d ordered some “chips” and got a bowl of “crisps”. A rookie mistake. Matt Gambell and a friend also turned up despite me standing him up on our mall shopping date earlier in the day.

Intending to have an early night I went back to my room but ended up talking to Brian until like 2am. It was good to see him again as we used to hang out when I lived in Vancouver and we get on well.

OK, that’s it for this blog post. In the next post I’ll talk about what I actually got up to during the week of GDC.

If you have any questions, ask away in the comments!

Read Part 2 here.