Episode 9 of our GamesBeat series of conferences is over. We heard the Yoda-like wisdom of 105 speakers at our ninth annual GamesBeat event at the beautiful Terranea resort in Los Angeles.
Sadly, we had way too many talks for me to summarize in a single column. (You can see all of them here). I’ll focus, for a change, on what we heard last on day three of the conference, and I’ll explore some of the other talks in future columns. I’m so thankful we had great attendees and speakers, and they found so many ways to inspire us.
Just about every one of the speakers mentioned the inspiration they’ve gotten from the breakaway success of Pokémon Go. The main lesson isn’t to do the next Pokémon Go or to fund a bunch of similar games. It’s a lot more complicated than that.
You have to go and do something different, like Omar Siddiqui’s Kiwi, which is making a game character bot platform. Or David Levitt’s Pantomime, which has a new kind of augmented reality game. Or Colabee Studios, which is making a game called The Forest Song based on a native Ukrainian folktale. Dima Veryovka, the cofounder of Colabee, said in our lightning round talks that such “world culture” games, like its predecessor Never Alone, will help build bridges, rather than walls, to help us all understand each other across cultures. Games can be meaningful, Veryovka said.
Not only do you have to do something different; you have to keep moving into new frontiers across the globe. Kent Wakeford, the chief operating officer of Kabam, talked about how complicated the mobile game business is. He said that doing mobile games in China is even more complicated than anything else.
Our panel of Asian game publishers and developers — Roy Liu of Linekong US, Daniel Cho of Innospark, and James Zhang of Concept Art House and Spellgun — agreed that the Chinese market is harder than ever to penetrate, especially with new government regulations. They also expect Chinese companies to continue to be active acquirers of Western game companies.
But the potential riches of China, which is now the No. 1 iOS game market in the world, are beckoning game developers. It’s why Kabam tried to take its Marvel: Contest of Champions mobile game into the Chinese market on its own. Kabam is making $25 million a month from the Marvel game, and it has become the highest-grossing Marvel game of all time, Wakeford said. He thinks Kabam’s focus on “regular” players is why that game has succeeded.
Kabam built up its own competence in China and got 2.5 million downloads there, but it has yet to succeed in China as much as it hopes to.
Others have succeeded, and they have done so by leading with an extreme focus on quality. Blizzard, for instance, has been known for its quality for the past 25 years, and it relies on its fans to spread the word about its games, reducing the costs of marketing. Its games have done phenomenally well in China.
The Blizzard way, as explained by Gio Hunt, the executive vice president of corporate operations at Blizzard Entertainment, is to deliver outstanding games that are accessible to the mass market. With events like Blizzcon as well as esports and movies, Blizzard is also trying to stoke fan interest by offering them more reasons to stay engaged every day. With major games like Overwatch and StarCraft II, it’s a very busy company.
“Blizzard has evolved as a company from doing one game at a time to a company that is supporting six live games at all times with a continuous stream of content at all times,” Hunt said. “It’s kind of a first-world problem.”
Of course, you can’t just tell a small developer to “be like Blizzard.” Those developers need to find great publishers (a day two session). David Jaffe, the founder of the The Barlet Jones Supernatural Detective Agency and the creator of the multiplayer shooter Drawn to Death, said that finding a publisher is like going on a date with someone you don’t know. At some point, you have to stop pretending to be who you think the other partner wants and be yourself.
Brendan Wilson, the cofounder of System Era (the maker of Astroneer), described starting an indie game studio as navigating “shark-infested waters, in the middle of a storm, while you are teaching yourself to sail.” You may be tempted to take any deal that comes your way, but you have to know your worth, he said.
Likewise, Jay Mattis, the cofounder of High Horse, talked about how hard it was to go indie and move from a team of 200 down to a team of two. They’re working on a title called Disc Jam. Mattis said it’s rare for a developer to finish a game and consider it done. Rather, there always seems like there’s more to do. One way to deal with that is to figure how much you build yourself, how much you use from partners, and how quickly you can get to your first prototype.
Mike Sepso, the head of media networks at Activision Blizzard, seems like he has it made now. But he has been trying to make esports succeed for 15 years, and he would rather not wait another decade before it truly takes off and gains a mass audience. He’s working to make the dream of mass market esports real by following the example of the Olympics, where the heroic personal stories of athletes capture the attention of fans.
Sean Haran, the director of business development and publishing at Riot Games, also seems like he can coast with a game like League of Legends, the top multiplayer online battle arena game (MOBA) in the world. But even Riot is working hard to ingrain LoL as an esport among universities without hiring hundreds of people to manage it all in a governing body.
Tom Kalinske, the former president of Sega of America and the champion of Sonic the Hedgehog 25 years ago, offered the hope of succeeding against all odds as Sega had to take on Nintendo when it had 98 percent of the video game market. It did so by realizing that games were for more than just kids and that teens and adults would like an edgy hero.
“It wasn’t me,” he said. “It was me challenging the team to come up with interesting insights.”
Kalinske foresees a world of gaming in the future that blends augmented reality, virtual reality, and education. He is impressed that the game industry stayed its course and, over 25 years, went from a disrespected kid’s hobby to a global entertainment industry that now has almost everybody’s respect.
Oddly enough, all of these disparate talks on many different subjects carried a common thread. Believe in yourself and your vision and your insight that nobody else has, and make it happen.
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