We’ve got 97 luminaries speaking at our GamesBeat Summit 2019 event on April 23-24 in Los Angeles. I’ve spent the better part of six months recruiting speakers for the event, but I have also spent decades covering the game industry and writing stories about many of our speakers.
They’re newsmakers and personalities, and while many of them have spoken before, two-thirds have never spoken at a GamesBeat event, which we have been doing for the past decade. They’re going to tell great stories. I have a few behind-the-scenes stories about these people, and I thought I would share some of them. I won’t talk about every speaker, but please indulge me as I retell some stories that come to mind about them. I feel like there is some magic at work that makes me run into these people over and over. I thought I would tell you about why they are memorable to me.
Phil Harrison is the vice president behind the Stadia cloud gaming platform at Google. He’s the guy everyone wants to talk to, now that Google has decided to make a big splash in games. Phil is a dangerous man to run Google’s business — at least dangerous to the competitors — because he brings game business credibility to a big company that has never had enough gamer DNA. He has served at companies such as London Venture Partners, Alloy Platform Industries, Microsoft, Sony, and Atari.
I remember one time we rode a bus together at the old Ziff Davis Gaming Summit (it was one of those times I did not have to stand on my tippy toes talking to this really tall man) and we talked about the then-novelty of the Blair Witch Project. I also recall George Haber of Gigapixel chasing down Harrison, who was then at Sony, in the halls of the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose, California, to pitch Harrison on a new graphics chip. Harrison turned to me and asked if this guy was for real. Haber was for real, and he almost got his chip in the Xbox.
Phil will be speaking with Amy Hennig, who I have run into lots of times recently because she has won so many awards. Amy Hennig is interesting because we passed each other like ships in the night at the University of California at Berkeley. She graduated with an English degree in the same year that I got one. But she went off into writing video game stories, like Uncharted, and I went down the path of criticizing those games and writing about the industry. We managed to connect decades later.
I have covered four versions of Kevin Chou, another Berkeley grad. The first was as the cofounder of Watercooler Games, a Facebook gaming company that morphed into Kabam, which sold in pieces for close to $1 billion. Then I wrote about him and cofounder Kent Wakefield as they dove into esports with Gen.G. And, when Kevin asked me what I thought of blockchain a while ago, I figured something was cooking. And he recently took the wraps off Forte, which set up a $100 million fund with Ripple to create mainstream blockchain games. Kevin was always impressed that I obsessively played some of his games, but I could never explain why. We had a nice chat in Shanghai, of all places.
I’ve also enjoyed talking with Michael Condrey, former co-head of the Sledgehammer Games studio at Activision and maker of the Call of Duty games. We have had more than one good conversation about making the game industry a more hospitable place for our daughters.
Brock Pierce is famous in many ways. He was a child actor in The Mighty Ducks film. I came across him when he was investing in social casino games like Playsino. I recall he was increasingly distracted by Bitcoin at the time, and in 2013, he cofounded Blockchain Capital, which raised money to invest in a large number of blockchain startups. Pierce went on to become what other media have called “a blockchain billionaire.” He says interesting and provocative things, but I remember him for the one that got away. He said that he mined some of the early Bitcoin tokens, but lost the paper where he kept track of the key. He never found it and lost untold riches. But he says his view of the word billionaire is someone who can change the lives of a billion people.
Chris DeWolfe was the first executive to say he would speak at GamesBeat 2019, and, in a very classy way, he told me he would be “honored” to speak at my event. I met him when he was just barely getting started in the mobile and social game business. During an E3 judges week once in Los Angeles, DeWolfe came and met me at a bar to talk about the state of gaming. He went on to build a company with hundreds of employees and tens of millions of fans at Jam City.
I wrote about Ed Fries a lot, as he was the longtime leader of Microsoft’s games business and had more than 18 million-selling hits during his tenure. He figured prominently in a couple of books I wrote about the Xbox business, but he retired from Microsoft to get a second chance at renewal in his life. He went into the business of advising people about their startups, and someone finally convinced him he should become a startup investor, and so he is running 1Up Ventures. We tried many times to get him to speak, and I’m glad we finally succeeded.
Our mutual friend, Chris Taylor, will also be back to talk about his latest game. Taylor, the creator of games like Dungeon Siege and Total Annihilation, is fond of making pottery these days. But he’s also getting back to game development. Taylor is a bit of a clown and a comic, and he was the emcee of our first GamesBeat conference. But we won’t talk about how that didn’t go great because it was before I heard of such things as scripts for keeping our conferences organized. I’m glad he’s coming back for another helping of fun.
Mike Gallagher, former head of the Entertainment Software Association, was always a big supporter, speaking at our event because so many of his board members came. When I advised him, in his new capacity as the head of the ESA, to feed the press in order to get them to come to speeches, he had his PR man Dan Hewitt give me a sack lunch one day at E3. Eventually, Gallagher threw some breakfasts and fed the press well. He left the ESA last year and is consulting now, but he’ll be back to speak.
Amy Jo Kim, the founder of Game Thinking and a pioneer on games like The Sims, has crossed paths with me many times. Once, we moderated a session about Super Fans and Super Haters at a Samsung event. I talked about my own experience with super haters who didn’t like the way I played Cuphead, which, at least in my book, was a very difficult game for the Xbox One game console (and now the Nintendo Switch). I was a super noob at that game, and it showed in a video I posted. The whole internet seemed to hate that video, making me wonder whether they had a point. To Kim, it raised questions about just how accessible products should be. For me, it was a kind of therapeutic session. I thought Amy Jo was very kind to blast away at my critics during that session, at a time when I needed support.
Chris Heatherly, who runs games at NBCUniversal, has been a big supporter of GamesBeat events. When he was at Disney, he showed me the first demo of a revamped Club Penguin. Later on, he cracked me up one year when he went into our main room during the lunch hour. We were broadcasting a talk about mobile games for an online-only crowd, but Heatherly thought the physical room was open for everyone to attend the session. He tweeted how he was the only one in the vast room, and he was, therefore, the only one at the whole conference who evidently cared about mobile games. I eventually set him straight.
I met Tommy Tallarico when he was making music and doing broadcasts with Victor Lucas on Electric Playground. Years later, he has created so much ambassadorial goodwill for gaming with Video Games Live, which stages orchestral performances of music from video games. He shared his orchestral music from Video Games Live to play while speakers are getting on and off the stage at our event. It’s a nice touch, and he will be both a co-emcee and a speaker talking about his revival of Intellivision, which was the first game console I owned.
I met Danny Bilson when he was an executive at THQ, working for Brian Farrell, as they tried to save the doomed company with original games like Darksiders and Saints Row. He had moved into games after a successful career in film, writing screenplays for films like The Rocketeer. Now he’s the head of USC Games, and he’s still writing screenplays. He kindly showed me and my kid around when we were checking out USC as a college candidate (His own daughter is the actress Rachel Bilson). He is one of those people who has entertainment in his blood.
And speaking of gaming in the DNA, there are of course the Bushnells. Nolan Bushnell, the cofounder of Atari, will be getting onstage with four of his children, who have all gone on to the games business in some way. Brent Bushnell, taking after his father’s location-based entertainment business Chuck E. Cheese, has created the venue for our conference, Two Bit Circus, a micro-amusement park that is like a modern-day carnival, with things like virtual reality booths and escape rooms. His daughter Alissa will try to corral the family into some kind of order, but I suspect they’re going to wander through memory lane in uncontrollable ways. Jason Robar, another longtime gaming friend, will be moderating a session with Nolan Bushnell and Brent Bushnell on the rebirth of location-based gaming.
I should refrain from going on and on. But you get the point. All of these people are speaking at our event. It is always rewarding to form long-term relationships with people in the industry, and I hope to do more of that at GamesBeat Summit 2019, which is sold out but will be viewable on Facebook, YouTube, Twitch, and Mobcrush.
I don’t want to make this sound like a total good old Dean network. I am always willing to meet new people too. But it is heartwarming to have the support of people that I met over many years in this business. Hopefully, I do this in a much more professional way than I did in my early years. But in any case, thanks for the memories.