Last week I went to Seattle for the Global Mobile Games Forum. It was my first time going to the event and I didn’t really know what to expect. It’s also the last MGF ever, but we’ll talk more about that later. Read on!
Suddenly, Mobile Games Forum!
Originally, I wasn’t planning on going to the MGF. Usually I know which conventions I’m going to travel to, and I plan it out way in advance. With this show however, I was notified of it by a Mysterious Unnamed Person who was also going. He told me to check it out.
So I looked at their website, which didn’t have a ton of info, but it had a link to download an information packet. I put in my detailed info (email address, phone number, job title) and got the PDF. To my utter shock, I then received this message on LinkedIn from a woman named Louise Gibson-Bolton.
I assume she was monitoring the downloads and looking for more people for this show. I asked her what the catch was – no catch! They just wanted more people, especially developers, to come to Seattle.
Immediately, I was super suspicious of this. Who does that? Who invites a no-name developer like me to a show? What do the tickets normally cost? Did anyone else get this red carpet treatment?
I couldn’t say no to that offer! In addition to the free pass to the show, I was also going to be in Idaho the weekend before the MGF to attend the wedding of a close family friend. That meant travel was already paid for on the way over – I just needed to get a hotel quickly and then pay for a plane ticket home. Why not stay in Seattle and see what the MGF had to offer?
Louise Gibson-Bolton Vanishes
During the opening keynote on the first day, the crowd got two unexpected pieces of news about the Mobile Games Forum. First, it has a new director named George Osborn (pictured above) who has worked on this show previously and is now in charge. Second, the show is being rebranded as Gamesforum, making this the last true Mobile Games Forum ever. The idea is to branch out into other platforms besides mobile, especially since many games are going multi-platform these days.
Louise, the woman who invited me, was nowhere to be found! I never got the chance to properly thank her. I gather that she must have been fired or forced out of the organization, because I can’t imagine why someone would quit in the weeks leading up to a really important show. Don’t quote me on that, though. The official line is “she’s since moved on.”
The reason I’m harping on all this is because there are some parts of MGF that were really disorganized, and some parts I loved. I choose to believe that the worst parts of this convention were due to team politics and shifts in management. My hope is that the new director can improve on this show and take Gamesforum in a better direction.
Talk About The Convention, Frank
Please don’t assume that these blog posts are narcissistic bragging about my world travels. My goal here is always to give people a warning about what they’re getting into when they buy plane tickets and fly across the country to go to an expo. If you’re not an industry veteran, you’re like Jack and I – we never know what to expect and money does not come easily. Here’s my honest accounting of what the show offers and what needs improvement. I don’t score these shows, I just leave it to you to make a judgment.
Sponsored Talks Are Dry and Fruitless
This might ruffle some feathers, but one thing I hope Gamesforum changes is relying on sponsored talks by companies. Not all of these were bad! I caught the last half of the EA Plants Vs. Zombies talk on the second day, and it had some interesting revelations about how they retain players.
But for the most part, the smaller the company, the more useless the talk. These minor players are clearly just trying to sell you something (“Buy Appodeal!”) and they don’t have enough experience to give you case studies you can apply to your own game. It’s really just a sales pitch disguised as a talk. Pass on these whenever you can. The Appodeal one in particular was just this dude reading from slides, and I still don’t really know what their business does. Because they were the main sponsor, this talk came right after a keynote by a woman from Minecraft. Sadly, MGF had a lot of “Appodeal” talks!
The Panels Were Better
I actually really enjoyed a few of the panels at this show. They sat industry veterans down and just asked them candid questions about their business. The Mobile Games Forum is hyper focused on finance and marketing, so it’s not like the Games Developer’s Conference. You won’t find any info about how to make artwork, or music, or program – but you will get insights into developing business models and doing business overseas.
The panel pictured above was all about doing business in China. I always love hearing about other cultures – especially Chinese culture, because their government has a ton of crazy rules and restrictions keeping you from just putting whatever you want on the App Store. I’ll give you a quick one, it’s the most insane thing revealed by Hu Ning of iDreamSky about publishing games in China. Apparently, when you submit your game to the Chinese government for approval, you don’t send them a digital file. You send them a phone with the game installed on it! The rest of the panel was very illuminating!
Some panels gave me a wake-up call. There was one panel about cloud-gaming that started with the blunt question: “are premium games dead?” Their conclusion: yes – premium is just 7% of the market at this point, and it’s shrinking. Yikes! Now, this panel was kind of just an advertisement for Hatch, which essentially markets itself as a Netflix for mobile games. But it also had a ton of depressing insights from developers like Ryan Payton, who told the audience a sad tale about how République was a financial failure despite releasing as a premium, episodic title with the full backing of Apple’s marketing team.
We’re not changing the business model of Where Shadows Slumber just because I got frighted at a panel. But we may be more open to experimenting on some platforms, especially Android, where premium doesn’t do well anyway. I never want to do ads or some kind of energy-store though, so don’t worry. (We even made an April Fool’s Day joke about that…)
The Food: Excellent
We never wanted for food at this show. Look at that menu! They had breakfast and lunch buffets, and even a snack bar around 4 pm when things were dying down. When I say a snack bar, I mean a literal buffet of candy. If that’s not worth the price of admission, I don’t know what is. This probably has more to do with the choice of venue, but hey – it’s a good choice and it should be noted.
Go Home “Meet The Publishers,” You’re Drunk!
One of the messiest experience was the Meet The Publishers event. If you’ve been to publisher “speed dating,” you know what to expect: the publishers all have their own tables, and developers take turns making their way through the room in an orderly fashion pitching their game. Everyone has 5 minutes with each publisher, a bell rings, and it’s time to hand them your business card and move on.
Meet The Publishers at MGF was not like that at all. The publishers had their own tables, but there was no way of organizing the developers. George told everyone to kind of just find someone to talk to and go up to them. Developers often pitched their game with other developers right there. It wasn’t clear how much time each developer got, and George didn’t have a megaphone or a bell to ring when five minutes were up. Instead, he had to just shout over the din of the crowd when it was time to move on.
Some of the Publishers I talked to afterward were pretty angry about this. They wanted to see games, but since it was so disorganized apparently non-developers were going into the room and pitching to them. (“Buy Appodeal!”) George had to explain to these guys that this wasn’t the purpose of the event, but I can’t quite blame them for taking the opportunity. I kind of felt alienated since most publishers were looking for freemium games, and I got brushed aside by all but one.
We’re not seriously considering getting a publisher (except for China!) but I would have appreciated their feedback. Maybe I should just stop going to publisher speed-dating since we decided we’ll handle the global roll-out on our own…
Amazon Developer Showcase
I thought it was great that there were some actual games being featured at the show in the main hall! You could walk right up and play them, or talk with the developers. Or both! At a strictly business conference like this, sometimes it’s easy to forget that we’re publishing games, not virtual slot machines. There weren’t many, though – I think it was just Meow Wars, Cat Date, Tiny Bubbles, Tumblestone, and one other whose name escapes me. This section probably should have been larger.
Nothing really appealed to me in the marketplace, which was a separate room where companies set up tables to sell their products. This would probably be more appealing if there were games here – or if the products were designed for a premium title. But, understandably, there were a lot of ad networks in this section.
PornHub had a table (not pictured) which I find extremely distasteful. There were no kids at this conference, but even so, it’s important to have standards about who you invite. I think the MGF can get by without PornHub’s $2,000 table fee, and I recommend they be more stringent about who is allowed to showcase at their events. If they want, I’ll pay them not to include PornHub and other such companies. This is hardly the place for a preachy article about how sex trafficking thrives on the porn industry, so I’ll move on and let you Google that on your own. Needless to say, I found that disturbing and I didn’t spend much time in this room.
New Friends, and a Virtual Reality Party
Shows like this are great for meeting people! We had a great time going out for drinks and dinner before the official MGF party. This is probably the best reason to go to a conference like this, because you never know who you’ll meet – or where they’ll be working in 3 years. It’s a small industry, and everyone knows each other. So you have to make sure you’re part of “everyone!”
This was pretty cool, too: the official party of the show had a few VR stations by this company Portal. They were showcasing mini-demos like the Star Wars VR experience, and larger titles like Valve’s The Lab. This is kind of where VR shines, honestly – a fun arcade experience where the expense is handled by someone else, and you have fun while looking goofy in front of your friends.
It was also probably not great that the party happened the night before the game pitching contest. Speaking of which…
The Game Dev Showdown
There was a contest at the MGF to pitch your game in front of 5 industry judges. I knew about the contest beforehand, but I didn’t try to join it before I got to the show. On Tuesday, I just said “screw it” and went for it. They mentioned during the opening ceremony that there were two drop outs and I asked Anna if I could join. She told me I’d need a PowerPoint Presentation and a pitch ready to go by 1 pm the next day. I said “count me in!” and got the very last slot in the contest.
I was up until 2:30 am on Tuesday night, but I got it done! There were six games in all, many of whom were on display in the main hall of the expo center as part of the Amazon Developer Showcase. My pitch went quite well, and I got to use a clicker for the first time in my life. Afterward, people commented on how impressed they were with my polished delivery, especially considering I only had a day to prepare. I don’t mean to sound self-centered, but this is one area where I can claim some significance. I’ve done performing arts since 6th grade, and even some improv in college. It’s not a useless skill. My competitors were nervous, and for many this was their first pitch ever. Jack and I both did a bunch of acting at Stevens, and it’s a skill that stays with you – just watch his impromptu interview for PAX East if you need proof of that!
You can see us lined up nervously on stage as we await the announcement. The winner was… Tiny Bubbles! It’s a polished puzzle game by Stu Denman, and it deserved to win. He went first and had a bunch of tech issues that weren’t his fault, so I was hoping they wouldn’t count that against him. Then he wowed the audience with his crazy bubble simulation physics, as well as a touching story of how his grandfather inspired the game’s design. Well done! (Thanks to Dean Takahashi of VentureBeat, one of the judges, for the photo above that was used in his article about Tiny Bubbles) Check out the Unreleased Google Beta for that game here, it’s awesome!
Where Shadows Slumber won 2nd place (runner-up) in this contest, and they gave me a whole bunch of Amazon goodies! Pictured above is two Fire HD 8’s a Kindle Fire tablet, and an Amazon Fire TV. They also said that both winners would get a feature spot on Amazon’s App Store when we launch!
I was a little stunned when they announced this at the end of the second day. I had done it again – just like when I muscled my way into the Big Indie Pitch at GDC earlier this year – I won a pitching contest just by randomly entering at the last minute! Afterward, George congratulated me on my 2nd place win – not just because he liked the game, but because in his words “you stepped up.” If there’s anything to take from this article, that’s it. So much of success is about showing up, volunteering, and taking risks!
Don’t Give Up On Gamesforum!
The Mobile Games Forum was a bit messy at times – but it’s over now. From here on out, it’s Gamesforum. Under the direction of George Osborn and Anna Bashall, I have confidence in the future of this conference. It seems like previous leaders put them in a horrible spot, where they had to run a conference on their own at the last second. I don’t envy anyone in their position.
With more time to plan and do things their way, I’m sure future expos will be even better. Hopefully they heed my advice about the corporate sponsorship and try to make talks more relevant even if they are disguised sales pitches. (“Buy Appodeal!”)
This team is based in the United Kingdom, so their next show is over there. I can’t make it to London for the first inaugural Gamesforum in January, but when they return to the United States I’ll look them up! Maybe I can persuade them to come to the east coast? (Psst, it’s a shorter flight for you guys!) In any event, I wish them the best of luck and I’d like to thank them for incredible opportunity!
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Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.