A Year Without Events 

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, video game trade shows around the world have either been cancelled or gone digital. Top publishers and developers share how their business has been coping without the usual calendar of conferences

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In many ways, the COVID-19 coronavirus has been good for the games industry. 

The stay-at-home orders and lockdowns implemented around the world to slow and halt the spread of the virus have resulted in more people playing and – more importantly – spending money on video games. 

But, of course, the global pandemic has caused a huge amount of disruption, too. As with almost all industries, games firms have had to adjust to working remotely, while one in three developers have said they’ve had to delay the release of their game due to coronavirus, according to the recently-released GDC State of the Industry report. 

COVID-19 has also led to the cancellation of industry events like the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, LA’s E3 and Cologne trade show Gamescom. 

These events aren’t just where publishers and developers go to show off their latest titles; it’s also where the deals are signed for the big releases of tomorrow. Studios go to these shows to meet with publishers and investors, as well as outsourcing companies. But thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, these connections might not have been made and those deals could not have been signed. 

“Without events, it's become more difficult to meet and find new developers to scout new games to sign,” The Irregular Corporation’s business development director Mitsuo Hirakawa says. 

“We are having to attend more digital events for scouting, and due diligence has become more in depth before we sign a new game. I'm a bit old fashioned, but I like to meet the developer face-to-face if we were to sign a deal and work together. In addition to facts, I also trust my ‘sixth sense’ in gauging a team, whether this is in a formal meeting or having a drink at the bar. Meeting in person allows me to gauge their passion and establish some form of relationship as this all feeds into the due diligence process. Form filling over email or a 30-minute meeting slot definitely has its limitations.”

The lack of physical events also hit the marketing plans for some projects. Mark Backler, creative director at Sketchbook Games, says that not being able to demonstrate its title, Lost Words: Beyond the Page, to journalists at shows like GDC before and after launch had an impact on its performance. 

“We weren’t able to attend any of the normal physical events that we would have wanted to with a released game, like EGX Rezzed, Reboot Develop, Insomnia, PAX or Gamescom,” he explains. “Not being able to get the game in the hands of journalists – many of whom didn’t have Stadia at home – was very challenging and I think quite detrimental to the launch of the game.”
But not everyone is pining for the lack of physical events this year. The founder of indie publisher No More Robots, Mike Rose, says that he was planning not to go to any trade shows this year anyway. 

“I decided at the end of last year that our booths at the various shows had been a massive waste of time, money and resources,” he explains. “So coronavirus didn't actually affect those plans in any way really.” 

Some say they have felt very little impact due to events being cancelled over coronavirus. 

“To be honest, the game development community that I frequently meet with are quite nimble and agile with how they work and with how they meet people,” says Troy Horton, head of product acquisitions at Team17. “It’s great seeing people face-to-face and in person but meeting virtually by video also has its benefits.”

The Digital Transition 

Many of these events have been replaced by digital offerings. GDC held a new online Summer show at the start of August to try and connect people from the industry, as well as broadcasting talks from some of the best and smartest minds in the business. 
“I was at Pocket Gamer Connects Digital earlier this year,” Luton says. “It was brilliant. I was in back-to-back meetings all day, but from the comfort of my own home.” 

Backler adds: “We’re trying to ensure we’re not missing out on business deals by attending digital trade conferences like the European Games BizDev Gathering, the Games London Summer Business Hub and Games Finance Market. It’s actually been easier to get meetings with lots of the big publishers than usual because lockdown and online events kind of levelled the playing field a bit.” 

Digital events come with the benefit of not requiring people to actually leave the house and attend a trade show. Though a lot of these online conferences or showcases aren’t free, they don’t require attendees to fork out for accommodation or travel, which can be substantial sums of money. 

“Those costs could be used for developing their games instead, which is what it’s all about,” Team17’s Horton says.

Events going online has also brought down the barrier of entry for indie developers, meaning they might have access to opportunities they haven’t before. And it goes without saying that people should put in the effort and make the most of the chances this presents.

“For digital events, my advice is to check the attendee list early on and make sure that you are arranging meetings with the right person,” Hirakawa explains.  “This would mean being very clear about your pitch or reason why you want to have this meeting as there is a good chance your meeting request will be declined if you just used the default: ‘Let's meet’ message.”

Simon Byron, publishing director at Curve Digital, adds: “In my role, I meet a lot of people and meetings can often blur into each other. The advantage of digital events is that I'm able to grab screenshots of the discussions so I can remember what people I met with looked like.”

But for some, these online events simply can’t match up to being on the ground at one of these trade shows. 

“Digital events simply have to function for pitching, so this style of event is no different to the 30-minute meetings we’d normally have at events,” said Garry Williams, CEO of publisher Sold Out. “The serendipity of bumping into people in hotels, bars and at parties is, of course, lost in the mix digitally. Frankly, digital is all we have for now so we simply need to adapt as best we can.” 

Irregular Corporation’s Hirakawa adds: “Digital events mean you only meet who you have a meeting booked with, while at physical events, you often meet someone just walking around a demo booth, or be introduced to someone who you didn't know before. I much prefer physical events for networking and the ‘getting to know people’ element.”

Lowering the Barrier 

While digital gatherings aren’t a perfect replacement for real-life trade shows, there are some upsides. Hirakawa has said that he’s actually ended up speaking to a wider range of people than before. 

“The pandemic has forced me to cast the net much wider and attend more digital events that I've previously never considered,” he explains. “For example, I've taken part in a digital event hosted in South Korea and Japan last week and this was only possible as these events were held online.”

Byron adds: “I've actually attended more games events since lockdown, just without actually being there physically. I've been making a special effort to register and attend as many online conferences as I can – and it's been really refreshing meeting so many new people.”

He continues: “I'm trying to make myself available as much as possible. The games industry has done a pretty good job of hosting digital events on the same days as their physical ones would have been, and so the focus on pitching and meeting new studios remains.”

As well as attending digital events, companies have been trying to come up with other ways of filling the gap left by the cancelled shows. Devolver Digital, for example, has set up more online infrastructure. 

“After GDC was cancelled we set up for developers who wanted to meet with us at the show, and it's still live now, so if any developers are reading this and want to send us stuff to check out, go right ahead,” the label’s marketing manager, Robbie Paterson, says.  

“We also set up for folks to sign up to jump into closed betas for upcoming games, and we've started releasing more demos. Remember those?”

Meanwhile, No More Robots’ Rose has been taking a more simple approach. 

“[We’ve been making up for the potentially lost business opportunities with] many, many emails,” he says. “There's still plenty of opportunities to be found if you hunt around, and email as many potential partners as possible.”

The lack of physical events has meant that games companies need to focus their energies a little more on certain things than they might have done previously. 

“We’ve put a lot more focus into the blog and brought in someone to help with the running of it,” Luton explains. “It’s a way we can continue to demonstrate our skills without being in the room, being on panels and so on.”

Sold Out’s Williams adds: “You have to make the time for securing development, meeting the press and publicity windows. Where once we would have targeted four of five known business events throughout a year, we now have a much wider ‘opportunity’ spectrum to consider. We now see events where what works for one part of the business may no longer work for other parts of the organisation.”

Devolver’s Paterson says that the decision to hold its own digital E3 press conferences for these last few years has cushioned the blow from not being able to attend events in real life. 

“From a marketing perspective, we've enjoyed a lot of extra attention over the last few years thanks to our E3 press conference, so doubling down on that anticipation with Devolver Direct and Devolverland Expo this year has been super fun,” he says. “So, basically, we've made up for the lack of events by making our own.”

The Future of Events 

Looking to the future, the question now is where the games industry goes from here. The industry used to put a lot of our faith in the big events like E3, GDC and Gamescom to keep the gears going. Developers would meet publishers, investors, distributors and so on, signing the deals that would culminate in the releases of tomorrow. 

But now that the industry has seen that a lot of this work can be done remotely, will companies still be treating these trade shows with such importance? For many, 2020 has proved that maybe these weren’t as vital as originally thought. 

“I highly doubt we'll be doing physical events in future – at least not booths at shows,” No More Robots’ Rose says.  “I might still go to the odd show here and there just to look around, attend evening parties and so on, but realistically I can't imagine us being on a show floor ever again.” 

Some say that while a lot of work can be done online and via digital events, physical shows still present a vital opportunity. Like everything, there should be a balance between the two.

“Many aspects of business can be done online without the need to travel and attend physical events,” Hirakawa explains, "so I will be reducing attending physical events as we adapt to the new normal.

“But I've also realised that there is no substitute for human-to-human interaction, gauging passion, spontaneous meetings, syncing up with others to stay updated on trends, keeping track of movers and shakers and so on.” 

Luton concludes: “2020 has reinforced what events were always about for me: Connecting with a community. Inherently, our business is non-physical and can be isolating at times. I very much miss going into a space where there’s people that I like, chatting, gossiping and sharing food. 

"Conferences are, however, time consuming and physically draining. Not attending real events has freed up a lot of time. That’s a massive benefit.”

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