Five things we learned from Develop 2013

Mixing with the mobile movers in Brighton

Five things we learned from Develop 2013

When the calendar flips over to July, the games industry's great and good know it's time to gather on the English south coast to discuss the burning issues of the day.

For once, 'burning' was also an entirely accurate way to describe the annual Develop conference in Brighton.

Rather than contending with a typical mix of wind and driving rain, temperatures outside passed the 25C mark, making the air-conditioned conference rooms inside the Hilton Metropole – once again, Develop's lavish home of choice – something of a sweaty sanctuary.

But while attendees quickly cooled down on a physical level, many of the discussions on stage heated up in quick time.

Indeed, many of the hot topics that dominated at Develop 2013 were of a a vastly different nature to that of previous years. Here are some of our top take-away points:

Mobile developers are now happy in their own skin

Anyone who has attended any industry conferences over the last few years – even mobile exclusive ones – will know that, talks focused on the smartphone scene have often been delivered with an almost apologetic tone.

That's a situation that's been changing of late.

The typically mobile-dominated first day of Develop – better known as Evolve – once again played host to some of the entire conference's best talks, but it was a session hosted by Lady Shotgun's Anna Marsh on day two that signified the changing attitude to mobile development.

Marsh's talk was designed to illustrate how developers can best make use of the main point of contact for most mobile and tablet games – the touchscreen.

But unlike similar talks given by other speakers at various events in the past, Marsh didn't stand behind the lectern and talk about compromises – rather, she explained why, in many regards, touchscreen controls offer developers scores of advantages over other more 'traditional' control methods.

"Even though we think that it's very natural for gamers to use a controller, actually it's a learned convention," said Marsh.

"A lot of people who have been designing for controllers tell me that touchscreens are limited. I don't think that's actually true – screens are very immediate for our brains – it shortens the circuit.

"You can directly touch the objects in the games, and so it radically reduces the learning curve."

That's something some of the best mobile games know all too well.

As Marsh pointed out, The Room is full of operations – turning keys, pulling sliders – where the action you're required to pull off with your finger is a literal physical replication of how you'd perform those acts in real life.

The Room

Want to fling a bird in Angry Birds? Simply pull back on the catapult with your finger. Need to re-route a plane's flight path in Flight Control? Sketch it out with your digit, and the craft will follow.

What other control inputs offer this kind of immediacy and literality?

Microsoft has a lot of ground to make up

"Why haven't we heard more about Xbox One?" piped up one journalist in the audience during Develop's final day wrap up panel.

"Well, to be fair, Microsoft has had quite a big presence here," replied the panel's host, Develop Magazine editor Will Freeman. "It's just Xbox that hasn't."

Indeed, Microsoft was one of Develop's most prominent sponsors – its logo adorned almost all promo material throughout the venue and, in the expo itself, Microsoft enjoyed a prominent and slickly fitted out stand.

But, while Develop organisers were adorned with PS4 t-shirts (and the console itself sat within a plastic cabinet in one of the most frequented corridors on day two), Microsoft instead preferred to focus on its mobile and tablet platforms, Windows 8 and Windows Phone.

It's an approach that resulted in much trash talk about Microsoft amongst developers over the conference's three days.

It was almost as if the Redmond giant's lacklustre Xbox One unveiling has, almost overnight, legitimised all the old feelings of discontent many developers held for the Microsoft in the past, completely wiping away the more positive aura Xbox 360 had fashioned for itself over the years.

"Sony isn't doing anything amazing – it's played a blinder simply by saying what developers want to hear," one developer told me.

"In comparison, Microsoft appears arrogant. It's fallen into the trap of thinking it's untouchable, that it's the market leader, and that it can simply tell gamers and the industry what's going to happen and that we'll lump it."

Of course, if it turns out that – as rumours suggest – developers will be able to port their Windows 8 apps across to Xbox One with little fuss (or, perhaps, with no conversion required at all), then Microsoft's strategy of pushing Windows ahead of Xbox at Develop may yet pay off.

As things stand, however, there wasn't much love for the company amongst the halls of Brighton's Hilton.

The F2P debate is all wrong

It stands to reason that many of the developers in the audience for Fireproof Studios' Barry Meade's keynote on the final day of Develop were there to see if he revealed the secrets behind The Room's success.

Had Fireproof engaged in months' worth of analytics? Did it follow a dedicated plan designed to drive downloads and maximise profit? Not really. According to Meade, Fireproof simply made a game its team members knew they'd love.

"We didn't want to make a great business, we wanted to make a great studio," opened Meade.

"The industry is taught to think that gamers want to see what they've already had. 'This is what the market wants' – this is sold to us as what you should do. But gamers don't want to see ten versions of the same game, they just don't.

"So why do we all believe this stuff? We've lost sight of the simple delight of playing a game."

Meade didn't criticise developers who do pay attention to the business side of things, but that's only something they should undertake if they actually know what they're doing.

By the same token, Meade admitted that the main reason Fireproof didn't follow the free-to-play route with The Room is because it had no real knowledge of it. In essence, stick to what you know: making a great game. In comparison, everything else is just dressing.

"If you don't at least make something people like playing, none of that stuff matters anyway," he added.

In short, mobile developers are being schooled to spend far too much time focusing on the wrong things.

Yes, if you want to serve up the next Clash of Clans – at least in terms of success – then it makes sense to mirror Supercell's approach. But if making a great game is your main priority, then don't waste time worrying about how you're going to sell it, promote it or monetise it. Just make a great game.

"Within the industry, there's this big debate about free-to-play – what's ethical," concluded Meade.

"I don't think anyone really cares about that. Who cares how people pay for games? The gamers don't care, but for some reason we seem to care."

Mobile is truly going global

Many talks at Develop were designed to explain lucrative foreign markets to what was a predominated western audience.

China, Japan and Brazil all featured across the schedule, and the overwhelming message was, they're not as different as you think they might be.

As detailed by Harry Holmwood during his much-celebrated talk on day two, what Japan does today, we tend to do tomorrow. In short, that means what appears alien at the moment will be commonplace for western devs in a few years' time.

What's more, there's a genuine opportunity for European and North American studios to take a lead in Japan.

"Feature phones have been big in Japan for a long time," said Holmwood.

"They were playing some advanced games on their phone ten or twelve years ago, which is when their mobile social networks emerged."

The end result of that early start is that gamers in Japan have a problem seeing the smartphone as a core gaming device. There's been no revolution in the last few years as their has in the west – Japanese consumers have enjoyed a more graduated curve.

As such, mobile gaming exists as a distinct category separate from the console and PC market, and western devs who are able to localise their titles for the Japanese market have a chance to change consumer thinking, and re-position the smartphone as a viable alternative to handhelds.

Holmwood cited CSR Racing as the perfect example of a western game that, if localised, could be a big hit in Japan.

CSR Racing

"It's very easy to look at something alien and think there's nothing to learn from it, but there are many things happening in Japan now that we'll be doing in two or three years," he concluded.

"Look at CSR Racing. It looks like a racing game but it's essentially a card battler, and that's why it monetises so well."

Meanwhile, both China and Brazil look like vast, unconquerable markets, but – while the big players and the marketplaces are different – the actual way you develop and release your game is no different than in the UK or US.

You just need to partner up with the right people and, especially in the case of Brazil, make sure your games appeal to their sense of national identity.

Qualifying for Games Tax Relief isn't about shoving red telephone boxes or cups of tea into your game

The prospect of a 'cultural test' for developers looking to benefit from the forthcoming Games Tax Relief on offer from the British Government has made a few folk rather nervous.

But, during one of the panel talks at this year's Develop, the idea that a game needs to feature London Buses or a Yorkshire Roast in order to be deemed culturally British was finally – and firmly – smashed up.

As detailed Anna Mansi of the British Film Institute, games looking to qualify will be judged via a points system that will take into account everything from the nationality of the people making the game to whether or not the release features a female lead, or promotes diversity.

So, in short, just because your game isn't set within the United Kingdom or was aided by a foreign coder doesn't mean you won't pick up enough points to qualify.

For instance, featuring a gay character, or setting the game in a fantasy land - examples given as outer space, or Narnia - will all win you credit, adding to your total score.

What's more, many of the points on offer aren't defined by hard and fast rules. Rather, the judging panel will evaluate games on a case by case basis, discussing qualification on a flexible, rather than rigid, basis.

There's also much hope that the new tax breaks will have a noticeable impact on the health of the development scene in the UK.

It's claimed the UK industry could mirror that of Canada, where it's claimed tax breaks have bolstered the nation's standing by drawing more developers to the region.

You can read all of our coverage of Develop 2013 here.
Keith Andrew
Keith Andrew
With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font. He's also Pocket Gamer's resident football gaming expert and, thanks to his work on PG.biz, monitors the market share of all mobile OSes on a daily basis.