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Explay Festival Coverage: Day One

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I'm down in Plymouth this weekend covering the first, well sort of, Explay festival. This is the first long form Explay event, there was a single evening event held last year, an event that kicked off the Explay community network. The network of South Western developers was celebrating its one year anniversay tonight, so I can't quite call it the first Explay event.

Nonetheless this is getting sidetracked. The Explay event celebrates developers in the South West of England, from Bristol to Bournemouth: celebrates them, and connects them. The conference is a many layered beast and as such I'll be attempting to give day-by-day coverage but you're going to have to accept that whilst I'm in one room there's things going on elsewhere that I won't be party to.

Layer one is a traditional conference format of industry speakers laying on their wisdom. Traditional yes, but the impressive lineup alleviates any worries of a dry weekend. The two keynotes are Ian Livingstone and Paul Taylor. And if you don't recognise those names I can hardly berate you, I didn't either, but then I saw their CVs. Ian Livingstone co-founded Games Workshop in the 70s - the home of Warhammer, Warhammer 40k, and a myriad of other strategy games. He didn't rest on his laurels though as he also brought Dungeons & Dragons to Europe and went on to become Creative Director at Eidos overseeing projects such as Tomb Raider and Hitman. Throughout that, and up to the present day, he's been investing in British indie developers and has remained a big player in the UK games industry.

Then there's Paul Taylor, Paul Taylor co-founded Mode 7 Games the makers of Frozen Synapse, one of the most nerve-fraying games available. Referred to by some as a turn-based Counter Strike, but that is unfair to the depth of this game. Counter Strike is played best by the empty minded player, the game is over in a flash and thinking only slows you down in the click-fest combat. A game of Frozen Synapse can't be won by playing thoughtlessly. Your are forever trying to guess your opponents moves, planning out your own moves accordingly. Every time I commit my moves my heart skips a beat.

An that's just the keynotes, there are 20 other speakers talking over the weekend.

Layer two is Bootcamp, an accelerator program that aims to foster 12 South West developers under the watchful of veteran industry mentors. The participants will spend this weekend in seminars that will teach them the skills outside of their creative focus that are necessary for a successful business: how to build a team of complimentary talents, how to prepare for future industry developments, and how to create a commercial project from the off. The companies taking part are a varied bunch, some are only months old, others are over a decade. Some a games developers, some audio specialists, some are involved with theatre and interactive spaces. They're brought together by the desire to grow as a company.

The final layer, layer three, is Game Jam. A 48-hour hackathon, the Game Jam participants - at last count 50 - will be work tirelessly through the day and the night, foregoing showers and social contact, to make a playable game by Saturday afternoon. The game will be based around a theme, a theme that will only be revealed at the start of the event. Tonight all over Plymouth coders and designers are sitting in anticipation for tomorrow they jam.

Which brings me to tonight, the quiet VIP event that would kick the whole thing off. Now I said there were to be two keynote speakers, but that's not strictly true. Tonight's proceedings kicked off with a talk from Dr Richard Wilson, CEO of TIGA. I didn't mention him before because his talk wasn't open to everyone, but for those of you without a valid reason for being there, or press passes, here's a summary of what went on.

Most talks take place in fairly dull conference centres, podiums set up in front of beige walls and all that. Explay went a different route, the event is being held at the Plymouth aquarium, so instead of drab décor, Wilson stood in front a glass tank full of massive fish, shark-like fish, manta-like fish, in short, fantastic fish. It was a setting worthy of a Bond villain. Not to imply Wilson is part of a nefarious organisation, far from it, TIGA are the trade association representing the UK games industry. They ask the question why is one of the UK's most profitable creative industries not receiving the same government support as the others. Filmmakers and studios receive tax cuts, government funded studio space, and recognition that the games industry does not. They're working to get developers those same breaks.

Answering questions about sector growth, Wilson pointed to universities as the key to forming local studio collectives. Areas like Dundee and Leeds are fast becoming industry centres because the courses offered at their universities train good developers, many of them relocate to London but it only takes a few to stick around each year to create a net to catch juicy talent from the next year's graduates.

He went on to say that this form of community development is slowing because there are fewer people taking the relevant courses, such as computer science and maths. To encourage this he suggests lower tuition fees for those subjects that we want to drive people into. It's not a bad idea in principle, though it would need to be a pretty hefty cut to persuade people to switch courses or, if they were planning on skipping university, to apply.

Another suggestion was to encourage veteran developers to go into lecturing. If good universities retain developer communities then we can increase the number of developer communities by improving our universities.

I'm going to have to stop there because it's two in the morning and there is a full day of talks tomorrow that I need to prepare for. But I hope this has been enough of a tease to set you up for tomorrow's coverage.

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