Working full-time in the games industry and still keeping in touch with academia can be quite challenging at times – especially when it comes to visiting conferences and other time-consuming endeavors. Luckily, my current occupation at Bytro Labs – at the intersection of community management, business intelligence and user research – does indeed offer such opportunities from time to time. This is why I was able to attend this year’s Respawn summit and Gamescom Cologne – a ‘gathering of game developers’ flanking Europe’s biggest video game trade fair.

IMG_3651 2Being a first-time attendee of Respawn I was surprised by the wide variety of topics presented at the 2-day conference. While all were somehow connected to the craft and art of game development in a practical sense, many of them also had an analytical quality which I found most appealing. What is more, most topics also connected to established themes in the field of game studies, like narrativity, social connectedness, or theories of engagement with characters and video games in general.

It was especially revealing to witness the matter-of-factness with which narrative and gameplay was seen as two sides of the same coin, exemplified by talks like Valentina Tamer’s “Gameplay as Story” and Falko Löffler’s “Breathing Life Into Game Characters”. While Tamer used Daedalic’s recent episodic adventure The Pillars of the Earth as an example to illustrate how game environments, character design and game mechanics contribute to a game’s narrative, Löffler provided an overview about important (but also pretty uncontroversial) design principles for game characters. He specifically identified character growth as a narrative device he finds still lacking in many contemporary video games. Game designer and writer Wolfgang Walk also took a rather critical stance when he discussed how video game aesthetics (and especially the design of game spaces) contributes to the game’s rhetoric and ethics and how it should be in accordance with its mechanics and gameplay – and not contradict it.

img_3635.jpgAnother group of talks I was able to attend revolved around the notions of player engagement, retention and social connectedness. In a highly interesting talk, Johanna Pirker showed how Social Network Analysis could be used to map the social space of multiplayer games. Drawing on her own research on the multiplayer shooter Destiny, Pirker showed how visualizations of a game’s ‘social network’ can help to identify clusters (= groups of connected players) and crucial ‘nodes’ connecting those clusters – a method which might inform both social science approaches to multiplayer gaming and community-related strategies from a business perspective. The latter was also in the focus of Martine Spaans’ talk on “Mobile Gaming and the Retention Rhetoric”. Highlighting successful strategies for user engagement and retention in non-gaming apps like Tinder, she tried to define some key design factors to keep players in what she calls the “retention cycle” – including some (more or less obvious) aspects like intuitive controls, addictive core gameplay loops, smooth learning curves and the feeling of achievement and progression. In a similar vein, Amazon’s Mike Hines discussed player engagement with a focus on so-called “power users” (often also referred to as “whales”): heavy spenders who constitute only a fraction of the user base in free-to-play games but contribute to an unexpectedly large percentage of total revenue. Again, emotional attachment to the game in question was presented as a key predictor for those users who often use the games they spend money in as a means of personal expression, as well as to experience agency and accomplishment.

IMG_3643Game music was another prominent topic of the conference. Merlin B. Gyoery provided a sound (haha!) overview about forms and functions of video game audio, stressing the fact that it often works through subtle cues, is processed exceptionally fast in the human brain and is universally ‘understood’ – notwithstanding cultural differences, of course. This was nicely complemented by Kai Rosenkranz’ talk on how to “Translate Emotion into Music”. While he more or less bypassed any theoretical discussion of this process, he still provided an interesting glimpse at his own techniques to capture and distill an emotional message out of a game scene and create a musical idea and instrumentation concept out of it. Filippo Beck-Peccoz on the other hand presented a project of his own, which was totally different but no less intriguing: In his composing for FOX n FORESTS, a game heavily inspired by the SNES (= Super Nintendo Entertainment System) era, Beck-Peccoz explored the features and limitations of the SNES hardware to recreate the original sound of that time: by artificially limiting himself to the same restrictions he managed to capture the compositional aesthetics of the SNES era while still giving it an interesting modern twist.

The rest of the talks covered a wide variety of topic, ranging from diversity, mental health policies and user-generated content to business intelligence techniques, marketing tricks and case studies on game development and publishing. For obvious reasons I especially enjoyed Christopher Barney’s talk on diversity which covered not only structural problems of the games industry itself but also the representation of gender, age, and race in video games – a topic particularly close to my own research interests. Equally exciting (although for totally different reasons) was Tobias Sjögren’s “Excel Bonanza”, a short workshop on how to hone your business intelligence and statistics skills with some nifty tools, like Excel’s Power Pivot tables or Time Splicers (yes, sounds awesome, right?).

In sum, the 2-day Respawn summit proved highly entertaining. What some of the presentations lacked in analytical quality others compensated by successfully bridging the gap between research and practice. While attendees with an interest in more technical aspects of game development might have been disappointed, I personally enjoyed the wide scope of the conference. And, of course, the opportunity to visit Gamescom the day after was a nice little perk, too.

More details on the Respawn summit can be found here: http://www.respawngathering.com/

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My visit to Gamescom is documented on my Twitter: https://twitter.com/felixjs

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