I got an email at about 11:00pm on Thursday night from one of my many contacts at CCP asking if I wanted to go along to the first annual conference of the Icelandic Gaming Industry the following day. I debated briefly whether I should take up the offer, and then accepted. I went to bed immediately as it meant an earlier start than I was used to the next day.
In a country as small as Iceland, it may be surprising that its gaming industry is worthy of its own conference. The IGI has 8 member companies and employs hundreds of people, many of its member companies have been around for a while and are led by people with decades of experience in the video games industry globally. Due to the nature of their home market, Icelandic games companies have to be global companies out of necessity and many have proven their success in competing worldwide and have offices all over the place.
I woke up at 7am the next morning, grabbed a coffee and set off to walk to CCP's office to get the bus at 8:30. With Opeth playing in my mp3 player I contemplated what lay ahead for the day and wondered what the IGI's plans were to help its members weather the aftermath of the economic collapse of 2008. The title of the conference was "The Future is Bright" but it was hard to see from my point of view. I have first hand experience of how hard it is in Iceland at the moment, and thats just for me. Unemployment is at record levels and the government is in turmoil. Taxes are rising to punitive levels (and set to increase further next year) and the restrictions on the Icelandic Kronur and Capital control regulations are frightening away foreign investment. The future looks far from bright, or so I thought on my way to CCP.
The IGI was founded last year as a way for local games companies to offer each other support and to provide a unified voice to bring their concerns and desires to the Icelandic government. It also exists in order to promote Icelandic gaming companies worldwide, in terms of attracting global talent and promoting their products and services in a large and highly competitive market.
There is probably only one country in the world where an industry conference has the optional dress code of bathing suit, this is Iceland after all, they do things differently here. The conference itself was being held at The Blue Lagoon, a well known tourist attraction outside of Reykjavik where hot water from a nearby geothermal power plant is filtered and cooled somewhat before being piped into an outdoor bathing pool. You'll have seen pictures of it no doubt; a steaming lagoon of bright blue water with the towers of the powerplant in the background. So with bathing suit and towel in my rucksack I got on the bus and we set off for the conference location.
The membership of the IGI comes from a wide variety of sectors of the global gaming market. CCP is a world leader in the MMO market, with EVE online bringing 300k+ subscribers together in a detailed virtual world, all on one shard and another MMO based on the World of Darkness setting in the works.. Gogogic is a maker of games for the casual and social markets and has seen success with its Vikings of Thule Facebook game. Betware is a company specializing in providing games and support software to the online and offline gambling industries. Mindgames is focussed on making use of the latest brainwave interfaces in order to teach people how to relax or improve concentration. The companies that make up the IGI are all focussed on innovating in newer fields of the gaming industry, spreading games beyond their perceived niche of techy PC users and hardcore console gamers.
We arrived at the venue, more coffee was consumed and pleasantries exchanged in the few minutes available before the conference kicked off with an introduction from Orri Harđarson of the federation of Icelandic Industries. The conference was organised into a series of talks interspersed with Q&A panels. The keynotes were first and opened with a presentation from Pablos Holman of Intellectual Ventures Laboratory. IVL is a pure R&D company which looks at a wide range of technologies and how they can be applied and re-purposed in a wide variety of fields.
During his presentation Pablos came across as an anarchic and playful individual who looked at technology with the perspective of "what can I make this do?" rather than that of the standard "what does this do?". He extolled the virtues of not only thinking outside the box, but also taking the box to bits and making something new from the pieces. he showed off some of the wild ideas that IVL has been coming up with including a mosquito zapping laser system, a nuclear reactor which runs on nuclear waste, and a machine for dampening the force of hurricanes. He imagined a world where the technology in our pockets made gaming and play available everywhere we went and as part of our everyday activities. The question raised was how can we use existing technologies in new and interesting ways to drive the rise of ubiquitous gaming.
The second keynote was given by Jason Della Rocca of Perimeter Partners who offer strategic level consulting services to the gaming industry. He covered an awful lot of ground in his presentation and illustrated how the era of horsepower driven gaming technology was coming to an end to be replaced by other forces like how we interact with games and the social gaming scene. He also predicted the gamification of our world as the distinction between 'gamers' and 'non-gamers' breaks down and becomes meaningless. A warning was implied in this; that we should avoid the gamepocalypse predicted by Jesse Schell earlier this year where every activity has an achievement or score attached to it and our every action becomes a point at which we can be marketed something.
The Keynotes over it was time for more coffee (which the games industry seems to run on) and a quick cigarette out by the opaque blue pools of the lagoon. I contemplated some of what had been said and wondered where our technology would take us next. The future is full of promise and possibilities which the visioanries of the Icelandic games companies seem to be exploring. With their platform independent games which an be played anywhere they seem to have already made inroads into the next evolution of game development.
Continued in part II