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At our GamesBeat Summit 2021 event, I learned that game CEOs and executives are confident that the golden age of gaming will continue, with expectations of continued growth, more money coming into the industry, and more people playing games around the world.
The financial lessons were plentiful. CEOs like Jam City’s Chris DeWolfe were confident that growth would continue, even as we hit difficult quarterly comparisons to pandemic growth from a year ago. The only thing that can trip someone up, DeWolfe said, is opportunity cost, where you put a team on the wrong game. Liontree’s Nick Tuosto teased out of Lars Wingefors, the CEO of Embracer Group, his strategy for acquiring so many companies quickly. Two leaders of Scopely, Tim O’Brien and Amir Rahimi, also explained to Tuosto the right way to acquire a company. It was good to see so much confidence among game investors like Jens Hilgers about the road ahead.
If you add up all of the deals in the first quarter of 2021, you get 280 announced and closed transactions worth $39 billion. That amount is higher than the $33 billion reported for all the deals of 2020, according to InvestGame. While we absorbed these incredible numbers, I was pleased that we looked beyond the numbers to take in the lessons of the pandemic and dwell on the softer side of the game business.
None left behind
While so many things look good for games in the future, it’s good to remember we are in the middle of a pandemic. We don’t want to celebrate how we’re racing so far ahead if we’re leaving a lot of people by the wayside.
In a sobering talk about veteran game developers committing suicide, Mark Chandler of The International Games Summit on Mental Health Awareness and Jason Docton of Rise Above the Disorder reminded us about how it takes a village to ensure that nobody slips through the cracks. Marty O’Donnell, the cofounder of Highwire games and a veteran of the Halo and Destiny franchises, reminded us about the importance of making original games and how publishers should be careful about killing the goose (game development teams) that lays the golden eggs (game blockbusters).
Chelsea Blasko and Adam Boyes, the co-CEOs of Iron Galaxy, described to moderator Eve Crevoshay of Take This their elaborate management effort to avoid crunch, or overworking employees. Raffael “Dr. B” Boccamazzo, the clinical director at Take This, talked about burnout, with telling details like how a vacation might buy you temporary relief but systemic burnout problems might re-emerge in about a month. We saw a member of Congress, Yvette Clarke of New York, talk about the importance of education for all with Stanley Pierre-Louis of the Entertainment Software Association and Laila Shabir of Girls Make Games. Phil Spencer, the executive vice president of games at Microsoft, acknowledged that in his own journey that he had a fear sometimes about saying the wrong thing and why that means you should build a safe environment where people of different backgrounds can trust each other and be their true selves. And mental health experts contemplated how XR can help people heal.
Four female leaders at Activision Blizzard talked about how representation of diverse people matters both in games and in studios, while Brenda Romero and Sushama Chakraverty spoke about taking risks and to not be afraid of failure as you climb the ladder toward roles like game director and chief technology officer. Keisha Howard of Sugar Gamers talked with Daniel Melville, a man born without an arm and an ambassador for Open Bionics, talked about the future hopes for accessibility in games. It was cool to see in an audience poll that people believe that augmented humans would likely be far better game players than natural humans in the future. And our Women in Gaming Breakfast featured a career-focused panel with Samantha Ryan of Electronic Arts, Brenda Romero of Romero Games, and Emily Greer of Double Loop Games, and moderator Andrea Rene of What’s Good Games.
We paid heed to both the need to stoke business and the equal responsibility to provide for employees during a difficult pandemic. I was pleased that many of our speakers emphasized the connection between diversity, mental health, creativity, and positive business growth. Wingefors, a finance-focused leader who bought 13 game companies in one day recently, said his goal was to have “profitable, cash-flow positive business and to have really happy people.”
All of these talks fit into our theme of “Growing the next generation,” as you need healthy, creatively charged people to execute on brilliant plans for financial growth.
We only scheduled one panel on the metaverse — a session about brands diving into it — but it came up frequently in discussions about the future. I believe that we’ll see walled gardens create video game theme parks full of game franchises akin to a virtual Disneyland. That will help them grow their valuations dramatically, and Michael Pachter of Wedbush Securities predicted that Amazon would come out the winner in this environment. But I hope that an open metaverse will eventually take over as those worlds become connected with each other and consumers demand that those connections become available.
In a very human conversation, I asked Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick what he thought about the metaverse, the universe of virtual worlds that are all interconnected, like in novels such as Snow Crash and Ready Player One. Kotick said he remembered back to Alan Kay, the former researcher at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and former chief scientist at Atari. Kay had a project called Vivarium in the early 1980s, and it was the idea of a “living, breathing simulation, where you would have both the ability to have user-generated content and professionally produced content, and that you would have this extremely rich simulation experience that you could live and play and potentially even work,” Kotick said.
He thinks we’re now much closer to the idea of an actual metaverse, and it requires this continuous social connection with people. He thinks that with advances in local and distributed processing power over the next decade, we will get to that original vision that Neal Stephenson had in Snow Crash or Ernest Cline had in Ready Player One.
“I think we’re rapidly progressing toward what is a legitimate mass-market experience,” he said.
I thought this was a momentous comment, as Kotick gave his endorsement to the idea of the metaverse, which was the subject of our conference in January. Meanwhile, another publication thought it was momentous that Kotick thought Pitfall should get a remake.
Electronic Arts chief of studios Laura Miele said in a fireside chat with Geoff Keighley of The Game Awards that game companies are poised to lead with the metaverse.
“We think of a Ready Player One as a 3D experiential place where you walk through a world,” she said. “I really love to think about our sports opportunity in that area, and that there are so many ways that you can consume sports media. And whether it be watching real sports games, checking data, connecting and talking with friends about sports, playing sports, and comparing that. So I think we have opportunities everywhere across the company, and with our franchises and our brands to really explore out and push out the definition of the metaverse.”
Speakers ranging from Jon Radoff of Beamable to Daniel Evans of Reely believe that user-generated content will be a big part of the future. I agree that a creator economy is emerging and tugging other companies into a new world. Keighley asked Miele if EA is thinking hard about user-generated content, as players show that they’re interested in experiences like Minecraft and Roblox. EA has its own The Sims and SimCity franchises that let people create their own experiences. She said it goes in waves.
“The industry certainly was at a place where it was curated linear experiences,” she said. “And I think things are coming full circle and it is opening up. And we are incredibly passionate about putting capabilities and tools in the hands of people, so they can act on their own experiences. When I look at the long-range innovation projects, we have a group called SEED, the Search for Extraordinary Experiences Division of Electronic Arts.”
She added, “They incubate. They’re researching future innovations for technology and games. And one of the projects they’re working on is really cool. It’s this VR project where you can scan in a character and you can possess that character. And then, as you’re walking around in the room, the program captures your animation and applies that to the character. You can draw environments, you can place a second character in the environment, and interact with this character. And that is just about radical accessibility for tools and radical accessibility for people to create their experiences and have an impact on their game. I think that that is going to be incredibly important for the future.”
Miele said she also loves Battlefield because it is often like a sandbox, where players can play with weapons and vehicles and cause destruction in the environment.
“These only these crazy only-in-Battlefield moments happen,” she said. “This emergent play comes from players. As you can imagine, taking that strength and taking that superpower in this franchise and building on that in the future game is definitely part of our strategy. So new modes that are going to be added to the game experience are really in service of this ability that we want to give players to have an a bigger impact on their experience.”
As for The Sims, Miele spoke of “a lot of fertile ground here for The Sims, for sure.”
Players will get tools to play with, and EA is playing to make use of all of its learnings over 18 years for that franchise. She wants players to have flexibility, creativity, and tools to remix items and objects in the world. Skate could also be a franchise with a lot of user-generated content.
“You can imagine where we’re taking this franchise and this brand,” she said.
I’ve got a lot of people to thank in the coming days, from our VentureBeat team to our emcees Andrea Rene and Kahlief Adams. To our audience, thank you all for attending our online community event — the third one we have held during the pandemic. My brain is a little foggy from all of the work, but I thought it would be good to talk about what we learned this week from the 107 speakers across 40 talks this week. I was very happy to have a crowd that came from all over. John Goodale said he was watching GamesBeat Summit 2021 from Yellowstone. Brenda Romero and John Romero tuned in from Ireland. Gabby Dizon participated from the Philippines. Ryan Gill watched from Amsterdam. Justin McMichael viewed from Kelowna, Canada. Paul Thind said his friends tuned in from the Netherlands, England, and Austria, while Richard Browne logged in from Thousand Oaks, California. All told, we had more than 2,100 registered people watching this event. That’s a lot more folks than ever came to our physical events.
I took particular joy talking to Halley Gross, the co-writer of The Last of Us Part II, about the diversity infused into Naughty Dog’s blockbuster. I told her how I played through that game with my college-aged daughter and we both appreciate the richness of character and story in that post-apocalyptic world. My daughter attended the event, and we both felt some catharsis in asking Gross questions about the creative roots of the game. That was one of many heartwarming moments I witnessed during our conference.
It was wonderful to see Brett Sperry, the cofounder of Westwood Studios, and Vince Zampella of Respawn join Keighley in giving Miele our Visionary Award. And it was so good to see Natasha “ZombaeKillz” Zinda cry some tears of validation when she received the Up & Comer Award for her efforts to stream to an audience and engage in radical kindness.
“Being radically kind is something that I think we could use more of in the world. I believe that gaming is something that changes people’s lives, and we have an opportunity in games, to reach into people’s homes and into their hearts. And so it’s a real change,” Zinda said in her acceptance speech. “Being radically kind is not the easiest thing. It is a rebellious act in a world that hates you. And as a Black woman in this space, it has definitely been a journey for me. Thank you all. I can’t wait to see how much more equity and diversity that there is being brought to the table in this space. With this award, you all just brought me to a table in a way that you probably don’t understand how impactful it is. So thank you all. Thanks to all my friends who believed in me, thank you, for the people that uplifted me and gave me chances when they didn’t know who I was and who have just had my back in a beautiful way.”
It felt good to make some people happy with this event. After all, I feel like I owe them. Game developers have created so much human happiness with their games. It was good to dish some back to them.
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