I’m not happy with the direction games industry conferences are going in; I specialize in online games, and I’ve worked at the forefront of monetizing online entertainment, I’ve actually *made money* out of Web 2.0 – so I have real expertise in making use of the internet – and I really think we (as an industry) are missing a trick with our conferences. There’s an opportunity to do something really valuable and re-invigorate the conferences.
The previous entry outlined what conferences profess to offer their speakers, and what it costs the speakers to attend. Now I’m going to talk about the real, untapped, value of conferences to the speakers, and what we as speakers should be demanding, and how in the end it benefits all of us, including the organizers just trying to turn a healthy profit.
At it’s best, done properly, speaking is good fun. But the greatest value to a speaker should be the sharing of their ideas and experiences with peers, and getting all that feedback, and new ideas, and improvements from the audience. This is important because we’re a specialized industry, and within that any given talk tends to be further specialized, so it’s almost certain that your peers in your subject area are spread out all over the world, and you don’t get to sit and talk with them on a daily basis about how to be better at what you do.
Sure, there’s the internet, and communication in varios forms (email, forums, blogging, virtual meetings, etc) – but we’re famously overworked, and the biggest problem is being able to set aside the time for uninterrupted communication, and at the same time taking steps back and seeing the wood for the trees. Speaking at conferences gives us that.
And this is where the conferences are really failing us, because in the modern world, the connected, internet world, if you’re not on Google then you don’t exist. I state this as fact, but see for yourself – if you need to know something and the people next to you don’t know it already, where do you turn first? Probably a knowledge centre such as Wikipedia. But where do you turn when your place of choice doesn’t come through for you? Do you manually search every forums, every wiki you know of? Of course not – you let Google do the walking.
And yet, despite my talks containing many fascinating quotable (and searchable!) facts, figures, conjectures, and plans, no conference I’ve ever spoken at has Googlable presentations. Leave it to the conference organizers and so far as the internet, and Google, and hence the world is concerned, everything I’ve ever said is as if it never happened. But anything I blog is immediately accessible to the world.
There are exceptions – if you’re famous, the journalists will quote you, or if you’re famous and mass-market enough, the journalists will transcribe your talk. If you’re lucky and have peers come to your talk who themselves blog, you’ll probably get the majority of the gist of the talk blogged into one or more posts on other people’s sites, not necessarily word for word, but (probably more valuably) re-told in the words of a fellow expert (or fellow deeply interested experimenter/amateur – you’re probably not bothered about the expertise per se, but about how much the person cares and devotes time to thinking about the topic and hence has useful, challenging, or interesting things to say).
Are conference organizers to blame?
At AGDC07, in the feedback session at the end, several of us talked about the content of talks and if / why not / when CMP would put the talks slides up online. IIRC someone asked that they put them up BEFORE the talks, or at least for a private pre-conference peer review, so that we as audiences could determine which speakers were full of crap and just boycott their talks (there were a couple this year that were, simply, crap, and I’m sure that had the board had any indication how rubbish they would be would never have accepted them).
The CMP rep pointed out how hard it was just to get speakers to give them the slides even AFTER the conference. I can’t remember the figure she quoted, but it was something like one third of speakers simply never provide CMP with their slides, even after many requests (and, incidentally, a signed agreement from each speaker promising they’ll do so!).
So, is it fair to say that the organizers really have no chance of success here, and can’t be blamed for not even trying? They put on a good show; surely that’s enough?
I’d say it’s not a fair excuse, no – that organizers can and should try harder and MAKE this work. For a couple of reasons.
At best, transcribing a conference talk is a grey area. At worst, without written permision of BOTH the speaker AND the organizer it’s probably illegal (how do you know for sure which one of them retains the copyright on their talk?). The only group that knows for certain whether they can transcribe talks – or at least organize and authorize others to do so – is the conference organizers. It’s not really fair to beat up on others for not doing it. And with some organizers re-charging you for the audio version of the talk you’ve already paid to listen to (thanks, CMP), I wouldn’t be brave enough myself to give anything but a very scant retelling online of any GDC talk.
As noted above, IMHO providing Google visibility to speakers is an essential part of the trade between conference organizer and speaker. Without this, and especially with no other form of payment being provided, the speakers are – frankly – being ripped-off. These conferences, even the small ones, make big money, and it’s time for the conference organizers to get serious about giving something back to those who provide ALL the content for the conference.
Some talks plain suck. I’d like to think it’s merely because of a lack of preparation – that given a bit more time, every talk that someone offers to give would be worth giving. In reality, I think that many people who step forwards as speakers just don’t have much to say that’s worth saying. These people should obviously stop giving talks (at least until they DO have things worth saying). The current non-transparent system of accountability – optional feedback forms given out to talk audiences – are severely imperfect at fulfilling this. Many attendees simply can’t be bothered to fill them out and hand them in. I don’t know why, but straw polls I’ve conducted brought in answers such as: “I’m too exhausted from the effort of going around the conference” through “I’m too hungover to write anything right now” to “what’s the point?” and “I don’t have time, I’ve got to rush off to another meeting/talk on the other side of the convention centre”.
But accountability is, again, part of the core service offered by conference organizers, only this one isn’t a service to speakers, it’s a service to (future) attendees. And publishing (or at least encouraging) more details of what is actually said would provide a lot more accountability. When someone tells me that a talk I didn’t attend “sucked” I never know whether they were just the wrong audience-member for that talk, or whether the speaker screwed up. When I can get a transcript (or an approximate transcript, as usually happens with blogged talks), I can make a pretty good value judgement for myself. I know not only how good the talks are at a conference I’ve not yet been to but am considering paying for, but I also know how good the talks of a particular speaker are, and whether I want to miss out on talk Y by a different speaker to instead go to talk X but the first speaker.
All of which is arguable, of course – if you really believe that organizers have no “duty” at all, that free market capitalism will reward the more diligent organizers and punish the apathetic – then I’m not going to agree with you, but I accept that it’s an equally reasonable standpoint.
What happens next?
People always bitch about games industry conferences, it seems. But in the last 3 years I’ve personally noticed things seeming to get significantly worse year on year. Quality of talks is dropping noticeably, with some really crappy speakers and even crappier subjects getting airtime at fairly big (by games industry standards) shows, whilst quantity of conferences is growing at an exhausting rate (how many games conferences are there in the US and EU now? We’re averaging more than one a month!). I’m pretty sure we won’t see many deaths, but we’ve seen buyouts (the grassroots AGDC become the CMP-owned GDC), we’ve seen seen trade shows actually die completely (E3, ECTS, etc), although they tend to be inherently more casual than conferences, and we have seen the odd conference fade away (the disingenuously named “GDC Europe”, which seems now to have been effectively supplanted by Games Convention in Leipzig).
I think speakers have a duty themselves to take more of a stand against the drop in quality, both in personal discipline (if you’ve given a talk but not sent your slides to the organizers, then shame on you! It’s fine to wait till the talk takes place, we ALL make changes to the last minute, but waiting weeks or months after the conference is just taking the piss) and in collectively demanding a better service from the conference organizers.
But I think the organizers also need to be pulled into the twenty-first century. I’m watching GDC 2008’s “myGDC” social-networking minisite with interest, and it was a bit of fun setting it up, but I can’t help but feel it’s a silly gimmick when they can’t even manage to keep the main website running for more than about 3 months at a time (just watch what happens when the conference is over – they usually fail to even take down the big flashing banners telling you to pay now for your ticket, with links that all take you to trying to buy things for LAST year, for a conference that’s now over). To be honest, from what I’ve seen so far, Casuality was doing a MUCH better social networking and meeting system for conference attendees several years ago, and they’re just a small-time player by comparison to GDC. By all means, add more value, and please do enhance the socialising part of the conference, that would be really cool – this is part of the unique selling point of conferences anyway – but not at the cost of more important fundamental issues of quality and value.
It’s getting to the point that I’m beginning to wonder how long it’ll be before there’s simply NO point to speaking at conferences at all, even ignoring the cost in time and effort that you need to offset. Even just from an altruistic perspective, I do more good for more people by publishing a talk as a series of blog posts that are indexed by Google, are commented on by a variety of individuals and sites (all of which is easily referenced, sometimes automagically, and easily readable side by side), and are PERMANENTLY available, than I do by going along in person and speaking to people face to face.