Digital Shoreditch Condensed : a day of Play

Hackney House isn’t a house, it’s a big top. The floor and toilet cubicle doors are made from chipboard; welcome to the painfully cool world of Shoreditch. But leave your fixie-facism and drainpipe-stereotypes at the oversized door – here follows a brief run down of Digital Shoreditch’s Play Conference.

In keeping with the ‘play’ theme, delegates receive a fist full of Digi Dollars to thrust into the pantlines of their favourite speakers. The (chipboard) walls are a mugshot collage of hopeful digital types holding whiteboards proclaiming their superpowers. The event takes a rapid-fire approach, with a wealth of speakers indulging us for 15 minutes a-piece. The format is completed with a few coffee breaks, lunch, two round-table discussions and two panel discussions.

Most hated and loved word : Gamification

As moths are drawn to a flame that will ultimately burn them, both speakers and delegates frequently returned to this dreaded topic. What have we learnt? That it pays, and Playgen have an armoury of statistics to back this up. Longer dwell time, more signups, better conversions. However, this does not dilute the sour taste in my mouth, and there was a general, shared suspicion that ‘Gamification’ is a short-sighted solution. When something is novel, it has more impact, but novelty value waits for no man. In the race to incentivise and gamify digital engagement, are we in fact fuelling a shortening of attention span? The slightly unhelpful and painfully obvious conclusion is that great content and a well-considered user experience will trump most gimmicks.

Most interesting idea : TV is still the daddy

Loosely speaking, the music industry is worth 40Bn, Hollywood 50Bn and Games 60Bn. But TV is still 300Bn, which is more than double the combined total of the other three, maths fans. What makes this medium magic is that the experience unfolds at the same time, for a big audience. In that sense, TV and Twitter are very similar; events unfolding and delivering meaning for each viewer at the same time.

Mark Sorrell made a case for ‘Telefication’ which, although clunky, does suggest a different approach to convergence. Make games more like TV, rather than TV more like games. Games need more human drama, which is what TV does so well. Contributing almost 10% to the UK game industry in Q1 2012, Angry Birds is obviously huge. But it requires very little user-input – pull the sling back, then watch your personalised TV-game experience unfold. Can we deliver personalised TV-like narratives through games in this way?

Hot Topic : Two screen viewing

Which is the primary screen? The TV or the tablet? As we embrace content in the cloud, and indiscriminately consume content on whichever screen comes to hand, the traditional hierarchy no longer seems important. We may still be a decade from such a scenario, but the appetite is certainly there. Sky invested $15m for a 10% stake in two-screen startup Zeebox.

From two-screen to no-screen. RJDJ unveiled Project Now, soon to hit the AppStore. As Magic Tate Ball does for art, Project Now does for music. Out jogging? The accelerometer detects the movement and puts on something uptempo. At home on a sunny Saturday afternoon? Their clever app will select the most contextually relevant music. Contextual relevance is a very important consideration as we embrace multi-screen viewing.

Most practical advice : Distribution & publishing

Talks by Mike Hawkyard, Martha Henson and Joost Rietveld variously discussed the challenges of getting eyes on the prize. Despite indy-murmurings that the publisher model is dead, figures don’t lie. 85% of games on the AppStore achieve no more than 1,500 downloads. In Joost’s study, downloads more than quadrupled with a publisher on board.

Both Martha Henson and Mike Hawkyard reconfirmed the value of authoring Flash games, particularly via portals such as Kongregate and NewGrounds. Unity games can’t be seeded in the same way. Neither site have the same infuriating walled-garden approach taken by Apple. And the figures are excellent : Wellcome Trust’s new game Axon, built by Preloaded, quickly reached 4 million plays.

Don’t be afraid to stand firm when clients expect a catch-all multi-platform solution. Design experiences that are specific to the platform; it is better for everyone in the end. Mike’s final point was about communication: wherever possible, talk with the distributor (be it Apple, Amazon, Kongregate or NewGrounds) and see what input they have. Their insider-knowledge will be for the better of the product.

Highbrow Point : Play is bigger than us all

Play transcends religion, politics, creed and continents. Take football, watched by billions of people around the world, mostly all at the same time. Tom Chatfield’s argument is that play humanises technology. It is technology that has taken football to the masses, but it is play, or at least watching play, that transforms this global experience into a very personal and human one. Our mobile phone is almost the first thing we touch in the morning and the last thing at night. This is the world in which we live, one of ‘intimate computing’, and it is in our very nature to play with things to better understand them.

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View the hi-res version by Peter Simon, Thought Den Design Intern

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