Michael Pearson on how the UK Games Expo helps new designers break into the games market
The UK Games Expo is the UK’s largest hobby games convention (and the fourth largest in the world) and last year’s event saw 25,000 visitors flock to Birmingham’s NEC to buy and play new games, test out prototypes, take part in tournaments and listen to high profile speakers.
There’s also cosplay, a family zone and fun events like Knightmare Live and Live Pandemic, but for games designers, the UK Games Expo provides vital networking opportunities and gives budding creators the chance to pitch their ideas to industry folk who can get their game published.
We spoke with UK Games Expo’s media manager Michael Pearson about why this year’s show is hosting more events than ever before to help budding designers break into the games market.
The UK Games Expo is now in its 11th year. Can you tell us a little about the origins of the show?
The show was started at the Clarendon Suites in Birmingham by a group of gamers who mainly had a wargames background, but with interests in RPG and board games. The first show was an unknown quantity – how many (if any) people would come, would the multi-genre format work, would it be an expensive experiment? In the end over 600 attended the show; the venue kept running out of food and was raiding local supermarkets for food and drink.
The ‘Clarendon years’ saw the show grow each year, with at least 20 per cent increase year on year. The sixth show was our last at the Clarendon Suites. We were bulging at the seams in terms of visitors and exhibitors and we had to seriously limit the quantity of space that some exhibitors wanted; it was clear that things had to change. The venue manager made the comment that it is time to move on when you become the venue’s biggest customer, which we were.
During the last Expo at the Clarendon, we held a seminar for exhibitors; a move to a bigger venue meant quite a financial risk and we needed to know we had industry support. The result was very positive, but still very scary. We had to change from being a group of gamers running a show into becoming a business, which we did.
We were blown away by the growth; the industry wanted more space for their stands and they were prepared to pay for it. Visitors loved the new venue and the format. It took two years to overfill the Hilton and we ended up putting up a large marquee in the car park to accommodate some of the tournaments. Another change seemed inevitable, and the NEC beckoned.
We had done some work about finding a new venue that would allow us to grow both in terms of exhibitors and visitors. The NEC Hilton had large function rooms and a lot of bedroom space, so we negotiated a deal with them, taking all except one of their main conference rooms.
Expo 2016 saw us initially take part of Hall 1, then we took a bit more, then more and in the end we had taken about 80 per cent of the space. We still used the Hilton space mainly for tournaments, but the exhibitor hall absolutely buzzed. Our growth in 2016 exceeded the 20 per cent which we had become used to. People also liked the change to a three day show in 2016, which did help with footfall as many were now visiting Expo as part of their annual holiday.
We were pleased when in 2016 we still had large numbers coming for one day. In the past, we had reservations that if those one day visitors converted to three days then walk-ins would be reduced, but this simply hasn’t happened. Once again, we will hold our breath collectively until the show opens on Friday.
What are some of the highlights of this year’s event?
We have some iconic guests this year: Tom Vasel of the Dice Tower, Ian Livingstone of Fighting Fantasy makes a welcome return and John Kovalic, the Munchkin artist, will be in attendance.
We have a number of keynote seminars from the likes of Games Workshop, Chaosium (a new Runequest) and Paizo are showcasing its new Starfinder system.
Key exhibitors include:
• Mayfair Games with Bärenpark, The Colonists, Caverna: Cave vs Cave
• Hawk Wargames will be making a big push on Dropfleet commander I imagine
• Catan Studios will be showing lots of variants of Catan
• Warcradle Studios will be showing off Wild West Exodus
• Paizo are visiting for the first time and making announcements about Starfinder, a much awaited extension of pathfinder into the far future
• Games Workshop’s presence is exciting and its seminar on the new 40K is much anticipated.
This year we have stretched into another hall in the NEC – we have totally filled Hall 1. The industry has supported us throughout and this year we have added a 700 player Pokémon tournament and Games Workshop is attending for the first time.
Some great tournaments are being staged at Expo:
• Catan UK National Championship
• Agricola UK National Championship
• Carcassonne National Championship
• Huge Fantasy Flight Games Europeans Championships with over 300 events including XWing, Netrunner and Game of Thrones
We are also having a Viking village on the side of the lake at the NEC. We have had Vikings before, but this is a step-up.
Live events include:
• The Dark Room – Live action video game
• Live Pandemic – The Pandemic board game with celebrities and audience participation
• Live RPG Plus – A role-playing game where the audience get to decide the fate of the party
• Adalane – a concert of gothic horror-themed music
Why should game designers be attending this year’s show?
This year we have put in place plenty of events to help designers looking to break into the games market. This is a large expansion area for us.
Three years ago we hosted a ‘Dragons Den’ event and had 20 applicants; then last year we changed the format and name to the ‘Wyvern’s Lair’. This time, 50 games were submitted and we had to sift down to 12 to make the final manageable. The judges were drawn from some of the great design companies who work with us: Mayfair, Osprey Games and more. This year, 69 entries were submitted and again we have sifted down to 12 (chosen by the judges, most of whom were also judges in 2016).
But this is not all. We are hosting a speed dating event with 12 industry designers/companies and 12 budding designers. There is also a networking event to allow the two sides of the equation to talk in a less formal setting. Again, a regular feature is our prototype area for designers to get feedback from the public on their games. Finally, we have a number of design seminars that are being held.
With what you’ve seen already this year and what is being showcased at this year’s Expo, what do you make of the current state of creativity in the games space?
The games industry is definitely having a resurgence, this has been obvious for a few years. Last year, for example, Christian Peterson of FFG estimated the UK games industry could be worth as much as £500m per annum.
I have often wondered about creativity, in a similar way that authors, film makers and musicians are always looking for something completely different. The fact that we have had over 130 games submitted for the Expo awards this year’s shows that designers and publishers are prepared to continue to release new games, add-ons and materiel.
One growth is the increase in games materials – terrain for wargames, dice boxes and dice towers, better quality pieces for established games, the list isn’t endless, but growing. It shows a confidence by the industry that the games market is maturing, and above all, growing.
The UK Games Expo takes place this weekend, from June 2nd to June 3rd at Birmingham’s NEC.