Edinburgh – August – festival time. Last month, Ricky Gervais, Christian Slater, various oddball street performers and masses of tourists descended on the beautifully historic Scottish city for it’s annual fringe. Watched over by the castle, and poured on by unrelenting rain, those below had more entertainment choices than they could shake a washed up comedian at – the Comedy Store, the Fringe, the theatre and, for the second year, the Edinburgh International Games Festival.

The industry may still be in it’s infancy, and facing the teething problems of puberty, but the organisers believe that videogames should be celebrated alongside the more established creative arts. Thus EIGF combines public screenings of forthcoming games and a gallery exhibition with a two-day, more trade oriented, conference on the art of interactive entertainment.

Preview screenings for EA’s The Sims 2, the world premier of Si’s Football Manager 2005 and Disney/Pixar’s PS2 game The Incredibles attracted the general public and delegates alike to the local Odeon cinema, who were also treated to fascinating presentations from Ian Livingstone of Eidos on the Tomb Raider phenomenon. The two-week exhibition ‘Go Play Games’ drew gamers to the rainy city’s Royal Museum, although the game list didn’t exactly cause a frenzy. The official unveiling of LEGO Star Wars, however, caught the eye, as did Nintendo’s Donkey Konga, which proved popular with the public.
The International Conference Centre was the epicenter of the trade event. The main foyer was kitted out with pods including Project Gotham Racing 2, Mario Golf, Wario Ware Inc, The Legend of Zelda Four Swords and Manhunt and was complemented by a caged mini-basketball court and, crucially, a coffee stall. Upstairs, presentations were made in front of generous audiences, all seamlessly linked by football commentator Clive Tyldesley, who hosted the event for a second year.

Among the more interesting presentations at the industry event, EA’s worldwide executive of Music and Audio Steve Schnur’s essay, entitled ‘Videogames – The New Rock’n’Roll?, highlighted the growing importance of music in videogames, like the Madden franchise, especially for artists, who now call their managers insisting their latest tracks are included in games ahead of MTV.

Other highlights included a panel discussion on the economics of MMOGs, which was gloriously highjacked by EA’s Corporate Communications VP Jeff Brown, who at one point said the thought of someone making a living out of selling items from games on ebay was preposterous. He also dismissed the proposed existence of sweat shops, where Asian children are allegedly being whipped into playing MMOGs to level up characters their task masters then sell for real world profit.
Seamus Blackley, he of the loud shirt, previous of XBox, now in Hollywood with Creative Artists Agency, gave us ‘Hollywood Model – Come on Up!’ which began when he poured what appeared to be comatose inducing Bloody Mary’s for himself and his panel to ‘get over their hangovers’. He encouraged videogame companies to take advice from the film industry in risk management, talent finding and social networking. By making moves to improve these, publishers would find it much easier to make a success of new IP.

The first BAFTA Interactive New Talent Award went to Paulina Bozek for her work producing EA’s karaoke title Singstar at Sony’s London studio, highlighting the importance of women and innovation to attract non-gamers to the industry. The 2005 EDGE award for Excellence and Innovation, which wrapped up day one, went to Wario Ware Inc, the manic GBA puzzle game, to nods of approval from the audience, most of which had been playing it on their way up to Edinburgh with bleary eyes.

The two-day event was wrapped up by the entertaining battle of the sexes quiz ‘Never Mind the Console Box’. Three lads and three ladies, including journalists and industry professionals, fought for gaming knowledge glory. Mike Goldsmith from Future Publishing gave us an excellent impression of Mario, sound effects and all, and Seamus Blackley looked so tired he could barely answer a question. Who won? The girls, 28/25, although most of their points were won by industry legend Jes San, who played the part of a woman for the first ten minutes while we waited for journalist Rhianna Pratchett to arrive.

Most delegates agreed the festival had been a resounding success, with much promise for the third EIGF next year. However, it was recommended that the two-day conference event be squeezed into one day to avoid padding of the presentation schedule, which many felt led to sparse audience attendance for some of the speeches. This would also make it easier for industry delegates to get time away from the office.

The public part of the event were also sparsely populated, which probably had something to do with the lack of exclusive and new games playable in the ‘Go Play Games’ exhibition. It is doubtful that those who arrived in Edinburgh for the Fringe will have chosen EIGF over stand up from Ricky Gervais.

EIGF, however, is more than an excuse to discuss the growing cultural relevance of videogames. It provides a networking opportunity for delegates to meet industry executives not only from the UK (although most in attendance were) but many from the major players in Europe and the US. Networking was facilitated by regular breaks in the Conference Centre’s main foyer, supported by free refreshments and name badges. Various stalls were set up, most from local Scottish companies, including information on ELSPA and government initiatives relevant to the area. Artem Digital glammed it up with a stand, where they showcased their new face rendering technology, and allowed attendees the chance to have their face rendered right in front of their eyes.

As a chance to meet and greet the industry, EIGF, however, pales in comparison with London Games Week, held during the first week of September. The European Games Network, run alongside GameStars Live at East London’s ExCel Centre, and ECTS, are simply bigger, bolder and better. EIGF might provide a more relaxed atmosphere, the feeling of a tight-knit group and the prospect of meeting most of the major players in the industry, but it is not on the same scale as events during LGW. (see news piece by Jamie McCormick on gd.ie)

If lessons can be learned, next years EIGF should continue to reinforce the place of games alongside film, music, comedy and theatre in Europe’s cultural mix as well as providing industry types with the chance to get stinking drunk in Scotland while striking up a few deals over a game of Mario Golf in the process.

Author’s Bio: Wesley Yin-Poole is a freelance videogame journalist and feature writer for The Mail on Sunday. He regularly contributes to videogame websites in Europe and the US.