Swiss Gaming Gets Stronger in SF

A bald, fair-skinned baby dressed in Victorian attire stares out of piercing blue eyes from behind a wooden picture frame. It’s a little unsettling, so you turn away. The baby turns too, following your gaze. Close your eyes and so does baby. Open your mouth, so does baby.

This haunting portrait is called Mimicry. It was created by students Emilie Tappolet and Raphaël Muñoz of the Geneva University of Art and Design (HEAD) in Switzerland.

Mimicry was featured in the Game Gazer exhibition at swissnex San Francisco in March 2013, the same week that gaming insiders—including many from Switzerland—flocked to the city for the Game Developers Conference (GDC), the world’s largest and longest-running professionals-only game industry event.

Mimicry’s magic lies in its use of technology in a powerful and artistic way. But the piece is also the perfect window through which to view the interdisciplinary collaborations, cross cultural connections, and transcontinental outcomes that are characteristic of swissnex San Francisco’s activities.

Connecting Students

Game Gazer showed off more than 20 games, installations, and apps in total from HEAD, the Zurich University of the Arts, and the UCLA Game Lab. The Laser Cabinet seemed like a simple wooden side table or nightstand until you tapped its pinball-like buttons and attempted to direct a laser toward a projected beam. The iPad puzzle app OKO let you dive into space. You could follow the adventures of Ned and Ted, scream out loud to win in Talk Therapy, grow into The Perfect Woman, and even play a backpack version of an 80s era arcade game complete with an old-fashioned joystick. See pictures from the event on Flickr!

For the students who traveled from Switzerland to represent their creations in Game Gazer, the show’s opening wasn’t the end. Exhibit co-curator Andrea Müller, who spent a year at swissnex San Francisco on sabbatical from HEAD, where she leads International Relations, arranged workshops for the Swiss visitors in which they were paired with UCLA students. The international teams spent a week together in Los Angeles developing completely new games in just days—four projects in all resulted from the exercise.

“Working with Eddo’s team at the UCLA Game Lab fostered more creativity in three days than we would have in a month on our own,” says Emilie Tappolet, one of the artists behind Mimicry. The lab’s atmosphere is inspiring, fun, and crazy. As a result, the game prototypes that came out of this three-day experience were of great quality in terms of gameplay and design—the collaboration will surely continue in the future.”

Back in the San Francisco Bay Area, the students attended GDC together to see how the professionals do things, visited labs at Stanford University to learn about cutting-edge research in gaming, and stopped by the Game Archive and Pixar Animation Studios for inspiration. They presented their projects in front of professionals and industry leaders at a Transmedia event held at swissnex San Francisco, which provided real-world experience networking and pitching to a crowd.

The exposure resulted in some of the Game Gazer pieces being selected for the UCLA GameArt Festival at the Hammer Museum in May 2013, and, according to Müller, solidified lasting relationships between universities. Eddo Stern, the UCLA Game Lab director has a standing invitation from HEAD, for example, and a connection made between a digital marketing contact at Red Bull and the student responsible for OKO—who met during the Game Gazer opening—led to business discussions.

“It’s a snowball effect,” Müller says. “Things add up. It started as an exhibit, then we added a workshop, then we added meetings, then the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles asked to include some of the pieces in their show.”

Sophie Lamparter, swissnex San Francisco’s Head of Public Programs adds, “These things only happen by going a step further and creating interactions between students, professors, industry, and academia.”

Games: Not Just for Fun

Games are not just art and scholarship. They’re business, too. After all, the global market for video games is expected to grow to $82 billion in 2017. That’s why every year, swissnex San Francisco shines a light on Switzerland’s excellence in game design through thoughtful programming and support during GDC.

While Switzerland has talent to spare in the game industry, there aren’t a plethora of distributors or publishers there, nor users. It can be hard for gaming startups to expand. But in 2013, 11 Swiss studios traveled to San Francisco to make the most of GDC with the help of swissnex and Pro Helvetia—at the same time Game Gazer was on and the Swiss students were in town. Five of the studios benefited from the official booth swissnex helped organize at GDC Play and a meeting room there sponsored by the City of Zurich, which allowed the young companies to demo their games and explore business opportunities.

“The Swiss games community are creating some incredible product and also driving innovation within this industry, therefore it is critical that they always have a presence at GDC,” says Chris Bergstresser, Executive Vice President & Commercial Director for Miniclip, based in Switzerland and San Francisco. “Attendance not only helps give the Swiss games community a voice in our industry, but it helps the Swiss games community get better connected, drive important deals, get strong partnerships, and really drive Swiss product into the mainstream on a much larger scale.”

Bergstresser served as a coach for the Swiss gaming startups during GDC and led them in pitch trainings, helping hone their message for potential publishers and funders and a live pitch event with industry insiders at the end of the week. Seems to have worked.

“We have found a publisher for our next game,” reported visitor Jann Sigrist from digiDingo ag after the week of activity.

Collaborate, Connect, Expand

As for Mimicry, that student project perfectly demonstrates the intricate web around gaming that swissnex San Francisco spins. Itself the result of interdisciplinary collaboration, Mimicry was built on real-time motion capture technology, interaction design, and motion graphics developed by the Swiss startup Faceshift, a spin-off of EPFL and ETH in Switzerland. Their technology allows digital avatars to express human emotions, making them more life-like and compelling.

After appearing with OKO and the Laser Cabinet (the latter was also selected for a show at MOCA in Los Angeles) in the Game Art Festival at the Hammer Museum, Mimicry goes to the Tokyo Game show in September, 2013. And in August and September, the entire Gamer Gazer exhibit and four of its student artists travel to India to present the work there in collaboration with Pro Helvetia India and swissnex India, making headlines in the Indian press.

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Swiss Game Developer come into US Market

For Faceshift’s part, they were one of the visiting Swiss startups during GDC, they participated in pitch sessions and events at swissnex that week, and they had a booth at GDC Play on the exhibit floor. Faceshift CEO Thibaut Weise says he and the team realized how important it was to have a presence on the West Coast and quickly hired a local marketing and sales manager, Doug Griffin. They also saw some immediate sales results—new customers—based on their stay in San Francisco, and saw how useful a local office could be. They applied for a spot in the CTI Market Entry Camp USA program at swissnex San Francisco and two members of the team arrived in August to take advantage of a desk and tailored startup program in the heart of the city.

“It’s important for us to have a presence in the US to serve our customers, but also for VC funding to expand our company,” says Thibaut Weise of Faceshift. “GDC is where all the game developers come, and they are the big market for us. We had the chance to present there and gained many new contacts with the studios. swissnex created that opportunity.”

The Swiss press took note of the Swiss gaming ecosystem around GDC. And in July 2013, Sophie Lamparter was an invited presenter at the Culture & Industry Think Tank in Neuchatel, Switzerland, organized by the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, where the most important players in culture and economical promotion came together to brainstorm how to collaboratively promote Swiss game design.

As the haunting portrait, Mimicry, clearly shows, games can be art. They can be play. But they are also technology, science, and business. The ecosystem that swissnex San Francisco built around Swiss gaming during GDC ensures the strength of the field in the years to come. It connects experts on both sides of the globe, making everyone stronger. Mission accomplished. Let the games continue!