How a passion for the mobile games industry and throwing parties spawned a mobile conference monster that’s celebrating its 10th anniversary in January 2024.
Do you know where you were on 21st January 2014?
For the founders of Steel Media and around 500 mobile industry experts, the answer was Vinopolis, Central London, for the first-ever live PG Connects conference.
Whilst that event was an overwhelming success, it’s fair to say that what began as the next step in Steel Media’s plan to support the industry – building on over 8 years of consumer reviews, b2b media, awards and networking drinks since we launched in 2006 – has grown into something bigger than we could have ever hoped for.
In the intervening decade (apart from a covid-enforced digital break), we’ve run 44 conferences in 12 cities, in nine countries over 3 continents, welcomed over 48,000 delegates and been the key connector in over 100,000 business meetings which, by our rough metrics, have played the part in well over $1 billion of industry deals.
Pocket Gamer Connects remains the premier place for the mobile games industry to meet, connect, swap stories and celebrate what has grown to become the world’s biggest slice of the entertainment industry. As the PGC team prepares to welcome friends old and new to the 10th-anniversary event at the Brewery London in January 2024, we want to take the chance to look back and ask, how did we get here? So we’ve gathered together some of the founding fathers to ask them precisely that…
Getting the party started
Steel Media opened for business in 2006, long before app stores and smartphones as we know them today, launching consumer media giant PocketGamer.Com and working with mobile phone operators Vodafone, Three, T-Mobile and O2 as well as handset giants Nokia and Sony Ericsson to help promote mobile games through mobile portals and in-store magazines.
By 2008, we’d expanded our activities to more directly support the business side of the industry, through the launch of this dedicated media channel, PocketGamer.Biz, and a rapidly expanding series of networking events in the UK, US, Europe and Asia. These involved a mixture of legendary networking parties (the legendary PG Parties on Monday nights during GDC week grew to guestlists of up to 3-4,000), Mobile Mixers (featuring panels and talks alongside drinks), awards and the Big Indie Pitch.
From here, in hindsight at least, it may seem an obvious step to launch a conference series.
After all, the Steel Media team had made a habit of pulling together its biggest names to share knowledge and build community. The regular get togethers had become a vital part of the ecosystem but – spurred on by sellout success and smiling faces – the team soon pondered if they could step up their party-starting and marvellous mixers to create an event that could do even more to share knowledge, stimulate business and celebrate the success of this incredible industry.
Chris James, Steel Media’s CEO and co-founder sets the scene. “We saw this amazing mobile games industry with loads of great people and lots of complexity but no-one was really giving it any love,” he explains. “And when the smartphone era came, everything changed. Somebody came to us and said “You know lots of mobile people, we want to do a party at GDC. Can you help us?” So we invited our clients and friends and industry people to come and have a nice night, chatting, getting drunk and connecting, and someone else was paying! It was the best thing ever. That’s when our events business was born.”
And that inaugural event – a full-on conference for the mobile gaming community – was the first Pocket Gamer Connects London which took place at Vinopolis on January the 21st 2014. Would the venue and AV hold up, they wondered? Would the speakers enrapture and entertain? And, most importantly, would anyone turn up?
“We were thinking ‘If we can get 200 people, we won’t lose our shirts here’… But in the end we got over 500 and people just engaged with it,” says James. “We’d become the voice of an industry that didn’t have a voice. Our mixer events had been for the people that made the games, the monetisation people, the toolmakers, the investors, so we always wanted that cross section for PGC. We wanted to bring everyone together. And I think we achieved that.”
But what about the logistics? Spiriting a conference out of nothing can’t have been easy? Jez Bridgeman, Steel Media’s creative director takes up the story. “None of us had any experience in building a conference, so it was a bit of an unknown. But nobody else was really doing this for mobile, so, for us, it was a natural progression. It was just a little bit more expensive… With more moving parts… But that’s never scared us.”
Joao Diniz-Sanches, co-founder of Steel Media shares the secret of their success. “One of the key things for me was how reactive and how tight the team was. The number of people delivering that event was stunningly small, but that’s because everybody played their part very well and very efficiently. We run these things really tightly so everything that came along we overcame.”
From day one it was clear that PGC was just what the mobile industry needed, putting both the event itself and the new wave of up-and-coming talent that attended, firmly on the map.
And that first PGC had all the big names in attendance: King’s Tommy Palm, Rovio’s CMO Peter Vesterbacka, Gamevil USA president Kyu Lee, CocoaChina GM Lei Zhang, and Harry Holmwood, CEO of Marvelous AQL to name just a few… It was two full days dedicated to talks, pitch sessions and a wealth of other activities aimed at small and medium developers, running parallel to a focus on the then emerging Asian mobile market. The formula proved a recipe for success that the team have since fine-tuned and improved over every successive event since.
We’d become the voice of an industry that didn’t have a voice.Chris James
Dave Bradley, Steel Media, COO remembers the first PGC. “That first show had a very friendly vibe which I think we’ve maintained throughout the ten years. I walked in and was immediately embraced by some indie developers and wound up having a drink with them and finding out all about what they’d done. That welcoming, games industry vibe was there right out of the box and it’s been there ever since.”
“The word ‘family’ is often used at our events,” agrees Bridgeman. “There are people who come regularly to each event and after a while they start to feel like family, and equally they treat us like family.”
We’ve started, so we’ll Finnish…
And with evident international appeal, it wasn’t long before PGC spread its wings. Later that same year, PGC headed to Helsinki, Finland, repeating the magic for a second show, tailor-made for its incumbent, brand-new and burgeoning mobile powerhouses.
“Most of our partners and revenues were coming from overseas anyway”, explains James. “We’d been doing these mixer events everywhere. Whenever someone said, ‘I want to do an event for the mobile industry in ‘blah’ can you do it?’ we were ‘Yeah, alright’. So it was never scary.
“We actually almost launched in Helsinki before London. Helsinki is our spiritual second home and we’d been talking to people about running an event there. Peter Vesterbacka, the ‘Mighty Eagle’ of Rovio was saying ‘We should do it!’ and we spent a month going back and forth, so when the first one in London went well, we were already thinking “OK, let’s go and do it in Helsinki!”
“As we got nearer and nearer to that first London event we were thinking, actually, we can scale this up,” explains Bridgeman. “We can do this pretty much anywhere so why not do Helsinki? Even though we’d promised ourselves that we’d only do one event in that first year!”
A truly global games conference
Of course, the growth of the games industry has always been a global story, and mobile even more so, with the rapid expansion of smartphone handsets putting game consoles in billions of pockets and studios able to spin up with far lower production overheads and frictionless marketing than regular PC/Console business, nevermind AAA.
Asia was particularly important, with Japan and Korea leading the way in mobile early on, and then China expanding super rapidly to challenge even the mighty US market in terms of value.
The PGC team certainly took this on board. With 2014 closing out two successful shows, 2015 saw the show heading to Bangalore, India in partnership with Reliance Games, and San Francisco in the States for the first time, along with smash-hit return trips to Helsinki and London. And with a routine set and a timetable locked in, 2016 saw the addition of Vancouver, Canada to the circuit. By 2019 this had expanded to include outings in Hong Kong and Jordan as well as Seattle.
“Within a few years we were thinking really internationally in a way that some far larger companies still don’t,” explains Bradley. “Looking to Asia, looking to the Middle East… PGC has embraced all these areas. Even right after that first event in London we were looking at supporting other territories right around the world in a way that was very exciting.”
More than mobile – PC / XR / Blockchain Connects
Whilst mobile games remain at the heart of PG Connects, the show has long since broadened its reach to the wider platforms, technologies and trends that shape the industry.
Much of the content on game design, tools, marketing, investment and business is platform-agnostic anyway, but since 2017 we have run specific tracks and whole side events (such as PC Connects, Blockchain Connects, XR Connects) focused on supporting different sectors of the industry and this remains very much the case today in a world where many publishers are thinking more cross-platform.
As James said, “Ultimately, mobile is our heartland, but these events are increasingly designed to be platform agnostic really. For me the games industry and these events are not about technologies, they are about connecting, celebrating and supporting the people who make the games, or the tools and monetisation systems, or who invest into the industry to allow it all to happen”.
The show must go on
Even 2020’s global shutdown couldn’t prevent the team from continuing the cause and delivering business as usual via ten all-digital Connects events across 2020 and 2021. “At the end of February 2020 I had gone out to Jordan to look at a venue there – with a view to going onto GDC in San Francisco straight after – and while we were there everything just stopped,” remembers James. “GDC was gone… But we’d already been talking about ‘Can we do a small digital thing?’ and PGC Digital literally came together that week. By April the 6th it was live.
Looking to Asia, looking to the Middle East… PGC has embraced all these areas. Even right after that first event in London we were looking at supporting other territories right around the world in a way that was very exciting.Dave Bradley
“We turned into a digital events company overnight. And we did ten of them over the covid period. At a time when everyone was furloughing people, we were hiring. We were still needed and that time really underlined why what we do is important. The cement between the bricks is still required. Business needs to continue. It can’t just stop.
“That’s been my highpoint – that we always kept it going. And that’s become a symbol of the company as a whole. We pivot, roll with the punches and always drive it forward.”
The greatest show on earth – join us!
Thus PGC has continued to rock and roll into towns all around the world and, after an incredible five events in 2022 in London, Seattle, Helsinki, Toronto and Jordan, we were aiming for six in 2023 thanks to the addition of the Dubai GameExpo Summit to the mix in June (although subsequently PGC Jordan had to be postponed due to the shocking and tragic developments in the region).
With London, Helsinki and Dubai events confirmed, our newly announced return to San Francisco in March 2024 is already taking shape and plans for further activity are developing nicely, 2024 – PGC’s anniversary year – is already set to be the biggest yet.
Whilst the early success may have come in part from parties, and there is always a sense of fun and celebration at the heart of these events, the PGC team understand that sustained growth and impact can only come from delivering genuine value to the industry – from supporting businesses with the knowledge, connections and inspiration they need to survive and thrive.
We may be 10 years old, but PG Connects in 2024 will be even more laser focused on delivering real value to all our delegates, to ensure they come away with valuable insights to implement and connections to help get business done and grow their enterprise now and in the future. So don’t miss out. Join the unmissable Pocket Gamer Connects schedule in London or a city near you all through 2024 and beyond – find out more and book your tickets here.
PLUS you can be part of PGC Stories right now. Do you have your own PG Connects tale to tell? A favourite show? Best moment? Amazing memories, tall tales and more, we want to hear yours for our series celebrating our 10 years at the top. So do chip in and be part of the action here or simply share your memories on LinkedIn here. We’ll be promoting these on our channels and at the show itself!
Finally, from all at PGC, PG.Biz and the Steel Media (and indeed Enthusiast Gaming) team – thanks for everything. We couldn’t do it without you. Here’s to another ten great years!