Yesterday I attended my fifth GameCamp unconference event, held (as last year) at the LSBU Keyworth Centre in South London.
The set-up was slightly different to last time, with the organisational hub (featuring the schedule whiteboard along with the board game library and new addition, London Hackspace’s arcade cabinet ‘The Beast’) located on the first floor and physical games (Nerf War) on the second floor, while the actual rooms for the unconference were on the fifth floor.
This wasn’t necessarily a bad decision (we found last year that the venue is not very suitable for wandering between talks) but it did feel like there were significantly fewer sessions posted to the board than in previous years, and people were wary of shifting their timeslots around or adding more sessions throughout the day as most people were staying upstairs and not revisiting the board except during the lunch break.
Here are the talks that I attended: (titles paraphrased from memory)
10.00 – “Don’t rely on Stephen Fry” – James Wallis (@jameswallis) talked about the problems of making ARG-like events (and other kinds of games) to support the launch of films and TV shows. The title referring to an occasion where Fry absent-mindedly neglected to tweet the vital clue for a nationwide treasure hunt.
10.30 – “Unethical practices in mainstream games” – a chap from Crytek UK gave his views on games recycling assets to extend playing time, and the cynical mechanics of social games, leading to a quite interesting discussion.
11.00 – “First annual conference of what went wrong in our games” – Michael Cook (@mtrc) coaxed some stories of interesting failures and ideas that seem too risky to pursue from the gathered developers.
11.30 – Managed to poke my head around the door for about five minutes of Quintin Smith’s (@quinns108) talk and also got caught in a running Nerf battle in a corridor. Very Community.
12.00 – “Games in the workplace” – Civil servant and man who doesn’t put his real name on the internet @monkeybanjo, who you may remember from last year’s excellently titled talk “SEX!”, sought out ways to get middle aged workers to participate in game-based learning activities during work hours.
12.30 – “The Slow Death of Punk Rock” – Ste Curran (@steishere) gave an inspiring talk encouraging people to play all kinds of games instead of sticking within one definition of what “games” are supposed to be (using the analogy of fans of punk rock having the option to regress to nostalgia for when their niche was better served, or broadening their interests to other genres of music). A full half of this was given over to an anecdote about crying at a Britney Spears concert (with graphs).
13.00 – “Lunch” – a session about slowly filing past several large pans of salad and greasy vegetarian pizza.
13.30 – Managed to poke my head around the door of several things, a session on “Heroes” which had attracted most of the games writing crowd being the most interesting.
14.00 – “Come tell your favourite bits of games” – George Buckenham (@v21) used this session as fodder for his excellent (and not just because I’m on it) audio blog Games We Have Known And Loved. This resulted in tales of cooperation in Journey, glitches in Serious Sam, alien babies in The Sims, and in the closing minutes an amazing, hilarious story about a group of friends who would ‘play’ WWF Attitude by making custom characters and watching the game play out their careers in CPU vs. CPU mode.
14.30 – “Pigeonholes” – This was my talk, where I tried to condense several pages of rambling notes into a coherent twenty minutes. The crux of my argument was that conventional wisdom is a trap, and aiming to make games that sit neatly within existing genres (and use existing technology) while leaving all the R&D heavy lifting and risk to well-funded “mainstream” developers put indie games at the risk of stagnation. Essentially, I’m bored of lo-fi sketches, and want more games that set some limitations then massively over-deliver within them – Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars being one example I gave.
My favourite games are those where you’re doing something radically different and unpredictable at regular intervals (Mafia, Gunstar Heroes, Resident Evil 4, Psychonauts), and games that take the trappings of a familiar genre in a radical new direction (Stalker, Metroid Prime, Jetpack Joyride). I asked at one point where the developers were today that were the modern equivalent of id Software, Treasure or the Bitmap Brothers, to which someone replied Introversion Software which… didn’t quite get what I was aiming at. The teams I mentioned each (repeatedly) made games that were the benchmark for their platforms.
Anyway, thanks to everyone who came, and I’ll go back to picking something a bit more straightforward and coherent next time!
15.00 – “Dragon’s Den” – Ste Curran (@steishere), Martin “The Fashion” Hollis (@martin_hollis) and Marek Bronstring (@gwarek) were the dragons in this impromptu and somewhat experimental attempt to recreate the popular game show where entrepreneurs beg for investment. Pitches included a Dragon’s Den sim, a scientologist plot, and an attempt at a reverse takeover of the dragons. It was a bit weird, but raised a few LOLs.
15.30 – There weren’t any good talks in this slot, as far as I remember. (Or at least their titles weren’t very compelling.) Sorry!
16.00 – “Mod Readme Files” – Alice O’Connor (@asponge) presented a selection of the strangest and funniest excerpts from readme.txt files taken from her tumblr. The readme files of mods (starting with Doom and Quake, and most recently revived by Minecraft’s huge modding scene) capture a time when game development in a limited form was suddenly open to everyone, and the peculiar and ill-advised bids for immortality that resulted.
16.30 – “Pub” – No card and board games or unlimited focaccia this time, but a chance to catch up with lots of people who I’d not seen since the last major gaming event.
It’s always hard to say whether GameCamp was better or worse than previous years, as everyone has a different experience. It certainly felt a bit smaller this time, but the concentration of genuinely interesting talks was as high as it’s ever been – and more talks felt like they’d been planned ahead of time. All in all a great day, and rumours that there’s going to be another one before the year is out are very encouraging.