Don’t Call It A Comeback: GameCamp 2010

By Kieron Gillen on May 10th, 2010 at 7:47 pm.

This is the second Gamecamp. Organised by awesome people, hosted by PayPal/Gumtree/eBay with food from Pizza Express and booze from Unity, it works on the unconference model. In short: a conference without a plan. People turn up. Anyone who wants to try and run a session, can do so. Just lob up its name on the board. People turn up. People leave. People may get annoyed/inspired by what others have done, and do a response session later in the day. And then, 8 hours later, everyone goes to the pub.

Much like the first Gamecamp, I left wanting to nab its structure and do something similar in an RPS-centric way. It’s a fantastic cross-cultural exercise, involving bumping all these sorts of people together and profiting off the random interactions. As Margaret Robertson said early on, when she comes to something like this, she has no plans on what to do, and relies on being inspired by an interesting conversation over the coffee in the morning to see where it takes her. That she ended up doing 3 panels by my count says much, y’know?

By the end of the day, the board looked like this:

I am sad to report no-one managed to win tic-tac-toe. The only way to win is not to play.

The day was a success, generally speaking. It did have a different tone than the last one. There, it seemed to genuinely be more random. This time, the majority of people there were deeply involved in game culture. My favourite moment of the first one was talking to a middle-aged woman who knew nothing about game culture and just came along because the Guardian offered tickets, because she wanted to see what there was to it. There was nothing even vaguely like this time. The people there were either industry people, or fans of the medium with a strong opinions on the medium. In other words, much like a normal conference, with only the way the conference runs to separate it.

The style counts for a lot though. It’s free-spirited, encourages participation on every level and generally turns chaos into a positive trait. I went to eight sessions and got something from all of them.

I started with the PC Is Dead Long Live The PC session, because if I didn’t, I suspect I’d be drummed out of this website. It was a lively, open debate, much which focused on what was actually the core of the PC. I forwarded my general position that the idea of what PC gaming is, is wrong. In my view, anything which allows open development and sales is a PC and everything isn’t… isn’t. And that anyone who believes that a closed system will be dominant in 50 years is frankly mental. The position was well challenged though, with it being rightly pointed out that there’s an excluded middle, as shown by Apple’s current activities. Also, a lot about Steam as a virtual console – a (now) cross format DRM/Sales combination. Top speaker was an indie dev – whose name and games I missed and I failed to catch up to later – who spoke about the difficulties of actually making a game work on steam, in terms of developmental limitations.

Second, I was lured to the Cannon Fodder and somethingunreadableonthisphoto session, despite the offer of tasty prizes in the Power Game one. Ran by Nia Wearn of Staffordshire University, this was her talking humourously and openly about the state of play in games development courses. What most interested me is the problem of accreditation. An accredited degree basically has to have a static syllabus for a couple of years. However, in a field like games, that’s actually harmful to the actual use of the degree. I was also pleased to hear news that rather than a few years ago, when everyone wanted to merely design the enormous necks of shooty-American-macho-men, there’s an increase in those interested in other areas – and the course actually does help support people who go the indie route afterwards. I was also unsurprised to hear that education in games also does what any other degree does – as in, educate many people that the field simply isn’t for them after all.

The last session before lunch was Margaret Robertson’s – and I’ll see if I can get this one right – “I am curious to see if you are as curious as I am about how curiosity works in games”. Close enough. Margaret lead a free-ranging discussion about the concept of curiosity as a motivating force in games. Particularly of interest is how curiosity differs from and overlaps with the gambling urge – as in, the knowledge that you have a chance of getting something and then playing the odds. A cocktail of the two was forwarded as an ideal mix in a game – as in, killing a creature in an MMO will lead to a known drop most of the time… and a very small chance of getting something unexpected. So, no matter how many you kill, there’s still a flash of curiosity to excite a mundane element. Also was note is how curiosity links to narrative theory – in that opening gaps in knowledge and then answering them is the engine of trad-narrative, with the point when there’s no more curiosity in what happens next to be the actual end of the film (i.e. All the relevant questions have been answered). This lead to me thinking about how curiosity actually transfers between games – as in, if you know what’s over that hill through your experience in other games, there is no longer any curiosity there. If you “know” the next level is going to be an ice-world train level, the urge to press on vanishes – whether or not the actual level is an ice-world train level or not. When you lose your faith in a game’s ability to surprise you, it’s as good as dead.

(Which strikes me as a counter to the “Good is good, new is new” line which I heard mentioned elsewhere. If you’re working for a games-literate audience – which you may not be – new is a definite component of good, because it maximises the curiosity in a gamer.)

Then we had lunch. The meat pizzas disappeared in seconds, leaving enormous piles of vegetarian pizzas to be picked at throughout the day.

After lunch, I was tempted by the Archetypal narrative session, but decided to go to Phill Cameron‘s procedural generation one – not least because we were chatting about various games’ approach to it in the bogs for 10 minutes beforehand, as we sat and waited for one sinister cubicle to finally open. While Phill framed it as a “Is the designer obsolete”, we never really reached something that controversial. There was a general belief that no matter how the designer generates the levels, they’re still the designer. Or, as I shouted out, “God can be a watchmaker”. It was most useful in terms of focusing in on the difference between random and procedural, plus various methods people have used to best achieve this. For example, Frozen Synapse’s various methods for making its randomly-generated missions’ unfairness into a feature rather than a bug. I wished Jim managed to make it, because this really is his specialty subject.

Next was my panel, which I entitled “Beyond the Cutscene: Why we have nothing to learn from traditional narrative”. My aim for this Gamecamp was to be more involved. Last time, I sat back and let it wash over me. This time, I’d actually try and get my oar in a little. As such, I felt compelled to at least try and run a session. What I did was a whistle-stop tour of the techniques in narrative which are pretty much unique to games. From half a page of notes and half-a-lifetime of anecdotes, I did my arm-waving twitching thing, which seemed to basically get the information across – or, at least, transfix the audience, who stared in horror throughout. Most of our time was spent on the first idea – context as narrative – with a lively debate from all sides. The two polls were Tadhg Kelly and Lewis Denby, disagreeing over how much you actually become someone else when you play a game. I also talked about mechanic-as-narrative (Deutros), fake-simulation-as-narrative (Digital) and cut-scene-as-anti-cinema (Arguing that videogame cutscenes aren’t actually anything like film at all). And I think I forgot to talk about the topic of actual-simulation-as-narrative (Sim City, etc). Or did I? I was on a high of adrenaline and caffeine throughout, so really don’t remember.

Next was We Need To Get More Boys Into Videogaming, which was an astute and brilliant reversal of an old conference stand-by. The core argument is that – on average – boy game students have very little interest into getting into the areas of the games industry which are actually growing. They just want to make shooty-shooty-any-colour-other-than-grey-is-fruity games. As such, in a generation’s time, they’re going to be an increasingly obsolete minority in this brave new world of 100+ Million player games on facebook, or the future equivalent of. Topics included how recruitment into this area inverses the traditional skill-set required to get into games development. As in, specialists are dead, and the equivalent of liberal-arts finishing-school bit-of-everything are gold-dust.

It was also the only panel of the weekend which made me see genuine red. I apologised to the gentlemen I snapped at, who – following the general trend of the debate – suggested that wanting to make games for yourself was “selfish”. But still: the subtext to the debate – “how can we make these men grow up and make game for grandma” – was smug bordering on contemptuous. Surely the point is that, as long as they understand the financial realities of their decision, they can choose to make a game for whoever the damn hell they like. Some people would rather try and communicate – or perpetuate – a worldview or means of expression than giggle at the number of people playing their game. If someone wants to be Metallica rather than Celine Dion, more power to them. To think otherwise is just inverted snobbery – and when wrapped in a sense of moral superiority becomes unbearable.

Later, on the way back home, I found myself thinking about how much I’d actually gone out of my way to argue against the mainstream-developers who look at casual non-trad-market videogames with obvious disgust. It’s all gaming. It’s great that more people are playing. Stop being such elitist pricks (i.e. Not all games need to be Metallica. We absolutely need our Celene Dions). So to see the other side of the intellectual divide to be just as arrogantly triumphalist was sickening. You’re just as bad as they are. In other words, this was by far the most useful session of the day as it allowed me to define myself more precisely. As in, I’m prepared to be shot by both sides, because both sides need to have their worst instinct dragged outside and have a ice-pick stuck through their metaphorical heads.

And rest.

Next session I popped into was Coalition, which I watched as a small group role-played the parts of the government ministers and tried to gather peace to the land. It’s the sort of small-scale random event which the unconference excels at – a game thrown in the middle of all this debate. I snuck away before anyone activated the Queen, and – scanning what the other sessions were – resisted the urge to wander into the “Do We Have A Citizen Kane Of Games’” one, to shout out “Of course we haven’t. No-one’s bought the Citizen Kane licence. Doh.”

Finally, I headed to James Wallis‘ always splendid People’s Revolutionary Commitee. The idea is basically a GDC-standard rant-against-something-you-hate panel, but with a little role-play twist. As in, the revolution has taken place and you’re trying to suggest things which should be taken outside and shot. Queue lots of insulting things you despise plus ironic-communist chic. Quick Time Events and Farmville were gunned down. Technology got a reprise, and the chap for forwarded it shot. I dragged Lewis, dartt and Phill – I think – to the stage, gave them chairs and got them to go up and down holding them. Well, eventually. What I did was tell them to drop them, which lead to Phill throwing a chair at me. When I got my machine working, it was to demonstrate the three-crushers-in-a-row puzzle which has appeared in 99% of games I’ve ever reviewed. The injury was worthwhile as it – and sliding puzzles, the tower of Hanoi and similar monhstrosities were dragged out and thrown beneath the wheels of revolutionary justice.

With the world made a better place, we decided to make our livers a worse place. So we all went to the pub and drank until the idea of a gameshow – “Warren Spector: Will He Respect Her?” – where a variety of ladies were forced to go on dates with the famous lead designer, and the audience bet whether – post drunken fumbling – Warren Spector would call her in the morning, or just sneak off like a dirty, dirty dog.

So not all highbrow game nonsense then.

In short: once again, strong. If you ever get a chance to go, grab it with both hands and don’t let go. There may even be free pizza.

Images all courtesy of RainRabbit under a Creative Commons Licence. Salute her.

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48 Comments »

  1. Greg Wild says:

    The highlight for me was probably having the FPS shot under my auspices.

    Also the wonderful gathering of numerous lovely people. Next time someone tries to argue that gamers are anti-social I will point them in the direction of Game Camp.

    • Greg Wild says:

      Oh! Also, I wasn’t part of the Kieron Gillen assassination attempt. It was Phill, Lewis… and some one else. Unless they were called Greg as well, and I am being an ego mans.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Yeah – I wasn’t sure. I thought it was you, but I was too busy being attacked by Phill to remember. Will fix when the REAL FACE turn up.

      KG

    • Phill Cameron says:

      In my defense, you did leave it very ambiguous as to what I was supposed to do. Also, you’ve got a face that just screams ‘throw a chair at me!’.

    • Eplekongen says:

      What… I… I should really read the article before the comments…

    • dartt says:

      I was man three, the one who chose not to interpret his instructions as a death wish.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      dartt : Ah! Good soldier. Will fix.

      KG

  2. Alex Bakke says:

    Pizza? Talking about games and stuff? Pizza? I’m there, next year. How many people do attend normally?

    • Greg Wild says:

      Around 100 wo/mens this year mayhaps?

      I’d certainly recommend trying to get there next time :)

      I know I will try to get there again.

      Also: My CAPTCHA is ZFAP!

    • Alex Bakke says:

      That’s cool, I’ll put some money away for it then. My Captcha is ‘Amthreewhy’

  3. Vague-rant says:

    “do something similar in an RPS-centric way”

    Interesting…

    • Greg Wild says:

      Yes, yes!

      I seriously enjoyed the Thinkosium, now a couple of years back almost, so I’d certainly like to see some more events down the line.

      A shame I’ll be further North for a year September onwards. Given they’ed probably be held daaahn saaaff again I might not be able to make it. Escaping the slums of Staffordshire for a weekend was expensive enough :D

    • Schmung says:

      Yeah, an RPS specific one would be kind of natty, I’d be tempted by that even with it being (most likely) held in London with the hassle and inevitable four hour sobering up nightmare journey back on national express.

    • AndrewC says:

      Would you be able to delete all the unpleasant contributers? And outlaw black? And have ice cream? And a ban on any topics that will suck out all the oxygen out of any other topics, like DRM, X-Com, the word Console-itis, and Kieron’s taste in music? Also a ban on Kieron’s taste in music? And have a woman be there?
      That’d be awesome.

  4. vine says:

    Sounds genuinely intriguing, nice writeup.

    I have to say though, that’s got to be one of the worst logos I’ve ever seen. Eyesore.

  5. Jimbo says:

    I’m prepared to be shot by all three sides! You guys look at mainstream games in the same way that the mainstream guys look at the casual games. You’re all as bad as each other!

    The panel about a pressing need to get more boy students into casual gaming (or any specific area of gaming) when they are studying strikes me as nonsense. Everybody studying Aerospace Engineering wants to build fighter jets when they graduate, and naturally, that doesn’t end up being the case. But if putting everything in a fighter jet context makes them more eager to learn, then what does it matter? The skills and theory are the same for the most part, and they are transferable, as they are in gaming. It’s the reverse Karate Kid effect if you like: if they want to learn karate, teach them karate; they’ll still end up knowing how to paint a fence if they need to.

    “Mechanic-as-narrative” – This topic intrigues me greatly, because to me it is the purest example and best demonstration of ‘games as art’. Something that is entirely unique to the medium and could not be replicated anywhere else. I think about this a lot, and out of the thousands of hours I have spent gaming, it is something I’ve only consciously experienced once – and that was in Prince of Persia ’08 of all places.

    Lastly, that is the best amount of pizza I have ever seen in once place.

    • Minkette says:

      Hi Jimbo,
      I’m kinda glad you think that it is nonsense, as this was partly the point. I was pleasantly alarmed when someone who had come in late and missed the ‘BBQing Papa’ and ‘Match three hand grenades’ jokes, stated the perfectly reasonable “But console games aren’t a niche market.” and had the whole room turn on him!
      But your analogy with the fighter jets is a bit ropey. They should be learning how to make things not fall out the sky. I strongly suspect that for the Aerospace Engineering industry – despite how voracious the demand for fighter jets is – the progression and betterment of not making things crash and burn, is regarded more highly than having beautifully honed killing machines that can never leave their hangar.
      My aim was to be able to attend a talk on gender stereotypes in games and the games industry that got beyond the self fulfilling prophecy of ‘it’s us versus them’ and actually started to uncover some of the root issues.

      I walked into the room with a ridiculous title and some bad puns, and I’m very pleased with what I walked out with.

  6. Robin says:

    My impressions of the day were similar. The first GameCamp had a more diverse lineup but it also had a stellar ‘industry’ lineup, a fair chunk of whom were absent this time round. Upside was far more of the talks were about computer games.

    I purposely timed my* talk to conflict with that one.

    *crap

  7. LewieP says:

    I’m going to try really hard to be at the next one, instead of just booking a ticket and then forgetting about it until it was too late.

  8. Tom OBedlam says:

    Marvelous read! The People’s Revolutionary Committee is a great idea, I think I’d try having amnesia plot devices and useless mini-games (I’ve yet to encounter anyone who will defend Mass Effect 2′s minigames) shot. Also, the Bioware marketing department employees responsible for the first Jack trailer and Marilyn Manson.
    How do I get myself in here next year? That sounds like a really fascinating day, especially the narrative theory in games stuff. I’m studying for a masters in creative writing and film theory next year, with a view to doing an eventual PhD looking at narrative conventions in the medium of computer games.

  9. Alexander Norris says:

    Somehow not surprised to see a talk about Fallout 3/X-Com on that board.

    Anyway, shame I couldn’t attend, but there was the small matter of a sea inbetween me and the UK.

    • Greg Wild says:

      It was mine :D

      About 7 people turned up. We had a lovely sedate chat. Nothing like the angst fest I was expecting. And sort of hoping for!

    • Alexander Norris says:

      Somehow I was also not surprised to learn that it was all your fault, Greg. :P

  10. Frosty says:

    I am sad that I did not know this was going on. Did RPS make noise about it that I missed?

    Still, looked awesome. Maybe next time I’ll see if I can get myself down there!

  11. Nova says:

    RPS, what is it with you and jpeg compression?
    Everything for the bandwidth?

  12. Mo says:

    Making games for yourself is the only way to make games. I’m a big believer in putting love into whatever I make … I’m not sure how I could design a game which I didn’t enjoy on some level.

    I normally design games within a genre I enjoy. When I make puzzle games, it’s because I actually quite enjoy puzzle games. If I didn’t, I’m not sure I could turn out a good one. There are, of course, tonnes of people who’ve cashed into the match-3 genre, but the result is mediocre, and the soulless game design is always obvious.

    However, even outside the genres I enjoy, there are aspects of design that are rewarding to tackle. This is what I meant when I said “enjoy on some level”. I get satisfaction out of having, say, my mum play a game of mine and “get it”. Usability is rewarding challenge in my mind.

    The point is that if developing the game isn’t enjoyable/rewarding on some level to the designer, it’s very evident in the result. Therefore there’s an extent to which all game design has to be selfish.

    • Tei says:

      “Making games for yourself is the only way to make games.”

      Really? Is also the hardest. Since by the time you have something finished, you have played all the poorly made alpha versions, and in you mind you have the game that exist, and the game that could have been (that is about x1000 times better). Also, if you really like your own game, you probably will dedicate way too much time to “test” it.
      I mean: Your comment come as a surprise to me.

    • plugmonkey says:

      “Your comment come as a surprise to me.”

      Your surprise surprises me. Having worked on games I feel passionately about, and games that I don’t, I can report that the former is considerably more sustainable than the latter.

      When games development just becomes a job, you start to wonder why you don’t just get a job that doesn’t require quite so much unpaid overtime. And if you’re making a game that you don’t like, the chances are that you won’t have the necessary passion to make a game that anybody likes.

      To use Kieron’s analogy, there’s a reason why Metallica do thrashy metal and Celine Dion does warbly ballads. If they tried to mimic the other’s success they would a) be crap at it and b) probably go insane.

      Surely the same is true of any creative pursuit?

    • Mo says:

      @Tei:
      Well yeah, kinda. Depends on the game really. With Smiley’s Shooty Adventure, for example, I spent lots of time “testing” during development, but that’s a good thing. Not only was I being entertained by a videogame, but I also tweaked a lot of things, resulting in a better game. If I didn’t love shmups, Smiley would have been tested less, and would be far less polished.

      Smiley took a year to make, and when I was done, I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I stayed away from it for a month or two, and when I revisited it, it was really good. Recently, I did a youtube video for the game, and I had a blast playing the whole game through in a single night. A little time away makes a world of difference.

      And yes, it is difficult to do, but I’d say the same thing about any creative endeavour.

      (also, everything plugmonkey said is totally true. That’s exactly why I’m an indie game developer, and my day job as a software developer has nothing to do with making videogames)

    • RedFred says:

      To be honest I thought the Metallica/Celine Dion analogy to be a bit off as they are both hugely successful commercial artists.

      Am I missing something?

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Different kinds of enormously successful.

      I originally wrote it as Atari Teenage Riot instead of Metallica, but realised I was perhaps being over-complimentary/radical with the comparison. When I’m defending the right of those who want to try and make Gears of War et al, we’re talking about people who want to be Metallica.

      KG

  13. Miles of the Machination says:

    Well that sounded like a pretty freaking amazing event, shame I live on the other side of the planet where gaming is looked upon as a form of dire heresy and this kind of thing will probably never happen. Maybe one of these days I’ll make my way there.

  14. caged_devil says:

    the PRC was very good, I didn’t think I’d be able to defend technology quite as well as I did despite bad punnery. Though I’m glad that QTEs were promptly executed with little opposition. Although the X-Com/Fallout did suggest there would be a hefty amount of nerd rage, it ended up being quite sedate, discussing how nostalgia and history can colour your judgement, as well as arguing Fallout 3 was good, but in a different way to it’s previous incarnations.

  15. Magic H8 Ball says:

    Anonymous Coward said:as well as arguing Fallout 3 was good, but in a different way to it’s previous incarnations.

    And this is why I never regret I don’t go to meetings like these.

    • Dominic White says:

      I’m fairly sure that’s also why these meetings are glad you don’t go to them. They’re for grown-ups who don’t foster years-old grudges because people enjoy games that you don’t.

  16. jeremypeel says:

    Kieron, I’m intrigued to hear why you think cutscenes are anti-cinema? Apart from the fact that most developers make pretty shoddy directors, clearly.

    (Hi all, by the way – I’m one of those long-term reader, first-time poster types.)

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Hello!

      I’ll probably write more on it another time, but the basic idea was thinking that perhaps the “Cutscenes are shitty film” argument is wrongheaded. Some people seem to really like how game scenes operate. Stuff like MGS4 is nowt like how any “real” film will go. Is that a flaw… or is that a feature. When developers have hired movie talent in both scripts and recording, I think it’s naive to assume that it’s because developers can’t do it. Perhaps it’s something about what uninteractive recorded visuals in the medium is actually something different from the accepted rules of cinema.

      KG

    • jeremypeel says:

      Thanks for answering!

      I guess cutscenes are fundamentally different in that they often have an added burden in needing to introduce new elements of gameplay clearly or hint at new objectives. MGS4 is definitely an odd one, as its cutscenes have one foot in the cinema and take care to abide by stuff like normal cinematic continuity editing, but as you say, follow rules of their own.

      Most of my favourite games seem to either have overtly stylised cutscenes (Max Payne, Thief series) or cut them out completely in favour of in-game plotting (Half Life, Deus Ex minus the opening and closing cutscenes). It will be interesting to see what the result of Eidos handing the responsibility of cinematics in Deus Ex 3 to Square Enix will be – mixing a series that traditionally avoids displacing the player as much as possible with a developer famed for cutscenes-as-art. Weird decision.

  17. Pod says:

    Indie-gaming back-patting session? Then again, maybe I’m jsut a bitter hate-bomb?

  18. Robin R says:

    I wish you *had* wandered into the “Is there a Citizen Kane of games?” as it was meant as a jumping off point to discuss what games have been innovative and/or the very best examples of their genres. We didn’t belabour the “are games art?” issue, but it was valuable discussing why a comparison to film is or isn’t relevant or important – your insights from “Beyond the Cut Scene” would have been very welcome! In fact, had I been at yours, I might have dragged you to mine!

    That’s the only problem with GameCamp – one can’t be in 3-4 rooms at once!

    RR

  19. Magic H8 Ball says:

    Dominic White said:
    I’m fairly sure that’s also why these meetings are glad you don’t go to them. They’re for grown-ups who don’t foster years-old grudges because people enjoy games that you don’t.

    Oh right, I forgot in adult’s world there is no objectivity, just “good for what it is”. Carry on.

  20. Robin R says:

    I do! A last-minute title for a last-minute talk. :) Thanks for the recap – it’s helpful to hear about talks I missed from various sources.

    RR

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