Yesterday (for it is now tomorrow), I went down to London to GameCamp 2. Let me tell you about it.
GameCamp’s basically what you’d expect if you know anything about the “unconference” scene. It’s a day-long opportunity for 150 people to get together, improvise a bunch of sessions, and generally talk game theory at each other. The rules: everyone should speak, but no one should prepare a speech. Participants volunteer to host sessions, but they’re not talks in the way you’d expect from a conference. They’re more opportunities to facilitate discussion on the topics you’d like to explore.
I didn’t go to last year’s, mainly due to my not knowing it existed at the time, but the impression I get is that this year’s was far more videogame-centric. In fact, I’m not sure there were any serious sessions not about videogames (by contrast, I believe last year’s had a decent amount of musing about ARGs and tabletop gaming). It would’ve been interesting, I suspect, to hear the thoughts of those not digitally-inclined, but that’s nitpicking: it was one of the most interesting and genuinely entertaining vaguely-work-related days I can remember in a long time.
Despite the fact I’ve been awake for 23 hours now, I wanted to get some thoughts written up while stuff’s still fresh in my mind, since I specifically went to just talk and think rather than take notes or report. So here’s a list of some of the talks I went to, and what I came away thinking.
PC Gaming Is Dead. Long Live PC Gaming.
Didn’t catch the guy’s name who ran this. [EDIT: It was Ross McDonald.] The age old question: PC gaming – where now? Anywhere? What’s its future? An interesting chat, though I kind of felt we needed to explore more about what makes PC gaming PC gaming beyond the obvious. I liked Kieron’s suggestion of open-platform vs closed-platform (as in, you can make your own stuff for the PC unrestrictedly, whereas you can’t for a console). I was going to play devil’s advocate by bringing up XBL Indie Games, but A) it’s not quite the same, and B) the conversation had moved on by the time I thought of it. Also on the agenda was: do people want desktop PCs or mobile gaming platforms? I suspect people mainly want both, but I’d sway in the direction of expecting people to default to back to desktops after the novelty wears off.
I’m curious to know if people are as curious as I am about curiosity in games.
The ever eloquent Margaret Robertson hosted a nice session on curiosity in games that began in the realm of behavioural economics but spanned over quite nicely. Basically: what is it that compells us to take risks on the unknown in games? The notion of random drops in RPGs was bandied around a lot. I kinda felt that, while Margaret had some really interesting stuff to say, people ended up going a bit circular in terms of which points were brought up. I tried to put a new spin on things by suggesting a lot of how much we’re prepared to take that risk depends on how much we trust the developer in question. Margaret interpreted that to mean “how much we trust them to play fair,” which led to an interesting discussion in itself, but what I was actually getting at was “how much do we trust that the reward will be satisfying?” – as in (to paraphrase one of the RPS lot), if Valve make a really odd design decision early on in a game, that might compell us to continue, in order to find out why they opted to do that, whereas if a lesser developer did the same thing we might instead be frustrated and turn the game off.
Death of the Designer.
Phill Cameron’s talk on procedural generation was an interesting one which stirred up some nice debate. To what extent will procedural generation take over from design? I think the general concensus was that it won’t really, but some intriguing stuff came out of the session either way. Firstly: proper procedural generation seems to be being utilised as a timesaving device in development, rather than something that functions as a game mechanic or aesthetic choice in itself. Secondly: randomised or on-the-fly-calculated variations of game elements can work to add flavour to a game. Think L4D2’s dynamic levels. Conversation almost moved on to whether we can tell stories procedurally. If I’d have had time, I’d have probably said that we can experience stories in that way, but that since we’re waiving authorial control we necessarily can’t tell them by the same method.
Beyond the Cut-Scene: Why videogames have nothing to learn from traditional narrative.
This was Kieron Gillen’s talk which I’d forgotten he’d asked me to chime in on, so suddenly hearing “I’ll hand over to Lewis for a bit now” took me a little by surprise. This session was about the ways in which videogames tell stories – ways that are unique to the medium. Story as context was the main focus, mainly due to time constraints (point, actually: the session lengths were great in that it gave so many people the opportunity to speak, but I suspect most people’d have been happy to have stayed twice as long at most). I spoke a little bit about my ideas with Post Script and Nestlings, and a bit more about what Dan Pinchbeck’s doing with storytelling at the Uni of Portsmouth. From there, the session moved onto why cut-scenes are documentaries rather than fiction film, and other stuff. I came out of this feeling a little disheartened by a couple of comments, which struck me as indicative of a real lack of imagination: the idea that people don’t fully buy into a game’s central character. My argument: that is what roleplay is. The inability to suspend disbelief and embody that character for however long (the argument having been that games are more like “galleries” than anything else) struck me as surprising, and made me consider that perhaps some people just don’t value games for the same reason. Which is fine on reflection, but kinda wound me up at the time. I suspect I may have been a little too vocal about this fact.
We need to get more boys into gaming, before females take over the industry.
What a title. At the start of the day, this – other than the one I knew (then forgot) I’d be contributing to – was the single session I knew I had to go to. It’s such a neat inversion of such a popular notion, and it was delivered – by a woman whose name I frustratingly didn’t catch [EDIT: It was Claire Bateman.] – with such marvellous conviction and cohesion. The idea was basically this. We need to stop thinking of “gaming” as Gears of Call of Halo Duty Xbox 360 Teen Nerd fare, and think about the games industry at large, across the whole spectrum. And if we do that, we see that the average “gamer” is a 30-year-old female playing Farmville or Bejeweled. If you follow basic trends, the rate at which social and casual gaming are propogating would suggest that, very soon, what we currently think of as “core” gaming will be marginalised. That’ll be the boys’ stuff, and the stuff the boys want to make, but there’ll be a massively decreasing market for it. And the girls will start wanting to make games, but what they’ll want to make is social and casual games. While buying the theory brings with it the prerequisite that “girls like one thing while boys like the other”, which is always a little tricky, I found this to be such an inventive and interesting talk. Tellingly, it’s the only session in which I didn’t feel the need to open my mouth once, except perhaps to display a massive grin at how delightfully subversive it was, while still being really, really obvious when you think about it. Neat.
How to write well for videogames.
The title was snappier, but I forget it. I also forget the name of the girl chairing this session. Which is doubly bad since I wandered in late and then kinda accidentally took-the-fuck-over a bit. It struck me straight away that everyone had dived straight into how to write dialogue for videogames, when actually, writing dialogue is only a tiny part of what videogame narrative is about, and even if you have exceptional dialogue, then assuming you have voice acting and animation there’s still loads of ways it can be fucked up. So the point I was trying to make is that writing for videogames – moreso than any other medium I can think of – is about working text and subtext into every single aspect of the design, and preferably even to minimise the need for actual voiced dialogue. To nick a famous Margaret Robertson line which a few people used: Space Invaders had the best videogame story ever, right? I also wanted to emphasise the point that games aren’t like film or theatre. In those media, it only makes sense to write the story and dialogue first, before you tackle the rest of production. In games, it absolutely does not. So if you’re focusing on dialogue when talking about writing well for videogames, you’re approaching it backwards. Anyway, I spent half an hour interrupting everyone to try make this point, so I do absolutely apologise for that.
And then we went to the pub and broke lots of embargoes. BUT ONLY TO EACH OTHER. And one’s apparently been announced in the meantime, so that’s fine.