Takeaways from GameCamp 4

GameCamp4 was definitely the most fun I've had at a conference in a long time. The fact that it was held on a weekend, that people were there for love and not work, the democratic unconference format, the fact that there was a nice mix of male and female attendees - it all added up to a very pleasant day out. There were no dark auditoriums, no videos or keynotes - just lively debate, Nerf guns, zombies, rubber swords, obscure board games and lots of chat about videogames. Here are my takeaways (the ones that I can remember) from the sessions I went to:

The Distillation of Gameplay
  • A lively debate that ended up filling two sessions, yet somehow I remember very little of what we discussed.
  • Limbo is a brilliantly distilled game as it dispenses with many of the trappings of games, such as a HUD/GUI, stats, scores, lives etc.
  • Farmville and World of Warcraft both essentially rely on the same hooks of progression, leveling up and loot drops, rather than "gameplay" to keep players engaged.
  • Social games are spoiled by an over-emphasis on monetization and viral hooks.
  • Boss battles are a chance to introduce interesting enemy characters into a game rather than faceless drones, but many players find bosses frustrating or boring.
  • Bosses provide satisfying conclusions to levels.
  • Some games, like Mass Effect 2, are all about the story.
2D Art - Pixel vs. Vector vs. Painting
  • I hosted this session as I'm really interested in this topic at the moment. It went OK. but it would have been better if we'd had more artists voices in the room.
  • Lo-fi super-upscaled pixel art is popular for a confluence of reasons: it is quick and easy to produce, it is highly symbolised and allows the player to fill in the gaps with their imagination, it evokes a nostalgia for the past, it scales well between devices with small screens and HD monitors. It is also a fashion thing among indie developers, and marks your game out as having a particular set of cultural values.
  • There is no such thing as programmer art. If you make the art, you are the artist.
  • Detailed full-colour, 1-to-1 scale pixel art is great and getting a lot of detail into a small space but is very difficult to port across different devices as it cannot be rescaled.
  • I'm a huge fan of vector art and believe it is just as easy to produce as pixel based art, but gives a greater palette of shapes to work with - triangles and circles, not just squares.
  • Most limited-palette, lo-fi pixel art looks like it was made by the same person, meaning there isn't much of an individual voice.
  • Games like Machinarium, Aquaria and Braid that use painting-style artwork look unique and memorable, but it is very labour intensive, which is why you don't see it very often.
  • Minecraft shows that indie developers can branch out into 3D games without needing complex 3D artwork.
  • Photography is an underused medium in 2D games.
What is the new hotness?
  • A fun but pretty random session that weaved it's way around videogames, TV and social media.
  • The first phase of Kinect hacking was technical, the next will be creative.
  • There's a lot of excitement and expectation around the upcoming Kinect game Child of Eden.
  • Social "back channels" are become increasingly mainstream. We watch TV and discuss it on twitter at the same time, the voice-over on TV shows like Come Dine With Me and Total Wipe Out openly joins us in mocking the on-screen action. How can this trend towards live-tweeting come to gaming?
  • We enjoy the process of getting excited about games that aren't out yet as it is a social activity, while gaming itself tends to be quite solitary.
  • TV gameshows are becoming increasingly arbitrary random number guessing games.
  • Games to check out at the moment include League of Legends.
What are indie games?
  • As it came to the last session of the day and there wasn't anything I wanted to see, I added this topic to the board, and it attracted a pretty large crowd, including a bunch of people from the retail games industry whose voices were really useful to the discussion. It was a very light-hearted but lively debate and was probably my favourite session of the day.
  • The term "indie" means different things to different people.
  • Indie is a business model - small teams or individuals releasing their own games without publisher backing or funding. However, not everyone doing this is considered "indie" by the games press. There are other cultural factors.
  • Indie is a spirit. Being the person who has the final say over what goes into the game seems to be important. Games like Castle Crashers and Fez have indie spirit, even if they end up signed to publishing deals with big studios.
  • Indie is a culture. There are a number of media outlets and organisations who set the indie-agenda. TIGSource, IndieGames.com, The IGF, Bytejacker. These guys are looking for a particular type of game - ideas that aren't mainstream.
  • Being considered indie may well have something to do with being a hipster.
  • Some indie game ideas, especially those from game-jams and contests, can end up being "innovative" purely because they are doing ideas that nobody else would actually want.
  • Developers who work for triple-a games studios would love to talk more about their work but are often prevented from doing so by non-disclosure agreements. This could mean that indie game designers are more likely to become "famous".
Flash Games: Design and Business
  • Myself and Tom Vian from Super Flash Brothers set this one up when there was nothing else we wanted to see and our friends deserted us to play a zombie boardgame called Last Night on Earth (there were too many players for us to join in). It was hopefully an informative session - I certainly learned some things from Tom.
  • Developing Flash games is probably a safer bet than developing for iOS as you don't need a marketing budget - games will find their audience naturally once released onto portals.
  • There has been a considerable deflation in the value of Flash games since so many developers have entered the market. 10 years ago I made a very basic "track and field" game based on The Six Million Dollar Man to promote the DVD release, and the client paid my employers £2000 for it. These days, to get £2000 for a game on FlashGameLicense, you have to work your ass off and produce something as big in scope as Angry Birds or Super Mario Brothers.
  • Flash gaming is very hit-based, and how much sponsorship money your games attract has as much to do with your past successes as the game itself.
  • Although very rare, it's good to establish a retainer relationship with a sponsor who will guarantee to sponsor all your games.
  • There is no barrier to entry for making Flash games.
  • Making seasonal games such as Halloween or xmas themes is a big gamble but can pay of massively if your game goes viral. On the other hand, if it doesn't then it has little year-round appeal. Who wants to play an xmas game in June?
Emergent Storytelling
  • This isn't what I was expecting at all. It was actually the Zombie Larp team talking about their Nerf-based live action roleplaying game. I am completely obsessed with Nerf though, so I was in the right place.
  • Their games last just 7 minutes each, after which most players are dead.
  • Live action games can give you experiences that digital games just can't, such as fear!
LARP 101
  • I actually went larping a couple of times as a young teenager, so I didn't really need the introduction, I just couldn't resist the chance to handle the beautifully hand-crafted rubber weaponry.
Sorry if I missed out any sessions, I'll add them later if I remember them. I definitely recommend going along to future GameCamps - it was a blast. On a related note, I'm also definitely going to check out the brand new Indie Dev Day at Develop conference in Brighton in July - tickets are £50.


Kyle said…
Great writeup! I wish I could have gone.

My two comments:
WoW certainly relies on the same hooks to keep people playing, but it offers the occasional legitimately rewarding gameplay experience (stress on 'occasional' there - it doesn't happen too often).

Some of my best gaming experiences have been on WoW with buddies having impromptu fights with rival guilds in random locations. It's the sort of thing that isn't strictly part of the main aims of the game (and in fact never happens anymore thanks to various changes to the game) but more like emergent gameplay within the game mechanics. It was bloody good fun, though.

All that sort of fun is gradually being patched away, though, in favour of carrots-on-sticks to keep people playing (e.g. flying mounts are desirable and let you travel safely, but remove the possibility of random fights in the wider world as you can always avoid them).

Also, I really enjoyed the gameplay of Mass Effect 2, probably more than the story, but I assume I'm the minority there (or maybe because I played as a Vanguard) :)