GameCamp 2

Mon 10 May 2010 by Jim Purbrick

A couple of years ago, Aleks Krotoski and a group of friends spanning the web, games and technology fields decided to bring the FOOCamp and BarCamp model of unconferences to the world of games and invited me along. I had a great time at the original GameCamp and missed it last year, so when I heard about the return of GameCamp a couple of months ago I jumped on a ticket and eagerly got on the train early on Saturday morning to participate in another inspiring mind expanding day. I wasn’t disappointed.

The cultural differences between the worlds of games and the web we touched on in a couple of sessions. “The PC Is Dead, Long Live The PC” quickly turned in to a discussion of open platforms like the PC versus closed, console like channels. While the long term view was that in 50 years open will prevail, the present sees controlled channels like XBLA, the various Apple stores and Steam in the ascendant. Some people will wait until titles are available on a particular channel, suggesting that they offer some advantages in terms of convenience, support or peace of mind. While this may be OK where there is competition between channels, games cannot be as easily distributed via multiple channels, with platforms like Steam requiring relatively invasive changes to be made to allow things like overlay menus to be displayed over game UIs. Where choices between channels is not possible the whims of platform controllers can make development extremely risky when policy changes or simply under staffing can delay or scupper a release.

Steven Goodwin asked why open source can build Linux, but not games. While the first answer is that Linux is a platform that can be shared by anyone whereas games are more individual expressions of creativity, that still begs the question why aren’t there more open source game platforms? Games seem to slowly be moving towards more shared and open infrastructure, but still lack the equivalent of the LAMP stack, HTML, CSS and JavaScript provide a shared web platform that allows web developers to share tips and tricks at BarCamps.

Luckily, the inability for game developers to give talks on the equivalent of squid configuration leaves room for lots of interesting talks on higher level game design concepts. 2 of the most interesting were hosted by Margaret Robertson, the first was on Curiosity — an urge which is hard to explain in classical or behavioral economics, and which is more powerful when the unknown is close and definite, a closed box on a table that must be opened, than when the unknown is distant and amorphous. The session turned in to an interesting comparison between risk, where outcomes are known and curiosity when the outcome is unknown, how both can be manipulated to make games more compelling and whether that manipulation could be a force for good as well as evil. The second of Margaret’s talks was about a forthcoming audio only binaural iPhone game and the challenges of navigating a world without light, which sounds fascinating, if hard.

Tom Armitage hosted a session which asked “What Do Cows Call Thermodynamics?”. The answer is, probably nothing, but it still affects them. So it is with games, which are ultimately defined by their rules and mechanics which can be used very creatively. The rule that Yorda is afraid if you don’t hold her hand dramatically shapes your relationship with her, the rule that you aim better while doing a stunt is what turns action quake in to a John Woo simulator.

Another arc that ran through GameCamp 2 was a discussion about creativity. Pictionary and Scrabble were used as examples of games that foster creativity while players of World of Warcraft show amazing creativity despite the game in a session that had many echos of the Playfish talk at Develop last year. At the other end of the spectrum, a session on procedurally generated content asked could algorithms create good content and if they could, how would they know?

My “Social Music Composition Games?” session at the end of the day continued this arc. I first played Rock Band at the first GameCamp and since have played it so much that I ended up starting 100 robots with Max. Since then I’ve been playing with tools like Ableton that have very game like interfaces and games like Lumines that have very sequencer like interfaces. Could you use interfaces like these to build games that do for music composition what Rock Band does for music performance? If so, how would you judge the compositions? Something that combined the interface of Lumines or the Tenori-On and Digg like filtering and tagging might be very interesting here…