Last week 225 people who are passionate about games came together at GameCamp, an conference in London. If you haven’t heard of the conference concept, the idea is that there is no agenda. Attendees can propose discussions they’d like to lead throughout the day by writing their topic on a whiteboard against a room and time slot. Anyone interested can go and join them in the room at that time. There’s no Powerpoint. Anyone can chip in at any time, and anyone bored is encouraged to bail out and join another session.
Developing apps can be a solitary business. Schemes such as the Intel AppUp develop program give you the same opportunities to distribute your games that big companies have. You don’t need a big team around you, but that also means some developers don’t have an opportunity to bounce ideas off other people. GameCamp seemed like the ideal place to find out what gamers really care about: they’re setting the agenda, and if they get bored, they vote with their feet.
Our first session of the day started by asking what sells games. Strangely enough, nobody suggested it was game quality or the game’s concept. The consensus seemed to be that big hits are a result of having good reviews out there (games companies sometimes reward developers based on the reviews their games get) and of developers connecting with gamers online. One attendee said he likes to follow the development of a game through blog posts, early artwork and so on. Obviously, it helps to have a great game idea, but to make sure people know about it, you need good marketing too. To make your game a success, post regular news updates online and encourage your players to write positive views in the app store.
Throughout the day, there was a lot of discussion about what makes a game design work. For some players, the story was more important than the richness of the experience, with them rushing through the game just to find out what happens. One speaker said the narrative has to be at least as interesting as a bad novel, but that he didn’t expect it to be as strong as a good novel. Novelist Naomi Alderman pointed out how poorly sketched many game characters are. She said Red Dead Redemption took her on an emotional journey that changed her as a person, so why is the main character John Marston apparently completely unchanged by his experiences? There was a lot of discussion about characterisation, but the lesson was simple: If you have a game that’s narrative-driven, make sure the story is compelling and credible.
Another topic that came up was the boss level, which was seen by some as a useful milestone in the gameplay, and by others as a frustrating barrier to unlocking the whole game. If you want to use a boss level in your game design, think about how it’s introduced. Boss levels can feel artificial unless they consolidate the player’s previous experiences and are foreshadowed in the game’s plot.
Because a lot of games are developed by people who are programmers first and designers second, the artwork for some games lacks imagination and skill. Flash developer Iain Lobb asked whether people use pixel art because they want to evoke a particular aesthetic, or because it’s easy to put together. He said if you’re doing the art for your games, you’re the artist and you need to do a professional job. You can’t just rush the artwork in a weekend. Games like Aquaria and Braid show how distinctive artwork defines the game. Many graphic effects (including pixel art and two-colour) are overused, but photography hasn’t been fully exploited as a medium for creating graphics yet, he said.
Those are some of the key ideas we took away from the discussions, but there were more ideas there than we have space to cover here. Perhaps the most important lesson of the day was subliminal: you have to get away from the keyboard and seek out new ideas and experiences from time to time. It was inspiring to share a room with so many people who were passionate about playing and creating great games. I’m sure it will have an impact on how I think about game design in the future.
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