Saturday’s Gamercamp was unlike any other gaming-related gathering I have attended. Since many of them are sponsored by software and console manufacturers and used to promote upcoming big-budget titles from studios with hundreds of employees, the contrast provided by Gamercamp was both refreshing and much needed.
Instead, the event celebrated local talent and featured demonstrations of upcoming indie games as well as insights from successful indie developers about the creative process, business decisions, and team dynamics. Gamercamp was a casual gathering with snack and chat breaks punctuating demonstrations and lectures.
During these breaks I was fortunate to meet with several local gamers and writers, many for the first time, to talk about gaming and other geeky subjects. Among these personalities were the amicable Imaginary Thomas (who was making his annual public appearance), Lori Dance and Dave Waisglass from the new and awesome game blog A Couple of Gamers, Don Tam from GameNorth.ca, Will Perkins and Lucas Rizoli from Dork Shelf, Ry-Tron and Nadine from Aboot Play, Zack Kotzer from Steel Bananas, and Jaime Woo and Mark Rabo, the minds behind Gamercamp.
What was surprising and most humbling was hearing from people who’ve read Toronto Thumbs and enjoyed the site – so to those of you who expressed kind words, thanks again.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to stick around through to the end of the event, so I missed out on the demonstrations from Craig Adams AKA Superbrothers as well as Replay Arcade Museum founder Gerald Darcy’s talk on the history and evolution of gaming (here’s hoping some of the writers I mentioned let me know what a great time I missed). The talks and demonstrations I did see, however, were excellent.
Concept art from Guerrilla Gardening.
Miguel Sternberg of Spooky Squid showed off concept designs and an early version of Guerrilla Gardening, a ¾ overhead view game wherein players, as Molly, try to overthrow an oppressive dictatorship by creatively using plants to awaken citizens out of their depression and then fire them up for a revolution. Two early demo stages were shown, during which Molly must make use of different types of plants to cross barriers, stop police officers, and attract citizens to key protest locations. The game’s pixel art was crisp, colourful, and beautiful – even at such an early stage. Sternberg mentioned that the guerrilla gardening graffiti movement happening all around the world inspired the game. Fun fact: friend of Toronto Thumbs Eric Kim designed the characters!
Mare Sheppard and Raigan Burns of Metanet Software Inc., the studio behind N and N+, didn’t have a game to show off but hosted an excellent forum nonetheless. They discussed their rock band approach to game development and explained how they decided to grow their company organically rather than borrow a bunch of capital and then sink it all into building a business. “Rock band” in this sense, I should clarify, pertains to starting up an indie rock band and not the Aerosmith approach to making a game (which would involve glittery scarves, for one).
As an indie band starts out, no one in the band decides to mortgage the house to make an album on the a chance that the first album will be a winner – or at least, one would hope they would be a little more level-headed. So startup developers should approach establishing themselves as a game development company the same way, the duo urged. Organic growth over a slow period of time with minimal risk is a safe way to build up experience, recognition, and develop a greater understanding for what makes a better game.
Sheppard and Burns joked that the Metanet business plan is to not go bankrupt (a pretty good plan) and offered suggestions to novice developers on how to go about doing this. These included living within your means, having a day job that has downtime during which you can hone your skills (rather than waste time on the Internet all day), and to keep practicing. Another benefit of the day job, they said, was that it finances your game-making.
Just as no one should expect to pick up a guitar and be amazing at it the first time, no one should expect to be an instant expert at game creation. The band analogy makes a lot of sense, as it takes a lot of practice to become skilled, and a lot of song ideas or parts of songs just don’t work out in the end.
Drinkbox Studios was up next to show off their upcoming game, About a Blob. They took the audience through some early stages of the game, which is a side-scrolling platformer with puzzle elements. Players control a blob who can, evidently, do what blobs do. The clean art style is of a retro-futurist vibe and somewhat reminiscent of World of Goo. As the game progresses, players can absorb items within the world and become bigger. But at the same time, these very items can be used as projectiles to overcome enemies. The blob grows with each passing stage, and the demonstration we were shown started with an escape from a lab but later had the blob devouring cattle innards in a much larger-scale environment. The cartoonish look of the game still allowed for a great amount of visual depth via the use of animated backgrounds and foregrounds.
Michael Todd’s talk centred mostly on his game-a-week experiment. In his presentation, he echoed many of the sentiments expressed in his interview with Filipe Salgado for Toronto Thumbs. In short, by making many games over a short period of time, one can learn from the feedback of others and discover what works and what doesn’t in a much shorter time period than if the typical development cycle were to be used. Creating games in a week is also a good exercise, Todd said, for people to discover what elements of game design they’re good at. Todd, for instance, admitted he wasn’t so great at art, so instead he focuses his energy on what he’s good at and designs around his art shortcomings. Though personally, I think Broken Brothers Deluxe looks fantastic.
Daniel Steger demonstrated Battle Beat, a game that melds the rhythm and tower defence genres. It can be played with either a guitar or drum controller, and is controlled with the first four coloured buttons on either device. Prior to starting the game, the player chooses his/her unit types, each one corresponding to a different button. During game play, a steady background beat plays and the player must strum (or tap) along to it in order to get his/her corresponding units to attack. The attack ranges vary according to unit, and there are also a variety of enemy types descending upon the frontline. Enemies that make it through cause damage and eventually take out lines of defences. Interestingly, Steger is also including other rhythm mini-games in the title, and these look surprisingly fun on their own. The demo mini-game shown at Gamercamp featured asteroids of different colours (some comprised of concentric circles of different colours themselves) that must be destroyed by hitting the corresponding note. Asteroids with more than one colour take multiple hits/notes to destroy.
Screenshot from Critter Crunch.
Nathan Vella of Capybara Games focused his talk mostly on his team’s approach to art and choosing an art style to keep production in budget. For Capybara’s latest release, Critter Crunch, the style was chosen based on what would be most feasible to produce given time and monetary constraints. Certain assets received many makeovers while some lower priority assets were approved on their first iterations. For Critter Crunch, Capybara’s most important game elements were character movement and the feel of Biggs’ tongue-whipping action.
Vella also explained how as the team of Capybara grew, most of the new hires were brought on board because of recommendations from existing employees. His reasoning made a lot of sense, as he explained that no good designer will ever recommend a bad one since good designers only want to work with other good designers.
After Vella’s presentation, I had to get going so I wasn’t able to end the night by playing classic arcade games at the closing party, 1UP. Still, a big tip of the hat and thumbs up must go to Jaime Woo and Mark Rabo for putting on such an excellent event and to their outstanding sponsors and attendants for making Gamercamp the great event it was. I left there feeling inspired and glad to be part of the Toronto gaming community.