GCAP – Quality, Community, Fractals

One of the things I noticed post Freeplay is the uniquely personal experience of conferences and festivals.  Every one who attends the traces a unique path through the content, and as such it’s difficult to plan before the event what the ideal experience is and post the event figure out whether it hit those.  The best you can do is to hope there’s enough interesting content that everyone finds something in their path that connects with them.

This year’s GCAP did that for me.

And disclaimer: as part of the board, I helped program it, but compared to something like Freeplay, my involvement was minimal.

Overall, the vibe was positive.  Even with the difficult year, and without the unfortunate news of Krome coming towards the end of the two days, it felt like a conference that had something to say, that existed for a reason, and which had a point of view on not just the industry (although that is it’s necessary focus) but also the gaming culture.  One comment I heard a number of times was that previous GCAPs felt as though they were focusing on the events of the past 12 months whereas this one was looking towards the next.

In my path through the event, I found myself faced with three key themes – one of which I knew was there (and which I’d hoped to influence with my involvement in the program), and two that I hadn’t expected.  All three are essential though, and I suspect will continue to crop up over the next 12 months.

Quality

This came up pretty consistently for me in the keynotes by Greg Short from EEDAR, Nathan Martz from Double Fine, and David Edery.  David especially spelled it out with his amazing graph of platform life cycles which you can read more about here.  Go do it.  It’s brilliant.

My take home from his talk was that when you reach the inevitable decline phase, then the market or platform is saturated with titles, it’s up to you to raise the bar, to work a bit harder, to be smarter, to improve the quality of your game to help it stand out – because really, that’s the only thing that you have any control over.

Nathan Martz in his talk ‘Quadruple Fine’ about Double Fine’s shift from one title to 4 smaller ones hit similar beats.  Double Fine has a core set of values that they weren’t willing to compromise on in the development of their titles, or in shopping them around.

They also had a brilliantly smart method of creating those smaller titles.  Half way through the development of Brutal Legend, they had ‘amnesia fortnight’ – 2 weeks where they split into smaller teams and built 9 prototypes.  When it came time to figure out what to do after Brutal Legend shipped, they took a look at those, chose the 4 they thought they could make a business case out of, and shopped those around – ultimately signing 4 deals in 6 months.

I was lucky enough to chair the final session with Shainiel Deo from Halfbrick, Greg Short from EEDAR, and Bob Loya from Activision, and was able to ask about the need for quality.  Bob summed it up for me – quality of the game, in the pitch, of your business practices, is the number one factor in them signing the game.  This might changed depending on the market of the game, or the genre, but in the end, if you can’t deliver at – or exceed – the expected level, you’ll struggle with the future.

Sure, there are other metrics that can define a business’ success – head count, profits, turnover, etc. – but I firmly believe that in an entertainment medium, quality is the most important, and ultimately is the only one that we as creators have any direct control over.

Community

I’ve written before about how the industry metaphor has defined our ability to think and talk about what we do, especially locallyand I have some more thoughts on this in light of some posts here, here, and here, that grew out of this interview on MTV games – but GCAP got me thinking about this in a slightly different way, with two things in particular striking me.

The first was Nathan from double fine speaking about the importance of the other people at Double Fine – the fact that they needed to be friends, that they needed to trust them because when things got tough and arguments erupted, you still needed to know they’d get you through.  The second was a long conversation I had with Truna & Lubi from IGDA Brisbane about creative communities and their presentation about the same.

Nathan got me thinking about the nature of companies as social constructs.  In a lot of ways, they’re about more than just places to work, about the jobs, they’re about, when they work, places where you get together with people to achieve a common goal.  Sure, there are various metrics in place to measure the success of that, but in the main, the best way for them to work is for everyone to want the same thing – for the company in effect to operate as some sort of community.

Because they certainly exist in a wider community.  At the government round table, I tried to put the industrial part of game development in context as a tiny, but important, fraction of the entire gaming culture.

And this was driven home to me while talking to Truna and Lubi, about their 48 hour game jam and the work they do with games as something more than just a thing you do to get a job.  We threw the word community around more than industry, the intersection with other creative mediums, and we talked about the need to foster individuals and creatives and empowering them to be able to make things.

The local industry – as defined by the established studios – is so small that perhaps it is better to think of it in terms of a community:  information about one company spreads quickly to another; when one closes, especially one as significant as Krome, the ripples affect everyone; and the same themes tend to dominate both our inward and outward facing conversations.

When we open it up to include our audience, our educators, our students, our writers & critics, our much wider culture, and look at how the disparate threads of each cause everything around them to vibrate, you can see how everything is connected.

Fractals

This is very much related to the above in that I realised that what was discussed by David, by Nathan, by Truna and Lubi, by the long conversations I had outside of the sessions about research, creativity, government, and community, were fractal in nature.

David’s talk about platforms could just as easily have applied to genres, franchises, or companies.  Nathan’s talk about double fine’s process and community could apply to two people working together or the entire development infrastructure.  Truna and Lubi’s talk about how to foster a community had implications for how to prototype projects within huge teams or two kids experimenting with their first game design.  The success of the indies, represented by Halfbrick and The Voxel Agents, in marketing and building a community around their projects could be used by studios of any size – or by publishers, or groups trying to build something lean and creative.

In education, one of the key concepts is the idea of transfer – taking knowledge from one domain and figuring out how to apply it in another.  In thinking about what a conference (or a festival) does, I realised that what they do is encourage that same process by identifying the core themes – the rules that govern the fractal – and bringing them to the surface.

The next step, the much harder step, is taking that transferred knowledge and applying it.  And that’s the challenge of the next 12 months.  We’ll see at GCAP 2011 if we’ve been able to do that.

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