My first interaction with anything resembling the Toronto video game scene was through Fan Expo. A few small game studios had booths in the Artist Alley and it was something I largely ignored in favour of the big titles that were being shown off in those early days, like Gears of War 2 and more. That, to me, was the pinnacle of the game enthusiast experience that I had achieved. Spending limited time with game creators who operated on such a large scale and produced world-famous products that I felt personally invested in. As time has moved on not only have my tastes in games changed quite dramatically, but my connection to the scene in Toronto has grown immensely. I find myself less connected to those global experiences and seeking out more local products to learn more about. I still spend a disproportionate amount of time with the larger titles — as they often command that time — but my passion for understanding those experiences has dwindled to allow me time to explore what is happening in my own backyard.
Welcome to Gamercamp v4
Founded by Jaime Woo and Mark Rabo — two individuals with no connection to the gaming industry — Gamercamp started in 2009 as a way to connect the makers in the community with the players. It served as a networking event for would-be developers to hang out with the real success stories, a educational outlet for seasoned creators to share their experience with the community at large and it also allowed the public, both in the entertainment community and outside, to interact and talk about games in a meaningful way. What had started as a modest sized gathering of Canadian developers has grown into a draw for the gaming community at large and acts as a lightning rod for the gaming scene in Toronto.
The entire crew covered Gamercamp in 2010, which was an feat in and of itself considering the distance that separates Tim from the city and the difficulty in synchronizing our free time. Based on what we had heard from previous years and based on who we knew would be attending we were excited to see what the event was all about. We were certainly not disappointed and I think I can safely say that it was some of the best times that we had spent together as a team in the history of the site. You can always listen to our podcast that we made that weekend, but the crux of it is that it highlighted the strength of the independent game development scene in Toronto. It was like a whole universe of great experiences had been hiding in plain sight.
This year, as we marked our triumphant return and relaunch of the website, we expected no less than before and so far I have not been disappointed.
Ghost Stories Around the Fire
The day is broken up into four components: key note talks, hands on workshops and round tables, a game showcase and a board games sanctuary. This all takes place in a fairly open space, which means conversations are happening at almost every place in between each of those parts of the event and there is even exhibition space where a select few sponsors show off their wares. The troubling part for me is that I want to cover everything, and most of the events are happening at the same time. You would not be able to see every talk, play every game or take part in every workshop. You have to decide how best to split your time and that can certainly be the most difficult part of the weekend. On Day 1 I spent most of my time in the Isabel Bader Theatre where the talks were held, wandering outside only a few times to get snacks or drop by the games showcase.
First up in the morning was the creator of the ArmA II mod DayZ Dean Hall (I first wrote that as Dead Hall. I found this far too funny) who talked about the impetus for the game and the timeline under which is was created. He had wanted to craft a survival experience that allowed the player to feel the real impact and tragedy of war and decided it best to throw zombies into the mix. He hit on a few great points about frustrating the player in a good way and how coddling was not conducive to the experience he was trying to shape. It showed how the strength of a singular vision — with all its imperfection — is crafting that experience without worrying about hurting someone’s feelings.
Rob Segal from Get Set Games was the next speaker. He is the co-founder of a company that has created popular iOS games called Mega Run and Mega Jump and highlighted how it took a lot of experimentation and luck to get where they were. Also that the strength of the Toronto development scene was at the forefront of their success. This was followed by an emerging artist showcase where a few students from the local schools were able to show off their successes in game making, including Kyle Halladay and his final year project called Block Academy. A game that utilizes maker cards to create an altered reality experience, it was meant to instantly grab the attention of potential employers while also giving him experience with some interesting technology. I met with him some time after his talk and had an opportunity to play a demo. My exposure to altered reality games is limited, but I was really impressed and would encourage anyone with an iOS device to seek it out.
Vander Cabellero was the last speaker of the morning and easily my favourite. He is from a Montreal company called Minority Media Inc. who recently shipped the PSN title Papo & Yo. His talk was centered around his relationship with his abusive, alcohol father and how he wanted to talk that emotional and personal experience and transform it into an interactive medium. He wanted to convey those emotions to the player through a metaphor. Vander become emotional himself as he described the overwhelming response that he has received from around the world; how people were able to understand and connect with the characters and the situation. He described the standard game design process as “broken” in that the mechanics were too limited and did not give players the opportunity to build empathy through gameplay, but rather rely on cinematics to thrust the player through the world with some meaning. It was articulate and is enough to convince me that Papo & Yo is a must-play for me, so watch this space for more on that in the future.
All Talk and No Play
After Vander’s talk and a quick lunch I wandered into the other spaces of Gamercamp to find the games showcase and talk to some of the creators. The space itself is quite a sight, a room filled with people and video screens displaying a variety of colourful experiences. Lineups are formed behind each station and the attendees wander from place to place and talk through the game with the volunteers and often the designers of the game. I finally had an opportunity to play Mega Run, as well as get a brief look at Capybara Games’ newest title Super TIME Force which is awaiting a release date. I also spent quite a lot of time talking to Benjamin Rivers creator of the minimalistic and haunting title Home. It is a game I have been meaning to play and explained as much to him, promising that I would give it my best shot. While I discussed the game with him, going through some of my thoughts on the horror genre and what he was attempting to convey, Ian Y jumped up and yelled out multiple times to Rivers’ delight. The game was having the necessary effect.
After getting my fill of games for the afternoon and eagerly anticipating another few rounds of speakers I headed back to the theatre to catch the tail end of Jonathan Mak, creator of Everyday Shooter and Sound Shapes discussing his journey to becoming a video game developer. By this time I was admittedly fading fast as a night of furiously bug fixing on the new site had taken its toll. The day was rounded off with a talk by Leonard J Paul, the composer of the recent Retro City Rampage and a veteran of the video game industry who discussed how to create chiptunes and the various pros and cons of doing so. Finally, Ken Yeung from Capybara Games took the stage to talk about the origins of his game Super TIME Force; how it began as part of the Toronto Game Jam festival this year. TOJam is a local event that gets people together to make a game over a weekend, producing some great ideas and partnerships that have a real lasting impact on the Toronto game scene and the greater gaming world.
The Fun Continues
Our first day at the event was a great welcome back into the Toronto gaming community. I’ve spent the last few months trying to reconnect with some of the great people I’ve met on my travels and it is events like this that really give you the sense that you are part of a thriving group of creative people. I’m not a developer, nor have I pretended to be one at any point, but being able to witness the continued growth and exposure that this city’s entertainment community has seen is spectacular. Gamercamp is a shining example of the strength of that community and the event that draws everyone together. It certainly is not all about Toronto, with speakers coming from all over Canada and around the world, but it is a great example of why this city is on the greater world map of video game communities and is poised to grow and grow.
See you all on day two.