Notes from Gamecamp 4, London

Here are my thoughts from Gamecamp 4 (#gc4), an unconference held at London South Bank University on Saturday, May 14. Overall I had a great time, and managed to put some faces to names as well as catching up with people I knew. I don’t think I learnt anything startling, but some of the sessions were great for helping me rediscover bits I already knew and clarify thoughts on other things. That might be a sign that I’ve been spending too much time thinking about games lately, or that the field is so huge and diverse that the chances of any session being on a topic that interests me and having the same approach (e.g. not video games) is smaller.

I also ran a session on ‘hacking museum games‘ with Katy Beale to try to find out whether the excellent people at the event thought it was possible to run a hack event to produce new games with museums, get a sense of who’d be interested and hopefully learn from other people’s experience with hack-type events with people new to games. I’ve written up the notes I took at the time, but would also love to hear from people who have more thoughts.  It wasn’t in that session but based on other activities going on at the unconference I decided my new dream is to have a museum zombie larp.

So, onto notes from other sessions… They’re really rough, sorry!  I haven’t got the names or twitter IDs of the speakers, so please let me know if you know them.

5 tips to improve your game run by Graham McAllister
1 comparing controls (before building) – e.g. do a heuristic comparison of control methods like direct manipulation, d pads with requirements eg small controlled movements, big movements
2 tutorials – the art of integrated game tutorial design – make a list of everything you want the player to be able to do. Think of the ideal player (probably you cos you’ll really know your game). Is there a safe space to practice the skills you want people to learn?  Integrate tutorials into gameplay – how? Use characters to deliver instructions. Can show them, tell them (text or audio) or get them to practice it.
3 involve users – but if you’re play testing, don’t ask them what they think. Ask people to draw their experience at the end – they remember the initial experience and the end, maybe something big in the middle. They won’t remember the details afterwards. So how? Record it then walkthrough. Biometrics or observe the video and take them back to the moment afterwards and ask them, you’ll get much better detail. [I nearly asked if anyone else did usability test-style think aloud testing but figured probably not as most people seemed to be video game developers]
4 recruit users – demographics; psychographics (internal motivations etc)
5 ux acceptance – define success tests. Write success tests for game ux acceptance – things the player should experience, not technical stuff; gives you something to keep working towards.

Suggestion from discussion – get a mirror and play through it, use your foot on the mouse to replicate experience of playing your game for the first time. [Great idea for empathy with newbie players]

[Update: I’ve come across some really detailed notes from this session, so go read Five tips to improve your game if you’re interested in usability testing for games. Also, I didn’t go to this session but there are some good notes on Can User Centered Design help games? (GameCamp report), and it’s encouraging to hear that it had a good turn-out. For some reason I thought there was resistance to user-centred design in games, presumably from the same school of ‘it makes boring, safe products’ (which is only true if you’re doing it wrong, as the notes point out), but maybe there’s not.]

The failure of the fail state.
This was a quite interesting discussion, partly because people seem to have inherently different preferences, as well as variations dependent on your preferred game genres.  Posited it’s better if you can die and then carry on… When is a fail state too much fail – balance between tension, high stakes and too harsh a penalty?  Or too binary – do you need to reload the game, can you recover from errors, what consequences do you need to live with? Discussion of the difference between creating tension because the stakes are high vs when game is completely over unless you re-start it’s not good.

Other random notes from tweets:

@naomialderman pointed out ‘moral choices in games are mostly shit’ – yes! Crap moral scenarios put me off otherwise interesting games

Themes across sessions: ‘all narrative is interactive’; we narrativise* experiences when we remember or reconstruct games *made-up word [actually, I can’t really remember what inspired this, I must have had a sugar rush.]

It’s always amazing the difference room setup makes in an unconference – a circle feels collaborative, desks facing the front can be ‘us v them’ [Owen Stephens pointed out that the circle setup is called ‘cabaret’ style – lovely!]

Sharing hard-won wisdom about museum games – introducing ‘Lift your (museum) game’

One outcome from MW2011 was the creation of ‘Lift your (museum) game‘, a site for people who make museum games to share their hard-earned wisdom – project evaluation, research, references, methods, rants, lessons learnt from real projects – about making museum games.  Inspired by a question from Martha Henson about whether any sites already existed to gather resources like those discussed during the panel discussion after the Games session at Museums and the Web 2011 (with Dave Schaller, Elizabeth Goins and Coline Aunis), I created the wiki during the closing plenary and watched in awe as Kate Haley Goldman immediately started populating it with links.
Museum games have to compete in a highly competitive market, especially for casual and social games, and I suspect ‘worthy’ will only take us so far these days.  I’m hoping the dialogue around this site will help people avoid the pitfalls of ‘death by museum committee’ when designing games and push for excellent gameplay in museum games.  There are some great museum game projects and research going on, and pooling resources could help multiply the benefits of that work and provide a resource for people just starting out.  Also, if you’re a games agency or designer, this could be a great place to pass on any tips or links (or warnings) you’d like potential museum clients to know about.  I’ve got a few papers on crowdsourcing games for museums coming up, so I’ll be adding links and resources as I go – it’s easy to add your resources or questions, just sign up at http://museumgames.pbworks.com.
One of the key themes of MW2011 for me was ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ – there’s so much good work going on in the museum digital sector, and so many amazing people are willing to share what they’ve learnt along the way, and hopefully this museum games wiki is a contribution to helping us all see further and do better.

Some leads on game design in the UK

Today I passed on a query from @fayenicole: ‘…know anybody who could run a retro-style game design workshop for teenagers at the British Museum?’ on twitter and got a bunch of responses. Since people were so generous with their time, I thought I’d take a few minutes to collate them so they’re available the next time someone has a similar query.  Feel free to add further suggestions in the comments, particularly for people or agencies who are keen to work with museums and cultural heritage organisations.

In other news, I learned this week that ‘MT’ means ‘modified tweet’ and signifies when someone’s shortened or otherwise changed something they’re retweeting.  Mmm, learning.