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Too artsy, but not artsy enough

Gamercamp festival calls it quits after six years; organizer says show's unique approach held limited appeal for sponsors

Later this month, the sixth annual Gamercamp festival will be held in Toronto. It will also be the final one. Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz this week, organizer Jamie Woo explained the decision to make this year's show the last.

"It's been 6 years," Woo said. "That's a very long time to be doing something, and it was kind of a group decision within the team that it was time to move on. With these events, you can't just write a manual and have a succession plan that way. We did think about who might be able to carry it on, and it just seemed like a more elegant solution to close a chapter on the festival."

"We did think about who might be able to carry it on, and it just seemed like a more elegant solution to close a chapter on the festival."

There are challenges with organizing any event, but Woo said that securing funding for Gamercamp was particularly challenging. The show was designed to be a mid-size celebration of indie games aimed at mainstream audiences of all ages, something that didn't come off as a slipshod do-it-yourself event, but was still more of a grass roots operation than a giant convention like PAX. Despite casting a wide net for attendees, Woo said it was challenging to land sponsors for the show each year. Gamercamp received assistance from the Ontario Media Development Corporation for the last two years, but Woo said other local and provincial government bodies didn't take the show seriously.

"We tried institutions that say they're trying to get into games, but they have a very specific idea of what kind of event fits with them and what kind of games they want to show," Woo said. "To me it just felt like it never felt artsy enough for them. And that's a real shame."

Woo said there was also pushback from government groups once they realized that the games on display at Gamercamp were commercial products that would eventually be sold, even if nothing was actually sold at the show.

Funding from corporations was also an issue, even though Gamercamp managed to secure support from heavy hitters like Sony, Microsoft, and Ubisoft. Woo said the conscious desire to keep Gamercamp intimate was working against the needs of companies who found big attendance numbers more attractive to their sponsorship dollars. It didn't help that Gamercamp was also a bit unorthodox for a gaming show; for example, last year the show took over a boutique downtown hotel, and had attendees going room-to-room to play games and talk with developers. Woo said it completely changed the idea of what a games festival could look like, but it also required "a very forward-thinking" company to see the value in deviating from the norm.

"Ironically, we weren't artsy enough for the government, but we're a little too artsy for many of the studios," Woo said.

Of course, the funding issue could be solved by the attendees. GX3, for example, Kickstarted its 2015 show earlier this year. Combined with the first two iterations (when it was known as GaymerX), that convention has crowdfunded three straight events.

"I think it's fantastic that GX3 exists," Woo said, "but there's only so many times you can go to the pot and ask for more funding year after year until the question arises, is this sustainable? Can this exist without a constant Kickstarter, or is this something that requires a Kickstarter every year? I don't think any festival planner wants to have the heart palpitations of having to go to that well every time."

Woo returns to the idea of sustainability a number of times. Novelty and passion can carry a show through its first two installments, Woo said, but by year three, organizers need to be thinking longer term about sustainability. And a lot of that comes down to the people involved.

"There's nothing wrong with having that DIY aesthetic, but it's a bit of a crutch that the video game industry, especially indies, tend to use when we could be expanding the types of experiences people have."

"It's very important to find the right members to sustain it," Woo said. "You don't want the founders sticking around forever because it doesn't necessarily inject new blood. But you also want to make sure it's not just a bunch of people coming in who don't necessarily have the same values and beliefs we want for it. Because you will get tired. At some point, everyone has different things they're interested in."

Woo had more advice for would-be show-runners. He emphasized the importance of attention to detail and how all the little things work together to shape the big picture.

"Being very aware of what you're trying to put into the world is vital," Woo said. "We've tried to broaden our audience in a way that no one else is really doing. We have a lot of kids coming in, a lot of people of color coming in. We've always reached out to the LGBT community, we have a good ratio of male to female attendees. And it boils down to everything, from the images we choose to the colors of the background and the language we use."

He also encouraged people to make their events different, and to not just fall back on the DIY aesthetic.

"A lot of game events feel too comfortable just being in an open space and throwing stuff in there," Woo said. "As someone who's in my early 30s now, I think we can diversify that. There's nothing wrong with having that DIY aesthetic, but it's a bit of a crutch that the video game industry, especially indies, tend to use when we could be expanding the types of experiences people have."

"[M]ost events in the game space aren't always fun, and they aren't always creative. And that's a shame."

The hotel format for Gamercamp is certainly different, but it's not the only quirk Woo was proud of. He also pointed to the ROM Game Jam, a weekend development marathon held in the Royal Ontario Museum that the show helped organize earlier this year. There was also the time Gamercamp collaborated with a fashion illustrator to put iconic female characters in designer clothing, a call for the industry to hire actual fashion designers, costumers, and stylists to work on its games.

Hard as it might have been to keep the show going for six years, Woo is convinced there's still an audience for it.

"There's a market, but to reach that market requires a lot more funding than we got," Woo said. "We bootstrapped everything, and I think there's only so many years people can bootstrap before there's an exhaustion that sets in."

He likened it to the TV show Community, which is still trying to realize its rallying cry of "six seasons and a movie," the enthusiasm of its devoted fanbase attempting to offset poor ratings, network cancellation, and the departure of key talent on both sides of the camera.

Presumably there is no movie in Gamercamp's future, but after six seasons, Woo is ready to put it to rest with an epitaph he borrowed from author Ursula K. Le Guin: The creative adult is the child who has survived.

"That's what I always tried to do with Gamercamp," Woo said, "to create a space that had a child-like sensibility in terms of play and creativity, that adults could go to, that children could also go to, that grandparents could go to. And it's funny that most events in the game space aren't always fun, and they aren't always creative. And that's a shame."

Gamercamp 2014 takes place October 17-19.

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