The first GameCity took place in Nottingham last year, an experimental festival for videogames and gaming culture that mixed developer presentations, practical advice, movie premieres and tea with Sonic the Hedgehog. It could have been a disaster, but it turned out to be one of the most refreshing gaming events to happen in the UK for years.
It returns again this month with another combination of big names, smart debate, exclusive premieres and family friendly activities, proving that there's more to games events than keynote presentations, outsourcing panels and audio workshops.
Highlights so far confirmed include the first European unveiling of Keita Takahashi's Nobi Nobi Boy, David Braben showing more of The Outsider, a LEGO Star Wars competition and a special event for parents. GamesIndustry.biz caught up with organiser Iain Simons to discuss this year's event and the lessons learned from putting on a festival across an entire city.
GamesIndustry.biz:So how are the organisations for this year's GameCity event going?
Iain Simons: It's absolutely manic, but in a good way. Mainly because the whole thing — particularity with the student market — is becoming a lot more popular than we expected. We're getting calls every other day from people that want to bring a coach load of people. And we're trying to deal with all those demands first to make sure we've got the capacity.GameCity is back for a second year, where most UK events implode after one attempt. What did GameCity do right in 2006?
The main thing that we did right was to approach it as a real festival to try and do something different with videogames. All along we said we were going to try and treat this like any other art form — the same as you have a film festival or a music festival. We disregarded a lot of the ways that videogame events have been done in the past — lots and lots of playable code with people crammed into a room. There's nothing wrong with that but we wanted to attract people that weren't necessarily into videogames already. And what we ended up with was a really different sort of audience and a different sort of discussion because of the content that we had. That's the thing that people really responded to.It was almost that audience which a lot of companies are trying to chase — the parents, non-gamers and lapsed gamers, the so-called casual market...
From Nottingham City's point of view, the sort of benefits they got in terms of engaging young people, students and parents, it ticked a whole load of boxes. Videogames in a very public way are beginning to appeal to a much broader sector. Not just as products that people can play but as things that people can talk about, understand and celebrate. And that's a revelation. A revelation for us as well as anybody else. The first GameCity was never a done deal — it was a fairly experimental attempt and continues to be. But honestly, we didn't know whether it was going to be shit or not. And luckily it wasn't.Do you feel that you're competing with other UK events? The London Games Festival takes place in the same week as GameCity, and of course Edinburgh has always tried to establish itself as a cultural event.
Well obviously if there are a number of events on the same day you can only go to one event. But having said that, I'm sure that games culture in the UK is big enough to support a number of events at the same time.
From what I can gather, we're trying to do quite different things. Our approach is different. The fact that we're independent and we're not industry run — not instigated by ELSPA or a publisher's point of view — gives us a mandate to do anything we want. And it gives us a different perspective on the products and the culture. I'd like to think that the things you see at GameCity are quite different to what you'll see at other events. We're comfortable doing something that's different and aimed at a different audience.Last year there was a strong developer turnout — from Oddworld's Lorne Lanning coming over from the US, to Free Radical's Dave Doak just down the road in Derby. Has it been easier attracting names now that you've got one successful year under your belt?
Yes, it really has. The feedback we got from the development community last year was fantastic. This was the place that they could meet the people who actually play their games and also the talent that is really trying to get into the industry.
That's something that we've been trying to build on this year. That whole opportunity for students who want to get into the games industry to meet the developers and chat with them in a context that's different to a careers fair. Developers will be coming along and offering 20 minute master-classes — where else can you go to have Takahashi talk to you about your own portfolio, or David Braben, or Relentless or FreeStyle Games? That opportunity doesn't present itself anywhere else. We've got a whole load of developers coming up to talk and effectively offering short tutorials, and it's all in relaxed places where you can have a cup of tea with someone from Rare, bring your laptop and show off a demo, rather than a sterile job interview. It might be about getting a job at the end of the day, but that doesn't mean it has to be a dull experience.Games developers aren't often allowed to speak so freely at games events — if there's a publisher involved there's always an agenda that might prompt them to hold their tongue. But at GameCity last year it felt much more free — everyone seemed to be mouthing off and enjoying doing so...
The development community is so interesting and it's full of massively creative and interesting people and the thing I get frustrated about the most at any games event is that we don't really get to hear them. I'm convinced that if the public got to hear from the people who made the games then everyone would feel a whole lot better and more comfortable with games, what they are and what they can achieve. That's absolutely what we're trying to do. PR is important and it has a function but what we're about is highlighting the development community.Have you faced any difficulties because the event is in Nottingham rather than London? Has there been any snobbery from people unwilling to travel outside of the capital?
From developers, categorically no. From publishers, well, they've been much easier to deal with this year. I can understand that last year it was a new event, and it all sounded a bit different and possibly a bit of a weird set-up. But this year is a very different scenario.
We've had the usual problems where any event outside of London is confusing for the mainstream media. We were talking to the BBC about getting coverage on the Culture Show but at the end of the day it's the same problem we'll always have — unless we can start to explain why videogames are interesting and that you can do something more with it than just point a camera at someone playing a game, then we're stuffed. There's a real absence of people who can communicate in that sort of way. And there's the normal problem of national media travelling anywhere north of Watford.You're not just concentrating one thing though — there's the student focused events, the social aspects of playing games on a giant screen and also the cultural debates with the New Statesmen panels. Has putting together these varied elements been one of the more difficult aspects of organising GameCity, and are you concerned that people might not understand what you're trying to achieve?
My big fear about this is that if you try and do a bit of everything you end up being about nothing. The way that we're hoping to address it is that events are all in geographically defined areas. So the majority of playable games are in the Market Square, with the big screens, the marquee and more. The New Statesmen panels and the parental workshops is all going to be in the galleries. And the Broadway Cinema is where a lot of the dev talks are happening, with the bars up and down that area for tutorials and the curry night and other social stuff. We're being fairly clear about these being for different audiences.That is one of the most tempting things about GameCity — a serious debate only a walk away from developers demoing their latest games, or a slice of cake with Darth Vader...
There's almost a different GameCity that a bunch of different audiences can have. The GameCity for parents will be a pathway through the festival that is very different to the GameCity aimed at first-person shooter fans. It's a challenge, but the flip side of that is that we're defining ourselves by the breadth of content that we have. You should be able to come to this and feel that anything might happen. The possibility that you might see Richard Jacques doing a piano recital or you might bump into Pajitnov in a cafe. There needs to be the possibility that something brilliant is going to happen out of the blue. Sometimes it will work and sometimes it won't but I'd rather we weren't afraid of failing.
Iain Simons is organiser of GameCity, taking place October 24 — 28, in Nottingham, UK. More info can be found at www.gamecity.org