Gamercamp Lvl 3: Day 1

Gamercamp, now in its third year, is an annual festival in Toronto that celebrates video game culture, uniting local fans and developers under an orgiastic umbrella of game-loving. Here’s my take on Day One.

I Fold

It was a stretch for me to arrive at Gamercamp for 9:30. It’s a good day when i can drag myself to the bathroom of my own house by 9:30. i’m not an early riser. But when i saw that the conference’s keynote speaker was Seth Cooper, who worked on FoldIt, i knew i’d have to strain myself and make it there on time. i’m a big fan of using games to do useful things. (Note: that’s NOT the same as “gamification”, which is an attempt to make mundane things more interesting using trophies and leaderboards.)


i sharted! Where my points at??

FoldIt is a game out of Cornell and the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science. It uses crowdsourcing (lots of people doing stuff for you, like the Egyptian pyramids) to solve scientific puzzles by squishing 3D protein models down to more efficient forms. This is a task where humans can produce better solutions than computers, because we have better spatial reasoning than our future Robot Masters (blessings and peace be upon them). i’ve known about FoldIt for a while now, but whenever i see it being played, i can’t for the life of me figure out what in the Hell is going on.


i … what? Is the answer on GameFAQS?

Cooper said the possible applications of crowd-sourced FoldIt research included curing diseases and discovering alternatives to plastic. Indeed, the big story recently was that FoldIt players solved in three weeks a problem that had scientists scratching their heads for ten years – something to do with AIDS research and monkeys. The other two Center for Game Science initiatives Seth talked about were Photocity, where people taking pictures of real-life buildings can contribute to point cloud models (the hope being that some day, we’ll have an insanely detailed 3D model of our planet), and Refraction, part of an initiative to use A|B game testing to discover the best way to teach fractional mathematics to young students. (Photocity was a bit of a bust for me … the resulting point cloud model of four buildings was largely unimpressive and missing huge chunks of geometry, and it took 3 weeks and 40 000 pictures to produce. A skilled 3D artists could have produced a far more complete set of models in less time. So i was left wondering whether the initiative was such a hot idea.)

Photocity Point Cloud

Photocity players produce sort-of-impressive point cloud models … just don’t walk behind or above them.

i found the talk was decent, but a little self-serving. Cooper covered only UW/Cornell-produced projects, without ever talking about the myriad other projects that use game crowdsourcing to solve problems. In future iterations, Seth could give a nod to Google Image Labeler and reCAPTCHA to level out his talk.

Seth was shooed off the stage without taking questions in an effort to keeping the morning moving; i had a question for him that would’ve made me look like a complete tool (but what else is new?). With the proliferation of so-called slot machine games on Facebook, and companies turning huge profits “gamifying” mundane experiences, there’s a lot of talk about reward systems. Folks like Chris Hecker and Jesse Schell debate about extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation in games, and about the things that successfully motivate us; at least one study shows that for high-level knowledge work, monetary rewards just don’t cut it.


Sure, you’re paying me a sweaty fistful of cash, but how much JOY are you paying me?

Using FoldIt results to develop an alternative to plastic, or to develop an AIDS vaccine (note: not a cure, because there’s no business model in a cure) are multi-bazillion dollar propositions. Everyone roots for initiatives like FoldIt when they think it boils down to the goodness of people’s hearts, but as soon as someone starts cranking some serious coin based on results garnered from these crowdsourced games, the participants will want to see their work rewarded financially. Just look at the story of Box2D creator Erin Catto, and wealthier-than-God publisher Rovio of Angry Birds fame.

The Remains of the Day

Most of the rest of the morning’s presentations were a joy. Jim McGinley gave the talk he’s been dreaming of, “Digging Through the Trash”, where he discusses game ideas that could be salvaged by modern game developers from the Radio Shack TRS-80 (AKA the “Trash-80”).

TRS-80 Ad

Honey, are you beating off to ascii porn?

i loved the talk, and i really want to see more talks like it. i feel i have a distinct advantage over today’s younger crop of game developers because of my history playing ColecoVision, Intellivision and Atari 2600 games back in the day, because they were such simple games with simple mechanics that cut to the chase, and got to the fun FAST. One of my former students couldn’t even pronounce “ColecoVision” this afternoon. i firmly believe these kids should be made to sit in a room with guys like me and Jimmy, and forced to study classic home console games. Then we can pull our pants up to our nipples and tell them what’s wrong with the government.

Grumpy Old Man

If we wanted to have fun, we’d go to a CLIFF and jump OFF. And that’s the way it was, and we LIKED it!

Young Folks

i wasn’t all that enamoured with graphic designer Cory Schmitz’s presentation. It had a little too much pretentious hipster “Scene Kid” stuff going on in it for my liking, as Cory tore down design choices for various movie posters and video game box covers, providing examples of compositions that would have made them “better”. All of his examples had a real design smell to them, and he seemed a little too green to present his preferences as subjectively better, rather than objectively better. (If it doesn’t have a stark palette, odd angles, and gobs of negative space, it’s crap.) Still, there were a lot of art students in the audience, and they may have appreciated his talk.

Design Poster

Srsly you guys – my nipples are SO HARD right now.

There was a presentation by some industry up-and-comers about what they’re working on. While these mini-talks themselves tended to be rough, i enjoyed the effort as a whole, because it gave some of the student- and grad-level Toronto developers an opportunity to polish their public speaking skills. It’s an opportunity Prez Lesley Phord-Toy and i have been trying to give people throughout the year through the IGDA Toronto Chapter events like Straight Out TOJam and the Open Mic Night.

Building a Game (sorta) in Three Hours (ish)

The afternoon was a mish-mash of various workshops, including board game development, “physical” game design, playtesting sessions, and the Iron Game Developer Challenge. When i heard that Michael Todd dropped out due to ninja training or whatever, i jumped in and took his place. i wound up using UGAGS (the Untold Graphic Adventure Game System), the same engine that powers Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure and Spellirium, to produce Frankentoy in just over three hours :

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(this is not a jpg! Click the title screen to play)

As with Iron Chef, the Iron Game Developer Challenge had a secret ingredient that we had to incorporate into our games: bug-eyed plastic wind-up chattering teeth, which rank on the Creighton Terrifying Toy Spectrum somewhere between Cymbal-Smashing-Chimp-On-A-Tricycle, and this little nightmare:

The game is called “Frankentoy” and it has a Tim Burton-esque aesthetic, likely because Burton’s first film was Frankenweenie, and with very little time on the clock, i was lazily free-associating. The game is based (only partially) on a true story – my mom, a single parent, used to leave me alone in toy and book stores all the time, and would occasionally not make it back in time to pick me up until after closing time. Terrifying.

We developed UGAGS to help us create graphic adventure games quickly, but it feels like three hours was a little nuts. i hadn’t even played the game by the time the buzzer went off, and it’s plagued by some bona fide jankiness. i have no idea why the kid walks backwards. i probably should have spent less time shooting Jon Remedios in the head with Nerf bullets. But whatever. Let’s see YOU make a game.

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