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Thursday, September 14, 2006

This year Nottingham will host GameCity, a five day interactive entertainment festival on October 25th - 29th.

Although the full line-up is still to be confirmed, representatives from SCEE, Electronic Arts, Bizarre Creations, Blitz, Freestyle Games, Monumental Games, Rare, Introversion, Climax, THQ, Take 2, Oddworld Inhabitants, TT Games and Second Life are all involved in the event.

With a range of sessions including keynotes, concerts, game and documentary screenings, quizzes and playable games, GameCity hopes to become a yearly festival celebrating videogames.

Here, Iain Simons, director of GameCity, talks about the difficulties of organising a UK event, why publishers need to open up to the media to push videogames in the wider cultural industries, and a self-indulgent piano concerto...

GamesIndustry.biz: Can you begin by telling us what your goals are for GameCity. If Leipzig Game Convention is for the consumers, and the Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival is for student academics, what's the point of GameCity?

Iain Simons: We felt that there was space for an inclusive videogames festival in the same sense that you have music, film and arts festivals, on a street level.

In the past, the thing that frustrates with the way videogames are presented is that organisers will get a massive room, fill it with as many game pods as you can possibly fit in and line people up to play them. There's nothing wrong with that, we all like arcades or sitting at home playing consoles. But that doesn't necessarily make any attempt to include anybody who isn't already part of that world.

The intention of GameCity is to spread games - talk about games and the experience of games - across an entire city, to as many different places as we possibly can. We want games in cafes, pubs, libraries, universities shops and anywhere else, to allow people to stumble across them in their everyday lives and create a real festival atmosphere.

And the great thing about Nottingham is that it has a small enclosed city centre so with reasonable ease we can build a sense of festival within it.

So, it's a party atmosphere, with an intention to enjoy games for what they are. But aren't mainstream audiences put off by games? How do you convince a wider audience games aren't poisoning our children or destroying social skills?

Games are clever, games are smart and the people that play them are smart. And GameCity is about not shying away from that. We don't want to be academic about either - it's just about owning up to the fact that games are brilliant - really interesting and creative.

One of the things that frustrates me about the industry is that it constantly back-foots itself a lot of the time. So rather than exploring and looking at the positives of videogames we only ever seem to be talking about games in the mainstream media from a defensive angle.

GameCity is about understanding games better - the positives of videogames - and if we do understand them better we might be in a better position to handle difficult situations when things like Manhunt hit the headlines for the wrong reasons.

What help have you had from the games community in organising GameCity?

The development community has been fantastic. The UK development community is a melting pot of amazingly inventive and creative people, who have come forward to offer great ideas for the event.

Our frustration, to a certain extent, has been working with the platform holders. It's our year one event and it's Nottingham, so I can understand and accept that up to a point we don't have a lot to back us up. But the public sector has really got behind this, and a lot of developers have really got behind it to a large degree. We were hoping that platform holders would be more upfront in their collaboration.

Perhaps the problem is that these companies don't know how to collaborate with us, we've been approaching platform holders and saying, "we want to do something really different with you and your content and present it in a different way," but they don't necessarily have the means or answer on how to collaborate.

Publishers either give the games directly to consumers who already understand what games are or give the games to the trade, and let the trade sell the games for them. There are consumer and trade events and very little in between...

And we've set ourselves this challenge to fill that gap. We're hoping that this year we can at least have some answers for platform holders as to how we can capture an audience differently.

If the games industry wants to be taken seriously by the rest of the world and culture in general, it needs to be able to step up and work with external people - with the rest of the cultural industries, and think about how it's going to present itself. It's frustrating getting caught up in the world of PR - the press releases and the loops that surround the industry. This holds us all back.

The majority of people that speak outside the safety of their company have to be media trained, and very few people can express their real thoughts and concerns...

And I can't see how games are going to participate in any kind of meaningful culture if that carries on. We keep banging on that games are as big as film or music, but the way in which film and music PR is handled is completely different to this really sanitised PR that we have over games.

Some of it is admitting what we don't know the answers. I'm not going to pretend that I have all the answers. But we're not going to advance videogames by staying on this path that we're already on - there's this boiling pot of fantastically creative people and this lid of corporate PR holding it in. GameCity is about getting past that.

It's easy to understand from a financial point of view that some deals have to be kept under wraps. But this is why there are so many lies, rumours and half-truths floating around the industry - this culture of gossip. Because no-one will admit to anything unless it's via a tightly controlled corporate release

And it does more harm than good. If it's true what the platform holders are saying - that they want to move games into a mainstream cultural place, I don't understand how it's going to happen with this kind of strategy. From GameCity's point of view, we're trying to convince companies that we can offer something different. We want to collaborate with these companies and help them reach a wider audience.

Trade and consumer events are announced for the UK, but they often collapse, or get postponed. Has this hindered organising GameCity?

The fact that this is our first year has been a problem to a certain extent. I'm sure, quite rightly, there has been some resistance to new, unproven things.

The reasons why some companies haven't been participating is notionally budgetary. It's been budgets combined with not knowing what to do. We haven't been asking for any money, which is something I need to be really clear about. No one has been asked to put any money up and nobody has.

Company's have been only asked to invest in themselves. We've said, "We can give you a city, during a holiday, just before your biggest sales period of the year -all you have to do is bring the games."

We've got art events, keynote speakers, developers talking about games, music concerts planned - all of this kind of stuff. But the only thing we can't bring to this is the games to play, and that's where the platform holders have to come in. We can provide a good experience but ideally I'd like people to not be able to move in Nottingham because of the amount of playable games on any format. Mobile, console, retro, whatever. And that's something we're moving towards as the event draws nearer.

Have you received any help from the public sector - obviously Nottingham City has helped in some way...

This is a fairly unprecedented move for the public sector. The public sector has really come forward and put its money where its mouth is. There has been talk before about the public sector not really being willing to take risks on this sort of event. But they really have. And we're not talking about financially either, but creatively. The public sector has really taken a step forward to support us.

A big opportunity for the games industry is the fact that there's a well-identified digital literacy gap in the UK - those that can use computers and those who can't. If you can't use a computer then you're not able to function as part of a workforce.

Videogames are a fantastic way of engaging people in technology - they're non-threatening, they're fun and they develop basic digital literacy skills. So as a way to teach people about computers in the broadest possible sense, the Department for Education and Skills see this sort of event as engaging the wider public in digital literacy.

This isn't some kind of po-faced attempt at 'edutainment' - playing Halo is digital literacy, it helps users understand technology better. That's a big thing for the public sector to recognise and embrace.

I'm staggered that the games industry isn't working closer with government departments. There are large amounts of money and large amounts of interested parties who really want to work with the games industry - they just find it difficult to approach games businesses for those very reasons we've discussed. There are actual, tangible, measurable benefits to computer games and it's surprising that we aren't trying to explore them as an industry.

Okay, before we go too far off from the original intentions - GameCity is also a little self-indulgent isn't it? It's an excuse to play videogames with an entire city.

The whole thing at the centre of the organisation was to think, 'what can we do with a games festival over five days?' That's why we've got Richard Jacques performing a solo piano concert of Sega retrospective work in a candle lit church - it's totally self-indulgent in some respects, but we can do it and it's something worth celebrating.

Iain Simons is director of GameCity. Interview by Matt Martin at Gamesindustry.biz

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