Iain Simons talks to Ian W Gouldstone
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Iain Simons talks to Ian W Gouldstone
15-Pixel Street Fighter, Alaskan Military School, commissioned by GameCity

15 Pixel Street Fighter, Alaskan Military School, commissioned by GameCity

Ian W Gouldstone spoke with Iain Simons, Director of Nottingham’s inspiring videogame festival, GameCity.

What’s the big idea behind GameCity?

I’m not sure I’ve ever been asked that quite so directly before, which is embarrassing because it feels like there should be some kind of high-level single answer to the question. In the years since the festival has started we’ve distilled a mission-statement out of our activities, which I guess isn’t really the right way to go about things is it? That said, even if there isn’t a single big idea – there are a few themes that have always been central both to GameCity and my interest in videogames as a whole.

Not to sound negative, but the festival came about through a frustration with how videogames were largely presented and talked about – not just by the mainstream media and the usual detractors, but by the industry itself. For all the moaning that the industry did, and to some extent does, about not being taken seriously by the rest of popular culture, about whether or not games are ‘art’ – it’s done very little to help the non-aficionados gain any understanding of why videogames and game culture might actually be interesting – let alone valuable. One of my biggest frustrations with the games industry is latterly it’s been very bad at exposing the humanity within itself and its products.

If GameCity is about anything it’s about exploring the fact that games are made by people, and played by people. I think any media form wanting to participate in modern culture will find it impossible to do so unless it explores and celebrates those facts. Critical perspectives, of whatever level are created by people – so its kind of important not to ignore them. Anything and everything we do pretty much evolves from that point. We used to have a strap line for the first few years ‘we’re trying to find out what a videogame festival could be’ – and that’s been really important for us too. There’s a real experimental spirit about much of the things we do, and a full disclosure that we don’t presume to have all, or any, of the answers. The best we can do, is try and create an interesting, exciting framework where we can try ideas out – so that’s what GameCity attempts. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t – but it’s important to have permission to fail some of the time, otherwise we’d never try anything out.

What were you doing prior to founding the festival?

I worked as a musician and freelance theatre writer/performer for a few years after graduation, before founding a creative digital company at the time everybody else did the in the late nineties. ‘Suppose’ could have been a profitable agency making websites and projects and that kind of stuff, but sadly we were all hugely distracted by other things. We started putting on evening events, many of which became proto-GameCity nights. We had Jeff Minter deliver a career retrospective in an Indian restaurant (our first Indian restaurant show, I think – in what was to become a hallmark/cliché of the festival…) and I first met James Newman when he came up to talk about his new book for one of our first events.

Meeting Jimmy was to prove quite an important event, as it turned out. I can’t remember the exact flow of events, but somehow after that first meeting we thought it might be a good idea to start a publishing spin-out from Suppose, called PublicBeta – and create publications about videogames. We did our first book, Difficult Questions About Videogames (which can still be found in darker corners of Amazon) and a whole load of market research and development on a monthly magazine, before the realisation hit me that I was more interested in creating the content that I was developing a publishing business. So, I left Suppose and starting writing freelance about videogames for a variety of outlets. New Statesman was a key title for me, then a number of the specialist sites – Gamasutra, Next-gen (as it was then…) and lots of other places.

In late 2004, I proposed a series of events about videogames to the National Film Theatre , which was produced as NTI* in July 2005. Ok, sorry – I just read back over the question and realised you didn’t actually ask for my life story. I was writing about games, consulting and producing occasional events…

For many people, games are one dimensional.  How have you seen games develop since you founded GameCity?

I’m finding this one difficult to answer. There are lots of obvious things that have happened with Wii, iPhone and platforms that have apparently broadened the audience for video gaming that anyone with the slightest interest can identify. I think I’m most excited by how distribution platforms have widened to allow easier access to the kind of more marginal work that would previously only ever have been found as a pc-download. What PSN, XBLA, the iTunes App store etc have shown us is that more experimental, innovative work can be of value to the mainstream consumer. The flipside of that is that they’ve also demonstrated the gulf that exists between the kind of marketing and editorial on-platform support that existing publishers might get and that of the smaller developers – just because it’s there, doesn’t mean anyone knows or cares.

It’s fantastic that access exists now and that these content gateways are becoming normalised, but that has to be supported with marketing support from the platform (or some new kind of publisher/distributor) and editorial from the media. We’re on the way, but there’s a long way to go yet and too many young developers believing that simply getting an app onto iTunes is any guarantee of commercial viability.

What advice would you give to young developers about marketing their work/finding distribution platforms?

If you’re in the position of having zero marketing budget, your only other option really is participation in the culture and media which is interested in your work. This in itself obviously isn’t to be underestimated in terms of the size of the task, but it still potentially yields much more per dollar invested than traditional marketing. The indie dev sector is in an interesting place at the moment, in that we’re just starting to see the media coverage really building around them – this combined with the largely anodyne PR put out by the mainstream industry leaves an interesting opportunity – in that you really don’t have to be that interesting to be really interesting.

I’m both excited and curious to see how the ‘indie’ development sector is going to develop, cluster and organise. A lot of commentators are still awaiting the Sex, Lies and Videotape or Reservoir Dogs moment in indie dev – where suddenly a title transcends its origins to become a global hit. I’m not so sure we’re looking for the right thing there though, it seems to me we don’t need to be looking for Soderbergh or Tarantino, I think we’ve found some of those guys already – we need to be looking for the Weinsteins.

What do you think is the most important future trend of gaming?

I have no idea. Although it’s probably not motion-control or any new peripheral.

Clearly, GameCity is about more than just showcasing video games. What other art forms do you find yourself exploring?

Once you get over the cul-de-sac of getting hung-up about videogames being any specific thing, that pretty much throws the possibilities wide open. We’ve played with lots of different art forms – music, design, animation, performance… We see videogames at their best as a meeting point of all of them, so I don’t think we’d rule anything out. For me, the more entry points we can create into this world, the better.

How did your decision to commission animation for last year’s GameCity Squared come about?

David Surman, a super-clever bloke who did lots of work with us on GameCity Squared in 2009, was chatting to me about the GameCity identity and brand – and he had lots of ideas and awareness about how it was perceived and how far it extended. It’s odd, actually, talking to someone who has been to most of the festivals about their perceptions of it – as he was pointing out a lot of the value which he had created but really not at all acknowledged.

It’s easy to forget the things you do, I s’pose – as we’re such a small team we tend to just lurch from project to project without having much time to take stock. Anyway, following the third festival – when we made a few mistakes by dividing some of our audiences up, we were – and continue to be – especially keen to open up the festival as much as possible. Davey’s idea was to treat the festival not just as five days in October, but as something that could be responded to – and added to by people outside of that tight timescale.

He hooked us up with the Alaskan Military School, who came in with a great pitch based around reducing some classic videogames down to a 3×5 grid, their atomic essence – and then slightly more for comedy. These were designed to function as viral videos for the website, interstitials for festival venues – and more importantly to extend the visibility and breadth of what GameCity actually does to the outside World. They were hugely successful for us as viral videos, after being seeded on just a few key sites by the team – it was hugely exciting to sit back (for me at least) and watch  YouTube views click up by tens of thousands over a few hours.

Animation is an intrinsic part of game authoring these days, but is often overlooked by critics and audiences.  Why do you think this is?

From a critics point of view, it’s probably a combination of not having the critical language to talk about it – but also because unless it’s irredeemably broken most viewers wouldn’t notice it anyway. My suspicion is that it becomes conflated into a broad commentary about ‘graphics’ and if they’re ‘realistic’, rather than often being recognised as a discrete discipline of its own. I don’t think it’s necessarily being overlooked, but I’d agree it isn’t highlighted and appreciated in the way that it should be.

Do you feel that animation will play a bigger part in future GameCity festivals?  If so, how?

My experience of the 15 pixels project was wholly positive; the only real failing of it was our under-appreciation of what we’d need to do to use the animations to their best during the festival. The main thrust of our work at the festival at the moment, is in rendering the event as a true open platform, making it truly as easy as possible for others to build on and contribute to. Animation is definitely going to be a key part of that.

For us, the challenge is about understanding how what one might describe at GameCity native content, such as 15 pixels was, will co-exist with other third party work. It’ll be the fifth year we’ve delivered the festival in 2010, and as such I can see that we’re heading for some evaluation – and perhaps even some celebration – of the things we’ve done. More importantly though, I think it’s time for us to start seriously considering what the GameCity festival platform will look like in 2011, and how the identity extends into new and to-date uncharted waters. Early this year we began a monthly series of live events, we’ve a number of digital publishing initiatives on the stocks – I’d like animation to be a central to the brand recognition of the suite of things we do in the future.

How do you feel about the BAFTAs for videogames – are they inclusive enough or do they only serve the high-end commercial developers?

I probably need to be a little careful here, as I’ve upset people before after being indiscrete about the videogame BAFTAs. The problem with the event, and to be clear one of the problems is that we are talking about an event here rather than any particularly sustained cultural marker – is that it seems to me to function largely as little more than a cursory nod to a notion of cultural respectability.

For the games industry, I think that’s largely what they represent, a shorthand which is easily recognisable by the mass-market which easily communicates that games are in some way ‘serious’. There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself, in fact, it could be a really useful device, but I think the way in which its made manifest at the moment is too limited to that night. If it’s serious about them, and I don’t doubt for a second that it is, surely it needs to work them much harder throughout the year. The videogame BAFTA needs to mean something more to the public.

As for if they’re inclusive enough – it’s pretty obvious that they’re there largely for the benefit of the high-street publisher. Right now, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing for the ‘indie’ sector, as the more conservative the event becomes, the larger the opportunity to differentiate and the less you have to spend in doing so. For animation, and specific disciplines, I find it odd that the videogame BAFTA’s don’t really address technical excellence in any detail. So for instance, animation itself isn’t singled out – rather the emphasis is on ‘best shooter’ or ‘best platform game’. It’s as if the awards schema was created by a consumer magazine or a high street store. Funny that…

If you were introducing gaming to someone who had no experience, what games would you recommend they check out?

I was thinking about this the other day actually, and how as evangelists we need to be very careful in the recommendations we give and thus the expectations that we generate in new gamers. The go-to game at the moment for shattering preconceptions of what games are is of course Flower, which is of course a thing of extraordinary beauty and confidence. It is however, the exception to the rule – and whilst it’s a wonderful piece of work – I’d feel bad if someone rushed out and bought a PS3 because they were so seduced by Flower and wanted to play lots more stuff like it as clearly they’re going to be a little disappointed.

So, whilst I think it’s important that we demonstrate the boundaries of gaming to people – show them work that defies their expectations of what they thought a videogame is – I think it’s important that we also ensure we show people really good examples of genre archetypes too. So – my personal selection if you came round my house tonight and said ‘show me some games…!’

God of War 3
Angry Birds
Curse of Monkey Island
Beatles Rock Band
Doodle Jump
Mario Galaxy
Heavy Rain
Mario Kart Wii
New Super Mario Bros Wii
Half Life
LEGO Indiana Jones 2
Fallout 3
Noby Noby Boy
Little Big Planet
Metal Gear 4
oh, and Flower.

By no means a definitive selection – just a few ideas to get us started…

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