EVENT: Game Changers: Perth Festival 2014

The idea that game designers and game writers could share a bill with someone as famous in the literary world as Martin Amis is a bit of a strange concept to me. Not because I don’t think games writers are good enough, but because I don’t think the people that organise events featuring Martin Amis generally care anything about games. Yet, as I walked down the street in Perth and spotted Mr. Amis having a cigarette outside his hotel, I was indeed on my way to an event all about games writing – if only I could find a cab to get me there.

Perth Festival, 2014

Where all the action is

The event was Game Changers, held at the Perth Writers Festival on Saturday February 22nd. And I did eventually find a cab, though of course the driver didn’t actually know where the University of Western Australia was, and I had to give him directions. Why don’t cab drivers use Google maps, anyway? I was running late, and rushing in Perth in the summer is, I discovered, unwise.

Thankfully the venue was air conditioned, and I arrived only a little late for the first talk. I missed the introductions, but the people on stage were impressive enough that it didn’t matter. Clint Hocking – creative director of Far Cry 2, Jill Murray – Director of Narrative Design at Ubisoft Quebec, Guy Gadney – founder of Sydney studio The Project Factory, and the moderator, Steven ‘Bajo’ O’Donnell of Australian TV show Good Game.

The topic under discussion was “the writer and the game” and Jill and Clint were explaining the role of the writer in a AAA environment: its challenges, the benefits of a large team, and parts of their process. Each of the sessions over the course of the day lasted an hour. Thirty minutes of discussion, and thirty minutes of Q&A, where the poor Festival volunteer with the microphone was made to run around the crowd at the whim of the two moderators.

After I wrote pages of near-indecipherable notes, on topics as varied as writers block and the ludic contract between a game and its players, the first session concluded. All the kids rushed the stage – not to talk to any of the internationally renowned game developers – but to talk to their hero, Bajo. I went back out into the heat of Perth, and ordered a coffee. I don’t know why I did that. It wasn’t a great idea. I sweltered and waited for the next session.

The second session was titled “What the Player Wants” and proposed the notion that the independent games movement had evolved to give players wider experiences that AAA games weren’t providing. This seemed to be accepted as fact by the audience and the panelists, and the discussion was more a state of the union than any questioning of value.

Bajo moderated again, but this time the panelists were, appropriately, of the indie variety. Steve Gaynor, founder of The Fullbright Company, responsible for the indie hit Gone Home, shared the stage with popular and respected Australian critic Dan Golding. The third panelist was Dan Pinchbeck, creator of Dear Esther and founder of English studio, The Chinese Room.

The discussion was spirited, and perhaps reached its peak when Steve Gaynor good-naturedly asked Pinchbeck “Is your next game going to have gameplay? I know some of your others didn’t…” Despite nearly veering into “what is game” territory, the discussion ended with the unanimous decision that, according to Pinchbeck, “players are hungry for different stories.”

That gave us thirty minutes to try and find lunch. This turned out to be available from two small tents in the middle of a clearing in the blazing heat. Still cooling down after that first coffee, I stole small pieces of salad and drank lots of water. There were still two talks to go, I didn’t want to overdo it.

Clint Hocking Steve Gaynor Dan Pinchbeck
Clint Hocking, Steve Gaynor, Dan Pinchbeck

The University Of Western Australia wasn’t only hosting the games related Writers Festival talks. There were three or four other venues with events running all day, and it was interesting to see a marked difference in the audiences. By and large, the main audience for the festival seemed to be middle-aged women. The gamers – mostly male and mostly teenagers – were a definite minority, and must have lowered the average age at the festival by 20 or 30 years. It was interesting to see.

The afternoon panels saw Bajo’s co-host Stephanie “Hex” Bendixsen take over moderation duties, while the guests from the previous panels shuffled around. The discussion was, mostly, just as good – only let down by one teenaged audience member who felt the need to compliment Hex on her appearance instead of asking a meaningful question.

After the final panel, there was time for a meet and greet session. The longest queue was for, not surprisingly, Hex and Bajo. Still, it was a great opportunity to talk one on one with the international and interstate guests, and many took that chance.

The next day, the Perth game development community, under Let’s Make Games, held a follow-up event. Those guests who had been able to remain in Perth spoke on their experiences, play-tested local games and offered advice – particularly on entering the industry – to Perth developers.

Some of the advice wasn’t pretty – long story short, don’t hold out much hope of getting your first job in the AAA industry if you are just out of school in Australia and all the jobs are in the USA or Canada – but all the panellists were happy to give help or to chat about their work.

The discussions continued (of course) at a nearby pub overlooking the river, where the Perth games community showed just how friendly it can be. They ensured that I didn’t get lost, that I got home and that I didn’t pass out from heat exhaustion. It was a wonderful afternoon.

Jill Murray Guy Gadney Martin Amis
Jill Murray, Guy Gadney, Martin Amis

I never spotted Martin Amis again over the weekend, but I didn’t need to. All my heroes were right in front of me. People who are doing amazing things in games – in the AAA, mobile and independent spaces – were all right there in Perth for people to speak to. The only thing that amazes me is that more people didn’t attend. Outside of the speakers, I didn’t meet a single other person at the event not from Perth.

Still, some of the Game Changers sessions sold out, and all were well attended. I hope that next year the event is run again, that the calibre of guests is just as high, and that more people from across Australia take advantage of this brilliant opportunity. It’s probably asking too much that it not be quite so hot and the cab drivers know where they’re going.

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