Space In­ven­tors

GameCity is build­ing the UK’s first per­ma­nent ded­i­cated cul­tural space for videogames


The story of GameCity’s Na­tional Videogame Ar­cade, as told by one of the project’s cre­ators

It’s been over 30 years since Thorin first sang to me about gold. The char­ac­ters of Beam Soft­ware’s The Hob­bit pulled me through the screen into a world of flood-filled imag­i­na­tion, where part of me still lives to­day, look­ing for keys and go­ing NORTH. And it’s 20 years since I last wrote for

Edge, re­view­ing the now-al­most-forgotten el­lip­soid DOS game Ec­stat­ica (“A stunning cre­ative vi­sion made pos­si­ble by re­mark­able tech­ni­cal in­no­va­tion; 8/10”). Ten years later, I came back into the

Edge of­fice as head of pro­duc­tion at Gi­ant In­ter­ac­tive En­ter­tain­ment, to show the first pre­view build of Lego Star Wars on PS2. Time passes… Now I’m part of GameCity, build­ing the Na­tional Videogame Ar­cade. We open in two weeks. By the time you read this, we’ll have launched the UK’s first per­ma­nent ded­i­cated cul­tural space for videogames, a five-storey build­ing in the cen­tre of Not­ting­ham. A videogame cathe­dral. The. Na­tional. Videogame. Ar­cade. I know, right? The NVA ex­ists to connect as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble with the full breadth and rich­ness of games and game cul­ture. It show­cases and makes ac­ces­si­ble the widest imag­in­able ar­ray of in­ter­ac­tive ex­pe­ri­ences, from vin­tage ar­cade ma­chines and home com­put­ers to ex­per­i­men­tal new works and unique lo­ca­tion-spe­cific in­stal­la­tions.

As Edge read­ers, we’ve all got an at­tic hoard of dusty old hard­ware, never-played car­tridges and slowly de­grad­ing discs. More im­por­tantly, we all have mem­o­ries and sto­ries of games that made an im­pact on us. And we all have a stake in the end­lessly un­fold­ing cre­ative po­ten­tial of the medium.

The NVA is a place where you can have a go on an orig­i­nal As­ter­oids or Track &

Field ma­chine, play Samu­rai Shodown on Neo-Geo, or Power Stone 2 on a big screen – of course it is. But it’s also a space where the mean­ing of those things can be shared, cel­e­brated and ex­plored. And it’s a place that builds new ways for peo­ple to play to­gether, a lab­o­ra­tory for in­no­va­tion in so­cial play and the devel­op­ment of novel in­ter­faces be­tween the dig­i­tal and phys­i­cal worlds.

Bring­ing all th­ese things to­gether in one lo­ca­tion im­me­di­ately cre­ates in­ter­est­ing con­nec­tions and contrasts. Space In­vaders (the orig­i­nal ar­cade game) stands along­side

Pong In­vaders Re­al­ity (in which play­ers hit ta­ble ten­nis balls at a screen to de­stroy in­com­ing aliens). The Xbox One gamemak­ing tool­kit of Project Spark finds its place in the cre­ative tra­di­tion of Mario Paint and The Quill. The twin 40-but­ton con­trollers of a twoplayer Steel Bat­tal­ion setup are

right next to the Ar­duino-pow­ered MaKey- MaKey work­bench, where you can make your own (al­most cer­tainly less in­tim­i­dat­ing) in­put sys­tems from ev­ery­day ob­jects.

We hon­our the past, and look to the fu­ture. We’re an ar­cade, not a mu­seum – more a zoo than a gallery – be­cause our trea­sures are alive. They live on, not just to be played and to give joy, as they were orig­i­nally de­signed to, but to in­spire con­tin­ued in­no­va­tion. The un­ceas­ing en­ergy and di­ver­sity of videogame devel­op­ment across the decades re­minds us of hardlearned lessons, and ne­glected paths ripe with still-un­ex­plored op­por­tu­ni­ties.

The NVA is a place for ev­ery­one else, too. Games are for every­body, and we’re work­ing hard to present them in ways that are ac­ces­si­ble and rel­e­vant to peo­ple who don’t yet share our pas­sions. We’re wel­com­ing and safe. We build bridges for new play­ers. We’re evan­ge­lists.

This ap­proach is the nat­u­ral cul­mi­na­tion of ten years of work by GameCity to take games into the public spa­ces of Not­ting­ham, and to put game-mak­ers in di­rect con­tact with play­ers. The an­nual GameCity Fes­ti­val has achieved world renown for its in­no­va­tive pro­gram­ming and demo­cratic cul­ture, putting games on gi­ant screens in the city cen­tre and host­ing events as di­verse as Eric Chahi’s Playable Meal, where the cre­ator of

An­other World served up coloured dishes view­able in 3D through anaglyphic glasses, or Live Text Ad­ven­tures in Not­ting­ham Cen­tral Li­brary, where au­di­ence mem­bers played par­al­lel real­time ad­ven­tures im­pro­vised by a group of writ­ers, in­clud­ing De­pres­sion Quest’s Zoe Quinn and Planescape: Tor­ment’s Chris Avellone.

Af­ter hav­ing Parappa cre­ator Masaya Mat­suura con­duct a room full of ka­zoo-play­ing fans in the Coun­cil House Ball­room, or giv­ing Thomas Was Alone’s Mike Bithell the gilded set­ting of the old Ma­sonic Hall to in­tro­duce Andy Serkis in the role of Guy Gis­bourne, it’s clear GameCity has al­ways been con­cerned with the dra­matic po­ten­tial of a phys­i­cal lo­ca­tion, and tak­ing games into places where they’re not nor­mally found. The glee with which de­vel­op­ers have em­braced th­ese op­por­tu­ni­ties is best embodied in Keita Taka­hashi’s month-long res­i­dency, where the Kata­mari direc­tor worked with lo­cal chil­dren to de­sign a new play­ground.

The NVA is a per­ma­nent em­bod­i­ment of this spirit. I joined GameCity founder and direc­tor Iain Simons in the search for a build­ing af­ter col­lab­o­rat­ing on the Two Big Screens project, which in­stalled two 40-foot screens on the Mar­ket Square; in­vited de­vel­op­ers, in­clud­ing Gold­enEye’s Martin Hol­lis and Tango Fi­esta’s An­drew Smith, to cre­ate new public games for them; and –

We’re an ar­cade, not a mu­seum – more a zoo than a gallery

in a move as ridicu­lous as it was dar­ing – phys­i­cally moved the screens each day from one end of the square to the other, plac­ing the two dis­plays in dif­fer­ent con­fig­u­ra­tions to af­ford to­tally dif­fer­ent kinds of game­play. The whole process was so in­cred­i­bly fun and in­ter­est­ing that the need to give GameCity an ex­tended and ex­panded life in a year­round home was noth­ing short of ir­re­sistible.

Noth­ing that’s hap­pened since then could have taken place had we not dis­cov­ered the per­fect build­ing. Not­ting­ham is an in­cred­i­ble city, full of se­crets, with me­dieval pubs and Vic­to­rian fac­to­ries sit­ting on Europe’s largest ar­ray of man-made caves and a vi­brant mod­ern civic life nour­ished by tens of thou­sands of stu­dents. In the heart of the newly re­gen­er­ated Cre­ative Quar­ter, we found a build­ing whose for­mer lives and char­ac­ter were in­stantly lov­able. Built as a lace fac­tory, 24–32 Carl­ton Street had all the open space and func­tional drive we were look­ing for, but it was its use by The Mid­land Group that made it unique.

Es­tab­lish­ing it­self in the ’60s as “a fo­rum for pro­gres­sive and ex­per­i­men­tal vis­ual arts in Not­ting­ham”, The Mid­land Group hosted ex­hi­bi­tions by ma­jor in­ter­na­tional artists such as David Hock­ney and Robert Map­plethorpe, and op­er­ated a rad­i­cal pro­gramme of per­for­mance art, cinema, ed­u­ca­tional out­reach and live events. Its devel­op­ment of the Carl­ton Street build­ing, in progress for many years and never quite com­pleted, has cre­ated the ideal phys­i­cal set­ting for a new gen­er­a­tion of in­ter­ac­tive work de­signed to reach out to the public.

In­spired by its scale and con­stantly de­lighted by its con­fig­u­ra­tion of in­ter­est­ing spa­ces, we’re try­ing to make the en­tire build­ing into noth­ing less than a game plat­form. Open­ness has been a cen­tral value of GameCity from the start, with the Open GameCity pro­gramme bring­ing cre­ative peo­ple of all back­grounds and in­ter­ests to con­trib­ute to the fes­ti­val, and the Open Ar­cade giv­ing de­vel­op­ers the op­por­tu­nity to get their games played by public and press with the most min­i­mal pre­req­ui­sites. So we’ve been fit­ting out the build­ing with sys­tems that ac­tively en­cour­age cre­ative con­tri­bu­tions from other peo­ple. Ar­duinos are ev­ery­where. We have DMX-ad­dress­able light­ing and a net­worked au­dio ma­trix – all sup­ported by work­shops, game jams, school vis­its, so­cial events and com­mis­sioned work to fo­cus at­ten­tion on the ways in which

Ten peo­ple press but­tons, turn switches and move slid­ers, af­fect­ing the game­play

games can come out of the screen, shap­ing our hu­man spa­ces and be­hav­iours.

The NVA em­bod­ies our be­lief not just that games are for ev­ery­one, but that gamemak­ing is for ev­ery­one. We want to in­spire and em­power new gen­er­a­tions of gamemak­ers, and cre­ate a devel­op­ment com­mu­nity that ev­ery­one can be a part of. Our first-floor gallery ex­plores the deep re­la­tion­ship be­tween play and cre­ativ­ity with a sur­vey of in-game cre­ative tools. It also fea­tures the first UK in­stal­la­tion of Lieven Van Velthoven’s Room Rac­ers, where com­puter-pro­jected cars are driven around con­stantly re­con­fig­ured real-world tracks. The gallery’s cen­tre­piece, though, is Mission Con­trol. I need to get over there in a mo­ment – the pedestals have just come back from the spray shop, and we’re about to get the con­trol pan­els hooked up –- but let me just take a fi­nal mo­ment to de­scribe it, be­cause it rep­re­sents a lot of the con­cepts we’ve been build­ing into the whole place.

Mission Con­trol fills an en­tire room. A gi­ant cen­tral screen is flanked by smaller mon­i­tors and feeds, con­nected to an ar­ray of con­trol sta­tions, like a cross be­tween the bridge of the Star­ship En­ter­prise and the TARDIS con­trol con­sole. Two peo­ple stand in front of the screen play­ing a game of swoop­ing shim­mer­ing ac­tion, while ten other peo­ple around them press but­tons, turn switches and move slid­ers, which dy­nam­i­cally af­fect the game’s as­sets and game­play. Ma­tri­ces of light-up but­tons give you pixel-by-pixel con­trol over the player char­ac­ters’ sprites and an­i­ma­tions. Tog­gle switches, di­als and patch plugs con­trol en­emy be­hav­iours and spawn rates, pickup graph­ics, HUD fonts, spe­cial-ef­fect set­tings, mu­sic and more.

Off to one side, a chalk­board is pho­tographed and in­cor­po­rated into the game as its back­ground. At a low ta­ble, new en­emy de­signs are drawn and scanned in to ap­pear im­me­di­ately in the game as new ad­ver­saries for the play­ers. Ev­ery­one be­comes a game-maker; ev­ery­one gets to ac­cess the thrill of see­ing their cre­ative choices af­fect other peo­ple’s ex­pe­ri­ences on the big screen.

Con­struc­tion of this paean to player power has re­quired the tal­ents of a di­verse team of pro­gram­mers, car­pen­ters, pain­ters and mu­si­cians, in­clud­ing Mucky Foot co-founder, Star­topia and Syn­di­cate coder Guy Sim­mons, Fa­ble artist Do­minic Clubb, 3D designer and fab­ri­ca­tor Gareth Hust­waite, and GameCity en­gi­neer Alex Roberts, de­vel­oper of new games for old con­sole sys­tems, in­clud­ing SNES ti­tle Robin Hood. Their col­lab­o­ra­tion has al­ready achieved, even be­fore we open, our great­est am­bi­tion for the NVA: for it to be a place where peo­ple are drawn to­gether to make new things, to build some­thing never seen be­fore and share it with the world.

The men be­hind the Na­tional Videogame Ar­cade: GameCity’s Jonathan Smith (left) and Iain Simons

GameCity’s Alex Roberts in­ves­ti­gates the new Zone Dome, a tread­mill and screen setup that has been de­signed to pro­vide the feel­ing of run­ning in ex­otic lo­cales

01 The main stair­well, the build­ing’s spine, is clad with screens around an ax­onic cas­cade of ex­posed net­work and au­dio ca­bles. 02 Schoolkids on a pre­view visit to the NVA get a look into gam­ing’s past as well as its po­ten­tial fu­ture. 03 Staff from GameCity’s en­gi­neer­ing depart­ment build the tech that will power the NVA when it opens

The ex­te­rior of the NVA pro­vides lit­tle hint of the en­tire build­ing hav­ing be­come a plat­form for cre­ative play, but its cul­tural her­itage is rich

A col­lec­tion of high­lights from GameCity’s colour­ful his­tory: 01 David Braben and Ian Bell come to­gether to cel­e­brate the 25th an­niver­sary of

Elite be­neath a dis­play of origami mod­els of its ships. With a choir.

02 Cri­sis! Panic!Team! on Two Big Screens on the Mar­ket Square.

03 Eric Chahi presents his playable meal. Here, ex-Naughty Dog man Richard Le­marc­hand is fish­ing for pea balls

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