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A 27 Layer Dip of Video Game Culture

This past weekend, the Columbia Theatre in New Westminster held the first annual Vancouver Gaming Expo.  Earlier this year, the first Retro Gaming Expo was held at the same venue, and because of its success, the new, more modern-focused Gaming Expo has sprung up only eight months later.

While it may have dropped the “retro” from its title, the Vancouver Gaming Expo was clearly catering to the same crowd that came out for the retro event.  The main floor held the dealer hall, a bazaar of local specialty gaming stores selling all manner of obscure and niche products.  There were bins of old Japanese imports, unopened games from twenty years ago, replacement parts for discontinued machines, and other random displays of video game history.  There were patches of modernity to be found in the dealer hall, but the main attraction of the expo wasn’t the chance to buy a copy of Halo – it was the chance to find unfinished Game Boy prototype cartridges and limited edition mint Sega Game Gears – and to be around people who know why those kinds of things are exciting.

Outside of the dealer hall, modernity was much more easily found.  The main stage just below the dealer hall was the host of several game tournaments that went on all weekend long, from Halo 4 and Super Smash Bros. Brawl during the day to drunk Dr. Mario later in the evening.  Around the main stage were gaming stations where people could sit down and play any of the tournament games for fun at any time.

Later in the evening, the main stage was host to performances by the video game cover band MissingNo., and video game-themed burlesque troupe The VanDolls.

Games and performances are definitely an important part of a game expo, but the really cool part about the Vancouver Gaming Expo was the chance to see panels hosted by people from the industry and hear first-hand about things like game development, design, business and art.

One standout panel was the “State of the Industry” panel put on by game industry veteran and NDP candidate Matt Toner.  He talked about things gamers and the general public can do to support local industry and what he is trying to do to enact change.  Since his panel was coming partly from a political place, he remained very positive about the future of the industry.  This was certainly not everyone’s opinion.

On Sunday, the first major event was a panel featuring Brian Hughes, the owner of Gamedeals, a specialty gaming store, and the organizer of the Vancouver Gaming Expo itself.  He was joined by Brian Provinciano, the game developer behind the recent high-profile, eight-years-in-the-making indie hit, Retro City Rampage.  They spoke about working in the industry from two totally different positions, and were much less optimistic about the future of their culture.

Brian Hughes in particular, being part of a brick-and-mortar industry which is currently taking a nose-dive, gave this bitter advice to those in the audience wanting to break into the space: “Don’t.”

Brian Provinciano is seeing early success from his recently released game, and so was a bit less sour, but still had troubling things to say.  He showed concern over gaming executives and new trends like casual gaming and micro-transactions.  He talked about how many of today’s consumers and investors don’t understand games like Retro City Rampage that call back to an older age of game design philosophy.  “Retro City Rampage is like a seven layer dip, and some people only see the first layer and form their opinion,” Provinciano said.  “Only it’s not even a seven layer dip, it’s like a twenty seven layer dip.”

The Vancouver Gaming Expo was an interesting display of change in the game industry.  A “modern” games expo that yearned for retro gaming from every pore, it clearly demonstrated an uneasiness among exhibitors and attendees over the future of video games.

The Vancouver Gaming Expo and the Vancouver Retro Gaming Expo will be held at the Columbia Theatre about six months apart.  The next Retro Gaming Expo has been scheduled for early 2013, and is expected to sell out early.