I’ve been so busy with Ten Little Astronauts recently that I haven’t properly managed to write about any of the games events I’ve attended this year, even though I’ve got to more of them than ever and exhibited my own work for the first time. For that reason, I’m cramming them all into this one big blog post, in reverse chronological order, starting with…
Reading Comic Con (25th-26th November)
This was the final event at which I exhibited Girth Loinhammer’s Most Exponential Adventure before finishing the whole thing, and the advice I got there (particularly from Noaksey) helped shape the look of the version that’s gone out to all the supporters of Ten Little Astronauts who’ve asked to get an early look at it. (I’m still sending those out on request, so if you’ve put in a pledge – even if you end up doing it after this – and want to have a play at that, get in touch and let me know.) Basically, I was set up in a corner of the room just inside the door, which was an absolutely ideal position for catching the attention of passers-by, except that the default Twine stylesheet I was using for Exponential Adventure at that point made it look more like a survey of some sort than an actual playable game. Compare to how it looks now:
It’s basically just a parchment background with the links coloured to suit it, but I think it makes an absolute world of difference. I made the change literally overnight on my woefully underpowered netbook so that I could have the improved version ready for the second day of Comic Con the following morning, and made a few further tweaks with help from Isak Grozny and G. Deyke after the event.
Oh, and I also got a chance to step away from my display table to meet Danny John-Jules! It was pretty amazing to be able to head over and say hi because I’ve been a fan of Red Dwarf literally my entire life. The theme song was among my first words. Anyway, I couldn’t stick around for long because I’d left the guys behind Elemental Flow watching my table and also there was a pretty huge queue to meet the Red Dwarf cast members who were there, but the main thing I took away from this is that Danny John-Jules is a spectacularly nice guy. He was only announced as one of the guests last thing the day before – since up until then he’d expected to be needed for filming elsewhere – and he was raising money for charity at the event. If it was me, I might have just taken the opportunity for a day off!
If you’d like a look at some of what else went on in the Indie Games Zone at Reading Comic Con, you might like to check out this post from Noaksey himself, and also the (then) live video stream from the event. If I look a little dishevelled in the video, it’s because I’d spent the night sleeping under my coat on the floor of a friend’s house (it was good to catch up, and also saved me having to book accommodation at a spectacularly busy time).
AdventureX (11th-12th November)
This was definitely the biggest games event I exhibited at, and to be honest I’m kind of surprised they accepted Exponential Adventure. This one was ludicrously popular: the queue went out of the building at times and they hit capacity at the venue within half an hour of opening on the first day (so I’m hoping they’ll be able to get a bigger space next year). Mine was the only entirely text-based game on show (as far as I’m aware), and it was only only me behind it, while some of the other projects were highly polished efforts from whole teams of people. It did seem to go down very well, though, despite this being before I’d improved the game’s style or even had a chance to write as much of it as I would have liked. By this point (and indeed at all of the events this year) it was nearly complete, but still something like 1 in 16 possible storylines would lead to a dead end at a certain point.
Despite its flaws at this stage of completion, Exponential Adventure went down very well indeed. AdventureX attracts an international crowd of developers as well as just regular games fans, and I’d say probably quite a majority were developers of some sort or another. Gamers seem to understand Exponential Adventure better than readers in general, but people who have tried to produce any sort of branching path narrative for themselves are nearly always the quickest to realise just how much work is involved in writing a narrative that branches exponentially. This guy, for example, definitely gets it.
This made AdventureX probably the most interesting event to set up at, because usually people were keen to talk about the story in more depth and were curious about the character and setting as well as just the basic structure. I think that’s part of the reason I’ve ended up staying in touch with so many people from this particular event. Also, it turned out that I was staying in the same hostel as a whole bunch of them. I find a lot of people seem reluctant to turn up to events if nobody they know is going to be there, but usually if you’re staying nearby you’ll run into people who are doing exactly the same thing, and then pretty soon you will know people who are there. As it happened, however, I actually did know quite a few people at this one, including Joey Jones (author of Trials of the Thief-Taker), who very kindly watched my table from time to time over the weekend.
If you want an overview of the entire event, Space Quest Historian’s video report is pretty comprehensive. Naturally I was manning my table most of the time, so this video was pretty much how I caught up with everything else that was going on!
Indies Unplayed (29th October)
This was the absolute first event I ever attended to exhibit my own game. and I think it was a great one to start off with. It was held at Secret Weapon, a London gaming bar that I would totally go to all the time if I lived anywhere near it. I’d already met a couple of the other exhibitors – Gary Kings and Chris Payne – at EGX the month before, so again it’s worth noting how easy it is to get to know people in games. Two years ago I hadn’t been to anything like this, and it wasn’t until pretty much this time last year that I started making a concerted effort to do that, so it really doesn’t take much to meet developers provided you can physically turn up at places where they’ll be.
Indies Unplayed was probably the smallest of the events I went to, but actually Exponential Adventure seemed to attract more interest here than at Reading Comic Con even though some of the other, flashier titles were the same. Thinking back, AdventureX was pretty much the ideal place to exhibit because people were there for narrative games specifically, while Reading Comic Con probably wasn’t such a good match simply because not everyone there was into games at all (though the variety of things going on also meant it was probably the most fun for me to be at: I saw some great costumes while I was there!). Indies Unplayed was somewhere between the two, in that although people woludn’t necessarily have been expecting a text-based game, they were very much there for games in general.
I did have a bit of a think about how I’d set up the table for this first event, and – since I wasn’t sure how long people would be likely to play or how much competition there would be for screen time – made sure to set up some posters pointing people towards the online demo, which loads reasonably nicely on a mobile phone. I printed QR codes, which turned out to be the most popular option, but also made one copy of the poster you see above, largely just because I thought “Tap phone on rippling muscles to begin demo” set the tone nicely. The poster includes a concealed NFC sticker which I’ve set up to open the demo on any (unlocked, NFC-enabled) phone placed on it. This saw less actual use, but got a few laughs and proved useful on at least one occasion when a player didn’t have a QR code reader installed but did have NFC working. The mobile option was useful in general because it meant that anybody who took an interest in the game due to seeing someone else play could have a go right away: that might not be practical for all games, but for all my Twine stuff at least I’ll be sure to sort it out somehow.
This being the first event – and having no idea what the response was likely to be like – I also considered how I’d get people to take a look at Exponential Adventure in the first place. Ultimately, I ended up ordering a super cheap fancy dress robe off the internet and wearing that while I was at the table. Partly that was because I hadn’t had time to think about designing a T-shirt with the game’s title on it, partly because I’m not sure I want a T-shirt with the game’s title on it. It did seem well worth wearing something to indicate that I was actually there to display the game, though, rather than just mooching around the pub with a pint. The Ten Little Astronauts T-shirt I’ve had printed has turned out to be surprisingly effective in getting people to take an interest in the book (which also helps explain why so many companies at EGX have been lobbing merch at me – the first NFC device I started fiddling with was a PS4 branded rubber bracelet flung by someone from Sony).
EGX (21st-24th September) and EGX Rezzed (30th March – 1st April)
Okay, I’ll be honest. Both these events were long enough ago that I’d struggle to write anything meaningful about them. EGX Rezzed was my first chance to actually play the (nearly) complete version of Craft Keep VR, the game I was brought on board to write for after meeting the developer at EGX in 2016. Basically, though, the main thing I’d write about is the people I met and the games I saw, and since I’ve met and seen several again since, I think the better option would be to list a few…
Games you should take a look at sometime (in no particular order):
- 2000:1: A Space Felony obviously caught my attention as it’s a murder mystery in space. That gets it brownie points (as does the knowledge that the creator has also produced an Agatha Christie-inspired game specifically), but what really stands out is the openness of the mystery itself. I’ve been tempted to write a mystery in Twine, and one of the biggest stumbling blocks to that is that if there’s an option inviting you to “Accuse the butler,” that might provide a hint even if it appears alongside the option to accuse any number of other people. 2000:1, however, demands that you scour the spaceship you’re on in search of clues (which could be anywhere), photograph them, and then use those photographs to interview the suspect, MAL. Essentially, the fact that you uncover the mystery by asking questions, rather than providing answers, means that there’s virtually no way for you to pick up clues from the way the game challenges you. You have the clues. What you need to do is address them in the right order.
- Elemental Flow includes another interesting mechanic, also conversational. I think it’s best described as playing out like a cross between a puzzle and a quick time event: you have a range of different conversational abilities (explain, empathise, etc.) that have different effects depending on who you’re talking to and what they’re saying at the time. Sussing out which to use is a big part of the challenge, but then on top of that you also have to be attentive and react quickly so that you don’t end up either talking over the character you’re conversing with or listening intently while they’re waiting for you to speak. I get the sense that it’s possible to muddle through with a less than optimum strategy – and I’m pretty sure I did this myself during the demo – but working out the ideal approach to any given conversation makes things much, much easier.
- Critical Annihilation is a frantic voxel-based shooter that reminded me a lot of arcade classic Smash TV. The view is more or less top-down, giving you the opportunity to run in any direction you like while also shooting in any direction you like, which is handy because enemies tend to flood in from pretty much any direction. Single-player gameplay at least is tough as nails, with vast swarms of baddies flooding towards you within the first few levels, but on top of simply blasting your way through them (which is tremendous, scenery-levelling fun) your character will gain perks and equipment as they gain experience, meaning that you tend to gain a few more goodies even when you lose.
- Mao Mao Castle takes advantage of the LEAP Motion Controller to great effect, allowing you to guide a pixel art Cat-Dragon through levels crammed with flowers, pebbles, rainbows that you want to run into, and buildings, trees, pillars that you don’t. There’s also a mobile version on the way with touchscreen controls, but seriously, if you get a chance to play it using the motion controller, don’t pass it up. It’s spectacularly good fun.
- Attack of the Earthlings would be best summed up as “reverse XCOM.” It’s a turn-based strategy game on a grid pitting humans against aliens, but in classic sci-fi fashion it turns out that…DUN DUN DUN…mankind is the evil invading force! I actually wasn’t a fan of this idea to begin with – it’s been done plenty of times and tends to come across as preachy even though the basic point is fair – but two things about Attack of the Earthlings specifically mean it works really well. One is that it’s really, really funny. The writing is just superb. The other is that though I think it’s fair to describe it as “reverse XCOM,” it does genuinely invert rather than simply re-style the game. In XCOM, you control a squad of soldiers and much of your attention is focused on gunning down the aliens’ deadly close-combat troops before they can eviscerate anyone on your team. In Attack of the Earthlings, the situation is flipped: most of your units have no ranged attack and a great deal of the challenge comes from positioning them to deliver those close-combat attacks without being obliterated by the humans’ superior firepower on the way. The game actually introduces some neat stealth elements in order to let you do this effectively and those are – to me at least – totally original. I don’t think I’ve seen quite the same thing anywhere else.
There are definitely games I’m leaving out here, partly because I have a literal list scribbled down and the ones from EGX alone would make for a long post in its own right. As this is a long post as it is, I think I’ll leave it there. This is what I’ve been doing for the past few months, and those are some of the things I’ve seen. If you made it to any of these events or know about any more coming up in future, it would be great to hear from you!
You might recall that Craft Keep VR, the virtual reality game I ended up writing for after EGX 2016, was up for a Game of the Year award at Login Vilnius a while back. Well, it’s happened again, and this time it’s through the TIGA Games Industry Awards!
This time around, Craft Keep VR is right alongside big names like Forza Horizon and Horizon: Zero Dawn. Even just in its own category – Game by a Small Studio – there’s Yooka-Laylee and The Flame in the Flood, both of which have quite a bit more clout behind them than “Small Studio” would suggest: the teams behind those include some of the people behind Banjo-Kazooie, Halo and BioShock.
I hesitate to ask people to vote in this because I’m aware fairly few will have the VR hardware necessary to actually play Craft Keep, but if you’re in a position to compare the games in the shortlist (maybe you got a go at EGX or EGX Rezzed), then here’s the page where you can vote for your favourite.