Rezzed 2014

I attended Rezzed last week and had a fantastic time. I was there for the whole 3 days and still didn’t get to go on everything I wanted! It was twice as big as last year’s event and I think I liked a much greater proportion of the games I got to try.

Though the contents were great, I think the NEC could have done a little better with the presentation. The two cloakrooms right next to the Rezzed hall were inexplicably closed, and to get to the event we had to walk through an empty hall. Why not just put Rezzed in that one? Nothing had been done with the empty space – no advertisement hoardings, no enterprising merchandise sellers. On the other hand, top marks to the NEC chef who made me a stir fry the day there was nothing vegan on the menu.

Here are the games I tried, in more or less the order I did so.

Narcissus by AlexvsCoding
Narcissus is great fun and twattishly hard (‘just annoying enough’ was one of the comments written on the booth wall). Literally all you have to do is make a running stickman jump. It takes one button. The catch is that there are two stickmen and one is upside down, running in an inverted landscape. You have to control them both (one arrow key per man), or go 2 player. It’s easier and you can’t really get frustrated with each other because you’ll both crap out from time to time.

Narcissus makes use of one of the same tropes as Swift*Stitch – causing you to fail (through no fault of the game) by acting when inaction was necessary, so great is our expectation that when playing a game we must always be doing something. Narcissus seems impossibly hard until you twig that if the man only needs to jump if he needs to reach a higher platform (relative to his local gravity), and lower platforms he can just run onto under his own steam.

I chatted to one of the devs to ask if it was based on the Greek myth. He said it was and that the idea behind the two figures in the game is to make you uncertain which one is real and which one is the reflection.

Dungeon of the Endless by Amplitude Studios
This was great, speaking as someone who has never played a roguelike before (I don’t even know what that is, I just took the dev’s word for it that that’s what this game is), and who generally doesn’t like tower defence games. I had no idea what to do at first and didn’t understand the mechanics, being unfamiliar with the genre, and initially I had to just click on whatever the dev told me to click on because I couldn’t work it out on my own. I think she kind of thought I wasn’t ever going to get it.

I picked it up after about 1 and a half levels, then died from mostly bad luck. Dungeon of the Endless has procedurally-generated levels in which you must explore to find the exit, then safely bring your crashed spaceship’s power core there. In the meantime, you must protect the crystalline power core and your characters from attack with tower defence elements. To place these elements, the room they’re to be in must have power. Unpowered rooms remain dark and will periodically spawn enemies (unexplored rooms don’t do this, presumably because the monsters can’t work the door seals). Once you’ve discovered the exit and decided it’s time to pull out the crystal and make a dash for it, the rooms start losing power and allowing enemies to spawn and give chase. It is pretty darn hard, which I’m told is a staple for roguelikes, but is not unenjoyable for it, and the procedural generation of the levels kept me wanting to try again.

Hearthstone by Blizzard Entertainment
I’m not going to buy Hearthstone because I decided never to give Blizzard any of my money because of Reasons, but I had to concede this was good fun and easy to pick up with no instructions. It’s very easy, but in an accessible rather than boring way. You can do whatever you like each turn, as long as you have the mana to pay for it. It’s fast-paced (not frantic; it’s just that each game is quite short) and moreish.

Kaiju Panic by Mechabit
I liked it well enough, but it’s so similar to Puppygames’ Revenge of the Titans (monsters are coming, build defences to keep them from annihilating your base) that I have no incentive to buy it. They’re pretty much identical. (I think I pissed off one of the devs a bit when I pointed this out. Oops.) I guess buy this if you prefer happy candy-coloured visuals to dark neon pixelly ones.

Enter the ARC by Pixel Balloon
This was one of my favourite games of the show. It’s a 2D platformer with gorgeous artwork, set on a circular world. You’re a jumping orb of light and you evade buzzsaws and shooty robots. It’s saved from being just yet another 2D platformer by its amusing style/play disparity (it’s a cute little saccharine world but with quite violent play), the art style itself, the bent world, and the jumping mechanic. The orb (your avatar in an evil computer simulation from which you’re trying to rescue your friend) has not a double but a triple-jump, and this can be extended even further provided you can grab the necessary energy pellets. I had great fun with it and I’m looking forward to seeing it completed.

Biome by Knick Knack (beware flashing gif)
Biome is a toy rather than a game (I took it for a tech demo at first). It’s a ‘digital zen garden’ that’s supposed to respond to your actions, but when I asked the dev how the actions mapped to effects, he admitted that it wasn’t fully implemented and it’s still semi-random. It’s very stylish (I love that the developer went for a strong art style rather than realism) and fun to just play with, though. I suggested that some stars in the sky might be an improvement, and when I came back the next day there were stars!

forma.8 by MixedBag
This was a 2D sidescroller – you can’t really call it a platformer because you play as a floating little robot. I guess we’ll go with ‘2D action adventure’, because that’s what Beat Buddy, another 2D game with a floating character (and one of my favourites from Rezzed 2013), styles itself as. I found it a nice mix of environmental obstacles and evasion-based combat.

Forma.8 has a lovely art style, with some bold palette choices I wouldn’t have thought to try. The foreground elements (including the little robot/probe) are all in shadow, with only the background in vibrant colour. It’s both pretty and atmospheric. I also liked how big/zoomed out the world is and how tiny the little probe is, adding to the sense that you’re a tiny creature in a hostile world. The only thing I didn’t really like it was that the energy orbs (health) don’t really fit the rest of the visual style. They’re magical-looking glowing things that look out of place in the otherwise cel-shaded world. I kind of hope they’re just placeholders.

InFamous: Second Son by Sucker Punch
Disappointingly not that fun. I loved the first game and was hoping for a return to form after the slightly underwhelming (and a tad superfluous) sequel. This one has even more bizarre morality choices – destroying drugs is good but beating up bigots is bad? Plus being able to teleport along smoke clouds or neon tubes just isn’t as cool as destroying things with lightning. I would still quite like to play this from the start, so I can get invested in the story and find out how they can possibly do a sequel after the events of inFamous 2 (the good ending of which has been declared canon after Sucker Punch looked at trophy information and found that 70% of players chose it).

Fez by Polytron
This was one of my favourite games of the show, and I ended up buying it for my Vita afterwards. It’s a colourful 2D platformer in which you must rotate the level in order to navigate. Though it looks like it, you aren’t actually viewing a 3D world one side at a time: the world’s z-axis is collapsed, meaning that you can jump on platforms that ‘really’ would be in the background if the space was truly 3D. It’s been done before, but Fez’s world rotates only in satisfying 90-degree increments, meaning that you can concentrate on actually playing instead of fannying around trying to make two bits of a ladder line up. (As in Echochrome. I got fed up with that game quickly.)

I liked the audio and the graphical styling of this game a lot, and found myself rapidly rotating the world just because I was fascinated by how a tree looked as it rotated. I like how pretty your exposition fairy Dot is – she’s apparently a glowing rotating tesseract.

Cloudbuilt by Rising Star Games
I wanted to like this. It’s some sort of jetpack-assisted wall-running game, which is a cool concept but I wasn’t sure what I had to do. Plus I was either playing in hard mode or the game was bugging, because every failure sent me back to the level start instead of to the last checkpoint. It got too frustrating for me to continue in the end – I’d planned to just clear one level but had to admit defeat. I quite liked the cel-shaded visuals, though.

Three Body Problem by Robin Burkinshaw
This was mint. You’re a purple cube, and you have to collect purple squares while two bastard yellow cubes attempt to smash the shit out of you. It’s like the bastard yellow cubes are inside your head, and it makes you want to keep trying because you aren’t going to let those bastard cubes keep smashing you. It helps that it’s so polished and with sweet particle effects.

Super Exploding Zoo by Honeyslug
This demo was disappointingly short. Blowing up aliens by marching exploding meerkats into them is fun! It’s terribly simple, though, so I’m a bit dubious about the full game’s lifespan. There doesn’t seem to be much more to it than amassing enough exploding animals (blow up their cages to release the animals, who then follow you) to overwhelm the aliens by pyrrhic victory. It looks and feels quite like a party game, but it’s single-player. The dev I spoke to did say they would be adding abilities to each animal type, so as to introduce more puzzle elements.

Murasaki Baby by Ovosonico
This wasn’t my favourite game of the show, but it’s the one I can’t stop thinking about the most. It’s hauntingly creepy, and I feel sorry for the poor wee (freaky mutant) baby. I kind of want to get the game just to make sure she’s okay! Baby is a Tim Burton-esque abomination (not only is her mouth above her eyes, but she has a full set of mismatched blocky teeth), and the graphical styling is cross-hatched in a way that is probably meant to evoke Edward Gorey.

Instead of controlling the titular Baby directly, you use the Vita touchscreen to gently lead her by the hand. I’m not sure if this makes this a second-person game – you aren’t controlling the character as such (as you are in games where you move the character with the analogue stick); you’re playing as yourself. When you tap the screen to kill enemies, it’s not Baby doing it, it’s you. Baby carries a purple balloon on a string that you must protect. If it pops (including by accidental taps from you), she dies. Poor Baby also dies if she is made to let go of the balloon by an enemy, and it floats off the screen. If she lets go of it, you have to use the touchscreen to pull it back to her by the string and put it back into her hand before she finishes dissolving into black ooze.

I did like this game (it has an interesting mechanic I’ve not seen before, in which you swipe the rear touch pad to change the background, which changes which active power your taps have), but it has the same problem as all touch-heavy Vita games, which is that you’re always supporting the full weight of the controller with just one hand. The Vita is pretty hefty for a handheld and really needs its weight taken in two hands to be comfortable to play. Sometimes the game requires two touches (one to lead Baby by the hand and the other to swat enemies or pull her balloon out of the way of spiky stalactites as you walk along), making it pretty much impossible to do this while holding the Vita in two hands. Murasaki Baby also has a tendency to show you a new puzzle then have you do it twice more. Baby is too scared to walk into a dark cave, so you pick up a lightbulb and put it into a fitting, which lights up the cave. Great. Then you have to do it twice more in a row. Yeah, I got it the first time, game.

Luftrausers by Vlambeer
I finally got to playing this after seeing it at last year’s Rezzed but never getting an opportunity to play it. I found it kind of hard, because there seemed to be a knack to steering the wee plane that I didn’t know. I ended up buying it for my Vita anyway, and got into it much better upon being able to play from the start, when the steering and damage-repair mechanics are explained to you. Weirdly, I don’t remember seeing any of this information written down at Rezzed (nearly all games had a printed list of controls), where it would have helped.

Luftrausers is a bullet heck shmup (it’s not tough enough to be bullet hell) with a minimalist peach and terracotta palette (though you can unlock other colour schemes). You’re a lil plane being shot at by bad planes and bad boats. Shoot ‘em back and don’t die for as long as possible. Do it enough times and you can get different engines, fuselages and weapons. You probably won’t last more than a couple of minutes, and the game autosaves after every fight, so you can easily dip in and out of this. It’s a great little game very at home on a handheld.

Containment Protocol by Xiotex Studios
I found this stressful as heck because time limits in games do that to me. Apparently this is a ‘vertical slice’ from the full game. I’m not too sure what that means – whether that means all the game will be like this, or whether this demo represents just one of many things you can do.

The demo level is a simple maze, made difficult to navigate by virtue of the fact that the walls are invisible until your vehicle (a quadcopter) gets close to them with its scanning lidar. You have to find keys in the maze and use them to unlock ever more highly-secured doors, discovering secrets on the way and taking care not to let the copter run out of battery (which I did because I was too busy worrying about the time). I didn’t like it all that much.

Octodad by Young Horses
Everyone watching or playing this was weeing themselves laughing! You play an octopus disguised as a man and you have to do ordinary things (with your human family) without fucking it up too much and getting exposed as the fraudulent man-mollusc you are. It’s terribly funny.

Unfortunately, it’s graphically not that sophisticated and doesn’t really look as though it needs the PS4 rather than the PS3. However, I pondered this on my Twitter a while back when I first saw the trailer, and got an informative reply from the devs explaining that the PS4 really is necessary to handle all the physics in moving Octodad’s tentacles. I do think they could do more with the art style, which looks like far less than the PS4 is capable of (it could almost pass as a good PS2 game) and lets it down a bit. I’d like to see this game with more of a bold cel-shaded style, or really anything else that makes it look like a deliberate design choice.

Hohokum by Honeyslug
I found this quite delightful, though I would have liked some indication that I’d found all the stuff there was to find in the area. Instead of wrapping a level up, you kind of just stop. You play as a colour-shifting rainbow snake who can pick up and let off passengers. It’s by the same developer as Frobisher Says, and shares that game’s silliness and colour. In one level I had to give a ride to some measuring jug/elephant creatures, who could suck up custard with their trunks and store it in their transparent reservoir bodies. We flew around gathering custard and then depositing it in the big vat of a custard-processing machine. As the vat got fuller, I was able to send my snake through the machine’s pipes to explore (the jug-elephants waited outside) and dislodge some cheesed-off bugs stuck in the machinery. I was pretty sure I’d freed all the bugs and gathered all the custard the level had to offer, but there was no declaration from the game that I’d done so.

Towerfall Ascension by Matt Thorson
This is wonderfully silly and joyously simple. I loved it! You have to shoot arrows at other players and avoid being shot by them. You have 3 arrows, though you can pick up anyone else’s dropped arrows and use them too. Out of arrows? You can still kill people by jumping on them. Many of the levels also have moving platforms that can crush you if you’re not careful, and crystalline blocks that players can’t go through but arrows can. All levels ‘loop’ in that jumping down a hole at the bottom of the screen will drop you out of a hole at the top, making it possible to jump down and then land on the head of someone who was above you, or shoot an arrow through a crystal block on the right side of the screen and have it fly back into the stage from the left. It needs at least 3 players to be really good – with 2 it’s over too quickly.

Unrest by Pyrodactyl Games
I wanted to get into this because I like the idea of an RPG with multiple characters whose pathways influence each other. It seems a bit unpolished for something 2 months from release, unfortunately. The art style doesn’t have anything distinct going for it, looking as though the artist was going for realism but ran out of time. The pathfinding isn’t very good, forcing you to click in lots of little straight lines to send the character where you want them. I can’t help but think this would have been better as a text adventure or StoryNexus game.

OlliOlli by roll7
This game is rubbish. It certainly didn’t deserve the two monitors and two Vitas it had. Are PS4 games really so thin on the ground that Sony will showcase this? OlliOlli is a 2D skateboarding game with no jump button, and looks and feels like a free tablet game with placeholder art. Utterly devoid of fun.

Fract OSC by Phosfiend Systems
I thought this was a Proteus-like pure exploration game and quite liked it, wandering around in a crystalline cavern, but apparently it does have puzzles and objectives and I just… missed them completely? Even when I tried the game again after hearing it had puzzles, I couldn’t find anything to actually do. The game has an ‘interact’ mode but I never found anything I could manipulate with it.

I first played it when the sound wasn’t working, and my brain added cave-like ambient sounds to it, which I preferred to the synth backdrop that I discovered it actually has. For some reason the game has CRT-pixels emulation, which I disliked and hope you can turn off.

One Spear Arena by 36peas
This has the same kind of compelling simplicity as Towerfall. You’re a grunting/farting cube and you throw spears at other grunting cubes. Throwing your spear into a gas cloud causes the cloud to explode. Fun!

Broforce by Free Lives Games (beware flashing background)
I wanted to like this because it’s a funny concept (even if it is a bit LOL MEMES) but it’s nowhere near as fun to play as it is to watch. It’s fiddly and difficult, there’s visually too much going on to keep track of your character, and it seems to be arbitrary which checkpoints will work. Frustrating.

Light by Just a Pixel
This was good but I ended up ragequitting it. I’m rubbish at avoid-‘em-ups. I liked the minimalist glowy style and palette, and the information gathering aspect. It seems twattishly hard and only good for playing in short bursts. The time limit to discovery once you kill a guard seems rather arbitrary – the other guards might have discovered that one of their comrades has died, but logically they shouldn’t have any way of knowing it’s me. I’m still tempted to buy the full game.

Standpoint by Unruly Attractions
I liked this a lot, even though I found it frustrating at times. It reminded me a little of Narbacular Drop, in that it’s a first-person puzzle environment game in which you can’t jump. Standpoint’s thing is that you can click on a wall or ceiling to align the gravity to that plane. Obstacles must be ‘jumped’ over by clicking on the ceiling and falling/floating past them. You can realign gravity only once while you’re in the air, to prevent players just floating down corridors all the time. I found the narrator’s lines a bit wanky, and in danger of falling into Antichamber-like pretentiousness. I had quite a nice chat with the devs and I’m interested in playing the full game to learn more about the story. Unfortunately, the Kickstarter doesn’t look as though it’s going to be funded, and its main purpose is to hire an artist, which the (currently basic-looking) game could really do with.

Dream by Hypersloth
This was hard to judge because the Oculus Rift made me feel sick. I had to stop playing after a couple of minutes. It looked… okay. I think it would have been soothing if I could have played it without nausea. Without the 3D and the VR I think it would be just an okay exploration game.

Modulate by Polychrome
This was tough but still woefully short. It’s a first-person puzzle adventure (like Portal), the selling point of which is that you can toggle objects between being solid and being ghostly wireframes. Objects have either a blue or green wireframe – pressing the toggle button switches states for all objects, so if all blue objects become solid all green objects phase out. For example, you might step onto a blue launcher and be boinged across the room, and have to toggle before you land so as to make the green landing platform solid. I found the game impossible at first because it doesn’t explicitly tell you that some objects can be reassigned colours. You can tell which objects these are because their wireframe twitches instead of being completely static lines. I thought the twitching was a glitch and didn’t realise it was part of a mechanic. I’m all for games not being hand-holdy but I would have liked some indication that what looks like a graphical glitch is actually part of the game (especially as this part of the game is explicitly supposed to be a training level). I got stuck again later on when I couldn’t work out that an innocuous-looking plate on the ceiling was actually a box dispenser that would give me the necessary box for solving a puzzle if only I right-clicked on it. This game has potential but it would really benefit from adding a GlaDOS-y voiceover. I’d also like to play what lies beyond the basic training levels in the demo.

TRI by Rat King
I didn’t get to play Tri but I enjoyed watching it so much I bought the beta on Desura. It’s a game in which you explore the world by constructing triangles to walk on. Exploring worlds and finding hidden items is pretty much my favourite thing in games so I’m definitely interested in this. I asked one of the devs if there was a limit to the number of triangles you can have at once, and she said there isn’t. (Or at least that they tested it up to 100 triangles with no problems).

An analysis of Flight Rising and Prince’s reward principles

The browser game Flight Rising is an excellent example of Caspian Prince (of developer Puppygames)’s 4 reward principles, given in his game design talk at 2013’s Bit of Alright. These 4 principles, which generally are all needed to keep a game engaging, are: drip feed, unexpected/random, long-term and regular.

Flight Rising can be loosely categorised as a ‘pet site’, and is often described by its players as ‘Neopets for adults’. In Flight Rising, players choose to align with one of 11 elemental factions and then collect and breed dragons as they please. The elemental factions are known as Flights, and a player’s collection of dragons is called their clan. Dragons can be bred for specific colours and pattern genes, and can be dressed up in apparel (ranging from steampunk wankerypop to cowboy outfits).

One of the main features of the game is the Coliseum, in which players send teams of dragons to fight monsters that drop loot. There is also PvP fighting, which has no tangible rewards (presumably to prevent players taking turns to throw matches and share loot) other than a place in a rankings table.

The site also has a few html5 games to play – currently it has a Bejeweled-ish game, a tile-matching memory game, a simple guessing game, and jigsaw puzzles. These mini-games pay out game currency (called treasure), which can be exchanged with other players or the site shops for apparel, familiars (essentially pets for dragons, used for roleplay/flavour and for some in-game benefits that are detailed below), and special scrolls that alter a dragon’s colours, patterning or breed. The game also has a premium currency called gems, used for buying speciality apparel, familiars and appearance-altering scrolls. Gems can be bought with real money or slowly acquired within the game. Players are also free to buy and sell gems among themselves for treasure. It is also possible for players to buy and sell dragons to each other for treasure, gems or dragon swaps.

Drip feed

Drip feed rewards are small, very frequent rewards. A classic example of this is the small amount of loot or currency dropped by slain enemies in many games.

Within Flight Rising, the drip feed reward is partially represented by the daily item gathering (you get 10-16 gathering turns per day depending on clan health and Flight dominance), and by the small loot drops from the Coliseum. Item gathering has 6 types, to which players may allocate their daily turns as they see fit: hunting, fishing, bug catching, foraging (all 4 of which drop dragon food items), digging (drops mostly stone and metal-themed building materials that are currently useless until the crafting system is implemented) and scavenging (drops mostly wood and bone-themed building materials). Coliseum battle loot is usually food items or vendor trash. Sometimes battles drop no loot, further stimulating the player’s participation because of the Skinner box effect and the gambler’s fallacy. Of course, this kind of mechanic must be done carefully – players sometimes express dissatisfaction in the forums with too-frequent lootless battles.

The mini-games are another example. The games have a relatively low payout and require a huge time investment to be a feasible method of grinding for treasure. The mini-game Higher or Lower is an example of drip feed mixed with regular. It is a chance-based game, aimed at players who do not have much time to spend on the site, in which the player has to guess whether a face-down card has a higher or lower value than a given face-up card. Given that the player knows (or quickly finds out once they start playing) that the cards run from 1-14 and there are no duplicates, it is possible to make more intelligent guesses than simply choosing randomly, but it is not possible to be truly skilled at this game. The player is permitted 25 turns of Higher or Lower per clock hour (making this a regular-type reward), with each correct guess earning the tiny sum of 50T (the ease and small amount making it a drip feed).

Unexpected/random

This kind of reward comprises items that can’t feasibly be grinded for because they drop too infrequently, but are a very nice surprise when they do happen, and the potential of which keeps players returning.

Some pet sites have these in the form of random events (while carrying out normal site activity, an alert message will inform you that you ‘found’ a bonus item, or even that you lost/had an item stolen from you). Flight Rising does not have these per se, but does have unpredictable rare drops. Dragon eggs (which award achievements for obtaining, and which can be hatched into lineage-less dragons that can be bred with any other dragon with no possibility of inbreeding) are very rare drops found in the Coliseum, and slightly more frequently when the ‘scavenging’ gathering skill is high level. Other examples of these drops are rare familiars and apparel pieces found in the Coliseum and by item gathering.

Chest loot is a mix of unexpected and regular. Chests come in 4 types: rusted, iron, gilded, and limited-edition elemental-themed chests that are obtainable during monthly events. Each type of chest has random loot within a fixed tier. Rusted chests contain a small amount of treasure and some vendor trash, and occasionally a cheap apparel piece. Iron and gilded chests drop larger amounts of currency and always drop either a familiar or a piece of apparel, as well as more valuable vendor junk. Limited chests always contain a ‘skin’ – a cosmetic item that will change the appearance of your dragon without affecting its genes, and which can be removed at any time like apparel. Chests, therefore, contain semi-predictable loot that still provides a surprise for the player.

Furthermore, the acquisition of chests themselves is a mix of random and regular. Chests can be obtained randomly as infrequent drops from the Coliseum and from the ‘digging’ type of item-gathering. Chests also drop predictably from your dragons’ familiars (an example of regular rewards). Familiars can be ‘bonded’ with once per day, which provides a small amount of treasure (an example of drip feed) that gradually increases with the familiar’s happiness level. The familiar will drop a chest (of increasing rarity) at each bonding level-up. By the time a familiar and dragon are fully bonded, the familiar will have dropped 3 rusted, 2 iron and 1 gilded chest.

Long-term

In most games, the long-term reward/goal is the end of the game. The player resolves the story, and feels a sense of accomplishment for having overcome all challenges.

In Flight Rising, the long-term goal is the player’s choice. Some players may choose to treat the lair size cap (currently 125 slots) as an endgame state, or the max-levelling of their Coliseum team. Flight Rising players can decide what goals they want to set for themselves. As the game is based around acquiring and showcasing dragons, many players choose to try to breed or buy dragons based on characters in media, or on their own original characters. Another popular goal is to acquire all possible familiars. Some set themselves the arduous task of acquiring enough game currency to persuade a Kickstarter backer to part with one of their KS-exclusive items, which can go for the equivalent of hundreds of dollars’ worth of currency.

In the shorter term, a medium to long-term goal common to all players is the expansion of lair space. Players begin the game with 10 dragon slots, and pay progressively more treasure to unlock another 5 at a time. To reach the cap of 125 lair spaces, if the player wishes to do so, requires hundreds of thousands of treasure.

A ‘short-term long-term’ goal, which overlaps slightly with regular-type rewards, is the weekly dominance rankings. The Flight with the highest dominance ranking at midnight on Sunday is said to be ‘dominating’ for the rest of the week, until the tally is counted anew. Dominance is increased by ‘exalting’ dragons. Exalting is a mechanic that removes a dragon from the game forever in exchange for a sum of treasure – effectively selling a dragon to the game. Players push for Flight dominance by mass exaltation of dragons (which may be trained in the Coliseum to increase their level and result in a profit from exaltation, or bought and exalted at a loss, depending on how determined/desperate the Flight’s players are), in an attempt to be the Flight that exalts the proportionately highest number of dragons.

The monthly festivals are a slightly unorthodox example of long-term goals, because they are more tied to the game’s community rather than its mechanics. A special shop with limited-edition items opens for the week-long duration of the festival, but the shop requires special currency that is only obtainable (as random drops) during the festival, making it impossible for players to plan ahead and stock up on shop currency. One of the big draws of the festivals is the monthly contest to design ‘skins’ (cosmetic items for dragons), the winning designs from which will be added to the game. Designing a skin is done with an external art program rather than anything in the game engine, so this is not really an example of a long-term in-game goal.

Regular

These are predictable rewards that the players knows in advance will happen, and can be used as progress markers (that ‘just one more level’ effect). An obvious example is any game in which characters or their equipment level up.

Flight Rising’s Coliseum is probably the best example of this. Levelling up a dragon brings in more combat skill points to distribute, and unlocks slots for buff stones. In itself, there is no immediate physical reward (such as celebratory loot) for levelling up, but a higher-level dragon can fight in tougher Coliseum stages and earn drop more valuable loot, and can be exalted for a bigger payout than an unlevelled dragon.

The Trading Post provides a blend of reward types. The shop called Swipp’s Swap Stand provides valuable items in exchange for large quantities of vendor trash. Only one trade type is available at any given time, and remains available for 2 hours. Which trade is active is random, and the same one can occur twice in a row. This is a mix of regular and unexpected: players know the swap shop will change every two hours, but it is impossible to predict what the next offer will be and if it will be useful to them. This could even be said to overlap with long-term rewards: if a player decides they want a runic bat familiar, they know (or find out) that they need to bring 200 brown bats (food items) to Swipp. They can then set themselves the goal of acquiring enough bats before waiting for the bat swap to become available.

The shop Crim’s Collection Cart is a mix of regular and drip feed. Every hour, the dragon Crim puts out a wishlist of 5 single items that she is willing to pay treasure for. These are usually food or vendor trash items that she will pay 500T each for (the lowest amount she offers). This is a drip-feed reward because it is frequent and has a small payout, and can count as regular because it is tied to real time. It also encourages the player to plan ahead and keep at least a few of each type of trash item in their inventory. The 500T payout is small but much better than the 15-50T payout that most items yield when being sold back to the site. The item list is randomised every hour, but it probably cannot be said to be an unexpected-type reward because Crim will never, say, give the player a nice surprise by offering to pay a large sum of treasure for an otherwise useless item. In fact, Crim can be a source of the frustration to the player, when she offers to buy valuable items for low payouts. This effectively ‘wastes’ a turn for the player, as no player will ever sell an unhatched dragon egg to Crim for her 500T offer when eggs sell on the player auction house for 20,000-40,000T. This might be said to be linked to the Skinner box effect: a player might reason that since they only managed to sell 2 items to Crim last time, and it’s currently 10 minutes to the hour, in 10 minutes they will have an opportunity to try again, so they might as well stay on the site.

Flight Rising is only 6 months old as of the end of 2013, and has at least 2 forthcoming mechanics known to the playerbase. One of these is Adventure mode, the description of which is ‘Explore the world and complete quests’. What this actually means is still unknown to the playerbase. There is also a forthcoming Trading Post shop called Baldwin’s Brew, in which players will be able to exchange vendor trash items for useful ones on an hourly basis. Further details have not been revealed (except to the players who discovered the development version by guessing the url, before it was pulled off the site), so it is not clear which of the four reward principles it will use. There is also a forthcoming minigame called Tidal Trouble. Presumably this will slot in with the other mini-games’ drip-feed status, but how this game works has still not been revealed.

Thanks to the author of the blog Flight Rising Tips, Tricks, and other Things for correcting a factual inaccuracy. (Coliseum pvp contributes only to clan standings, not the clan’s entire Flight’s.)

Highlights of Nine Worlds

I got to go to Nine Worlds on the Friday and Sunday (I’d only bought a Friday ticket because I’m dole, but my mum took pity on me and bought me a second ticket), and I had a brilliant time. I wish I’d brought my camera – I decided not to because I’ve never been to a proper big con before (I’m not sure if BoA/Rezzed count) and wasn’t sure what to expect, so I travelled light and brought no preconceptions.

I wanted to attend, partly because it was a pissing massive confluence of my interests, and because it felt like a safe space right from the get-go. Nine Worlds is two fingers to those who say ‘con culture’s just like that‘ in response to stories of harassment (sexual and otherwise) at conventions. 9W’s based on a ‘no knobbers’ policy. It worked very well, without a dicksprout trilby* in sight.

I loved how normal it felt that the space had so many non gender-conforming people, and how it showed how arbitrary the differences are. You could be talking to a beardy bloke in a dress/skirt (a normal skirt, not a ‘it’s a utili-kilt, actually‘), or a person with a neutrois name, voice and appearance, and there would be no knobbers pointing. There aren’t many places you can do that outside, say, Camden town, which is full of meandering bellwhiffers taking up pavement space and people trying to sell you cheap weed that’s probably broccoli.

The scope of the con was amazing. Even though in itself it’s a relatively small con (around 1,300 attendees), there was such a spread of things to do and see. My 9W was largely mathematical and scientific with a dash of Game of Thrones, but someone else’s 9W could have been about Harry Potter, knitting and vampires, or creative writing, Doctor Who and Ponies. This was also the first UK geek & nerd con with a dedicated LGBTQ+ track.

I got to meet and re-meet some cool Twitter people, including @lingmops (we had supper in a pub and talked about Pacific Rim), and @agtheo (who jogged my memory of who he was by reminding me that we are currently fighting in the Moon League of Fallen London).

I attended several talks/activities, but not nearly as many as I’d have liked. In one time slot there were five concurrent talks that I wanted to see. I’ve written a little about the ones I saw, but haven’t bothered with the ones I mostly missed.

Sigil designing workshop:

I actually misunderstood the premise of this one, as I hadn’t clocked that the rooms were themed by track, and didn’t realise it was a Game of Thrones-themed workshop to design a badge in the style of the great houses. I thought it would be about the folklore of summoning sigils or something. It still turned out to be fun, drawing dinosaurs and sitting in a room with nerds talking about Game of Thrones, cats and nail varnish. I ended up drawing a Triceratops after deciding my stylised theropods looked too much like dragons.

Writing Alien Perspectives (Chris Farnell):

A good guide to what not to do, including the done-to-death ‘proud warrior race’ trope (the sole career available for at least the men is warrior, they use swords or something despite having invented space travel, and have a society based on a code of honour but it’s impossible to find out what is meant by honour because they use the word ‘honour’ the same way Smurfs use the word ‘smurf’).

It is Rocket Science (Helen Keen):

Helen Keen manages to make the space race funny, and does it with the aid of Powerpoint and audience participation, which works so well you wonder why more comedians don’t use an accompanying slideshow. It was almost a comedy lecture rather than a traditional standup piece. Included some dreadful puns. Keen made a volunteer wear a worm hat and told her she now represented the ‘Space-time continuworm‘.

Can’t Take the Sky From Me (Adam Christopher, Jaine Fenn, Stephanie Saulter, Gavin Smith, Charles Stross, Ian Whates):

This was a panel on the advantages and disadvantages of such things as sticking to only what we definitely know to be plausible. In it we learned (I can’t remember which speaker brought it up) that Venus is a viable option for space colonisation: the surface is a sulphuric hellhole but the stratosphere is a comfortable 20 degrees and has the same pressure as Earth’s atmosphere at sea level. Furthermore, a mixture of gases equivalent to Earth’s atmosphere would be more buoyant in the upper Venusian atmosphere than in ours, meaning a floating Venusian city with breathable air might actually be a possibility one day.

I got to meet Ian Whates later and buy a signed copy of one of his books. Unfortunately he’d sold out of part 1 of the City of Hundred Rows, so he let me have part 2 at a reduced price and he signed it for me.

Ian Stewart: The Deterministic Monkey Theorem or Chaos in L-Space:

I loved this. I haven’t actually read any of the Science of Discworld books, which is odd as I do like the novels. I know Ian Stewart as the author of Nature’s Numbers and The Magical Maze, two excellent popular science books about mathematics, the latter of which I really need to buy another copy of because I lent it to a teacher once and never got it back.

Stewart makes mathematics very accessible, and even when it’s beyond me I still think ‘I don’t quite understand this but I love hearing it anyway’. This talk was mostly about extremely large numbers and how they work, with the backdrop of the famous thought experiment of infinite monkeys typing Shakespeare.

The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets (Simon Singh):

This was fascinating. Many of the Simpsons and Futurama writers hold maths degrees, and it shows in their work for those who know where to look. In one of the earliest Simpsons episodes, Bart the Genius, Bart is sent to a school for gifted pupils after cheating in a test. In the playground are some girls chanting a skipping rhyme with the digits of pi. Except they aren’t – the digits are wrong. It’s because they’re reciting pi in base 8. (Think about why that would be.)

Science Fact or Science Fiction? (Brendan Owens):

I’d evidently decided this would be a SPACE-themed con for me. In this talk, Owens (of the Royal Greenwich Observatory) compared silver screen depictions of space sciences to their real world counterparts, as well as talking us through space-exploration technology in general. I’ve yet to get tired of watching Curiosity landing footage.

By the Fireside with Cara and Rhianna:

A nice way to round off the con: two bibeo gaem people talking about bibeo gaem. And soup.

Other highlights:

  • Normal hotel guests looking completely bemused.
  • The big south Asian wedding taking place at the Radisson, whose wedding photos are going to have Loki horns poking up in the background.
  • Having a go on the Oculus Rift rollercoaster demo.

*This is a fedora. It’s a cool hat worn by Sarah Berndardt and Indiana Jones. This is a trilby. It’s an unimpressive hat worn by dicksprouts who think it’s a fedora.

FISH

I’ve made my first Twine game!

FISH is a very short choose-your-adventure made for Sophie Houlden’s Fishing Jam. It’s a bit sweary.

There are ten fish in total to discover. There is an easter egg of sorts, but it’s mentioned in my thread in the Jam forums, so it’s not really hidden.

Bit of Alright 2013

Also known as #BOABOAT! I had a great time (my notebook is now sticky with orange juice and rooibos) and met several Twitter lovelies. The venue, MS Stubnitz, was very strange (it’s a 1960s German herring storage ship) and very dark (my notebook has several margin notes in increasingly spidery handwriting saying ‘I can’t see, it is dark’). Good for viewing slideshows, less so for neck-craning at audience members while thinking ‘is that him/her from- ?’

As with last year, there were several events going on simultaneously, making it impossible to see everything. I missed the first couple of talks (Mike Bithell’s Write it Like it’s Die Hard; Ben Milsom and Mark Shaw’s Nice One Videogames, You Killed Pinball) while playing There Shall Be Lancing, Laza Knitez and a weird-ass 2-player game with custom keyboards. I’ll edit this post with the name of the weird-ass game when I find out what it is.

I made sure to see Holly Gramazio’s 2000 Years of Really Peculiar Games, because I loved her Deadly Serious Games talk last year. The talk opened with the revelation that the ball game seen in Dreamworks’ The Road to El Dorado was actually real, and treated with such seriousness that it was used to settle political disputes. Highlights included a 12th-century self-explanatory game called door-breaking; Victorian parlour games that included guessing who is making pig noises, and picking coins out of flaming brandy; a 1960s playground game called Split the Kipper involving knives; and Rithmomachia, which is basically chess for cunts. It has numbered pieces that come in 3 different shapes, and there are 7 ways to capture pieces, determined in various ways by the numbers on them.

I missed most of George Buckenham’s talk on Building Custom Hardware – that page in my notebook doesn’t have much besides ‘Now I know what George Buckenham looks like’ and ‘What was the bowl of gunge?’ (Turns out the latter was for a custard-punching game. In the dark I thought it might have been someone done a sick.) I caught (what I assume is) the take-home message: carpentry is hard, electronics are easy.

I wish I’d caught more of Sir, You Are Being Procedurally Generated (Tom Betts), as some of the things about procedural generation sounded pretty funny. In Sir, You Are Being Hunted the game would sometimes throw out buildings on cliff faces and humourously hostile animals.

Lawrie Russell’s talk How to Clone a Game and Not Be a Shit introduced the interesting concept of an ‘uncanny valley’ seen in remixed games: people become hostile to the game/its creator when it is quite similar to the original. Near-identical is fine, very different is fine, but a middle ground will be seen as ripping off the original rather than a homage. The talk was about Trash TV, which is based on Super Crate Box. Trash TV was well-received when it further borrowed elements from Limbo and Super Meat Boy, implying that ideas from one source is bad but from multiple sources is seen as original.

Caspian Prince’s talk on game design and Cara Ellison’s Twine talk were the ones most relevant to me personally, as a non-developer. The Game Design talk was a helpful and informative breakdown of the most basic parts of design. Part of this is finding the intersection of ‘games people like to play’, ‘games you can make’ and ‘games you like to make’. Just chasing the market will be obvious to players and will be seen as a lack of passion. A part that resonated with me was being told to remember that we (not me, I guess, I’m outside this target audience) are not ‘real’ game designers, and that most indie games are born of self-indulgence and only a lucky few strike a chord. I’ve never seriously attempted game design but I liked that part because I’m sure it applies to all forms of amateur art. Giving yourself permission to be shit (paraphrasing fellow attendee @lingmops) and realising that your successes are built upon your failures (paraphrasing There Shall Be Lancing developer @S0phieH) is one of the hardest things to learn/unlearn as a maker of things.

As a consumer of games, I definitely appreciated the critique of ‘retro’ stylings – which often copy too many design mistakes from old games, detrimental to home entertainment. If a game is to use excessive punishment (as used in arcade games designed to extract as much money from players as possible), it must be balanced with equal amounts of reward. It was interesting to note that two talks (Prince’s Game Design and Russell’s Clone/Shit) mentioned Super Meat Boy in this way, as an example of a game that is both very punishing and very forgiving (such as convenient respawn points). There’s a line in my notebook that I underlined after Prince uttered it: ‘Allow players to play your game the way they want it.’

Cara Ellison’s talk on Twine didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know (it was a good primer on Twine, what it does/is used for and how it works as a development tool), but it was inspirational (as a non-coder it’s one of the few ways I could realistically make a game) and great fun. Ellison ‘inducted’ us into the ‘Twine sorority’ by having us spin round then smack our bums and yell ‘I’m a nasty bitch!’ It was somewhat alarming that she showed us part of Porpentine’s Cyberqueen as a showcase of Twine macros (which it is a very good example of) – people who’d never heard of it and went home to play it after BoA probably got quite a shock.

I missed most of Mitu Khandaker’s Designing Love on a (Space) Ship, which I regretted because what I did hear contained some points that the game industry as a whole needs to be paying attention to. Khandaker cited Mia Consalvo‘s study in which teams, selected to include an equal binary gender split and diverse ethnicity, were invited to design game characters, and still ended up designing typical white space marines despite these not reflecting the makeup of the teams. The study showed how pervasive the existing stereotypes of gaming and gaming characters are. The take-home messages were to  consider whom you assume the player to be and why, and that inclusivity diminishes nothing (Khandakar used an analogy of installing a wheelchair ramp on a building). I caught the tail end of a portion of the talk about depictions of love in sci-fi, which I wish I’d heard all of.

Alistair Lindsay’s talk on Psychological Effects of Game Audio was pretty similar to his one last year, but I did like the new addition of a home-made short horror film (first-person view of approaching and opening a shed, inside is a person going RAWR) to illustrate how effective adding an appropriate soundtrack can be, and how subtle parts of the soundtrack can subconsciously prepare a player for something they don’t realise they’re preparing for. It was probably also quite interesting for those who could appreciate the technical difficulty in getting the pool of sound effects to change on the fly without jarring.

The event ended with a demonstration of 3-player game A New Thing, which I couldn’t comprehend, to be honest. It appears to be an exploration game with rhythms based on player movement (interestingly, the same motif used by Proteus, the show-closer last year), but I couldn’t parse what was happening.

Games I played (all digital, missed out on custard-punching and lemon-jousting):

– There Shall Be Lancing reminded me of an on-rails Zone of the Enders. Two players hover at opposite ends of a spherical region of sky, demarcated by eight dotted line paths segmenting its surface like an orange. The paths correspond to analogue stick directions. Pushing the left analogue stick (the game uses Xbox controllers) sends your jousting character hurtling along that path. Pushing the right analogue stick blocks an incoming jouster. Doing either of these depletes your power meter, which governs your speed. The more you dodge and block, the slower your attack will be and easier for your opponent to dodge. It’s great fun! Also, the orange character (there are 4 characters selectable by the Xbox controller’s 4 colour-coded face buttons) looks kinda like me.

Laza Knitez is a 2-4 player game with somewhat Asteroids-like movement where you are a shooty man in space and must shoot the other shooty men. There are power-ups, and inhibitors that look cuntishly like power-ups. It’s a good multiplayer game in that it is most fun when played with more people.

– The aforementioned weird-ass 2player game had two custom keyboards: one with the arrow keys removed, and the other with all keys but the arrows removed. The player with the arrow keys is the only one who can see the monitor. This player controls a little smiley-face creature navigating a maze blocked by ominous words. The other player can help by holding down up to two letter keys at a time, which clears those letters from the maze and allows the little smiley to pass through. It was quite hard, partly because the noisy venue made communication difficult, and partly because describing the room and what you’re doing to the other player (which seems only polite – more fun for them than just being told ‘Can you hold down W and E… now keep holding down E, release W and hold down I’) got quite repetitive. ‘We’re in a room with four exits and some ominous writing. I’m gonna go east. Oh, now we’re in another weird-ass scary writing room.’

simian.interface was a fun little 1-player puzzler in which you had to carefully move your mouse around to align some shapes. Honestly, it was much more fun than that description makes it sound. It was cheerfully packaged as a testing facility’s experiment, with pastel colours and banana and cat motifs.

Some excerpts from my notebook:
‘Who made shooty man laser game?’
‘Proteus guy looks like a cool werewolf’
‘Who’s Terry Cavanagh again?’ (for fuck’s sake, Anna!)
‘Rithmomachia – etymology with arithmetic?’ (anyone know?)

It’s quite strange being at a game design event when you aren’t connected with the industry (yes, I used to write for Gamestyle, but that was so long ago I should stop milking it). I got sorta-mistaken for Sophie Houlden (I was asked ‘Is this your game?’ while playing TSB Lancing). Everyone assumes you’re there as a creator, but are quite pleased to discover you aren’t and are there because you like what people (and therefore possibly they) are making. (The downside is that I don’t feel brave enough to join in any of the design workshops or jams – I feel much too out of my depth.) It’s also very strange to see how your various Twitter spheres converge and how many people you know also know each other. There’s also the usual part-bizarre part-oddly-ordinary feeling that arises at any gathering of people mostly known by their screen names. A highlight of the evening was being approached by Alex May, the co-creator of Eufloria, and asked ‘Are you Pisscress?’

Bit of Alright now has a safe space policy, which is brilliant news. I had no cause to complain last year, but the industry as a whole needs to mature and be inclusive, and people need to not assume that their displeasure at bad instances is obvious and therefore need not be voiced.

The only thing ‘bad’ about the event was that the Stubnitz is not wheelchair accessible at all. One of the pre-event emails said ‘If this will be a problem for you, please let [us] know as soon as possible and we’ll make the best arrangements we can.’ Unless there’s something about the layout of the ship I don’t know, I fail to see how anyone who can’t do stairs and steps could possibly have been accommodated.

All in all, a brilliant event, even though I missed loads of stuff (bits of some talks, Undercurrent on Oculus Rift, PlayStation Move jousting, 3D QWOP, all the analogue games). Very cosy, and very funny to be in Canary Wharf and see the suits bemused at all the plaid-clad (why do nerds all wear plaid?!) mostly-bearded nerds tromping through their territory. There was an amusing incident at the post-event pub party involving a glove and an orange.

Here are my photos of the event on Flickr.