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.

Bit of Alright 2012

David Hayward was kind enough to stick me on the guest list to Bit of Alright. And you know what? Being able to introduce yourself as ‘Anna Ghislaine, Steel Thunder’ is bastard cool.

The day began with about 30 audience members playing the Blackadder intro on recorders. (It’s actually a tune originally written by Samuel Pepys.) Ian Willey from My Note Games demonstrated Baroque Band, an iPad app that helps kids learn to play a musical instrument by providing feedback on whether they’re hitting the right notes at the right rhythm. The talk contained the word ‘bobbins’, which is clearly the best word for ‘quite rubbish’. I discovered that I was as bobbins at the recorder as Samuel Pepys. Lots of us laughed that playing the recorder in a cold hall was giving us flashbacks to being forced to play it at school. It was quite impressive that the app could meaningfully pick up on the combined squeek honk tooot of a couple of dozen people.

Richard Perrin did a lovely talk about the genre of interactive fiction, which can be quite hard to get into as a consumer because it has a fairly isolated fanbase. He talked us through five of his favourite examples. They had to be spoileriffic, to demonstrate why they were effective pieces, but it made me want to check them out anyway. (And that reminds me, the sequel to Choice of Romance is out now and I haven’t played it yet.)

Grethe Mitchell did a piece on playground games and how they’ve evolved, or rather not done so. Many children’s games have stayed the same over generations and only changed names or subjects while the core stays the same. We were invited to try some of the games ourselves, but out of typical Britishness/nerdy social awkwardness we didn’t. I spoke with Grethe afterwards about her work with motion-capture using Wiimotes and Kinect hardware (children can record themselves playing clapping games, and then play the game against a stick-figure version of themselves). I’m pretty interested in that sort of thing because one of my brothers has trisomy 21 and doesn’t get how to use controllers, but can grasp things like the EyeToy. I’d love to make games he could play but don’t know where to begin.

Grethe Mitchell has also co-edited a book, Videogames and Art, that is getting a new edition next year.

Holly Gramazio‘s Deadly Serious Games was one of my favourites. Everyone loves pie charts! It was an expose of fictitious games and their tropes, as well as looking at how the in-universe devs are portrayed. It was especially interesting how many fictional games are created (in-universe, not necessarily by author) by women, and how many of these games turn out to be lethal for the players. The only type of fictitious dev that kills more players is governments.

Later I played Closing Time (a real-world game where you have to get rid of your boxes by putting them on other people’s box stacks) with Holly and a couple of other people. I think I was a bit bobbins at it.

I missed Wallfour‘s main talk on the stage (or it got moved) but I caught some of the demo in one of the smaller rooms. We had to use laser pointers to try and pull jigsaw pieces around on a screen. It demonstrated that such a mechanic doesn’t work all that well, because it’s easier the fewer people are doing it, and it’s often more fun to grief the other players than play co-operatively. We then got to play a little tech demo in which players have to shine laser pointers on rings on the screen to activate them (it has to be done co-operatively because one laser point can’t light up all the ring by itself). Wallfour suggested that it could be a backdrop to a party, but I’m not sure giving some actually quite hefty laser pointers to a bunch of pissed people is a good idea.

I enjoyed Claire Bateman‘s talk on the reward mechanisms games use to compel us to keep playing. She mentioned Echo Bazaar (reviewed here by me) and how most of its storylets reward you a little bit even if you lose. The funniest bit was about the non-game Cow Clicker, in which you simply click cows and that’s it. It was meant to be a pisstake of games like Farmville, but it proved (frustratingly to its creator) popular.

Psychological Effects of Audio was one I was most looking forward to; it was a shame it couldn’t have gone on longer. I would have liked to have heard commentary on more games (showcasing good examples of game sound design) besides the ones Alistair Lindsey has worked on. It could also have done with examples of doing it wrong, showing how inappropriate sound effects can be a mood-killer. I’m not normally into RTS-type games but I’m quite looking forward to Prison Architect now.

I Get So Emotional Baby  was a bit too quiet for me to hear a lot of the talk, but I got the gist of it and I now want to try Sweatshop. Kerry Turner and Simon Parkin gave an interesting commentary on the emotion-inducing mechanics used in Ico and its sorta-sequel-sorta-prequel Shadow of the Colossus.

There was so much I missed because there were several events all happening at once and I had to make sacrifices (I missed Cat on Yer Head, Game Design Rocks and most of Several Amazing Things About Tetris), plus I had to leave at one point to go in search of a baked potato. I was disappointed that one of the talks opened almost immediately with a gratuitous rape ‘joke’, which made me walk out of that one right away. It wasn’t clever and added nothing. Boo!

I rather like my little badge and sticker, but I don’t think I’ll wear the badge because wearing one that says ‘Bit of Alright’ has other connotations to anyone who doesn’t recognise the logo. My brother (brought along as his 19th birthday present) got one with a badger on it. We realised we couldn’t think of any videogames with badger protagonists. Someone should make one. Maybe I will one day.

Originally published in February 2012.