Giant inflatable Pac man outside the Forum
Giant inflatable Pac-Man outside the Forum

The Forum in Norwich once more paid host to the Norwich Gaming Festival between the 6th and 12th of April. Now in its second year, and organised by Norfolk Indie Game Developers (NIGD) – a thriving meet up and support group for game developers in Norfolk and the surrounding counties – it was incredible to see the huge leap forward the festival has made in such a short space of time. I asked organiser Daniel Scales how he felt about the turnout: “We were all really pleased with how the festival went this year and we’ve had loads of great feedback from exhibitors, speakers and attendees. We averaged just over 6,000 visitors per day at the festival – which is very similar to last year and we’re incredibly happy with these numbers.”

“I think people are somewhat unaware of the development communities around Norwich, including Norwich Indie Game Developers and the festival is a great platform to promote the rising tech industry in Norwich.”

Although last year’s festival was an exciting addition to the local cultural calendar (Norwich is a city with no shortage of festivals after all), this year’s show seemed bigger and more successful in every way, hopefully going some way towards proving the importance of video game development to the cultural and economic enrichment of the city, and thus mirroring a similar effort occurring at the national level. “I think people are somewhat unaware of the development communities around Norwich, including Norwich Indie Game Developers and the festival is a great platform to promote the rising tech industry in Norwich.” said Daniel.

All week a roster of new indie titles were playable in the cavernous, glass-domed space of the Forum’s atrium, alongside a gaming timeline, which allowed people to play key games in the history of the medium on their original platforms, or, more often than not, to show their kids what they spent their childhoods playing. After a week of events, including a Hearthstone match played on the big screen, programming workshops, anime and cosplay events, the Friday and Saturday topped off the event with an incredibly well attended series of industry talks. “Myself and Robin [Silcock, co-organiser] spent a lot of time ensuring that we would have quality content over the developer days – and I was always a bit disappointed when I had to run off to do a job rather than continuing to watch whichever talk was on at the time!” said Daniel. “There were a lot of questions asked at the end of each of the talks, and the audience seemed to be really engaged with each of the sessions – so we couldn’t have really asked for a better response!”

10 Second Ninja, in which you have to despatch a screen full of Nazi robots as quickly as possible
10 Second Ninja, in which you have to despatch a screen full of Nazi robots as quickly as possible

10 Second Ninja

One such talk was by Dan Pearce, who won the first BAFTA Young Designer Award aged 16 and was spotlighted on Ready Up back in 2013, who was on hand to discuss the “ironically long development time” of his fast paced platform puzzler 10 Second Ninja, in which a cute blue ninja has to dispatch a screen full of evil, Nazi robots from space as quickly as possible. If you’re of a certain age (like me), it’s hard to think that a whole generation of gamers has grown up without 2D platformers being a core staple of their gaming diet. Despite being amongst this cohort, it’s interesting that Dan decided to embrace this genre. My own attempts at 10 Second Ninja were nothing to write home about, but it wasn’t the fault of the game’s tight controls. The game is an interesting fusion of spatial puzzle and speedy reflexes. It’s been a long, tenuous journey for the game and Dan, who spent a year and a half informing people the game was 6 weeks away, is aware that he’s made his share of mistakes. His talk was an interesting post-mortem of the project, serving as a warning to other young aspiring designers.

Dan has recently formed his own company, Four Circle Interactive, and plans to experiment with procedural generation in his next project. One of the biggest problems he grappled with during the development of 10 Second Ninja was the desire to polish too early. He freely admits that he has probably jettisoned around 90% of what was once in the game over the years, because it detracted from the core experience or was simply bad. After all, he noted:  “It turns out that the most important part of a gameplay focused game is the gameplay.” It was one of many hard learnt lessons the once naïve, self-taught designer (Dan left university and banked his future on the success of the game) learnt during the long road to completing the game, but he seems to have emerged from the other side of the experience with a focus and determination that can only be obtained from such a trial by fire.

 

The altars, like every aspect of Ultima Ratio Regum, are generated from millions of possible designs
The altars, like every aspect of Ultima Ratio Regum, are generated from millions of possible designs

Ultima Ratio Regum

Another memorable talk saw game designer and academic Mark Johnson discuss his all-encompassing roguelike project Ultima Ratio Regum, which quite frankly blew the minds of myself and most other people in the audience as he casually discussed the procedural generation systems underpinning everything in the game world. From the massive world map, each of the constituent nations with their own political ideologies, religious doctrines, flags and architectural elements, right down to the patterns that appear on their vases and the mottoes on their randomly generated family crests, everything in the game is designed by the computer to make sense in relation to the larger whole. Mark’s object is nothing short of the procedural generation of culture, and the underlying database that the computer draws its objects from is programmed with details about almost every civilisation through human history. His next step is to programme NPCs into the world, which behave in a manner appropriate to their culture and national identity, and for the game to write its own books! The object of the game is a kind of cultural detective work, in which the player has to find nine items hidden in the world. In a kind of hotter/colder treasure hunt system, the closer you come to these objects the more solid they become in the world’s references, moving from the domain of myths and rumours to everyday and ordinary. It’s an incredible undertaking which must be seen to be believed.

 

It's hard to believe that Fist of Awesome started life as a last minute Valentines Day gift from a forgetful boyfriend.
It’s hard to believe that Fist of Awesome started life as a last minute Valentines Day gift from a forgetful boyfriend.

Fist of Awesome

Nicoll Hunt was also present to discuss the importance of working solo to the development of his “time travelling lumber-jack-em-up”, Fist of Awesome, in which a bearded man in a check shirt punches bears in the face over a series of side scrolling levels, inspired by classic beat-em-ups like Streets of Rage. Apparently the secret to success was “nude bears”, but this was just the first joke in what has to be one of the quirkiest presentations I’ve ever seen. Nicoll programmed himself into the slide presentation, literally walking the audience through the development of the project and his gaming life. One notable episode involved his programming an Amiga game as a kid called ‘Fat Alley 2’ in which the protagonist must thwart the nefarious Jimmy Saville. It was peculiarly prescient of the young designer, but the German magazine Amiga Future didn’t seem to appreciate this and called it: “The worst Amiga game that daylight has touched.” Nicoll also worked on the notoriously expensive flop APB by Realtime Worlds where he recalls: “we spent 35000 customising a truck with characters from the game. People who say we frittered money away on vanity projects are totally jealous.” Having learnt some hard lessons from one of the more extravagant failures in recent memory Nicoll was determined to keep things small and manageable, and Fist of Awesome has proved a modest success.

 

Hue's wonderful aesthetic perfectly captures those colouring in boards you get as a kid
Hue’s wonderful aesthetic perfectly captures those colouring-in boards you get as a kid

Hue

Out on the show floor I had the opportunity to try out Hue by designer Henry Hoffman (favourite colour: purple) and producer Dan Da Rocha (favourite colour: Blue). Like all great puzzle games, Hue has strong core concept that guides all of its gameplay challenges and feeds back into the game’s aesthetics and story. Henry tells me he was inspired by classic indie puzzlers like Braid in this regard. “For me Braid has always been the perfect example of the contextualisation within a narrative space of a game mechanic, so that’s always been an inspiration for us”.

The game is set in a world devoid of colour, in which you play a young boy whose mother, a famous scientist researching colour theory (which in this universe is as radical and far-fetched as string theory or interdimensional particles). Something inevitably goes wrong and as you follow in her footprints you gradually uncover her research, unlocking shades on the colour wheel that allow you to shift the background colour of the world, which leads to some tricky puzzles to unravel. For instance changing the background red will render any crates or barriers that colour non-existent, allowing you to do things like redirect the path of lasers. Add to this moving parts like conveyor belts and blocks that cycle through the various shades as you bounce on them, and you have a perfect marriage of lateral thinking and timing based puzzles, which increase in difficulty as the game progresses.

More than anything though, I think, it was incredible to attend an event that highlighted the positive elements of gaming culture – the creativity, togetherness and sheer fun – after a year in which, sadly, the medium has suffered from hugely negative publicity.

Although the colours are gained gradually over the course of the full game, this proof of concept demo gives you the full range to pick from on a colour wheel that can be called up with the shoulder button. Trying to recall all the shades of blue between navy and ultramarine brought to my mind the classic scene in Frasier in which the absurdly middle class radio personality has to replace his couch and gets into an argument with Niles about whether a new shade of cream has been introduced between eggshell and beige and what that means to his interior design choices. The games bold, thick black lines give a childlike feel that seems to have been inspired by fuzzy felt.

Later on in a panel discussion about what it means to be an indie Henry Hoffman said that he felt it was important for an indie to stand out with a strong, unique artistic vision and that the new generation of indies realise that it’s no longer enough just to have a cute retro pixel art look. As was clear from the divergent opinions present on the panel, indie games (whether you view that phrase as a generic grouping, a production culture or a shrewd marketing buzz word) have massively diversified in the last decade. Alan Zucconi, developer of physics based gravity puzzler Orbitalis, prefers to view indie as a continuum rather than a binary classification. On one end of that continuum is the experimental art game (the kind of project that sparks the debate of whether it is even a game to begin with) and on the other is the AAA consumer product that still dominates the gaming lime light, even if it’s presence is no longer as much of a foregone certainty as it once was. The space in between is the domain of the indie, in all its increasing variety, with big budget productions like Asura’s Wrath or smaller projects of big studios, like those of the Ubiart Framework, positioned more to the right and quirky productions of small teams to the left.

 

Line Wobbler

A man who is most definitely to the left of that continuum, out in experimental crazy town, is Robin Baumgarten. His incredible 1D dungeon crawler, Line Wobbler, was one of the stars of the show. Constructed from a long length of led lights running up the wall connected up to an Arduino (An Italian take on the Raspberry Pi) and controlled by a custom joystick (actually a spring mounted doorstop with an accelerometer on top and held to the table by a vice), Line Wobbler has the same kind of whimsical DIY charm as the works of arcade bodger Tim Hunkin, whose famous arcade machines/art installations can still be seen on Southwold pier. Here the player controls a green dot which must be guided up the LED strip to clear the dungeon. Each level sees an increasing level of obstacles, including white pulsing lights that pushing you backwards, red patrolling lights that must be vanquished by wobbling the controller, and orange patches of lava that blink in and out of existence. The soundtrack to the experience is the weird harmonic resonance of the controller (like someone playing the saw), and on death your tiny dot explodes into a bright crescendo of colourful particles that fall down the strip. Video games are essentially representational abstractions backed up with systems of rules, and line wobbler abstracts the dungeon crawler about as far as it will go whilst still being clearly recognisable as such, even going so far as having an end of stage boss that you must hit multiple times. Given its custom nature, Line Wobbler almost certainly won’t be appearing on steam any time soon, but it’s a good reminder that there are people out there tinkering and experimenting with gaming tech and coming up with wacky, delightful ideas.

 

Smash Hit Plunder is the ideal bull in a china shop simulator
Smash Hit Plunder is the ideal bull in a china shop simulator

Smash Hit Plunder

Speaking of innovative gaming tech (though hopefully some that has more chance of becoming commercially available) Samsung’s Gear VR had a presence at the show in the form of Smash Hit Plunder, developed by Triangular Pixel Games, an indie founded by Katie Goode, whose worked within the games industry, including Frontier Developments, for many years. It’s clear that the game is built from the ground up for the system and required nothing more than the Gear VR’s peculiar little side track pad to control. Tapping the pad results you walking in the direction you’re looking (though instead of walking you actually blink teleport forward in little bursts, designed to alleviate the dangers of motion sickness) and holding and swiping result in you picking things up and throwing them. The end goal: to cause as much destruction, and collect as much hidden loot as possible, in a number of dungeon environments. It’s a conceit that’s very clearly inspired by kids quiz shows like Finders Keepers and Fun House, and, most importantly, demonstrates that the promise of a playable version of Knightmare will soon be upon us (surely the holy grail of VR?). While we wait for Treguard, Lord Fear and Pickle To make their video game debut, it’s great fun romping a virtual environment making a mess and knowing that you don’t have to clean it up afterwards, surely the dream of any child (or parent for that matter)?

 

The Forgotten Ball is complex and elegant 3D maze game.
The Forgotten Ball is complex and elegant 3D maze game.

The Forgotten Ball

Last but not least I rounded off my demo derby by playing The Forgotten Ball. Developed by Josh Croft, a Computer Science student based locally at The University of East Anglia, this is a 3D maze puzzle platformer that sees you guiding the titular ball up a massive tower. You know it’s massive because in the opening moments the game forces you to fall off the top and drop through the entire world to its base, on the way giving you a glimpse of the incredibly complex mesh of geometric intersecting pathways that lie in wait. Since Josh intends the game to work on a range of mobile devices, the games graphics make very few technical demands, and yet the game has an elegant but bold aesthetic, which benefits from its simplicity. It’s a fine example of technical limitations producing some creative design solutions. Instead of a dynamic lighting model, for instance, Josh tells me that he uses a heavily adapted shader to simulate the shifting shadows and highlights as you roll around each ninety degree angle, but the resulting effect feels just right.

The forgotten ball shares some technical and aesthetic approaches with Thomas was alone (Josh got some pointers from that games artist), and feels like a revival of Playstation Classic Kula World by way of Echochrome. Most importantly to a simple puzzle platformer the games jumping physics feel spot on, with an emphasis on analogue control (the longer you hold the button the further you go) and the introduction of a float mechanic, which sees you balancing the opposing forces of gravity and upward inertia as you traverse some tricky obstacles, adds a significant level of skill to proceedings. The games level design, with its massively intricate interlocking world filled with hazards and shortcuts that loop back on themselves, also has more than a little inspiration from Dark Souls as I learn from Josh.

 

The floating lines of poetry in Castles in the Sky are incredibly well written
The floating lines of poetry in Castles in the Sky are incredibly well written

Castles in the Sky

The festival wasn’t just about the games, but was about solidarity and fellowship within the gaming community, and at no time was this more apparent than on the Friday night video game themed pub quiz where, I’m proud to say, our team ‘everyone you know will disappoint you’ came a very respectable fourth place out of thirty teams. This is surely testament to the sheer hardcore gaming knowledge present at Ready Up, or it might be more down to the fact that I was paired up with Dan Pearce and his designer friends. I’m still not entirely sure whether a quiz team made up of journalists and game designers counts as collusion in the current climate, but since we didn’t win a prize it’s probably a moot point. Ultimately the team of Ubisoft (one of the fest’s sponsors) employees won the quiz, which makes me wonder about the validity of that round dedicated to notable towers in videogames. I smell a rat!

More than anything though, I think, it was incredible to attend an event that highlighted the positive elements of gaming culture – the creativity, togetherness and sheer fun – after a year in which, sadly, the medium has suffered from hugely negative publicity. One event where this positive outreach was very much evident was the live narrated play-through of Castles in the Sky, a charming interactive story book designed by Dan Pearce and written by Jack de Quidt for kids to play before bed as an alternative to a bedside story. Despite being a hardened cynic I couldn’t help but be swept up in the emotion of this beautiful experience and can’t recommend it enough for gamers with young children. When I pressed Daniel to name his favourite aspect of the festival he named this event too: “I had invited friends and relatives to this event who were not necessarily into traditional video games and they all loved it. The atmosphere in the room throughout the session was really great.”

So, when Norwich Gaming Festival rolls around next year why not check it out? You’re very likely to discover something fascinating or inspiring that will restore your faith in video games as a force for good.

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