Develop 2017: Showcasing the Indies

As usual, accompanying the industry conference at Develop, which featured a multitude of talks from designers far and wide, was an expo. A much more intimate, industry facing event than something like EGX, the show featured a mixture of software and hardware companies demonstrating their wares to potential customers, stalls featuring the work of upcoming talents from game art and design courses from various art schools, and a smattering of new playable games, including a handpicked crop of new indies competing for a prize.

Shortlisted by a panel of experts, sponsored by Unity and voted for by attendees, this year’s indie showcase games included: Dead End Job by Ant Workshop, a quirky Ghostbusters-like twinstick shooter, with an aesthetic straight from Ren and Stimpy; Loco Dojo by Make Real, a colourful Oculus rift mini-game compilation with a board game element reminiscent of Mario Party, which was the overall winner of the competition; Svrvive: The Deus Helix by Svrvive Studios, a VR puzzle adventure for Vive harking back to Myst and Riven; Abandon Ship by Fireblade Software, a single player ship-to-ship combat game; Tin Hearts by Rogue Sun, another VR game for the Oculus which takes its influence from Lemmings; and Rocket Rumble by Small Jelly, a card-driven sci-fi space combat game.

Turn based MOBA Space Krieg by We Heart Dragons

The two that stood out most for us, however, were the puzzle platformer From Light by Faffinabout, and an innovative turn based MOBA called Space Krieg by We Heart Dragons.

An innovative mash up of real time and turn based paradigms, the designers of Space Krieg describe the central mechanic of their game as ‘Real turn’ combat. In a five on five battle in an asteroid field (although all set on a flat plane) players alternate between a few seconds to input a turn, and a few seconds for that turn to resolve. While inputting a turn, time slows to a crawl, but doesn’t completely stop, maintaining the sense of inertia and fast paced dynamism of space combat, whilst allowing for a highly granular degree of tactical intervention. Planning out firing solutions, leading targets and attempting evasive manoeuvres by snaking through the arena in elegant dog fights, gives a satisfying sense of tense cat-and-mouse game play, but following a match the replay stitches all of the individual ‘moves’ together into a real time recording.

Meanwhile, players are encouraged to work as a team by taking on ships with vastly different abilities: nippy fighters must protect the larger dreadnaughts, whilst other ships that trade off combat proficiency for enhanced scanners must call out targets to support their team mates. It all combines to create a truly original twist on both the space dog fight and MOBA genres.

Tripping the light fantastic with From Light by Faffinabout

Meanwhile, From Light has grown out of a student project at USC into a fully fledged, narrative rich and utterly charming 2D puzzle platformer in which you take the role of a being made entirely from light, who must travel to a tourist planet fallen on hard times, whose inhabitants have gone and turned your overly trusting penpal into a power source. An ingenious central mechanic requires the player to freeze parts of the screen into photographs to help traverse the environment and solve puzzles, meanwhile holding down the button creates a panoramic shot allowing you to create platforms of streaked light out of lamps and other light sources. The writing is also really sharp, with one construction machine insisting on reading us some robotic poetry. The demo is available on their website.

Welcoming the future

Developing Beyond is another competition, this time co-run by the Wellcome Trust, a philanthropic organisation dedicated to advancing the sciences, and Epic Games, they of the Unreal Engine 4. The innovative year-long competition has seen six projects selected from more than 100 entries, awarded £15,000 in development funds and paired with a scientist mentor in a relevant field.

During Develop the six game prototypes were whittled down to three finalists by a panel of judges that included comedian and broadcaster Susan Calman, Professor Ian Goodfellow, Head of Virology at the University of Cambridge and Eurogamer’s Chris Bratt. Iain Dodgeon, Broadcast, Games & Film Manager at Wellcome, said: “It’s always surprising to see what happens when scientists and developers work together. Science is inherently creative and so is games development. Developing Beyond creates games for new audiences and a new way for people to explore scientific ideas. Things we can imagine but aren’t yet possible or accessible we can see becoming real in these shortlisted games.”

Seed by All Seeing Eye was a stand out – a highly tactile VR experience inspired by the fascinating and little known history of backstreet botanists, attempting to splice plant genes and create new crops long before the human genome project or GM were a glint in the scientific establishment’s eye.

These eccentric pioneers holed up in London apartments, attempting to cause mutations in plant genetics through exposure to radioactive material and splicing organic material together. Although still only a proof of concept, the system works extraordinarily well and seeing the plant growing in front of you in 3D space is curiously evocative. The designers are planning to add missions and challenges to the game, perhaps requiring the player to work with shady conglomerates, secret societies or anarchist groups.

The developers were inspired to make the game to address the global strain on resources due to overpopulation, saying, “As the planet’s population expands, the relationship with plants and crops is crucial to human survival. In the face of a changing world Seed aims to explore this relationship by taking inspiration from seed banks and the roles they play.”

“Developing Beyond creates games for new audiences and a new way for people to explore scientific ideas.”

Meanwhile the other two finalists were Winter Hall by Lost Forest Games, a narrative exploration game set during the Black Death which the designers describe as a cross between Gone Home and Quantum Leap; and Terramars by Untold Games, which sees the player able to recreate the events of The Martian, by building an outpost on Mars and coping with the unique conditions of the red planet.

The three finalists have each been awarded £60,000 and now have until January to polish, refine and generally ‘science the shit out of it’ for another round of judging to stand a chance of winning £150,000.