indie

Boston FIG 2013 Ruminations

My first go at the Boston Festival of Indie Games was a pretty spectacular one, even though I never left the digital games showroom. I was told that the event last year was a relatively cramped affair, with many people flowing in and out of a more intimate space dominated largely by the tables. This year had a truly official “con” atmosphere, as it took place in the airy MIT gym (and several other MIT buildings), with the tables lining the walls and arranged into three squares in the middle. The air conditioning system held out all day!

The showing was brilliant as well. Full-fledged companies as polished and put-together as PopCannibal and Dejobaan from the Indie Game Collective, Proletariat, and Disruptor Beam were showing off some beautiful demos. There were also a number of students with solo or small group projects that were truly impressive for the resources available to them. But that’s what indies are all about – working with limited resources and purely out of passion for the games industry.

Since Play Nimbus had its own booth for Wobbles, separate from the MassDiGI booth near the entrance, I felt a sense of purpose as a representative of my own project while I wandered around speaking to developers. I’m sure that this helped me overcome any sort of awkwardness I might have felt about talking candidly with them, even if they weren’t all such incredibly nice and open people. Everybody was quite willing to share the tools they had used to develop as well as the personal journey they took with their work.

Many of the companies present were Boston-area based.

  • Proletariat‘s World Zombination was in the middle of the room, and they came prepared with a pretty polished-looking demo and an easy sign-up for beta testing (which I took advantage of shortly after wrecking some Boston hospitals with a rambunctious horde of zombies). Players can choose to work for the side of the survivors or the zombies, with important tactical differences for each, and play on a global scale. Each time a game is played, it earns points towards the team that is used for the chosen city, which then updates the map for all players.
    FIG attendees, of course, played to win over Boston in a tutorial level designed to show off the first batch of zombie classes: runners, spitters, brutes, and infectors. These names are reminiscent of Left 4 Dead, but the concepts are redesigned for a much less disturbing (and more widely appealing) game atmosphere – World Zombination is brightly colored and cartoony, with cute touches like the jogging outfits the runners sport and their treadmill training montage in the trailer. When a hospital is broken into, the people inside flee in a chaotic group.  They are slowly and satisfyingly converted by your infectors into part of the growing horde which teems like an ant army across the screen.
    The control of an entire army at once, without being able to direct specific units, is what sets it apart from your average real-time strategy. I couldn’t tell from the demo whether the horde follows a specific path, like a reverse tower defense, or if they simply go where survivors nearest are and thus end up split into groups depending on the scenario; that would provide another interesting dynamic to gameplay.
  • The Tap Lab, which is innovating in the area of location-based games verging on augmented reality, was demoing Tiny Tycoons. The playfully designed game was appealing to all ages – teenagers through adults could check out the places available for buying in their own hometown, places familiar to them, while children could enjoy the bright graphics and the adorable characters. Features of the game include buying and upgrading real-world properties on the virtual map while collecting clothes and cars, something akin to Monopoly but on a global scale.
  • Disruptor Beam was handing out free (digital) figs that visitors of FIG could collect in their Game of Thrones: Ascent, a browser and facebook game – not to be confused with the board game OR the RPG for the PC developed by Cyanide studios. Game of Thrones has seen a surge of popularity since the HBO show premiered in 2011, although the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire came out in 1996. The RPG gives the player two main characters’ storylines to alternate through in the same way George R. R. Martin wrote the books, and the board game is a strategy setup not unlike Risk; Ascent instead allows the player to run their own stronghold, playing the role of a minor house lord and fitting seamlessly into the storyline of the novels. By serving under one of four major houses, the player’s staff of sworn swords and spies root out Jon Arryn’s secret and decide what to do with it, choose to protect or subvert the Baratheon rule, etc. The model is free-to-play with microtransactions, largely speed boosts for the timer-based quest and stronghold-building events.
  • Glass Knuckle Games was displaying Dumbledore 64, their most recent game from July 20th this year. It is one of four they made using HTML5. While playing I was reminded of Magicka, in that one uses spell “elements” put together to create new spells: fire on its own creates a fireball but in conjunction with air it’s a blast that surrounds your character, and two lightnings together create chain lightning. You also have a standard “magic missile” bolt to use while your elemental spell is recharging, and with these tools in your belt you must defeat the hordes of bugs and other little monsters flying at you from all directions. I have a personal fondness for pixeley graphics such as those in Terraria, and Dumbledore 64 takes it all the way back to a pretty cute 8-bit style. You only have three health bars, so if you don’t heal or knock out those baddies, you die pretty quickly; it’s a shoot-for-the-high-score kinda game. Simple, but definitely fun.
  • Tower of Guns from Terrible Posture Games does not look like it was made by only one guy, but it was – and his name is Joe. Seriously, only one guy. It’s an extremely chaotic roguelike first-person shooter. There were too many people in line for me to get a crack at playing, but from what I could see, there are missiles and giant spiky balls and explosions flying at you all the time. You have to juggle dodging those with shooting at the giant gun-toting flying robots and making your way through space. This requires less precise aim than your traditional FPS, a blessing considering how much you have to be moving around to avoid death. The elements of permadeath and chaos are a important differences, lowering the stakes and raising the excitement.
  • Idle Action Studios was showing what appears to be their first project together, Candlelight. The genre – 2D puzzle platformer – is the same as my own project, Wobbles, but Candlelight is a different beast entirely. The art style is high-contrast and delicate-looking, with whimsical and strange landscapes and characters curly black shadows against a mostly pale sky. The player controls two characters at once, a mechanic seen only rarely (as in Ice Climbers in Brawl or The World Ends With You). The characters “separation and reunion” is used to solve puzzles and get around. Their ‘canon’ page on the website appears to indicate their inspirations, including Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Braid, Shadow of the Colossus, and Metroid: safe and classic picks.
  • Several members of the Indie Game Collective were there – Disco Pixel had a cute rhythm game featuring monkeys called Jungle Rumble. 82Apps brought their exciting neon-colored faux hacking game, PWN Combat Hacking. PopCannibal was giving the public its first looks at Captain Astronaut’s Last Hurrah, a game Ziba described as crossing StarCraft with Monkey Island. This made little sense to me mood-wise until he clarified that the aspects of StarCraft in this game are not the dark-sci-fi theme the strategic mechanics – resource manipulation, troop management, and battle plans, all framed by the beautiful orbs of energy that float about the screen at your behest. You play as a boy astronaut crash-landed on an alien world, where you direct your own movement and the flow of the orbs very naturally with a Wiimote or a Playstation Move motion controller. The transition between story progression and battle events is seamless and there is no HUD to speak of, leaving the interface completely uncluttered, artistically in-tact, and intuitive. It’s the art (which I might compare to Bastion in style) that is most polished and appealing at this stage of development. Every scene looks a bit like a painting, and it has a somewhat tropical feel to it, with bright turquoise water punctuated by crushed statues and rocks covered in vines and flowers.

There were several other notable projects that traveled from out of state a great distance in order to be at FIG.

  • Apsis is a game in development for Android by five students from Cornell University. It’s an experiment in experience, a calming game with a very easy flow. You control from a top-down view an entire flock of birds at once, which bears resemblance to the horde control in World Zombination, but that’s where the similarities end. You touch the screen to direct the group (simple, easy to pick up), but birds can easily get lost along the way as you try to navigate around floating land and rock and through rushing streams of air, not all of which go in the direction you need to go (east). The soundtrack is wonderfully zen with a somewhat Asiatic influence, and it truly makes the atmosphere of each level; the drama of the piano in the last level, wherein you’re beating your way through a dark and pressing thunderstorm, makes my heart thump just to think back on. My friend Sam played through the end of the game, where you say goodbye to the birds of your flock by depositing them one-by-one into the stars, and each bird becomes a point of light in a constellation. You’ve made the choice to leave them to the night sky, rather than feeling like they’re forcibly being taken away from you, which makes all the difference in the resolution you feel at the ending.
  • Hangeki is the first game by Pentavera, the company in the booth neighboring mine. It was described as “(Space Invaders) Galactica on crack,” aptly describing the top-down spaceships-firing-forward game with revamped shiny spaceships and tons of exploding particle effects. Take out a row of invading monsters and your screen is covered in score numbers and little points of light. When asked about the loud noises coming from the demo, the Hangeki’s artist Terence Tolman told me that they took the concept of “pew pew” and added even more “pew.” The game made the front page of Desura, a pretty great accomplishment for a first game, and with the excitement I saw on the faces of the players, it sure deserved it.
  • Skipping Stones was a generative music game by Ko-Op Mode, a Montreal-based company for experimental games. Like Captain Astronaut, every scene could be a painting, but these paintings are elegant in their simplicity. The artist told me he went for broad, flat planes of color, and the smooth shapes this created of the ground, water, and trees is what sets this game apart visually from Proteus. They didn’t yet have a full demo set up so I didn’t get to hear what my own exploration of this charming, fairytale land would sound like.

There were TONS of other games being shown off just in the Digital Games Showcase. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see many of them because I had to spend much of the day manning my own booth. My list here is NOT comprehensive, and I don’t mean to hurt any feelings by leaving any of the other fantastic games out. If you want to see what else FIG had to give, check out their list here. (Wobbles is right there at the end of the list! Wink wink, nudge nudge.)

FIG was a fantastic experience, both to check out some new and innovative games, and to chat up some really interesting people that are passionate about the field of game design. I want to congratulate everybody that was in the showcase on having such an excellent bunch of games and for being such excellent people. I can’t WAIT for next year’s FIG to see what people do with another year’s worth of new technology and new ideas!

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