ExPlay 13: A hidden gem in England’s indie scene

You might not know about ExPlay, but you probably should. I have the good fortune of living in Bath, which is essentially England’s hub of games journalism. It’s the perfect location to host the array of indie developers spread out across the country’s southwest. I’m less acquainted with indie games than I am with triple-A ones, but the conference was enlightening nonetheless. Indeed, were I intimately familiar with what’s going on in England’s indie scene, it might have been less eye-opening.

I was lucky enough to begin the event with the VIP launch at the lovely Roman Baths, in which the highlight of the short talks was Andy Payne speaking about the state of the industry. He was focused on the idea of our government taking note of the games industry and doing what it can to support it. Payne displayed a real passion for the industry–a passion I had always associated with indie gaming but had never had the pleasure of witnessing firsthand.

When I actually reached the festival, held at the rather grand Assembly Rooms, the proceedings were fittingly broad but on an intellectual rather than architectural level. The main talks ranged from a speaker relaying his thoughts on free-to-play gaming to a panel discussing educational games. Whilst these were going on, there were a variety of workshops that went from seminar-sized game design workshops to one-on-one’s about recruitment. I’m afraid I only made it to the talks, as I was keen to see them all, but I only partially regret this, as the talks were fantastic.

One of the many highlights was the keynote speech by Mike Bithell of Thomas Was Alone fame. His speech wasn’t memorable just because of the fact that he is the developer of a much-loved game; rather, it was interesting to get a brief insight into his development habits and philosophy. What stood out in particular is that he has had experience developing for weeks without a single day off. He wasn’t sure that it was a good thing, but Cliff Harris, founder and sole staff of company Positech Games, might disagree–he suggests that indie game developers should have a special forces mentality in approaching their work.

Mike Bithell giving his talk.

I’m not going to argue that hard work is limited to small teams and one man bands. Clive Lindop, lead game designer at AAA developer The Creative Assembly, spoke of the challenging of thinking inside the box. It wasn’t new information when he said about the reticence to take a risk with six million pounds, or that features are always cut from games, but it seemed brand new information when heard from someone experienced in the industry. I felt a bit of guilt for the times I’ve berated games for lacking innovation, or not living up to their promise.

Of course, it wasn’t just serious stuff – there was also some game playing in the Expo room. Well, actually, the Indie Game Olympics was a pretty serious competition! There were series of games by different developers, and attendees had three tokens to use for each game towards official attempts to get on the scoreboard; the top three highest scorers across the board were able to receive some rather neat cash prizes. I am embarrassed to admit that I was rather rubbish.

Physical play is perhaps where I found my interest lingering. I first became aware of how compelling it is when Alistair Aitcheson, developer of the Greedy Bankers games and Slamjet Stadium, did a talk called ‘Human v CPU: Uncoventional Way to Challenge Players’. Introducing a physical element to game whether that’s Oculus Rift or a large-scale touch screen, or even a competitive multiplayer game played in a shared space, makes it more personal. It also allows for the industry to expand into new areas, such as gaming parties.

PlayStation technology was on showcase with rounds of a game known as Joust. No, we didn’t ride horses indoors or hit each other with big pointy jousting sticks. Our bodies and Move motion controllers were the tools we needed. Each player had to knock the opponent’s motion controller so that they lost, but also had to move at a speed dictated by music so that you didn’t find yourself accidentally out of the game. It was interesting to see something to something that thought a bit laterally – a game that thought beyond using the move to replicate what you can already can with a DualShock.

I’m striking a pose, second from the left.

The work of the charity SpecialEffect was on a whole different level to anything I saw over the two days. They help individuals who are disabled to an extent that prevents them playing games get access to equipment that will let them do so. I had the opportunity for a hands on with EyeGaze technology. It was incredible to be able to drive a car purely by moving my eyes, but what really astounded me was the fact that the charity, and the people behind the techology, are doing all this incredible work that I was unaware of.

And, to the peripheral, there was some partying to be had and the Edge Pub Quiz. The less said about my result in the latter, the better.

ExPlay 13 was a hectic two days, but I wouldn’t wish to change that. It opened my eyes to the fact that, beyond the massive presence of AAA games due to their massive marketing and sales, there is so much else out there. And I think it’s in the lesser known that a more creative gaming future can be found.

Images courtesy of ExPlay.