Sunday, November 8, 2015

Exploring the Local Game Industry at the Boston Festival of Indie Games

In mid-September New England Fall Events ventured to Cambridge, MA to experience the Boston Festival of Indie Games first-hand. Held at the Johnson Athletic Center on the campus of MIT, the two-floor festival is an incredible showcase of independent digital and board game designers, developers, and artists.

The 2016 Boston Festival of Indie Games will take place Saturday, September 10th, 2016 at the MIT Johnson Athletic Center. Click here for full details.

I went solo to this event and I confess I was equally intrigued and intimidated by covering this festival –I honestly don’t know a thing about digital gaming--but that also seemed the very best reason to go. Surely our New England Fall Events readers might also be wondering what this festival is all about and whether it’s an experience which would be inviting to the casual (or non-) gamer.
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I do know a bit more about board games which in the biz are referred to as “tabletop games”. I have a life-long love of sitting around a table with friends or family (whoever will indulge me!) sharing laughs and trading barbs over a round of Who? What? Where?, Hoopla, Phase 10, Milles Borne, Taboo, and many others. In recent years my eyes have been opened to completely different side (to me) of the game industry which includes genre-inspired tabletop games with elaborate stories, expansion packs, ever-evolving house rules, frequent Board Game Geek consultations, and more. Thanks to FlyingFrog’s zombie B-movie themes board game Last Night on Earth my wallet is a little lighter but I have memories of super intense zombie vs hero marathon standoffs to show for it.

I also became rather smitten with ZMan Games’ “Pandemic” in which players work collaboratively towards the common goal of stopping viral epidemics from developing into a global pandemic. I found the idea of “cooperative games” particularly appealing as the competitive aspect of the game remains but the players aren’t driven to cut each other’s throats to win. The iPad version of Pandemic plays quite similarly to the original tabletop version (why not let the game shuffle the cards after all?) and it satisfies me while I am in between human game playing gatherings.

Aha! So, it turns out I do have a little experience with digital gaming--after all, an iPad game is quite obviously also digital game and I merely needed to expand my definition of digital games to include those not solely played on a PC or Xbox.
Even if you’ve never considered yourself a “gamer,” if you enjoy spending time playing conventional tabletop board games or killing time with your favorite guilty pleasure on a tablet then you would probably find the Boston Festival of Indie Games as fascinating as I did.

I arrived at BostonFIG and parking was a snap (and affordable) at the garage across the street from the Johnson Athletic Center in Cambridge, MA. The registration for the event was held outside under the overhang to the facility. I took my badge and headed in.

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L to R: A kiosk of tabletop games for sale, digital game artist meet and greet, games for free play.

The ground level hosted the tabletop game booths. The festival was set to open to the public at 10:00am but press was invited to get a head start meeting with the exhibitors at 9:00am. At that hour, many exhibitors were still setting up and numerous booths were still unoccupied. I chatted up Jeff Johnston, a game designer with Pair of Jacks Games. Jeff had two of his published family games Toasted or Roasted and Flashlights & Fireflies available for sale and this year he was showcasing his prototype Moonquake Escape for people to play and gather feedback. Jeff was generous with his time and offered an insider tip that I ought to check out the digital game floor early so I could speak with the designers and developers there before the crowds arrived and the room became busy (and warm). I promptly took his advice and made a beeline for the third floor.

Set on the athletic track, the third floor was already buzzing with action by the time I'd arrived. Every table showcased their game which ranged from tablet-only games to elaborate set-ups enabling attendees to experience a game in virtual reality or “standard” play. Although there were small screens and large monitors wherever I looked, playing the games wearing headphones is the norm so the floor lacked the din of narration, ray gun peeoo peeoos, environmental noise, and the like. (Note to germophobes, bring your own headphones if you wish as we saw many who did just that.)

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Cornell Game Design students demo'd their game Arc en Ciel and showed samples of their art.

I was content to observe others playing the games while engaging designers and developers to learn more about what they were showing on this day but it didn’t take long for me to jump in to play my first game—Arc en Ciel. To be perfectly honest, what first caught my eye about this game was the four people at the booth showing the game were all young women. Being a woman myself, I was curious to learn more about their game and how they came to game design. It turns out they were all students at the Cornell Game Design Initiative and Arc en Ciel was the result of their class project collaboration. In this game, you play the main character Ciel who finds herself suddenly living in a black and white storybook. Ciel moves through the scenes in the book collecting paint to add color to the book’s illustrations. She discovers treasures as she moves through the levels and aims to avoid the “bad guy” Illustrator who aims to revert the story to a colorless world. The women—the designers and illustrator-- were excited to share their game and talk about how it came to be. 

With one game under my belt I quickly realized that this festival wasn’t simply a place to gather ideas about which games were coming down the pipeline and meet local designers. Games, of course, are meant to be played so the best way to get the most from the day was to experience as many games as possible no matter how novice I looked trying to learn them.

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My first virtual reality experience
It was not long into my foray on the digital floor before I was approached by Eric Janzen who was showcasing VirZoom “Virtual Reality that Moves You”. I’m not a fan of bikes at all so it took some gentle encouragement from Eric to even get me on the stationary bike-type contraption. Once the seat was adjusted, he placed Virtual Reality (aka “VR”) goggles over my head and fastened them in place so it didn’t shift when I moved my head right or left. He explained I would be moving as a horse in a race and to direct my moving horse to bump into other horses to score points.

With few words of instruction (“lean your shoulders to the right to steer your horse right”, “pedal your feet to accelerate”) I was up and running. I am pretty certain my jaw dropped to the floor within the first seconds of pedaling and moving. The responsiveness of the horse (my character) to my body’s subtle movements was phenomenal.  So subtly that I hardly noticed, the stationary bike also responded gently with the movement and actions of my horse only adding to the total immersion of the experience. I’d never donned a pair of VR goggles before this and I had never yet experienced the ability to turn my head right or left and the scene before me adapts to expand my environment to wherever I looked.

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Learning to fly at the VirZoom booth
After I’d gotten the hang of the game, Eric said it was time to try a different variation. This time, my horse would continue to race to bump into the other horses but now when I pressed the simple button on the “bike” handles I my horse would grow wings and fly. Unsure exactly what this meant, I did exactly what he said and pressed the button and suddenly felt a gentle “lift” sensation from the bike seat while my horse grew giant Pegasus wings and began to ascend.

To say this was one of the most extraordinary experiences is not to do it justice. I have never known anything quite like this! It had the weightless thrill of being on a roller coaster but instead of feeling like I was “riding” the horse, I was the horse—it was me who felt the sensation of flying across the sky. The moment I lifted off I remember reacting to the exhilaration with a sudden gasp of air and what surely must have been a ridiculous gaping smile. Turning my head right and left I could see the wide Pegasus wings flapping slowly and powerfully beside me. Whatever I did, the animal responded. If I forgot to pedal the bike, the horse would gently begin descent—again, not just visually descend but I would simultaneously feel the descent reflected in the movement of the bike itself.

I admit I was completely reluctant to end this mind-blowing first experience with VR and especially with the VirZoom bike. As much as I am not a fan of biking, I didn’t mind the pedaling one bit for this game and I find the idea of being physically active while immersing yourself in a video game also very appealing. It was possibly the world’s easiest way to exercise.

When I removed the goggles, I came crashing back to the moment. I surprised myself by wanting to cling to the fantasy world of the Pegasus and the way the goggles just drop you so completely into the virtual world. I also was surprised that while I’d been flying around on the bike, quite a crowd had gathered around me! It took no time at all for Eric to find another willing participant. I stayed around to see the new participant’s reaction to his first flying moment curious if he’d be as thrilled as I was. (He was impressed too but less demonstrative than I surely had been!) 

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Dozens of different games to test run
The games being showcased at BostonFIG are in varying stages of development. Some games are at BostonFIG simply to be game-tested-- to see where players get caught up, which parts players don’t get the hang of, and learn which aspects of the game play or story holds greatest appeal. Others like VirZoom are not quite released to the public yet but give people an idea of what joy there is in store.

It's important to realize that we the festival goers at BostonFIG aren’t merely consumers of these products but are active participants in providing feedback to the designers as they continue to work on and refine their game play. By having both complete novices (like me) as well as experienced gamers, the developers are gathering useful feedback to help them make adjustments before going live to the public. The festival provides designers with a peek into how quickly a new player can grasp the play.

Some games rolled out for the festival are still in prototype so it’s possible certain interactions within the game don’t yet function but the minor limitations don’t keep you from having plenty of fun while you gain a sense of what a game is about. Other games were already quite far along in the process or already “shipped” (a phrase I learned applies to digital products going “live” to the public).

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Getting a feel for playing Red Survivor
at the Mustachio Games' booth
Most of the designers and developers I met at BostonFIG were based in New England, primarily in Massachusetts. Massachusetts alone accounts for $2 Billion-plus of the digital gaming industry and we met quite a few people showcasing their digital games who were currently enrolled as game design undergrads at various colleges across the northeast. The Mass Digital Games Institute (MassDiGI) is based at Becker College in Worcester, MA and it serves to support the academic and economic development, entrepreneurship, and mentoring in the state. Their efforts can be seen through the sheer number of digital games showcased at BostonFIG which had designers who had participated (or developed their game) under the guidance of the MassDiGI summer innovation program. Their managing director Monty Sharma was a wealth of information for me in understanding the various moving parts that work together to carry a game concept to a fully funded, intelligently marketed, shipped product for us consumers.

One of the games workshopped in the MassDiGI summer program was Red Survivor –a survival strategy game set in pre-WW I Russia in development by Mustachio Games with the cheeky tagline “Hide Your Babooshka”. As with many of the games at BostonFIG, we were able to play a prototype of Red Survivor with gentle prompts and help from Dylan Mayerchak, the designer and programmer to help us get up on our feet and get a feel for the game play.
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Ape Law's popular Albino Lullaby
offered standard and VR play options

Albino Lullaby by the Ape Law held a neighboring booth and offered conventional PC game play but also the option to play wearing virtual reality glasses (the game is “optimized” for Oculus Rift goggles which haven’t been released to the general public yet, only to developers).

Tagged as a “first-person horror adventure,” Albino Lullaby’s booth was in full swing all day long with large crowds gathered around to watch this visually stunning narrative-based interactive game which was only three days away from its official game release and is now available to the public.

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The Town of Light's haunting digital game
draws from a village's complicated history
I also spent a good deal of time at The Town of Light table learning about their ultra-creepy but hauntingly gorgeous adventure game centered around is a fictional story inspired by factual historic documents and authentic medical practices employed at the enormous psychiatric asylum—Ospedale Psichiatrico--situated in the tiny Italian hill town of Volterra.

The real-life asylum housed up to 6,000 patients and during its time of operation was the town’s largest employer until it closed in 1978. The now-abandoned, condemned property was captured first by the game designers with a video walk-through then re-created digitally for an authentic look and feel, complete with the same graffiti you’d find within its peeling walls today. The details of this game are breathtaking—the medical charts that depict astounding and graphic surgical procedures—all real and true to the time and period of this hospital.

The representative for The Town of Light Stefano Petrullo was gracious enough to play the game for me so I could watch and listen to the atmospheric sounds and see the story unfolding while he deftly moved from room to room explaining the various connections and characters.  Mr. Petrullo shared with me the designers had taken great care to create a story that was both authentic to the practices at this notorious hospital yet respectful of the patients who may have suffered there.

After a few hours on the digital floor I started to feel the wooziness from the morning of visual and audio over-stimulation couple with the increased stuffiness in the room. Though there was plenty left to see, I switched gears and made my way down to the tabletop game floor.

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Maze Racers hosted an active table
for tabletop game players of all ages
Upon entering the tabletop floor, I felt the instant calm that human-paced gaming action affords. The predominant sound on this floor was laughter. Everywhere I looked there were smiling, chatty festival goers seated around tables or cradling little game pieces in their hands. Lacking the hyper-focused intensity which pervaded the digital floor, the vibe down here was relaxed and the temperature in the room noticeably more comfortable.

I wandered from table to table soaking up the game play summaries and strategies. Everything from fantasy-genre card games to family-style collaborative games dotted the booths. Rather than play most games from start to finish, you were invited to just jump in on a game and someone was always there to help you get your feet wet and explain as you played.

One of the most hilarious games I came across also held the most straightforward game play. Why the Long Face?, billed as "the game that brings taxidermy to life", laid four giant picture cards on the table each with a wildlife photograph animal face and the animal’s common name. The participants take turns individually or as a group imitating the expression of a particular animal on a card while the judge tries to guess which animal everyone is mimicking. The game was ultra-simple and totally ridiculous and we all were in tears from laughter while playing it. Within minutes the game testing strangers had become instant friends, ribbing each other for our silly efforts and crazy faces.

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At the Why the Long Face? table we competed to contort our faces to match an animal's expression.

The game designer Penelope Taylor had brought her game to BostonFIG to gather feedback about the game but also to invite ideas on how to solve her biggest game playing conundrum—how to end the game! However, from the looks of it, Ms. Taylor has since solved her dilemma as it was nice to see that she’s since launched her Why the Long Face? Kickstarter campaign.

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Buy The Rights was a game instantly popular with fellow tabletop game players and the designers shared that they too were gearing up for their Kickstarter in November. In Buy the Rights, players draw one card from each of the categories—genre, hero description, hero, and plot—and have to make a movie pitch using those cards to a producer who will determine which movies will receive funding and to what degree.
Again, sometimes the simplest ideas are the ones which work so well. The easier a game is to learn the play and strategy, the more appealing it is to roll out with a group of friends or family for a spontaneous game night.

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Dragoon's high quality materials and
attractive color scheme was a standout
“Want to hold my tiny metal dragon?” asks one of the Dragoon designers as he presses a miniature orange dragon into my palm while I am passing by. It works—the weight of the little game piece feels heavy and substantial in my hand and piques my curiosity. I stop to observe the gameplay and take in the game. Using a gorgeous color scheme, sturdy metal game totems (no plastic chips here), and a fabric map as its game board, the choice of materials for this eye-catching game made it a standout at BostonFIG and it made me realize how few games I play offer such high quality materials. I could imagine Dragoon must be a pleasure to play and it seems others agree with me as Dragoon was bestowed with the “Audience Choice” Figgie Award this year at BostonFIG. 

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The Cookie Brigade volunteers kept us
fed while raising funds for Child's Play
I did start to get fairly famished around 2:30pm and didn’t see much in the way of lunch options. There were snack vending machines near the bathrooms on the 1st floor (chips, etc) and thanks to the treats by The Cookie Brigade, my blood sugar got a boost.

We can’t resist giving a deserved shout out to the folks at The Cookie Brigade which is a collection of local volunteers who hand out their free baked treats at local game fests in the hope you will make a donation to Child’s Play (and of course you will happily do so!) The Cookie Brigade alone has raised over $200,000 for the charity Child’s Play whose mission "seeks to improve the lives of children in hospitals and domestic violence shelters through the generosity and kindness of the video game industry and the power of play."

The two floors at BostonFIG—tabletop and digital—are completely different in terms of energy, vibe, crowds, and quite frankly, even temperature. One could see all aspects of the tabletop exhibits during the day but I think it would be hard to see all the digital floor booths in a single day. To do both floors, as I aimed to do, means accepting you’ll only get a taste of each.

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L to R: Grow Fairy Kingdoms for sale, the World prototype display, folks learning the Water game.

Many of the attendees at BostonFIG were college-age (it is held on a university campus after all) but there were some teenagers and I saw several kids about 10-11 years old there with parents in tow. It seemed appropriate for teens and probably a good idea for 13 year olds and under to be there with an adult (for no reason other than it seemed like a good idea) as it can get crowed and some parents may want to inquire about digital content in advance (graphic, etc.)

There was a lot to love about going to this festival and there’s just no way to see it all, especially if you plan to explore both floors. The designers were incredibly generous with their time, patience, and were eager to share what they were working on. As a complete newbie to this industry, I felt very welcomed by all, learned a tremendous amount, and it is a festival that would is as fascinating for curious folks like me as much as it is for self-described gamers.

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