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Falling In Love With Game Development Again At IndieCade 2017

Last weekend IndieCade – or more formally, the International Festival of Independent Games – celebrated its tenth anniversary at a new venue: the Japanese American National Museum, the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, and the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. IndieCade CEO Stephanie Barish and Co-chair for IndieCade West GameU Chris DeLeon were kind enough to invite my Los Angeles Film School Game Production students to join other game student groups for free admission to the event on Friday.

After distributing the admission wristbands to my students and allowing them to enjoy the festival independently, I was drawn to a session called “Fall In Love With Game Development Again,” presented by Brett Taylor, founder (and lone game developer) of My Dog Zorro.  The focus of his talk was to give attendees a toolbox of enjoyable, low-commitment strategies to try out at home to increase their happiness and productivity; and empower them to define their happiness goals with intention and take more control of their lives.

Here are some of the actionable strategies and practices Brett shared with us:

  • Have a weekly kick-off of what you plan to accomplish, and a week-end reflection on what you actually did accomplish, to keep yourself aligned.
  • Write down something for which you are grateful, every hour. It doesn’t have to be anything profound; it can be as simple as, “I’m grateful for the two sandwiches I packed for lunch.
  • Filter your vocabulary to eliminate negative thoughts like, “I should have…”, “It was hard,” “I am poor”.
  • Take a mandatory 30 second dance three times during the day to rejuvenate your body and spirit.
  • If you find yourself getting too stressed about your work, go home and relax.
  • Schedule loving reminder alerts to yourself on your phone or computer: “Do it anyway,” “Finish that task”, “Tell someone you love them,” and most importantly, “Write more loving reminders to yourself.”

Finding easy-to-implement techniques for maintaining a positive attitude can be very important in the stressful and often lonely life of a indie game developer, but what makes me fall in love with game development again is looking at the innovative games that these developers are making. IndieCade is an opportunity to see more than two hundred of the latest innovative indie games of all types and from around the world.

Having developed games for close to four decades, I’ve seen the same ideas recycled over and over again, so the more unusual a game is, the more I like it.  Here are some of my favorites.

Feast

Maybe it was because I was famished, but the first game I gravitated toward was Feast, a storytelling/role-playing game for five players about power and memory, that’s played during a communal meal and uses eating and tasting as game mechanics. Players take on the role of entities (ghosts, aliens, parasitic fungi, whatever they wish) possessing and eating the personalities of ordinary people. Prior to the game, players each prepare one food item with one dominant taste (sweet, umami, salty, sour or bitter), to be shared among the others. Each round, players eat a morsel of food and describe a memory or thought that they consume from their host. The specific memory they eat is determined both by the dominant taste of the food they eat, and the round in the game. When all the food has been eaten, the players have subsumed their hosts’ personalities and the game is over.

You can find out more about this game, developed by Sharang Biswas and Sweta Mohapatra at Feast.

Keyboard Sports

In this puzzle game developed by Triband, you play as the young apprentice to Master QWERTY who takes you on a wild adventure across oceans, through temples and into dreams in the search for your inner key using the entire keyboard as your controller.  Now, a keyboard may not be the coolest interface there is, but as someone who learned touch typing in high school, I appreciated a game that had me racing around the keyboard, often using the keys in very punny ways.

You can learn more about this game at Keyboard Sports.

Santiago

This multi-sensory virtual reality (VR) installation developed by Team Santiago that explores the idea of escapism through psychedelic visuals and music. The experience revolves around a physical sculpture of Santiago, an ancient fish god, that transforms into a living, breathing musical instrument that can be played through touch. The music created by the player affects objects and visualizations in the virtual environment, giving each player the agency to shape his or her experience. The piece is built for the HTC Vive and uses Leap Motion technology, allowing users to move freely around the sculpture and physically interact with Santiago.

You can learn more about this game at Santiago VR Experience.

Vignettes

As someone who usually develops story-based games, I really appreciated Vignettes as being the opposite of what I normally play.  Developed by Skeleton Business, Vignettes is a casual and whimsical exploration game without text or characters, where objects shapeshift as you spin them around in a kaleidoscope of different moods and orientations.  Your only hints about what to do are in the form of icons that suggest how to manipulate the object.  Vignettes is a game of surprise and discovery, in which players wander through a silent but colorful narrative.

You can learn more about this game at Vignettes.

Emotional Fugitive Detector

This is a two-player cooperative game which uses the human face as both its primary controller and screen. One player is instructed to give an expression of emotion — anger, happiness, sadness — and the second player must guess what that emotion is being conveyed.  But here’s the trick: the firs player’s face is also scanned for emotions by the installation robot’s face tracking technology, and if the robot detects emotion, the two player’s lose. Players must find a difficult middle ground in this emotional Turing test: expressive enough for a human, too subtle for a computer.

I asked the developers– Sam Von Ehren, Alexander King, and Noca Wu — how they came up with this idea behind Emotional Fugitive Detector.  They told me that initially they tried to come up with a facial expression input interface for a fighting game, but when they couldn’t get it to work properly, they turned decided to lemons into lemonade by changing directions and developing a game that took advantage of the technical problem. They also said that while showing the game at IndieCade, they received feedback that this game might be good for helping autistic children to learn to interpret emotion.

Turning a flaw into a feature and possibly benefiting society at the same time — now that’s a story to make me fall in love with game development again!

 

 

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Innovation On Display At IndieCade 2016

The IndieCade Festival is the country’s biggest event dedicated to celebrating games made by independent developers (those not supported by game studios). Last weekend was the ninth Festival, and this year it was held at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, which is home to USC Games, the most prestigious educational program for game design in the country. I was only able to attend IndieCade on its last day, Sunday, but as always, I was impressed by the imagination and passion behind the games on display.

Gaming Is For Everyone

Diversity remains a hot topic in the game industry, and Intel supported this issue by sponsoring the Gaming Is For Everyone exhibit.  This was my first stop of the morning, and I could have easily spent the rest of my time in this one room.

Games for Change (G4C) is a non-profit organization promoting and facilitating the development of games for social impact, which includes learning, civics and health. G4C hosts public arcades, funds game design challenges, workshops, and produces the annual G4C Festival, which highlights games for good and brings together developers, social innovators and funders to further develop the field of impact games. Through G4C Lab, it consults with organizations on social impact game strategies and often pair game developers with cause-related organizations to executive produce games. . Among the more fascinating games at its table was We Are Chicagodeveloped by Culture Shock Games. In this first person narrative-driven adventure game using real stories,  you play a high school kid from Chicago who’s best friend has disappeared,  is threatened by gangsters at school, and finds the shootings on your block to be the only constant in your life.  As you explore your  relationships to uncover what really matters, you learn the important of friends and family sticking together to keep each other safe.   We Are Chicago has earned a number of honors and received IndieCade 2016’s Developer Choice Award.

I’ve long been an enthusiastic supporter of women in game development, and so I had to stop by the GirlsMakeGames table. Girls Make Games is a series of international summer camps, workshops and game jams designed to encourage girls to explore the world of video games and development.  The camps are run by LearnDistrict, an educational company based in San Jose, CA. We are committed to providing students with access to knowledge through our games and programs like Girls Make Games workshops. Their goal to teach 1 million girls around the world how to make games by 2020, and if anyone can do it, they can.

One gentleman I especially enjoyed talking to was Marcelo Viana Neto, an artist, educator, and game designer who also shares an interest in games and education.  While earning his Master’s Degree in Digital Arts and New Media at University of California, Santa Cruz, he developed a curriculum for an introductory course on video game game design and development for youth ages 12 and up, with little-to-no game-making experience.  The explicit nature of Radical Play is to expose students to a variety of design methodologies, diverse array of game development software, and novel game play experiences to encourage student self-expression through video game design.  His course also aims to develop students’ sense of autonomy, by using a variety of classroom management techniques, and allowing students to choose their game-making tools and creative path.

Innovative Input Devices

I decided to put one of the exhibits I visited at the Gaming Is For Everyone pavilion under a separate header for some of the innovative input devices I saw at the Festival. XTH Sense calls itself the world’s first biocreative instrument and next evolution in sensory expression. The XTH Sense harnesses the power of your body to let you interact with connected devices, musical and video software, games and virtual reality in a highly personalized and engaging way. Using multiple biophysical sensors, the XTH Sense captures various sounds from your body, such as muscles contracting, blood flowing, the heart beating, as well as your motion data and temperature. These sounds and data represent your expressive signature. With the XTH Software Suite you can use your expressive signature to control musical parameters, create digital drawings, interact with game mechanics and play in virtual reality (VR). It also makes for a cool wristband.

I was feeling a bit peckish when I game across the most delicious game to satisfy my IndieCade appetite. The Order of the Oven Mitt is a tabletop, completely edible game for all ages that will get you laughing and strategizing while you satisfy your sweet tooth.  Created by game designer Jenn Sandercock of Inquisment, this non-competitive game’s components, other than the Sacred Tome, are edible. This includes the main board and the edible-ink pens used to decorate and personalize your Knight. This design choice means the entire sacred space can be eaten, so that there is no evidence left of it.  This yummy game is designed foster friendship, curiosity and challenge, and as the cherry on top, it won IndieCade 2016’s Interaction Award.

They say you reap what you sew, and this was never truer than it is with Threadsteading, a two-player game for a modified quilting machine. The quilting machine is a computer-controlled longarm quilting machine, which moves a sewing head around a 12′ x 2.5′ area to stitch 2D paths. Players act as competing commanders of a team of royal scouts tasked with exploring a hex-gridded domain of varying terrain difficulty.  Gameplay is turn-based and designed around the unique constraints of the platform. Because the output is essentially a single “pen” position over time, each turn must pick up where the previous turn left off; because the final artifact is a quilt, the rules should encourage an even spread of lines across the surface—ideally, a quilt has neither large unsewn portions nor multiple stitched lines on top of each other.  This truly unique game, created by Disney Research Pittsburgh, deservedly won IndieCade 2016’s Technology Award.

However, the most, um, intimate input device I’ve ever used in a game came courtesy of Infinite-0: Dreams of Space.  The video game is a conceptual portrait on the life & influence of three generations of women artists: Eugenia Butler, Eugenia P. Butler, and the game’s designer, Corazon Del Sol. The central character is a pair of three legs that the player uses a controller in the shape of a vagina to navigate a series of planetary vignettes, with theme elements that oscillate between absurd dreaminess and narrative vehicles that explore the archetypes of woman-hood. The player scampers through the territory of a creative self, attaining material signifiers that raise her stature in the world, but she also holds power to destroy what she’s created for herself. Dreams, which seeks to embrace the absolute freedom to succeed creatively in respective cultural paradigms, won IndieCade 2016’s Visual Design Award.

Tabletop and Live-Action Roleplaying Games

I spend so much of my time involved with video games that when I go to events like this, I am attracted to the non-video games.  Here are a few that caught my eye.

Fracture is a competitive tabletop game where each player strives for diversity.  The game is played using a set of smart hexagonal tiles called AutomaTiles by its inventor, Jonathan Bobrow, that communicate with one another to determine the board state. The tiles simulate a population of different colors that simply “want” to be around colors different from themselves. Each player is assigned a color and is given the goal to keep the population together, but make their own color touch only other colors. Players quickly realize they need to manage their ability to prevent others from winning while moving themselves forward. I learned this a bit to late when, just as I was about to make my winning move, I lost to another player.

Keeping the Candle Lit is is a live-action freeform game inspired by blackbox theater techniques and abstract play.  Designed by Shoshanna Kessack, who drew her inspiration from being raised as a Conservative Jew, the game immerses players in a story about three generations of women in one family fighting as partisans during the war. Having escaped the grasp of the Nazis, they have taken to the woods of Europe to fight back in armed resistance. The women are from a traditional Jewish background and have spent their lives steeped in their culture and religion. Confronted with this wide-open world fraught with danger, they must decide what part of their past traditions they wish to preserve, and what legacy they will carry with them to be passed down to future generations.  A session runs for four hours, requires three players and two facilitators who will also play supplemental roles.

Bad News is an installation-based game that combines procedural generation, deep simulation, and live performance. Set in the summer of 1979, gameplay takes place in a procedurally generated American small town with over a century of simulated history. When an unidentified body is discovered in the town, a mortician’s assistant—the player—is tasked with tracking down a next of kin to inform him or her of the death. To do this, the player explores the town and converses with its residents to discover the identities of both the deceased and next of kin, as well as the current location of the latter. Whenever the player encounters a town resident, an improvisational actor reveals himself to perform the character live, adhering to the character’s generated personality, life history, and knowledge. Created by a team of PhD students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Bad News is designed to showcase the humor, drama, and tragedy of everyday life,  and the game won IndieCade 2016’s Audience Choice Award.

Luck: When Planning Meets Opportunity

IndieCade is not just about the games developed by independent game developers, but the indie game spirit.  And no one embodied that more at IndieCade than two of my Los Angeles Film School students, Robert Rose and Josh Weston.  Although the game they had submitted, Nightmare, was not selected by IndieCade, the two received free passes for their efforts.  By accident they walked into a meeting room where a representative from Oculus Rift was being pitched game ideas.  Instead of backing out of the room, they decided to pitch the game they had developed in class and were rewarded with the promise of a follow-up discussion.  I was thrilled to see their indie spirit paying off.