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Bit of Alright: A Report

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I woke up on Friday morning in shock. My body told me that I must have been in some kind of plane crash and I went immediately scrambling around for the black box recorder. But all my phone could tell me was that I’d been to what they call a Rumpus. Some kind of Wild Rumpus. Pisshead Airlines flight 343 to Cape Hangover had reached its destination after all. But I was only here to get a transfer. So I quickly hopped on the bus to a Bit of Alright.
A Bit of Alright is an indie game conference that is the spiritual successor to World of Love. It was held in Battersea, home to famous album covers and London’s premier dog’s home. But that’s not important right now. What’s important is that RPS was there and that we saw many things that were interesting both from a developer perspective and a player perspective.

There were demos and physical games to play. For instance, Prison Architect and Johann Sebastian Joust were both there (post-Rumpus). But the body of the conference is made up of talks by indie devs designed to enlighten, engagify, enwisen and enrapturate. So important were these talks that I was dispatched to record every word I could. Sadly, I couldn’t get to every talk because there are lots. So treat what follows as a sort of highlight reel. We didn’t bring a photographer so instead we got some artist’s impressions by MS Paint maestro Malachy P. O’Halloran. Enjoy.

The Morning

David Hayward – Intro

David Hayward, who is the mastermind behind A Bit of Alright and previous years’ World of Love, took to the stage to introduce the day’s frivolities. He began by putting a big, gray triangle on-screen and telling everyone how most conferences are boring, boring, boring. Most people, he reckons, think that a conference is okay if it includes things like this gray, lifeless triangle (“this is supposed to represent the five stages of passion or something”) and that many presenters think “whatever generic shapes Powerpoint can shit out are great.”

But this is dull, he says. To the point where audience members start betting on the presentation with the person next to you. “What shape next?” he asks. “The octagon of hope?”

“But the indie crowd is so diverse that it’s really hard to write a talk that will appeal to everyone in the audience. There’s always going to be someone bored.”

A Bit of Alright wants to change that and make the conference more fun.

Before leaving the stage David tells us that they are sharing their Twitter hashtag this year (#boa2012) with Bloodstock Rock Festival, but only because the alternative to this was to share a hashtag with the Business of Aging. I think he made the right choice.

Wot we learned: Conferences can be boring. Let’s be fun.

Ian Wiley – My Note Music App Thingy

“In the baroque period the recorder was basically the electric guitar…” says Ian Wiley as he reveals that there are recorders hidden beneath our seats. “So this is us trying to give the recorder a reboot.” Oh, Jesus.

My Note Games is a music-teaching app and therefore I don’t need to talk about it on this PC-lover website. I don’t need to talk about how, unbeknownst to Ian Wiley, at least one-quarter of the attendees were probably suffering a mild hangover from the Rumpus and how they subsequently stampeded away from his talk as soon as it became clear that everyone was meant to play the secreted instruments as part of a gigantic music lesson.

At this point I also left. But it’s okay, because A Bit of Alright has the informal feeling of one of those unconference things. [http://gamecamp.org.uk/] You know, non-conference. Disconference. Whatever. The point is, you don’t feel necessarily rude if you got up and moved from room to room, talk to talk, because that’s what it’s pretty much designed for. Although I think they could have benefitted all parties by putting this particular talk in the smaller bar room, off to the side.

Later, I would accost David Hayward and yell at him, “What were you thinking!? Putting all these recorders in this room so early in the morning!” In hindsight, this was rather rude. But I really was very distressed.

Wot we learned: Music is hard. Recorders are NOT a hangover cure.

Richard Perrin – Interactive Fiction

Next up Richard Perrin was there to chat about interactive fiction and what we can learn from the genre. It’s not all ‘blah blah, go west, please re-enter command’ nonsense he says. Although he admits “there are still people making those types of games.”

Thinking of how devs can learn from text adventures he says: “You have all heard of this phrase. ‘Good artists write. Great artists steal.’ [Although], I’m not suggesting you take something that’s already done and stamp your name on it…”

At this point a giant slide with a picture of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy text adventure pops up, with a Zynga logo plastered on top. Everyone chuckles. Except, I suspect, an ambassador from Zynga lurking somewhere in the background, keeping their eyes open for their Playfish rival.

(I once applied for a job at Playfish. I didn’t get it. I think they might have thought I was an investigative journalist, trying to go undercover in the seedy social games scene. I’m really not. Although someone should do that.)

Bit of Alright! Richard Perrin continued his talk and mentioned many important and interesting games in interactive fiction genre. He told us how 9:05 by Adam Cadre cleverly turned the player’s expectations against them and how Vespers by Jason Devlin messed with your perception of the world around you. In Vespers you play as a monk and through his eyes all the buildings are initially described as beautiful and majestic but as time goes on they are described more brutally, as crumbling and decaying facades.

“It’s not the main story that interests me most about this game… [it’s that] the environment changes to match what’s happening to the characters.

“I think it’s interesting that the way we see the world changes… it’s very easy and cheap to do in an interactive fiction game but probably could be done in [other genres].”

Slouching towards Bedlam is another one we can learn from, he says. Without spoiling it too much, you play as someone who isn’t all he seems to be.

“I like the idea that things you’re doing in the game are having actions that you couldn’t have possibly predicted.

“I haven’t seen the unreliable narrator done in games very often or very well. And I think that has something to do with how we like to have control. Control over our surroundings and our actions.”
But crucially, he notes that none of these games force a morality system on you, beyond the one you already live by in real life. “It’s not like Mass Effect,” Perrin says. “It doesn’t tell you you have done something wrong or right.

“It’s really worth paying attention to the interactive fiction community. It’s a bit impenetrable… but sadly overlooked.” He sums up his feelings on the matter simply but ultimately it’s a thoughtful talk.

Wot we learned: Interactive Fiction can teach us many things. Don’t be Zynga.

Dan Marshall – Death And Tea

Dan Marshall of Size Five Games, aka The Studio Formerly Known As Zombie Cow aka Those Folks Wot Made Privates, is making a game called The Swindle and he’s been wondering how to do ‘death’ in the game. So, in what turned into a strange mix between university seminar and crowd-sourcing exercise, he did a talk on the subject of death in videogames. There was also tea.

“I do think a lot about death,” he said. “Because I’m 31 and I have a cold. I’m increasingly aware of some games that have done death very well and some that have done death very differently.”
So he started thinking about how he should tackle death when he was making The Swindle, a platformer. “You could spend half an hour or 45 minutes on a level, die and have to start again. Which is shit… It’s seems kind of outdated – that idea of death in games.”

He is immediately challenged by people in the audience. The talk becomes a talk in earnest, with everyone throwing in their examples of games that did death in a good way. The microphone was passed around a lot. There was also biscuits.

VVVVVV and Super Meat Boy are mentioned as good examples because, although you die, you are never heavily punished in terms of time apart from the time lost to your own mistakes. (Would you like to know more? )

Then Dan Marshall silently put up a slide with a screenshot of Sonic on it. And do you know what happened? Everybody laughed. The whole room. Sonic has decayed so much since his vibrant youth that he has quite literally become a joke. Sonic’s system of lives was much reviled among us but it wasn’t the only handling of death that irked Dan.

“The other reason I started to hate death was that it fucks up the narrative… In Uncharted you die a lot and they do all this [other] stuff really well but it’s like being told a story by a mad crackhead uncle.

“That’s another thing, when you die in the presence of another character they shout out your name and say, ‘Oh nooo, don’t diiiie!’”

Again, the audience breaks in to comment. Examples of death in games are flying all over the place. Someone mentions Prince of Persia. Phill Cameron mentions Far Cry 2. Somebody else brings up Soul Reaver. Phill Cameron mentions Far Cry 2 again, with more force. He asks for a biscuit.

Curiously, I don’t remember anyone mentioning Demon Souls or Dark Souls. Maybe because there was a big PC gamer contingent and nobody wanted to get upset about its absence. Maybe they did and I blacked out at this point.

“Death breaks narrative,” Dan summarised. “I think that’s my biggest problem.”

Wot we learned: Death should be clever. Sonic is a joke.

Kerry Turner and Simon Parkin – They Did A Talk About Emotions And Everyone Went Home And Wrote Poetry Maybe

Next up in the tea room was Simon Parkin and Kerry Turner of Littleloud Games, creators of Sweatshop, to talk to everyone about mooshy feelings and stuff. They reckon games can be great but, when it comes down to it, many games are based on unemotional systems and mechanics.

“I think human beings can only have a limited amount of emotions when it comes to systems,” Simon said. “Nobody gets upset when the knight gets taken in chess.”

What’s more is that these systems and our emotions are often in conflict. He gives the example of Alyx Vance in Half-Life 2, who periodically shouts at you to hurry up despite the fact that the player has to then wait for her to open a door for them.

“The story is eliciting urgency and panic but the system is causing frustration and impatience.”

It strikes me that this kind of conflict between story/atmosphere and what you’re physically able to do is exactly what annoyed John about Modern Warfare 3, Homefront and other corridor manshoots (or part of what annoyed him) and should probably be included in his ‘Dos and Don’ts’, if it isn’t already.

Some non-PC stuff is now mentioned in Littleloud’s talk. But that’s okay. The great thing about RPS is that you can mention a non-PC game so long as you balance your statement with a) rage that it is not out on PC or b) contempt for the game generally. So. Simon and Kerry started talking about Ico (grrr not out on PC grrr) and Shadow of the Colossus (grrr not on PC how hateful grrr). Both of these games evoke strong feelings in the player, the former a feeling of attachment, the latter a feeling of guilt.

“In Ico you create a bond with Yorda,” Simon says. “Even holding her hand – pushing the button to hold her hand is a physical thing.”

Whereas in SotC, Kerry felt bad about hunting and killing the behemoths of the game.

“You see these creatures,” she says. “They’re peaceful and wandering around their natural habitat… They’re like giant cows. Then you begin to battle them. It’s exhausting… You get so into it and then… they die. And it’s like a comedown.”

There was also talk about sex-romp-adultery-simulation-block-puzzler Catherine (grrr why no PC grrr) which caused Simon to feel a bit awkward and guilty.

All these games could teach developers how to approach emotion and how to cause unusual feelings in the player, beyond the over-whelming sense of empowerment we’re normally handed. They say they approached Sweatshop with this aim in mind.

“The job of a manager at a sweatshop is that you have a level of empathy with your workers,” Simon says. “But you also have these western companies pushing you on. [But] you really very quickly view your workers as assets as you master the game’s systems. .. You’re mimicking the kind of practices that they use to maximise their profits.” Naturally, this realisation will make you feel bad. Assuming you’re not a really nasty person.

Then Kerry is asked if this kind of developer focus on emotion could be incorporated into online games, such as Facebook games.

“I played sometimes on social games,” she says. And then quickly adds, “For research. Which isn’t something I’d normally want.

“But the first time I’d felt embarrassment in a game is when I logged into the Sims Social and my mum had been round and tidied my house.”

There you go, even social network games can make you feel ashamed of yourself. But then, everyone in the room sort of already knew that.

Wot we learned: Emotions are wobbly. The primary function of a mum is to humiliate.

Wot we not learned: Social games are emotionally intelligent.

The Afternoon

Now, it was time for lunch. As is customary at these events, we retired to the fish and chip shop. Lewie Procter had cod, as did I. But some enjoyed a haddock and Mitu Khandakar bucked the trend with a fishcake.

There were no games.

Jerry Carpenter – Gametoilet

Back at the conference, cartoonist Jerry Carpenter took to the main stage to make lots of people laugh. The pictures were so funny I forgot to take notes. But you can relive much of the fun here.

Wot we learned: Rude words.

Cliff Harris or Cliffski – This Talk Might Have Been Called ‘Don’t Be Lazy, You Lazy Bum’ But I Don’t Remember

“A lot of people seem to treat this industry – and indie games are no exception – like it’s school.”

Cliff Harris, creator of Gratuitous Space Battles and the Democracy series, has come on stage and is about to lay down some harsh maybetruths.

“I’m not saying you should be stupidly serious about it. But, for instance, game developers seem to always start at 10. As a programmer I think like that’s complete nonsense. [People think] that it’s kind of like school and I understand – but I don’t understand why everyone can sit on the internet all day and mess around… [I know ]that makes me evil and quite Ferengi about it.”

This talk wasn’t so much about pulling up your bootstraps as it was about surgically attaching your bootstraps to your legs via a painful hospital procedure so that they may never fall down again. Cliffski gave one example of how, as a programmer, you should always have an organised record of what you’ve done. For instance, by getting into the habit of using comments while coding.

“If you don’t have a log of what you’ve done it’s easy to come out thinking, ‘I got lots done today.’”

More important still is getting rid of all distractions, shutting down Twitter, Facebook and even ignoring the phone. The way Cliff sees it, “if you’re interrupted, everything you were coding, your whole train of thought, collapses.

“You can program yourself to work hard,” he says. (I didn’t know this was possible with current programming languages but there you have it). “You can program yourself to get out of bed in the morning early.”

But that’s not all. You’ll need good equipment too. Monitors hold special significance, for monitoring things.

“They have to be really good because you’re going to stare at it every day, 365 days a year. The same with an office chair… As an indie dev you have to be comfortable… You have to have one excellent working environment.

“If you do the maths you’ll find that you’ll get about 200,000 pounds over your career for that office chair.”

What.

“You can justify it. You can get that loan and if [in the end] you don’t then you don’t really have that much faith in your ability. Everyone here can do this. There’s no reason anyone can’t scale up and earn 100,000 or 200,000 pounds a year.” (Actually he said £200k over the life of the chair, which could be 5-10 years. – Jim)

Right. While it ought to be remembered that Cliffski is saying this from a position of great success and fiscal stability (a place where confidence abounds and it always seems easy to overcome problems), he speaks some sense and it’ll no doubt resonate with some developers who want to push themselves. He’s kind of like a hard-ass boss figure. You don’t really want to hear him tell you off, even though you probably could afford to be a wee bit less lazy.

On the other hand, his advice on the monetary side might raise eyebrows. If you can’t afford to get all this equipment and stuff, he says, simply get a loan and go for broke. While a loan is often a sensible move, I think a lot of people would agree that it’s something you should consider very carefully. And including a ridiculously pricey office chair in your budget might not be every small developer’s idea of intelligent investment.

As for getting out of bed. Well. Productivity is over-rated. We try to do too much with our time, and soon discover we have none left to waste on joyful nonsense. Why not just find the right balance of work and lounging to suit you? From what I’ve seen, the best studios never forget to have rest or have fun.

However, maybe he’s right. Are you a game developer? Are you lazy? Let us know! Send us your reckons. I’d investigate myself but I can’t really be arsed.

Wot we learned: School is over. But Cliffski is life’s strict headmaster.

Iain Simons and James Newman – National Videogame Archive

Although I didn’t catch it all, this was a talk about the importance of salvaging old games. Bet you didn’t know there was an archive in Nottingham dedicated to the historical importance of our medium. Well, there is. Their unofficial mascot is Horace, star of Spectrum title Hungry Horace. He’s kind of obscure and that’s the point. Both the NVA and their associates at GameCity Festival champion him as their symbol of the Forgotten. It’s important. I suspect future historians will one day muddle through the Grand Library of the NVA with their iPencils and Thought-Powered Bow Ties and think most fondly of its foundation.

Wot we learned: History is not bunk.

Alistair Lindsay – Another Talk I Sadly Missed

Alistair Lindsay gave a demonstration on the psychological effects of sound design in games. He’s been contracted to do the sound for Prison Architect, the out-of-nowhere management game Introversion announced after scrapping bank heist Subversion.

I missed this talk but only because I was playing a demo of the game itself at the back of the hall. Sadly, the sounds and chatter from Alistair’s presentation made it impossible for me to hear the actual sound effects in the level I was playing through! Oh irony, ye devilish mistress!

Is that irony? I forget.

Anyway, Prison Architect is an intriguing thing indeed. I played a tutorial level in which you have to build a special cell for a prisoner on death row. I furnished the cell with a book shelf and an oak tree. You have to manage minute details of the prison, down to the electric circuits running underneath the facilities. I built an electrical line leading to the death chamber I’d just built, so I could power an electric chair. But in testing the chair a circuit breaker went and there was a power cut. In the end, you have to send an engineer to build more capacitors for the generator because killing people involves many many megajolts of leccy.

While the scope of the management seemed fairly impressive, I was expecting the game to be a black comedy of sorts. It turns out it’s… er, quite bleak actually. Your prisoners have backstories and motives, they repent and show fear at the hands of the executioner. It’s more Green Mile than Porridge: The Videogame. Not sure how I feel about that but I definitely want to play more.
Wot we learned: Building a smiley face emoticon into the flooring of an execution chamber does not ‘lighten the mood’.

The Evening

As Proteus was playing on the big screen, I left. (No connection between the two – Proteus is lovely). Many others went off to pub and probably ended up arguing about the under-representation of healthy vegetables in Deus Ex or something. Overall, A Bit of Alright was A Bit of Very Good. A big thanks to David Hayward for his organisational skills. As a conference it definitely succeeded in being not dull. I think it’s fair to say that if A Bit of Alright was a shape in a Powerpoint presentation, it’d be the Octagon of Hope.

Wot we learned: No recorders next time. For fuck’s sake.

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Who am I?

Brendan Caldwell

Features Editor

Brendan likes all types of games. To him there is wisdom in Crusader Kings 2, valour in Dark Souls, and tragicomedy in Nidhogg.

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