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"Are There Any Jews in the Audience?" - IGDA's Demo Night 4

Gamasutra takes an in-depth look at The Shivah, a unique graphic adventure game with Jewish themes and characters, as part of its report on the New York IGDA branch's recent Demo Night.

The fourth ever IGDA-sponsored 'Demo Night' took place August 23rd 2006, in New York City. Established by members from both the New York City and New Jersey chapters of the IGDA (the Independent Game Developers Association) as an outlet for local game creators to show off recent projects, as well as a chance to meet and greet their peers, the events have taken place every couple of months or so, and in a little over a year and a half, they have become quite the big deal.

Why so? Simply because it's a chance to strut one's stuff in front of (and hopefully make a splash among) the colorful cast that makes up the New York game development scene. It's an odd, yet even mix of big name; established folks like gameLab's Eric Zimmerman and Manifesto Games' Greg Costikiyan, both of whom have become poster children of sorts of the game scene and its ways, others who are just getting into the game of making games, some of whom are minty fresh with a pocketful of VC money (and others who are looking for some), students from assorted colleges in the area who are all working on the next big Alternative Reality Game, along with a few members of the faculty, and everyone in between.

They're all packed into a small space, with some beer and some chips, to check out what's new and what's coming down the pipe. The event is just like the people: unpredictable, underground, independent... though like many scenes, certain trends and facets are becoming starting to become more and more easily identifiable, almost expected, each year, for better or worse.

But this past Demo Night was a bit different. First off, its become so big that a change in venue was finally in order (the first three Demo Nights all took place in the offices of Large Animal Games, one of the largest game companies operating in Manhattan today, which by west coast standards might seem a bit paltry), so New York University lent one of their many buildings throughout the island as a meeting space. There was also a changing of the guards to kick things off; both Eric Zimmerman and Greg Costikyan, who have both been in charge of the NY chapter of the IGDA for years now, both stepped down from their posts and welcomed the new head, Wade Tinney, who not only runs Large Animal Games, the place where previous Demo Nights took place, but was a key figure in their inception and execution.

Tinney reiterated what Demo Night was all about: building a community for game creators who may be working on their own, but are all sharing the same experiences, and to be act as a forum so they can seek help and learn from each other. And after all was said and done, there were the games. Five in all, and again, given the flavor of the NYC scene, some of what was shown was somewhat expected. And some was not.

The Shivah

The clear hit game of the evening came from completely out of left field. It wasn't from some up and coming company that's just gotten in-flux of venture capitalist funding due to it tapping into what's hot right now, nor does it utilize some cutting edge technology to break untested gameplay waters. The game in question was The Shivah, from Dave Gilbert, an unknown in the New York circles (until that evening that is). The game in questions is simply a graphic adventure, in the tradition of Monkey Island and Gabriel Knight, with the twist being that it deals heavily with the Jewish faith.

shiva01.gif
The Shivah

When Dave first went up front to address the audience, he asked "Are there any Jews in the audience?" which got some chuckles, and a show of some hands. Dave went over a brief explanation of the game, then a film-like trailer was shown. After the gruesome murder which ended the clip, Dave responded with "Yeah, the Jews get that". Again, more laughs.

The Shivah stars Rabbi Russell Stone, who receives a large sum of money from a former member of his congregation who had passed away. Instead of putting the funds towards his synagogue which on the verge of closing down, Stone decides to investigate the circumstance relating to his death, which takes him all across Manhattan to uncover the truth, which reveals a conspiracy that shakes the foundation of the Jewish church.


Next Dave demoed the game while going over the main points: like all graphic adventures, everything is story based. Dave showed the main character interacting with others, which was primarily talking. A quick look at the inventory revealed a Yiddish dictionary to help the "goyims" to understand the vernacular that the characters in the game use.

One part of the game featured Stone confronting another rabbi. Dave then asked the audience what one gets if they ask a rabbi a question, and a few knew the answer: another question, which was incorporated into the scene that was being presented. The player's character would ask a question, and the other "evil" rabbi would respond. Afterwards, the player could either ask another question or choose to throw a punch. If the evil rabbi had given a rabbinical response, which was another question, then he would be immune to any physical action. But if he was a "poor" rabbi and didn't respond with a question, the blow would connect.

Afterwards was a breakdown of the technical end; a demonstration of the Adventure Game Studio, which the game was authored in. It's a simply tag based editor, and even someone who isn't a “super coder ”like himself had no problems importing characters created from a graphics program (Photoshop), setting up path and parameters for their actions, and constructing a simply action sequence. Dave also passed along several other notes, such as how the game was definitely inspired by the "insult sword-fighting" from LucasArts' The Secret of Monkey Island. The Shivah was originally created for a contest, and when the deadline had passed, the graphics were improved upon, though only slightly. He noted that reviewers have called the game a "rabbi-off".

shiva02.gif
The Shivah

Unlike all the other presenters, who had a handful of folks who were interested in some key details with all the other games, everyone was dying to know more about this game. A person in the audience asked about the methodology, with Dave's response being: "Sitting in a cafe, with a pencil." Another asked about the voices (each character has his or her own spoken dialogue), which were real actors from Dave's improv troupe, who were all willing to work for just pizza.

Once again, a total “outsider” managed to make a game, completely on his own terms, and took the event and its audience by storm. Perhaps more so than any other game that night, The Shivah and Dave Gilbert best embodied what Demo Night was truly all about.

After the event, I was able to ask Dave how he felt about that evening…

Gamasutra: What did you think of last night's event as a whole?

Dave Gilbert: As a whole, I really enjoyed it. Being a relative newbie to the whole thing, it was very interesting to see what other games were being made. The fact that they weren't all insanely high-budgeted games with the latest graphics and 3D lighting techniques and super-duper everything was very encouraging to me, personally, and really said a lot about the New York gaming scene.

GS: Previous to this, what was in your mind the definition of the "New York gaming scene?"

DG: When I started making my games, I never thought about perusing it as a serious career, so I didn't pay much attention to the scene. It wasn't until maybe a year ago that I began looking into it, and my impression was that the scene was practically non-existent. I knew of gameLab, but they seemed to be the only fish in the pond as far as I could tell and I only found out about gameLab through Nick (Fortuno), who I knew socially at the time.

So to answer your question, I thought the scene was extraordinarily small.

GS: What were you're exact thoughts going into the event?

DG: TOTAL NEUROTIC BREAKDOWN!

A friend of mine, Sande Chen suggested I write Wade [Tinney, about taking part in the event]. I didn't take it seriously, but figured I didn't have anything to lose, so I did. [And] I was so surprised when Wade asked me to present the game. It was a pleasant surprise, but it soon gave way to freaking out. I kept thinking that it was an amazing opportunity, and I was worried I would blow it. I was nervous, but after meeting everyone and chatting with people, I quickly relaxed and enjoyed myself.

When I finally got up there, I threw my prepared speech out the window and just had fun with it.


GS: Do you have any specific thoughts or opinions of the other games that were presented?

DG: I was impressed by the sheer variety of the games presented. On the one side you had games like Supple and Wingnuts, which are really complex, graphics-heavy games, and then there were games like Snagu which were so incredibly simple in their execution. It was a very nice mix.

GS: How do you think your game "fit in" with them?

DG: I think it fit pretty well. I realized while I was up there that I was talking to a group of game makers, and not game players. This was group who had grown up on graphic adventures like Shivah, and could appreciate it for what it was.

GS: Did you feel at all intimidated when you looked at the info sheet and noticed that one game had a budget of 100K?

DG: Compared to my paltry budget of zero? Yes. I was worried that people would look down on such a home-brewed game, but it turned out not to be a problem at all.

GS: Did you get the response you were hoping for?

davelgill.jpg
Dave Gilbert

DG: The response blew all my expectations out of the water. At most, I expected a "Oh, how quaint" kind of reaction, but I was totally unprepared for how happy people were with the game.

I'd been making these games for free for years, and I often get fan-email from players, but this was the first time it ever happened to me in "real life." The freeware games were successful, but it was a success that only existed on the internet when I was in front of my computer. So, in a strange metaphorical way, the reaction made me feel like two halves of my life had merged. The game-making side of me felt more legitimate and "real." Nobody in "real life" had ever heard of my games, or cared, so it was nice to see that change.

GS: Do you think any opportunities will come up as a result of the evening?

DG: I hope so! At the very least, it introduced me to a number of industry people who were willing to give me advice. I am very new to the scene, and simply making the game is only part of it. [There's also] the marketing, the pricing, the selling, etc. It's all very strange and scary to me. I met some very nice people who let me pick their brain, and offered to help.

Also, just being around other indie game designers was incredibly inspiring. This crazy endeavor of mine suddenly feels a little less crazy.

GS: To clarify, how long have you been designing games?

DG: I started making freeware games in August, 2001. So about... 5 years.

GS: Are you a full time game designer?

DG: I am trying to make it full time. I was in a good situation where I had saved up a lot of money so I figured it was "now or never". So I'm dedicating all my time to making these games.

GS: What's been the hardest part about being an independent New York game developer? Do you feel your struggles were to what the other designers encountered, despite the differences in each person's games? Or any unique ones you believe?

DG: The biggest challenge is that games in general take a long time to make, and even longer to turn a profit. Living in NYC is so expensive that it makes being an indie game dev here very challenging. Which is probably why the scene here is kinda small.

I've been forced to budget. And buy cheaper coffee.

GS: On a different note, what's been the response from other Jews? Both gamers and non?

DG: The response has been very positive. The game was featured in the "Jewish Weekly News" and has popped up on dozens of Jewish blogs. I once got an email from an Israeli soldier, who told me he and his buddies were really enjoying the game. It made my day, to hear that.

The reaction from non-Jews have been just as positive. They like the fact that the game doesn't try to preach to them or convert them. He's Jewish, it's the world he lives in, and they accept that. I'm glad, because I was worried that the non-Jews wouldn't "get it".

GS: How exactly is The Shivah being distributed?

DG: Right now, you can buy it on the internet via an online shop. It can take orders through PayPal, and then it will provide you with a secure download link. Some people don't like using credit cards online, so they send me the money through the mail.

GS: So, do you now feel a part of the New York game dev community officially?

DG: I definitely feel like I'm part of something now.

Before, I really felt alone and unsure of what I was doing. I really feel like I'm part of a community now that I can fall back on and get advice from. It's also nice to be able to talk to people about making games in general, as that used to be a world that only existed for me on the internet.

---

The Shivah can be purchases through his Gilbert's homepage, davelgil.com. Over the past few weeks, Gilbert has been talking with Manifesto Games, which has expressed interest in distributing the game. It should be available though them in the coming days or weeks.


Snagu

Another game featured was Snagu, which was developed from one of the hot game design programs in New York City. It's a scavenger hunt-type game that utilizes camera phones; participants are provided with a word, or "tag," and then they go about and attempt to take a picture of something that represents it. It's basically like Flickr (which the game's designer Oren Ross noted) but "in reverse." The image is then submitted for the rest of the players to vote upon, which determines the best picture and the best picture taker. Points are given for submitting pictures, having them voted, and even simply the act of voting.

One primary intention of Ross was to create something that was very easy for everyday folks to participate in (there's no time limit, nor is that any "right" answer for starters), and which incorporated a tool which most people have, that being the cameras built into cell phones. All voting takes places online, and there's even a community aspect, with people able to set up "parties" and establishing tags that fall under a theme. If it sounds very ARG/Big Games to you, well it should, since the game was developed under the supervision of Frank Lantz (who was behind Pac Manhattan, perhaps the most well known Big Game to date).

Like the other titles at Demo Night, Snagu feels distinctly New York, which has become the home for the casual game market. It's "the hot thing" as Ross noted, which everyone in the room already knew, and so does MTV. The game was funded by a grant from mtvU (the budget was just under $25,000) and the music channel was behind the nationwide roll-out of the game on Labor Day. It was also mentioned that one would expect much in the area of corporate sponsored activities and prizes.

snagu.jpg
Snapshots, from Snagu.com

Wingnuts 2

All the way from the opposite end of the spectrum, in regards to audience, platform, gameplay and down to its very execution, you had the shareware title Wingnuts 2. Like many other shareware titles, its represents a genre that is neglected by today's gamers and the market, that being the shooter (or as the hardcore dedicated call its them these days, "shmups"), and is based upon one of the classics from its glory days, Time Pilot. Even further distancing itself from the contemporary pack is the fact that it's for the OS X platform (though a Windows version did follow).

wingnuts2.jpg
Wingnuts 2

Unlike Snagu, which was bold and new, though a bit esoteric, and despite its attempt at being something that everyone can understand (though a few in the audience were scratching their heads throughout its presentation), Wingnuts 2 goes the tried and tested route, and no one was confused as to what everyone was watching, as Bruce Morrison, the lead designer from Freeverse Software, flew over the ocean and blasted enemy ships to bits. The game actually won runner up for the award for the best-designed game for the Mac at a recent Apple developer's conference, which only lost out to Sims 2. Also, it was announced that an Xbox 360 Live Arcade version was in the works, which is quickly overtaking the statement of '“I'm working on a screenplay'” as the most overheard quote in the Big Apple.

Supple

Next you had the "that's... interesting" candidate, that being Supple. Billed by its creators from More Than Interactive Games as "the world's first true interactive sitcom" the player assumes the role of a young woman working in the offices of Supple, a magazine aimed at single urban professionals (which happens to also be the intended audience) and who has five days to impress her boss to win a promotion. She has to work with, yet against, a young man who also has his sights on the job, so both must engage in verbal fisticuffs of sorts. Basically, almost all actions in the game revolves around conversations: the protagonist will say something, so the player has to choose an appropriate response, which in turn elicits another comment or questions, with the idea being that it all feels like a real, everyday conversation.

Everyone in the room was treated to a brief walkthrough as the main character was asked by the coworker if he had indeed seen her flirting with the UPS guy the day prior, which lead to the decision to sneak out of the office to go shopping for a new outfit, to hopefully impress the boss. That, and along with making sure she was caffeinated enough for the rest of the work day were two examples of the micromanaging components that Supple also features. It does somewhat sounds like Sims, so perhaps it should be no surprise that it happens to also look very much like that game as well.

Slingo Quest

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Slingo Quest

For the last couple of Demo Nights, each has ended with what was considered the "big game" of the bunch and this time it was Slingo Quest. It was featured last perhaps because it's based on a known property, or because its budget was by far the biggest of the group, at a whopping $100,000, or maybe because it best represented what the New York game dev scene was all about at the moment: casual games, and all the promise of successes they seem to hold.

Slingo Quest takes its combination of slots and bingo gameplay and adds a number of bells and whistles, but the core game remains the same. One of the presenters, Eric Lamendola from the Slingo company, mentioned that one of the key challenges of the development of the title was taking a game that's already successful and "bringing it up [to the next level]."


I also had the opportunity to speak with Wade Tinney, both the new head of the New York chapter of the IGDA and one of the key figures behind the Demo Nights…

Gamasutra: What did you think of this past Demo Night as a whole? Was it a success? Did it meet expectations?

Wade Tinney: I was very happy with the event. Everything ran smoothly. Good turn out, great presentations, comfortable venue.

GS: What's your opinion of the games that were presented?

WT: Well my goal is always to have a good diversity of games represented and this set was no exception: a multiplayer camera phone game, an adventure game about a moody rabbi, an interactive soap opera, a top-down shooter for the mac, and a downloadable PC game for the mass market. It's always interesting to see the design problems (and solutions) that each of these different types of games presents.

GA: Were there any disappointments?

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Wade Tinney

WT: I can't say that anything disappointed me. One thing I'd like to see more of at future demo nights is presentations of non-digital games.

GS: How has things changed over the years? How did this past event differ from Demo Night 1? How have the games changed or evolved? Or have they?

WT: We held the first three demo nights at the Large Animal office. It was a pretty small space and we'd have a hundred people crammed in there, shoulder to shoulder. We had a microphone rigged up to an old guitar amp for the presenter and big tubs of ice and beer sitting around. It was basically just a party, but with game presentations going on.

It was great, but it had it's drawbacks: there was no seating, our office AC couldn't overcome that much body heat, it was often difficult to hear the presenter, the elevator in our building is really dodgy, and so on and so forth. So moving to the conference room at NYU's Woolworth Building facility was a big change. There we had a great AV set up so you could see and hear the demos perfectly, we had chairs for everyone, we had a fully controlled climate, and, perhaps most importantly, we were in a building that was once the tallest in the world (isn't that right?).

Part of me did miss that old guitar amp though.

GS: What's your view of the New York indie game dev scene? And what part does Demo Night serve?

WT: Well, Demo Night is not explicitly aimed at independent developers (we've had large studios present as well), but we're lucky enough to have a number of indie devs in New York City. As an indie developer, It's always tremendously motivating to show your work to your peers, and inspiring to see what they are working on. Demo Night is one forum where that can happen.

GS: What does the future hold for Demo Night? What would you like to see happen?

WT: I'd like to eventually see it happen a bit more frequently and to showcase an even broader array of games. I love the idea of one event that pulls together both experimental indie games and larger commercial titles, digital and analog, casual and hardcore, and gives them all equal weight. I'd like to experiment with the format a little bit in order to try and draw out common issues among all these projects. I think that the developers of each of these varied game types has something to learn from each of the other developers, whether its on the design, technical, or process side.

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