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Bit of Alright and the ethos of independent game design

Gamasutra contributor Phill Cameron reports back from Bit of Alright, a UK-based game design conference for independent developers that's a whole lot different from the norm.

February 7, 2012

6 Min Read

Author: by Phill Cameron

Four stand with a pair of wooden spoons, upon which rest a single lemon. That lemon musn't fall. Opposite them, another four, armed with Move controllers. These controllers mustn't be jostled. They circle one another in the most polite, abstract evocation of a knife fight. Occasionally, almost on cue as the action lulls, a dozen people charge through, half of them armed with Nerf guns, the others impersonating the shambling undead. There's the cacophony of an independent developer trying to teach twenty or so people how to play the theme from Blackadder on recorders. The kind you find in a children's music classroom. He's developed an app, you see, to detect pitch and let learners know if they're hitting the right notes. The audience is demonstrating. They're not, however, demonstrating very well. Bit of Alright is a conference about game design, and held in the Battersea Arts Centre on Friday. This jubilant chaos, with so many sights and sounds and activities all vying for the same air space, is indicative of the conference as a whole; there's so much going on, in such a small space, that it's hard to be able to fully commit to any one thing. The heart of it, and the enthusiasm of those involved, however, is undeniable. And enthusiasm and heart go a long way. Some of the best talks of the day, took place in a cramped bar, with far too many people jostling for far too little space. But they're there because they want to see, and hear, what these people have to say. It's a problem of too much interest, rather than too little. While the conditions were cramped, those talks were well worth hearing. Dan Marshall of Size Five Games gave a talk that turned into more of a discussion, looking at the idea that death in games shouldn't be an automatic fail state. A game like Uncharted having death is a problem, because, as Dan says, "I started to hate death because it fucks up the narrative." Instead of a seamless story, you're constantly met with interruptions, making it seem the narrator is "a mad crackhead uncle," to use Dan's words. It's an issue he's finding in his upcoming game The Swindle, where resetting a player's position with a checkpoint isn't quite an option. And so alternatives are considered, positions that don't break the narrative, or feel cheap and incongruous to the story he's trying to tell. Games can do anything, he claims, so why not go a little crazy? Kerry Turner and Simon Parkin of LittleLoud took things in an altogether different direction by giving a talk on the idea that games can elicit unexpected emotions, things that aren't just anger or frustration or fear. Games are built on systems, with themes layered on, and it's those themes that are interesting. As Simon puts it, "Nobody gets upset when a knight gets taken in Chess." Even with a little theme there, it's hardly going to pull the heart strings. "I think human beings can only have a limited amount of emotions when it comes to systems." So instead they cited examples such as Shadow of the Colossus, Catherine and Braid as games that use game mechanics and narratives to turn ideas on their heads, and surprise us as players. Which, naturally, is something they encouraged more of. Things were better in the main hall, where the space and speaker system afforded a little more clarity in listening to what was said, and being able to actually see the projected slides helped considerably. But it lost a bit more of that interactive discussion, the space necessitating a lecture, rather than a conversation. Cliff Harris of Positech gave a talk that was a particular highlight, if only because it was somewhat incongruous with the otherwise optimistic and idealistic tone of the rest of the conference. Focusing on how hard work and organisation are the secrets to success, rather than just big ideas, the talk was entitled 'How to Get Out of Bed and Finish a Complex Indie Game', and combated the idea that game development was a fun job, or, as Cliff Harris puts it, "A lot of people treat this industry, and indie games are no exception, like it's school" and that playing games and mucking about were acceptable practices. Game development is fun, sure, but it should still be taken just as seriously as a Doctor takes their job, or, as he illustrated with visual aids, soldiers storming Normandy. So organisation, routine, and creating a great work environment are all key. In other words, getting good monitors and equipment is essential. "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 a developer you have to be comfortable." The perfect counter to Cliff's talk occurred immediately before, from Jerry Carpenter, a man who has a thousand game ideas, all of which are perfectly viable, and yet hasn't quite managed to make any of them a reality. Gametoilet is a regularly updated blog filled with hand drawn game concepts, surprisingly well fleshed out, all of which remain on the paper they're drawn on. Which seems a bit of a shame, but does offer an excellent view into quite how broad and insane game development could be, even if it isn't, quite. In many ways, Bit of Alright feels a lot like a slightly more organised GameCamp, the unconference whose fifth outing should be taking place in a few months. It has the same urgency, despite having a proper schedule, and the same variety. While you might have one speaker giving an impromptu music lesson, another just started playing Hungry Horace on a spectrum as part of a talk about the proper archiving of games. It's fitting, then, that the conference is dominated by independent developers, even if some of them are bigger names than others. Introversion both sponsored and appeared at the event, showcasing their new games Prison Architect, which manages to marry cheerful, cartoony visuals with the sombre business of running an American jail, a contrast that's immediately made apparent in the first level, where your sole objective is to execute a prisoner. Proteus, too, made an appearance at the end of the day, with a half hour wander that was open to anyone to direct. It was just projected onto the big screen, with an abandoned controller at the foot of the stage. Bold, sure, but it certainly got the attention it deserved. Attention that only grew more attentive as the half hour went on, once people figured out how Proteus works, and quite how special how Proteus works really is. Synethesia on a big screen. It's easy to decry the fact that Bit of Alright was a bit hectic, did seem a little sloppy, technically, with far too much going on to properly get to grips with any of it, not to mention the fact that any one thing was constantly having peripheral distractions threaten to steal your attention away. But that's fitting, for a conference so dominated by the independent scene. Indie devs thrive on snatches of attention, being far more adept at holding your attention with something quick and clever than even the big studios. And yeah, places like Kongregate are a little hectic and chaotic, but it's that chaos that breeds innovation and originality. It's hard to blame Bit of Alright for adopting the same concepts, even if the odd talk was a little crowded.

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