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Report: 'And It Continues To Grow' - IGDA New York Demo Night VI

The New York Chapter of the IGDA held its sixth “Demo Night” recently, with demonstrated games ranging from the high-budget (THQ's Frontlines: Fuel Of War) to the decidedly lower-budget (adventure game sequel Blackwell Unbound), and Gamasutr

Matthew Hawkins

September 4, 2007

15 Min Read

The New York Chapter of the IGDA recently held its sixth “Demo Night”, at Parsons School of Design. The (sometimes) twice-yearly event is a chance for local development houses and independent designers to showcase their game-related projects to their peers. The event began four or five years ago, as the brainchild of the New York and New Jersey Chapters, to help foster a stronger sense of community. And much has changed over the past few years; the NYC game dev scene has truly become a scene, one that is thriving and bustling, and the Demo Nights have reflected this -- becoming quite a bit larger in size and scope. One of the first people I ran into beforehand was David Gilbert, who the breakout star of Demo Night IV. Before his appearance, Dave and his games were relatively unknown, at least to the local game dev scene. But his presentation of The Shivah, a classic old school adventure game, in the vein of Monkey Island, Broken Sword, and the like, got the attention of Manifesto Games, which immediately picked him up. A little over a year later, and Dave has become the darling of the indie game scene, having garnered critical claim and most importantly, the attention and revenue necessary to continue producing his kind of games. “Before I felt like a nobody, but now... I feel like part of the family.” And that’s how the “scene” could be best described: a family, and one that is growing. The evening was presented by the NY chapter head, Wade Tinney, who also hosted the very first Demo Night at his company’s office space, Large Animal, alongside Coray Seifert, who at the time was also at Large Animal. Seifert was also on-hand, as the very first presenter, but on the behalf of THQ’s NY based Kaos Studios. When asked about how they felt about how far things have come, both men were ecstatic to see game development expand to such a degree. Especially for Seifert, who only a few years ago was working on casual games for the web -- at the time, many figured this was far as things were going to get in the Big Apple. But at Demo Night VI, he was there to present an upcoming high-profile console game. As “big” as things have gotten, some things haven’t changed, as the evening would also demonstrate. Seifert, who still has the same wide-eyed enthusiasm of a kid handed the keys to a candy store, enthused “It feels great! Just doing what I’ve always done... working on games that I love to work on.” Game 1: Frontlines: Fuel Of War Six games were presented that evening. Again, the first presenter was Coray Seifert, who was the associate producer on Frontlines: Fuel of War for the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. First Seifert touched upon the history of the company, which has its roots in the world of game modding, and like many prominent houses that got its start that way, its work was impressive enough that they were bought by EA -- which then moved to the team to Europe. But some didn’t want to leave NYC and decided to start a brand new outfit. Thus Kaos was born. Seifert showed a bit of the game, emphasizing the game's weaponry. While futuristic, they're based on technology that is either in development or modifications to real weapons used in combat today. The game is designed to accommodate a large number of players, but also to present each player with a dynamic experience, with combat that stays focused and not tedious. Finally was a behind-the-scenes look of the game’s cinematics, beginning with a look at the original storyboards, moving onto rough animatics, and finally the finished scene. By far, Frontlines: Fuel of War was the biggest game to be presented at a Demo Night, past or present. With a development time of two years, a total team size of eighty-plus, and a budget that, while not disclosed, has to be in the millions -- not to mention a major publisher in the form of THQ -- it felt different than the usual Demo Night fare. Game 2: Blackwell Unbound The second game was the complete 180 of Frontlines -- Dave Gilbert’s Blackwell Unbound. Again, it the product of Dave’s one man army... well, actually, about three others helped him here and there. Always a captivating speaker, Gilbert gave a presentation authored in the same engine that drives his title -- the Adventure Game Engine. The thrust of his presentation was lessons he learned from the success of The Shivah and the production of the follow-up, Blackwell Legacy. His plans called for a series of games, but the challenges he faced while producing Legacy taught him that creating yet another title, similar in scope and scale, would take far too long -- and elements were removed. Even so, there still wasn’t enough time, and finances were tight, which meant another game had to be created -- something small with a low turn around time. Hence the decision to take the chunk that was removed from Blackwell Legacy from before, and after some embellishing, a new game was born -- Blackwell Unbound. Gilbert played a bit of the game, showing off the mechanics, as well as addressing some of the finer details -- which were actually changes and improvements from the first game. Little things, like the player’s character penchant for smoking were highlighted (the game even keeps track of how many packs were gone through over the course of the game), as well as how the clues in the game -- which in this case are close scribbled in a notebook -- can be combined to solve a puzzle or extract information from an NPC character. In the first Blackwell game you controlled a woman and a ghost followed you around to offer clues or simply provide commentary or story exposition. This time around, the player can also control the ghost. In the sample set piece, Gilbert had the gumshoe ghost give a saxophone-playing ghost some grief. Blackwell Unbound definitely feels like an oldie, but goodie, in the looks, mechanics, and humor department. During his Q&A, Gilbert explained that there are 3200 lines of dialogue, all of which he wrote himself -- even though there are only 6-7 characters, and only two of them actually move about. As for the writing process, when it comes to the story, Gilbert knows how its going to end, it just a matter of getting there, which can be quite the task. As for its unique look, which again harkens back to the golden age of adventure gaming, the reason behind it was simple: not only does it look nice, but it's easy and fast to produce. And once again, Gilbert touched upon his talent pool of musicians and voice actors that are eager to work for pizza. His most interesting point related to sales, however. Gilbert noted that it was a real task selling the first game since people bought it gradually, which made gauging its true success difficult -- never mind what the numbers stated at the end of each month. For Blackwell Unbound, he decided to do pre-orders, and a large percentage of the series' fanbase paid for the second one up front, so its success simply felt more "real". It also fueled the drive to push ahead and get the game done in time. Game 3: U.B. Funkeys The third game up was a real oddity; U.B. Funkeys, produced by Arkadium, is primarily a PC game, but it has a heavy toy tie-in. Kenny Rosenblatt, the CEO of Arkadium explained how Radical, a toy manufacturer -- which was later purchased by Mattel -- wanted help creating a virtual world that was based partly on characters. It works like this: the game, which is Flash-based, comes with a bear called a U.B. that connects to the computer by its USB tail. In the game, you control that same character and move it around the environment. There are numerous activities the player can do to gain coins, which are used to furnish his or her living space (a la Animal Crossing). There are 1,500 different items available throughout the game -- plus each player can paint the walls and floors, so it encourages players to compare “cribs” amongst each other. As for the activities -- that is, the core gameplay -- areas are only accessible if the U.B. in the game has been transformed to resemble various types of “Funkeys”. And this is achieved by connecting a smaller bear character onto the base U.B. toy. Funkeys are sold in packs of two; this lends itself to a collectable aspect, a la Pokemon. As Rosenblatt stated, the purpose was to elicit a “Mommy, mommy, buy me the right guy!” among kids. In the demonstration, we saw a Funkey with a record for a face attached to the U.B., which changed the in-game character to resemble the bear. There are numerous kinds, ranging from ninjas to flowers. This allowed the U.B. to gain entrance to a club-themed area that was previously inaccessible, and then, sticking with the music theme, a Dance Dance Revolution-like minigame was initiated. It was also shown that certain types of Funkeys can open up new zones... there are 3 in total. There's a lava zone that supposedly appeals to boys, and conversely, it was noted that water appeals to boys. There are 42 different Funkeys in total, and 16 different types of minigames. As for the behind-the-scenes, some of the concept art was shown, which led to a discussion of the challenges of keeping on schedule, since the world of toy production and game production are two different beasts. By far the biggest issue was overseas localization dilemmas, as well as hardware problems. It was emphasized that Vista made everything so much harder. Game 4: Marathon Durandal Fourth game up was another blast from the past -- and shared the “everything old is new again” philosophy that Dave Gilbert’s games employ, though it's expressed differently. Ian Smith from Freeverse took the stage, and explained how his company faced ordeals similar to what Gilbert is going through, when producing its own titles years back. Once it had established itself, the company decided to look back into gaming's past and resurrect a title the developers themselves held near and dear, and which many were aware of, but hadn’t played -- and probably would love the chance to. The decision was made to approach Bungie, creators of the Halo series, and to ask them to do a revamp of its classic FPS Marathon. It shares a number of similarities with Halo and is even referenced to a minor extent. The new title, called Marathon: Durandal is much like the original version in terms of gameplay and story, except that everything is presented in HD to take advantage of the Xbox Live Arcade platform. Smith noted how there were many classic games on Live, but all were simply the original titles emulated with some graphical overhauls. Instead, his team built the game from the ground up to take advantage of the hardware. All the art assets and levels were rebuilt and expanded upon (the higher resolution offered a chance for better definition.) Just like the original, the game has no true 3D; every character is a 2D character with 8 different sides. The 28 levels are all based upon classic levels. It was hoped that Bungie could offer some input, but they were apparently too busy with Halo 3. The biggest challenge? The localization. Unlike Gilbert’s game, which contained 320 lines of dialogue, the new Marathon has thousand and thousands of lines. What made things especially difficult was how some of the dialogue is meant to be “broken”, and getting that same effect in other languages was very difficult. In some instances, certain languages simply do not have an equivalent to a word that is messed up in English. Even harder was how many of the testers (which there were simply not enough of) could not obviously understand every single language version they had, so they simply had to pay attention and make a guess based on looks alone if something looked off on purpose or by mistake. Game 5: Casablanca The fifth game was perhaps the most interesting of the night -- certainly, it was the one that got the most people talking afterwards. Ed Purver from Situated Games, which is an outfit consisting of mostly NYU students funded by MTVU and Cisco, presented to the audience Casablanca, which could be best described as a social networking game. It’s a cross between Facebook and the party game Werewolf (or Mafia as it's sometimes known.) It was born from the fact that once Friendster became popular, people began to have fun with it by collecting as many friends as possible, many of whom it was obvious were not those they knew in real life, or even real people at all. That type of action was used as the basis, with rules added to the mix. The game consists of two teams, ranging between 30-150 players. The game is played with email and cell phones, though the center of it all is a website, which basically works like Friendster, MySpace, or Facebook. Every player who signs on gets an email at the start of the game, in which they find out which team they’re on; each message has not only daily goals but also a narrative. First you have the Resistance, in which the basic goal is to meet others and create a network. There are “liars” in the network that must be weeded out. As the days goes on, Resistance members can test the “purity” of members that they suspect. Players that fit the bill can be flagged, and there are avenues to discuss tactics with other members. The emphasis of the game is tap into the social aspect of the aforementioned sites. Then you have the Occupation. The basic goal is to make friends. Unlike the Resistance, Occupation members know exactly which team every person they encounter is on. Also unlike the Resistance, which has pockets available for chatter here and there, the Occupation has one centralized HQ so everyone can be on the same page. One primary tactic is to spread misinformation. And while Resistance members can only flag one person a day, Occupation members can flag people to their heart’s content. Whoever can infiltrate 50% of the other side wins the game. The obvious inspiration for the game was the classic movie from which it borrows its name, as well as “big games”; also, the notion of creating something based upon identity. Several design constraints were considered in the game’s development, as the need to be flexible, in terms of the number of players as well as the length of the games. Also necessary was the lack of player elimination and the desire for cooperative play (those that are “found out” can immediately get back into the action). The game is still in development, with short term goals being the addition of more powers and a ranking system, and long term goals being the addition of voice, which is hoped to add a totally new dynamic to the whole “is he/she telling the truth?” as well bringing it to physical spaces, a la flash mobs. One aspect that was going to be in the game, but was ultimately discarded was the neutral citizen class. Because it was too much to factor in, it was eliminated. It was clear that the game is still a work in progress. Game 6: Dogfights The sixth and final game of the evening was Dogfights, by Kuma Games. It’s based upon a History Channel program of the same name that portrays famous aerial battles, and each installment of the game allows the player the chance to reenact it themselves, with the same plane and in the same environment and conditions. It is also the latest in a line of Kuma’s ad-supported titles, most of which are also centered around a television show; it's also episodic. Kuma’s VP of product development Dante Anderson demonstrated the game, which runs in its own client, like all Kuma titles. There are single-player levels, as well as multiplayer options, and each installment is built around the best scenes from a particular episode (at the end of the program, the viewer is reminded that the action continues via video game form). Because the show is weekly, the production cycle is extremely short. Of course, a new game cannot be produced once a week as well. Instead, production takes about 3 and a half weeks, meaning that Kuma picks and choose which script they feel is the most interesting (it was noted that they never actually get a chance to watch the show beforehand, since most are also in the midst of production). The game is built upon the Source engine, which is what drives Half Life 2, though a simplified version. Since the casual audience is the target, the game’s mechanics have been simplified to allow immediate action, so there are no take offs and landings -- it's limited to flying and shooting. Though it was also mentioned that creating a flying game out of a FPS engine was a challenge, especially when it came to the camera, since the camera is “stuck” behind the plane at all times. But the advantage of using Source is that the platform has already been built. When asked about the ratio of viewers to those that actually played the game, no real answer was given, though the fact that show is in its second season and the game gets a healthy number of players must prove that the cross promotion does work at a certain level. It was also noted that the game The Kill Point, which was a mini series on Spike TV, was arguably more popular that the source material. Conclusion ...And those were the games of the sixth ever Demo Night. Even the small games seemed bigger, and thankfully, better. Who knows what Demo Night VII will bring? Considering that PC gaming, console gaming, social network gaming, and even collectible kids toys were all presented, the next event will have to work hard to top itself. Though is there even a need to top it? As long as thing continue to be healthy, all is fine.

About the Author(s)

Matthew Hawkins


Not too long after graduating the School of Visual Arts with a degree in cartooning, Matthew Hawkins found himself in the world of video games when he was hired by Ubi Soft. As Ubi Soft New York's head game designer, Matt worked on several games for major gaming consoles and the Internet. When Ubi Soft closed its New York studio, Matt began developing games independently leading to the creation of PixelJump in 2002. Since then, Matt has been especially involved in titles based upon films and television properties, either as a designer or a consultant. Also in 2002, Matt became involved with video game journalism, starting with Nickelodeon Magazine, as both a writer and an interviewer. Matt's writings has appeared everywhere, from GMR to insert credit, from the critically acclaimed 1-UP MegaZine, to the Internet Archive, and is still a regular contributor to Nick Mag to this day. In 2004, Matt began teaching game design as both instructor and thesis advisor at his alma mater, the School of Visual Arts, and is a part of his concerted efforts to help foster a stronger game development community in the New York City Area. Matt is also an active member of the New York chapter of the IGDA.

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