Brighton’s Pop-up Arcade, Sept 2014

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JS Joust

This past weekend Brighton hosted a first-time event courtesy of Press Fire To Win: the pop-up arcade, a part of September’s Brighton Digital Festival. Press Fire To Win is run by Profaniti, who – and here I’m a little fuzzy – either run or are involved with running other events like the Wild Rumpus, Feral Vector and the EGX Indie Arcade.

The pop-up arcade kicked off on Friday with a launch party. The event was ticketed, but a fiver for an evening’s entertainment and a free beer from the Naked Beer Co. ain’t half bad. (I can confirm that Naked’s Freudian Slip is absolutely delicious.)

Of course we weren’t there for beer any more than we were there to stand in a hot room (kindly loaned to the event by Lick). We were there for games, and were not disappointed. Virtually everything on offer were multiplayer titles, with a good mix of competitive and co-operative play to be had.

With the event chiefly sponsored by Unity it’s little surprise that many of the games there were created using the development toolset. Among these was Gang Beasts, which I was only able to play briefly. It’s apparently popular enough to be played regularly in Unity’s own London offices, and I can’t say I’m surprised. The game essentially involves between two and six players running around small levels attempting to dispose of one another or, at least, not accidentally fall to their own deaths. The controls were a little bewildering; each character’s arm appears to be controlled by a different button and grabbing another player seems to involve running at them and scooping them up. My confusion led to me describing it as the QWOP of cute 3D brawlers. I look forward to playing it again, whether or not I manage to work out what the hell I’m doing; it seems that this cluelessness is half of what gives the game its x-factor.

Another Unity-based offering was the superbly titled Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime; perhaps my second favourite game of the event. It sees two players controlling a spaceship (“we call it the killstar”) containing about eight different control stations: four turrets mounted around the spherical ship’s circumference, one engine, one shield, and, er, some other stuff we never used. The objective is to survive assaults by waves of smaller enemy ships long enough to free scattered prisoners and unlock some kind of giant space heart. I don’t know. I’ve heard that video games can represent startlingly abstract and wonderful visions these days, so just look back at that title and draw your own conclusions.

Regardless, Loves in a Dangerous Spacetime is a tough game that demands top-notch communication as players move between the ship’s various control stations, adapting and reacting to new challenges and changes in plan. There’s also a giant space bear wearing a sweatband, but we didn’t do well enough to reach him. Er, I mean we wanted to let others have a go. No point hogging the station, right?

Less complex was Tota Temple, an arena-based competitive game on the event’s sole Ouya. I’d yet to encounter one of these Android-based consoles, but I can say that the controllers felt good and  the game itself was an entertaining solo-screen competitive affair that involved capturing a goat and holding on to it for as long as possible. Despite a somewhat indecipherable front-end the game itself was splendid fun.

Tenya Wanya Teens

Tenya Wanya Teens

Also present was Tenya Wanya Teens, which demands that players form short-term memory associations between coloured buttons and on-screen actions, then remember these in quick succession. I was thoroughly outperformed on every go because my memory, folks, is for shit. Then there was Crypt of the Necrodancer – another brilliantly titled game – which is essentially a two-player roguelike dungeon crawler controlled using a pair of dancemats. It works surprisingly well. Getting into the game’s thumping rhythm seems to improve your avatar’s performance in combat, or at least I felt that it did. The reality might simply be that pounding feet to a ceaseless rhythm meshes well with the need to bop dungeon-dwelling beasties over the head.

A more relaxed experience was offered by Keyboard Mandala, a game we managed to break (necessitating the intervention of multiple fixers – oops). This sees one player handling navigation of a cursor around an initially sparse 3D landscape, whilst others experiment with notes and melodies on a digital keyboard, each instance of musical expression spawning different objects or entities within said landscape. Although it felt more like a cool prototype than a full-fledged game, it was (1) pretty sweet, and (2) we may have broken it before we worked out too much of what was possible.

Two clear highlights were games that demanded varying degrees of physicality. First was 2D Pong, which saw players stomping on footswitches to volley a fibreoptic lightball back and forth. Simple as it might sound it was demanding of both reflexes and timing, with additional experience only meaning it became easier to get to the point where the game was most fun: when a high-speed volley saw the lightbee bouncing back and forth. Second was the incomparable JS Joust, a game which should need no introduction. On the off chance it does: each of up to seven players holds a PS Move wand and the objective is to knock other players out of each round by jarring their grasp of the controller. The game music speeds up and slows down at intervals, offering greater and lesser degrees of movement respectively. Tactics for victory rely on good reflexes, cunning positioning or simple old-fashioned deceit (a few players opted to leave the room with their wands until the herd had thinned – scumbags, I call ’em). Always entertaining and immensely challenging, JS Joust was my game of the evening. I won two games, and I’m shit at it. I played as much as I could.

Sadly I didn’t get an opportunity to spend any time with the third excellently-titled game of the event, Please Don’t, Spacedog (an Oculus Rift game) as well as Bearchuck (which I didn’t even see). I did, at least, get to witness the beautiful Hohokum, a Playstation title that appears to be about navigating a rainbow snake through a 2D environment and encouraging cute characters to join you for the ride. It looks like a marvellous hangover cure, at the very least.

2D Pong

2D Pong

On the Saturday various talks concerning Unity had been organised. The first, by Josh Naylor, focused on how easy it was to construct a 2D game using the ubiquitous development tool. Naylor demoed a “this one prepared earlier” title and then walked us through how to put it together. Despite the inevitable performance anxiety software crashes (for which even the most reliable software can be, uh, relied upon) it was impressive how little time it took to assemble a rudimentary game driven by a unique, fun concept.

The second featured Brighton’s own indie dev darling Kerry Turner talking about how to develop a good look for a game with very little effort. Her most recent release, Heartwood, is a beautifully stylised game, and so it was all the more surprising to discover that its singular aesthetic was in part the result of a happy accident. Said happy accident resulted from tinkering with what Unity can do; in addition to such indie dev secrets, Turner ran through a wide variety of methods for helping even the least artistically inclined develop a good look and style for their games. I had worried that the talk would focus on how a unique look had been achieved for Heartwood, but happily it was far more method than result. Lo-fi game developers everywhere breathe should a sigh of relief and stop being afraid of pre-built asset packs. And also look at cool fonts.

The final talk I had suspected would be the least interesting to someone like me – a technological ignoramus who had never made a game. Speaker Andy Touch had his audience stick their hands up based on their professions; I was the only QA person in the room (and thus, of course, singled out for being the guy who tells everyone else how rubbish what they’ve made is – what can I say, it’s a calling). He went on to discuss the many new features coming with Unity 5. Whilst I don’t see myself as the sort of person who expends energy on regurgitating how exciting a new product will supposedly be, I’m genuinely impressed by the visual effects that should be achievable with Unity’s next major milestone. Seriously: I’ve never seen a balloon animal subjected to so many beautiful effects and textures.

And that was it for me. After Saturday’s talks the pop-up arcade was opened to the many children who had gathered outside, keen to play some of the games drunken ‘adults’ like myself had enjoyed the night before and between talks that day. Further presentations took place on Sunday but I passed them up to spend a little time at home. Twitter activity has suggested these talks on playful game design went down well; feel free to share your thoughts in the comments if you were there.

As for me, I’ve been left with renewed excitement about the potential of party multiplayer games, experimentation in game design and – a little embarrassingly for my anti-corporate impulses – deeply excited about tinkering with Unity for my own half-baked game ideas.

A closing note: I hope that Brighton sees more events like this. The city has little shortage of creative people and  small to medium game development companies, and although it’s not a long way to travel to London for exciting game/party events like Feral Vector, it’s fucking expensive living down here and we don’t all like to travel. And to the bloke I met outside the event on Saturday: your tabletop games are no doubt brilliant fun, but they’ve got nothing on the visceral, creative potential of the video game medium as exhibited this past weekend.

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[Addendum: Lick contacted us to correct a reference to them in this article. This has since been changed. They make frozen yoghurt, not ice cream, and were kind enough to let Press Fire to Win use their space for free. So thanks, Lick!]