Dare to be Digital 2008

I had the fortune today of spending a day as a technical consultant to the Dundee teams in Dare to be Digital 2008 – a day that definitely exceeded my expectations :)  Before I say any more, I have to get this off my chest – wow, these guys have done some amazing stuff in the short time they’ve had – it really was very impressive.  I love the fact that they’re proving that open source middleware can be used for successful rapid prototyping of game concepts: I’ve complained before that we desperately need a game development equivalent of web development’s LAMP.  This shows that things are going in the right direction.

Awkward

I felt a bit awkward about signing up for the consultancy day – I’ve passed at the opportunity in previous years.  I really don’t feel confident at meeting lots of new faces in a very short space of time – I could probably have nightmares about cocktail parties if I tried!

Close-up of a cocktail

I also didn’t feel that I had enough breadth of game development knowledge to help these teams out.   Anyway, if there’s one thing that my recent management course has taught me, it’s that doing stuff outside your comfort zone is good for you!  I’ve also become much more interested in recruitment and the subject of teaching game programming recently, so I thought it would be a valuable experience.

In the end, the feared awkwardness showed through in a couple of places, but not so much as to spoil anything.  I took a while to warm up with the first couple of teams – I didn’t really push to drill down into enough technical specifics, and there just wasn’t much to comment on at higher levels.  They’d generally made really sensible decisions – most teams were using open source graphics, physics and audio engines, LUA scripting, some data-driven content, source control – there was nothing obvious to suggest for quick-impact technical improvement.  By team 3 though, I discovered a line of approach that proved to be incredibly productive: “let’s look at the code!” (it also helped that this team were a really nice bunch, very talkative, highly engaged and keen to get as much as possible out of the session – some of the teams gave the impression that they just wanted to get on with their work, and who can blame them!!)

Once we got down to the code, there was definitely plenty to talk about – it confirmed my suspicion that the game degrees could do with teaching the art of programming somewhat better.  We managed to clean up one or two things, fix a bug in the process, and I showed them how to see a callstack in the debugger (I was somewhat speechless at that one!) so at least I wasn’t completely useless🙂

Peripherals

Two starkly contrasting use of peripherals:

  • A couple of the teams were using the amBX stuff – the first time I’ve seen it for real.  From speaking to them, it’s clearly very easy to drop in and integrate with your code, so they’ve got it working without much effort.  I think Philips are trying hard to get developers on board so there are lots of games supporting it, which is certainly one essential ingredient to success, but I can’t help feeling the whole thing is a sure flop – I don’t see how any reasonable number of consumers will actually decide to buy this.  The only thing I saw which made any sense was using the fan to make the high points in the level seem windy – combined with the audio, that wasn’t too bad.  The coloured lighting, meanwhile, is totally pointless unless perhaps you’re in a darkened room and your game has dramatic lighting.  I didn’t try the wrist vibrator!  I certainly won’t be buying this myself and I don’t see how anyone but the most dedicated of early-adopter hardware geek would try it, especially at its current price point.  It’s just one of those research lab ideas that I’m stunned wasn’t canned before reaching consumer launch.  Surely somebody should have said at some point “hold on – this is rubbish!”
  • A number of teams were using the Wiimote – and this was definitely cool.  Using something like wiiuse, it looks pretty easy to get input on the PC.  In all cases, it was definitely the right choice of input device for their game (one team had a simple gesture mechanic) – not just a gimmick.

The games themselves

Now down to the games themselves.  Thanks to their blogs, video diaries and gameplay videos, you can check this all out for yourself – I don’t have any special insider knowledge:

  • VegeMe is a 2-player race to cover a planet in your colour by rolling a ball around on it, with some extra stuff to do with seeds that wasn’t fully clear to me.  I love the art style of this game – it really isn’t far off looking convincingly like a Nintendo title.  It’s easy to pick up and play – but I’m not convinced by its depth and longevity, yet.
  • Springoo has you playing a broken toy which needs to navigate around a child’s bedroom and collect all your body parts.  I’m not sure they have enough yet to really show the idea’s full potential, but they have a number of elements which they’re close to integrating, so it could be fun soon.
  • Shutterbug is built around the mechanic of taking photographs.  I really love this concept.  A few games have had the odd photography mission in them in the past, and I’ve always found them to be fun.  There’s plenty of scope for environmental exploration to get the best shots, and also for stealth gameplay to snap without being spotted.  I really liked the humour showing through in this one – keep an eye out for screenshots of their shop fronts, there are some unsubtle but clever cultural references🙂
  • Origamee is a side-on platforming game; it didn’t quite seem ready to assess the gameplay yet, but they have some neat stuff – I especially liked the procedural music which mixes different tracks as you play in reaction to what’s happening.
  • World of Champloo is all built around a rather mind-bogglingly complex combat mechanic – you fire coloured billiard balls at the other player, and have to choose the correct colours based on colour mixing rules.  This took the best part of 15 minutes to explain – I thought I’d just about got it, but it turned out that was just the basics and there was a whole other layer of depth through special abilities, power-ups and some kind of crystal meter that you have to build up …  it definitely has potential to contain more depth than most of the other games on show, but I think they have a fair bit of work to bring some immediacy to the first-time player🙂
  • Plight of the Weedunks is a 3D platforming/puzzle game – they seemed to have quite a lot of technical stuff in place but not too much gameplay – hopefully they’ve got all the groundwork done and can add that content quickly now.

It will be interesting to see how things develop between now and the end.  My hat goes off to all of them – a great range of concepts, and fantastic implementation progress in such a short time🙂

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