I’ve just got back from this year’s (UK) IRDC! Here’s a little report on my (mis)adventures at the conference, how things went overall, the speakers and talks we had, some reflections on boardgames from a person who never plays boardgames, and a couple of broader game design-y thoughts thrown into the mix.
The National Videogame Arcade
So, first off, I must give an immense thank you to the National Videogame Arcade for agreeing to host us, and even kinder, for agreeing to fund the conference themselves! I appreciate it immensely, and it was a pleasure to get to use a really great conference space in a building full of awesome gaming stuff. The broad question of “how should we curate/display/archive computer/video games?” is an ongoing debate in academia and elsewhere which is far beyond the scope of this blog entry, but suffice to say: I think the NVA offers a great experience in its ongoing exhibits, there has clearly been a lot of thought put into every area of the building, and the conference/speaking area is very welcoming and has a strongly collaborative atmosphere to it. I also very much appreciate being asked to speak at the GameCity Nights event on the Thursday before the conference, which was great, and for the NVA’s understanding when I was suddenly too ill on the Friday to give a second talk to Notts students.
So: after the successful first talk, and feeling wretched on Friday from a sudden bout of food poisoning and losing my voice, we then moved onto the conference proper:
On the first day we had fourteen talks, and hopefully we’ll get all/most of these on Youtube soon:
1025 – “”And [my bot] vowed to return victorious!”: Spelunky as an AI Benchmark” (Tommy Thompson)
1050 – “Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup Development” (Pete Hurst)
1115 – “Alternative Death Systems” (Darren Grey)
1140 – “Generative Design” (Paul Jeffries)
1205 – “Modability and You” (DarkGod)
1330 – “Making a Roguelike that uses Twitter Data” (Sean Oxspring)
1355 – “KeeperRL Development” (Michal Brzozowski)
1420 – “The Curious Expedition Development” (Johannes Kristmann)
1445 – “Murder Puzzle – No Longer a Roguelike” (Ido Yehieli)
1510 – “Scaling Brogue“ (Flend)
1535 – “Creating a Procedural Level Editor” (T M Stoddard)
1600 – “Sir, you are Being Hunted Development” (Tom Betts)
1625 – “Algorithmic Generation of Global Racial, Cultural, Religious, and Architectural Variation” (Me!)
There were some very interesting talks in the bunch! I tried to mix up the scheduling of the AI and the PCG, the modern and classic roguelikes, the technical and the aesthetic, etc etc, and I think it went reasonably well. It’s also nice to give people a chance to present their work who perhaps aren’t used to presenting to other game developers/designers, and I think the strong inclusivity of an unconference like the IRDC is one of its strengths (even if we do get some slightly “rougher” or earlier-research talks than in other conferences!). Afterwards, we grabbed some food, but I still felt like crap, so sadly I had to back out and get an early night (and so I could get back to the NVA early the net morning, too).
On Day 2 I felt less wretched, and the plan for this day was to have an exhibition of both roguelike art and classic roguelike games, and to try and encourage those who came into the NVA into the exhibition to try their hands at the games.
This… was not totally successful. The setup was great, the posters were really well-printed and looked awesome, but there were several issues. Firstly, the fact the room was down a corridor and around a corner from the main lobby definitely had an impact; even with the large “COME PLAY ROGUELIKES!” sign an NVA staff member kindly deployed, it still appeared “off the beaten track” from the rest of the arcade (though there was obviously nothing that could be done in this regard, and the room itself was great); secondly I perhaps should have included more non-ASCII roguelikes in the mix and I had perhaps underestimated how scary and un-user-friendly these appeared, even with our residents experts (and a number of the devs of the games on display!) on standby to help out; thirdly, I had miscalculated what I thought the demographics of the NVA’s attendance, and a far larger percentage of those turning up were children and young teenagers, rather than older teenagers-and-older which I’d expected; and fourthly I should have deployed some kind of chart showing the controls for each game, as well as having experts on-hand to help.
But: it was the first time we’d tried anything like this (and the first time a roguelike exhibition/showcase has ever been tried?), so I still think it was a worthwhile experiment, and if something of the sort is ever attempted again, it’s clear we need to make some significant changes, and to alter our plans on the fly based on where we’re based, if it’s going to be a success. We got probably around two dozen people of various ages over the day trying them out, and I was pleased to see a number of players spending time on DoomRL, The Curious Expedition and my own work, but it definitely stands more as a useful experiment than, if we’re honest, a great success. I might write up some more thoughts in the future on displaying games whose mechanics are not immediately obvious (I noted the NVA had Pole Riders set up, and the ease with which people could pick it up and play it really hammered home that a lot more effort will/would be needed to make a roguelike, or some comparable game, at all easy to pick up, or to at least intrigue people enough that they’re willing to spend a few minutes figuring out what to do), but that’s all for now.
Afterwards, myself and a few companions went off to play boardgames, and this brings me to my next (slightly more abstract) discussion which isn’t actually related to the IRDC specifically…
Thoughts on Boardgames
At this point I must make a shameful and shocking confession – I don’t play boardgames at all. I’m aware of the incredible growth of boardgames in the last ~5 years, and I think it’s great because anything which brings games (of any sort) to wider and wider audiences can only be good, and people who do play boardgames tell me there are some real gems out there (even if I haven’t encountered them). Anyway, Darren Grey had brought along a bunch of board games, and I decided to give them a whirl, playing some Labyrinth, Hey That’s my Fish, Coup, Resistance, and Welcome to the Dungeon, and I must say I enjoyed them all tremendously (Resistance was my favourite without a doubt, at least in part because it was akin to the thirty-player month-long games of Werewolf I used to play on twoplustwo back in my poker days).
Whilst playing these I was particularly struck by their similarities to a number of traditional (meaning 52-cards, 4-suits, 13-ranks) card games. Coup had a rummy-like aspect; Resistance was, on one level, somewhat akin to a trick-taking game with a trump card (the “Fail” card); Labyrinth was also somewhat akin to rummy’s card-counting necessity when trying to deduce the melds one’s opponent might be pursuing; Welcome to the Dungeon was strongly reminiscent of bidding in Bridge where one strikes a balance between making a successful bid more challenging to your foes, and establishing a bid you think you can actually make; and so on. Perhaps this is just my brain (well-attuned as it is to classic-card-games) making certain connections where others would make different connections, but I still thought it was interesting how many mechanics seemed to me to have been developed from more traditional card games.
I also found myself surprised by how much I struggled with hex games compared to square-grid games, and this has made me ponder a little more about whether whatever ability I have to rapidly “read” a computer game simply doesn’t transfer that well into board games. This seemed particularly strong when I noticed I was winning every game of Labyrinth – based on a square grid – and losing every game of Hey That’s my Fish – based on a hexagonal grid! Now, this is a small sample size, of course: I think we played three games of Labyrinth and around eight games of Hey, That’s My Fish. However, the statistics remain rather striking: a 100% win rate on the square-tile game, and a 0% win rate on the hexagon-tile game, both of which were four-player games. I realize that in x% of times (where x is a number I cannot calculate right now) that will just be from variance and luck, but I don’t think it’s that. Multiple times in Hey, That’s My Fish I made a move without realizing how good that move would be for somebody else, and not of course out of any misunderstanding of the core mechanics – I just didn’t see what would happen. I also failed to spot potentially strong moves on the hex grid multiple times, and found it surprisingly tricky to calculate sensible future moves by the other players. By contrast, I felt I was playing Labyrinth very strongly, making educated guesses about what objectives other players were going for, thinking through carefully all the repercussions of my moves, and utilizing the “fixed” and “movable” points on the map as best as possible (particularly trying to place my piece in a fixed location where possible to reduce the possibility of my opponents messing with my positioning). Either way, I’ll ponder this a little bit more, but I’m definitely interested in board games from this point onwards and I finally acknowledge Darren’s insistence that board games have a lot to teach us about game design…
Oh, yes, and we signed the NVA Developers’ Wall! A great honour!
A Couple More Things
– Next year, we might in Paris. I put this here in the hope that the person who offered this will now feel compelled to host it in order to not disappoint!
– The Curious Expedition is a delightful game, a wonderful addition to the growing arsenal of modern non-ASCII roguelikes, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Go and buy it now!
– I was told yet again that I should do a 7DRL some time… but don’t hold your breath.
– I had some super-interesting discussions with other excellent games thinkers about the possibility of totally removing combat from URR. I continue to ponder this idea, but haven’t reached a conclusion yet.
– Lastly, and not related to the IRDC: something extremely exciting is hopefully soon to be confirmed, and it is something that I think everybody who reads this blog is going to be interested in. More on this when I can speak about it (assuming it all comes together!)
– Next week: pathfinding and crowds?!?! I’ve gone through two models of crowd mechanics already, and neither was good enough, but I think I’ve finally cracked it this time.