It is unlikely many in the mainstream have heard of Play NYC amongst the sea of gaming cons out there. The two-day event held each August in Manhattan, this indie showcase of local developers from the Tri-State area has grown quickly over the past few years to become more than just another faceless con in the crowd. It is this year that Play NYC really comes into its own, with its own self-identity as one of the premiere con events in New York.
This is not to say that Play NYC was devoid of any mainstream presence. Avalanche Studios, Devolver Digital, Epic Games and even the soccer team The New York Red Bulls had prominent showcases on the conventions floor. The Red Bulls gave away free energy drinks to participants and had the most mainstream game of the show, FIFA 2019, at their astroturfed booth. The real stars, however, were the indie games that dominated the landscape this year, the calling card of why Play NYC exists.
Playcrafting’s Upgrade for Play NYC
A lot of what makes that happen is how Play NYC, which is spearheaded by PlayCrafting LLC, has evolved over the past few years. The mission statement of PlayCrafting has always been a company made for developer outreach. Their own mission statement is to “provide educational events, dynamic networking opportunities, and classes to help you crack the code to gaming success.” This allows Play NYC to cultivate an indie spirit atmosphere that changes each year.
The most obvious change to the convention this year was the venue itself. Now located at the Metropolitan Plaza on West 18th, the show floor was a marked improvement from previous showcases. The tiered structure of three floors of demos were still cramped and compact thanks to the amphitheater space; devs huddled together atop a balcony in tight formation amongst the seats, or smashed into small spaces on the main floor was universally uncomfortable for everyone involved. This year, however, everything was well spread out in a single show floor, with large and small booths set up to give the developers the breathing room they need to show off their latest creations.
The tabletop space was a huge centerpiece this year, thanks in part to the new floor layout. The gaming pit had close to a dozen different games being demoed on the show floor, some of which were previous Play NYC titles like Clear the Decks!. Others were brand new showcases for recently released games, such as Jim Ellerth’s Kickstarter project Hero: Tales of the Tomes. We had quirky games such as the workplace inspired Zero Inbox, to deceptively simple card game mechanics from AWA’s Prism. All in all, tabletop board games were a major highlight of Play NYC this year, and the decision to give them a dedicated space was a good one to make them stand out.
The Competitive Edge
What also stood out was the diversity of offerings on the convention floor. Most of the games shown off were previous Playcrafting alums. One of the biggest upcoming indie games is Swimanity!, a multiplayer combat game by developers Decoy Games. Set for a 2019 release, Swimsanity! has dominated most of the developer space thanks to its frantic gameplay, and it’s poised to be a killer indie game when it comes to consoles and Steam. The game was also incredibly popular, being one of two games on the show floor to have a tournament for prizes.
The second tournament game was AvariaVS, the turn-based RPG battle game by developer Juncture Media. Another long-standing project at Play NYC, AvariaVS has actually been released on Steam this past May, and it drew a large crowd for their own tournament at the convention this year.
These were not the only contests to be played at Play NYC either. VR game Groove Catcher, by Vizmoo, had a high-score contest on who can literally catch the grooves of a song beat the best. Already an award-winning VR experience, Groove Catcher, along with IMEX Media’s Riff VR, looked to take rhythm games into the VR space in fun and engaging ways never before seen. Riff VR, for example, tapped into the inner Rock Band vibe by using the VR headset to strut a guitar, bang on drums or even sing in a 3D space, with some licensed songs attached. Groove Catcher went for the softer, more interpretive dance routine, where the player must gently sway their arms in a straight line similar to games like Vib-Ribbon or Rez.
Education-focused Indie Games
A lot of show floor space was also dedicated to educational titles as well. Spywatch Lex by Scholarcade hoped to teach high school students a foreign language, and already has partnerships with schools and packages available for educators to purchase. The Government Game: U.S by developer Imaginings Unlimited hopes to do the same, by using the office of the president to showcase contemporary politics in a brand new way to civically engage with students. Both of these games are just some of the titles being designed to push gaming beyond the standards of mindless fun and entertainment. Instead, they hope to be fun and engaging at the same time, offering a unique way to not only learn, but enjoy the time spent playing.
The real spirit of Play NYC is the spirit of indie developers. One game is emblematic of that: the oddly titled Stinky Snake by DB Attic Studios. The developer, Darlene Barker, is a mother with her two children who always had a passion for gaming and coding. Instead of waiting for games to buy, however, she decided to learn how to make them herself, and recruited her kids to participate in her games development and storyboarding. Though far from a professional title by any means, it is that passionate spirit—a love for making games—that was present throughout the show that Stinky Snake represents. DB Attic Games already has a follow-up title, tentatively called A Story About Penny, which looks to be more ambitious with its animation and game mechanics, helping cement Barker as an indie developer with a portfolio and style all to themselves.
The indie spirit was also charged with big ideas from first-time developers. Rat Bird Games’ Revery Rebirth, an RPG that wants to use music as an in-depth mechanic tied to the world setting, comes from a small team of first-time developers whose passion for games and RPGs shines through the thought put into the games mechanics and complexity. Team Einherjar’s FictionSphere is a successful Kickstarter project that harkens back to 16-bit era Mega Man and boss-run games like Alien Soldier. Mild Beast Games, spearheaded by USC graduates, showcased At Sundown: Shots in the Dark, a deathmatch-style shooter with a hide-and-seek mechanic based on light.
Graffiti Games and LGBTQ Issues
One core showing at every Play NYC so far has been their push for Graffiti Games. The Graffiti Games are designed to be titles created in a six-week period, often to showcase a common theme together. Last year, Graffiti Games highlighted developers from other countries and their experiences, and even saw some of those games continue development for future release, like the fun and relaxing VR experience Llama Express by Saul Gamero and Pilar Aranda. The theme this year was a focus on LGBTQ developers and games, which saw a diverse amount of titles on the showcase floor.
What was unique about the Graffiti Games this year was how some decided to use the medium of gaming as platform to have a conversation on issues. Dean Razavi’s entry was Insufficient Adjectives, for example, a game that combines Pipe Dream with word association. Players must deliver packages with the only clues being specific adjectives and lay down the truck routes for those packages to reach the correct destination. Razavi noted the point of the game was to highlight the difficulty of reading into adjectives—which are used to describe things—for those outside of the LGBTQ community, acting as a soft, engaging way to showcase the difficulty navigating how we describe each other.
Other games were more overt with their themes. Ayla Myers, a queer veteran developer, showed off the evocatively titled Staring can be a Form of Harassment, a simple two-player twin-stick game where players must avoid the laser-like eyes of monsters while staring back to defeat them. Myers also encouraged players to create leering eyes that could be posted across her booth, while having thoughtful conversations about the games themes. Rogue Fong, an XR developer, created the interactive Hello, It’s Still Me, a small VR title that aimed to simulate what coming out could be like on social media, including the challenges and triumphs that may affect many LGBTQ individuals today in the digital age.
Both titles encompass larger issues that, for many, may seem innocuous but have lasting impacts for those subjugated under such marginalization. That kind of perspective helped shape another major theme of Play NYC this year: pushing harder for more games that speak to issues. The presence of groups such as NYC Gaymers and Extra Life were some of the advocacy and charity groups that helped with spreading awareness to these issues. Other Graffiti Games also pushed the boundaries; Rebel Runners by Geneva “Gensuta” Hayward, for example, was another Graffiti Game that on the surface, was a simple arcade-style runner game with queer characters being selectable. Hayward, however, included several game modes such as “distribute the wealth,” with the objective of collecting enough cash while avoiding enemies that ranged from rats and bats, to human enemies marked as bigots.
These style of games fit right into the crowd of Play NYC, and also give light to developers who hope to make a statement over a commercialized product. Blake Edwards, who had his own Graffiti Game, Smush Bois, purposefully made a competitive game that was colorful and kinetic, but mostly the opposite of his own style of games. Edwards went counter-culture to his core beliefs, making a game that was more commercial than arthouse, adhering to a philosophy of games being a way to convey a message over being technically fun.
Engagement over Fun
The late John “TotalBiscuit” Bain once said, and I’m paraphrasing here “Games don’t necessarily have to be fun, but they have to be engaging.” Edwards, Myers, Fong, and the rest of the developers on the show floor this year had games that were emblematic of this idea. Even if the games lacked the standard “fun” factor found in the mainstream, the majority of the games on the show floor were incredibly engaging to play.
That is the true hallmark of a successful convention. Playcrafting has created a solid foundation for a diverse, ever-changing showcase of games and developers each looking to make their mark in the industry. From passionate newcomers to indie veterans, Play NYC had enough show space for games of all stripes to enjoy, a trend that will no doubt be carried onto Play NYC 2020.
I hope you enjoyed our recap of Play NYC 2019. Please be sure to check out all of the games showcased in the article, and make sure to check out the rest of our Play NYC articles at our Play NYC Coverage Hub here.