Play NYC 2021 has come and gone. The New York City-based gaming convention has finally returned as an in-person event, and I was fortunate enough to attend — albeit with some changes from previous years.
The first Play NYC show took place all the way back in 2017. It's still fairly young as far as gaming conventions go. Attendance is measured in the thousands rather than the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands that we see with larger events such as E3 or PAX.
What makes Play NYC stand out against other NYC-based events, however, is that it is one hundred percent dedicated to gaming rather than serving as a sideshow to a comic book or anime event. Running a gaming convention is challenging enough — but this year, the showrunners had to adapt to some new challenges.
A Balancing Act
Running any kind of in-person event is going to necessitate some changes for safety's sake. However, a gaming convention like Play NYC 2021 brings some unique challenges that you might not see at a concert. To put it simply: You can't quite experience a game without touching a controller, and each and every one of those could be a vector for transmitting COVID-19 (or any other illness, really).
Every one of the hundreds and hundreds of exhibitors, staff, media, and attendees worked together to follow the safety procedures. It was a wonderful effort.
Play NYC 2021 made the situation clear before the show even began. No one was allowed in the building without proof of vaccination or a negative COVID PCR test. You had to fill out a simple health survey each day you attended. Masks were required at all times unless you were eating or drinking in one of the lounges. Hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies were abundant.
The developers, too, adapted to the new challenge. Play NYC provided disinfectants for its exhibitors, but many game developers stepped up and supplemented this with their own cleaning supplies. Controller, keyboards, and VR headsets were wiped down between every use to minimize any chances of transmitting disease. This wasn't just lip service, either — I observed many exhibitors regularly cleaning their controllers and stations after every single visitor.
Attendees were equally conscious of everyone's safety. I did not see a single person who did not have a mask on for the entirety of the event, even when they were behind closed doors where no one would have been able to judge them. The industry afterparty was the same; everyone wore a mask unless they were actively eating or drinking. As far as I saw, no one let their guard down — not even for a moment.
Play NYC 2021 set firm limitations and restrictions for everyone's safety. An event like this just can't happen unless everyone is on the ball. As far as I saw, each and every one of the hundreds and hundreds of exhibitors, staff, media, and attendees worked together to follow the safety procedures. It was a wonderful effort.
Safety concerns aside, Play NYC 2021 managed an impressive showing of new and upcoming indie games. This was despite having roughly half of the booths as in previous years — one of the many safety-conscious changes made for this year's event.
This year's Graffiti Games — a special group of custom creations for each year's show — focused on the theme of local co-op multiplayer as a demonstration of the conviction to get everything back to normal. Each of the five games did something cool, but this year's batch was particularly impressive.
The emphasis on playing together extended beyond the Graffiti Games, too — there were quite a few popular properties on the show floor. One such example was Assimilate!, an upcoming social deduction party game from Friendship is Fun where you have to figure out which person in the group is secretly a robot. The multiplayer underwater shooter Swimsanity! returned as well, hosting multiple tournaments and continuing to be a popular attraction at Play NYC and other Playcrafting events.
Reviving the Indie Spirit
Notably, this year's show had a lack of mobile developers — a handful of games were exclusively targeting mobile devices like Urban Electronic Games' upcoming AR pet game Tontachi. A greater number of developers were targeting multiplatform releases like Nine Muses, an upcoming title from Greco Roman Games where players take on the role of a bird fighting SHMUP-style battles against the mythological Greek Muses.
One of the better parts of attending an event like this is the opportunity to see indie games that you wouldn't likely see anywhere else; here are some of the more interesting ones I played at Play NYC 2021.
One of the better parts of attending an event like this is the opportunity to see indie games that you wouldn't likely see anywhere else.
Crown Delights Deli was a particularly interesting experience; this visual novel has you playing as a bodega clerk and choosing between using English, Spanish, or African-American Vernacular English while interacting with a wide array of customers.
If you're a fan of Starbound, you're definitely going to want to check out Seed of Agony. Described as a "4x platformer with demons in space," you take on the role of a character charged with taking over the universe planet by planet, invading worlds with mutated demons and killing everything in sight. It's a wonderfully eclectic mix of genres and mechanics that is more than meets the eye.
Shoulders of Giants should be of interest to people looking for a new roguelite game. You play as a space frog sitting atop a giant mech, and you can choose between using ranged attacks as the frog or melee attacks as the mech. Best of all, it will include co-op where two or more people can control the same frog and mech combo, with one person handling the mech's melee attacks and the other firing a flurry of laser blasts from the frog.
Sam Eng's upcoming game Skate Story stood out as a particularly unique experience. I killed a moon with the power of skateboarding, and then I ate the moon. It feels like a mix of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and Silent Hill and I am one thousand percent interested in seeing how this game turns out when it launches in the future.
And finally, I want to highlight Wine and Dinegon, an upcoming release that's described as a crossover between The Legend of Zelda and the television show Frasier. You've inherited your uncle's impossibly large mansion and it's time to throw a party, but you're going to have to dive into the various cellars and side rooms to pick out the perfect food for your guests — and battle some dangerous monsters along the way.
Play NYC 2021 Was a Fine Return to Form
Play NYC has far more indie games than anything else, but that's not to say there wasn't support from larger companies in the industry. Rockstar Games, Niantic, and the Unreal Engine helped sponsor the event along with the upcoming video game-themed film New Guy starring Ryan Reynolds. Avalanche Studios — a Stockholm-based company that has offices in New York — also continued its support of the show with a large booth of playable games placed front and center.
There are countless stories of both progress on older projects and brand-new ventures, all centered around this wonderful gaming convention in Manhattan.
The clearest thing of all, however, was the sense of community that I saw throughout the show, especially with many video game and tabletop developers from previous years making a return. The years-long project Way of Rhea has shown clear growth as it approaches release. Galactose: Pastries in Space developer Zero Eden Games has started up a new project, simply for a change of pace. There are countless stories of both progress on older projects and brand-new ventures, all centered around this wonderful gaming convention in Manhattan.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a challenge for any business that relied on people physically attending. A young convention like Play NYC 2021 could have very well dropped off the map. Developers may not have wanted to risk showing up. Attendees might have been reluctant to be around so many people. Despite all of this, thousands passed through the doors of the Metropolitan Pavilion to celebrate gaming together — and hopefully, another milestone on the return to normalcy.