I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural Play NYC convention in New York City. Taking place in Manhattan, it was Playcrafting's first attempt at running a large convention—and boy, did they pull it off.
My day began with waking up several hours too early, killing some time, and traveling all the way to John Jay College of Criminal Justice on 59th Street to pick up my press credentials. I briefly chatted with Playcrafting CEO Dan Butchko who was milling about putting out fires and working with his team to prepare for the day's attendees. I had wanted to see the opening remarks by Mr. Butchko alongside some words from local politicians, but unfortunately, I had a previously scheduled appointment with a developer.
Press badge in hand, I headed over to Terminal 5 on 55th street where the event itself was taking place. Over 100 developers were present, almost all of them with playable versions of their games. Thousands of attendees were expected. After a short wait in line, I passed through a metal detector and bag search before entering the venue.
The entrance had Playcrafting volunteers and staff hard at work greeting people and selling t-shirts on demand. After glancing around a bit, I stepped into the hall proper. The first developer I saw was Pixelmetal, presenting his game Sombrero at a booth run by his publisher. He was having technical difficulties getting everything set up and wasn't in the best of moods, but Nick's a smart guy and I was sure he would figure it out. (A later encounter with him revealed that he did resolve the issue—specifically, a driver issue—and he had a healthy number of people at the booth playing his game throughout the day).
Terminal 5 has three floors and a roof. The roof was closed off for the afterparty, so I had three floors worth of developers and their games to go through. I had been rather pressed for time in past Playcrafting events, and I was quite happy to have eight hours to look at what was being presented to attendees. I started things off by getting a lay of the land and occasionally stopping to say hello to developers I had interviewed or talked with in the past.
Even at the very opening of Play NYC, one thing was evident: people were playing games. Playcrafting events were crowded, but this was certainly at another level. Every booth had activity to one degree or another. Some developers had impromptu lines to manage. A handful of the more niche products got less in the way of activity, but people were moving around and playing games throughout the entire day.
After a good few minutes of walking around on the first floor, I ended up asking a staffer how to get upstairs because I just couldn't see an obvious way upstairs. I found my way up and I looked around for bit, occasionally stopping to say hello to a developer or two that I had covered at previous Playcrafting events. Many were showing off projects that were either coming along or already out like Awkward Date and Sumer, and a couple of developers had something new in the works. After I finished my once over of the entire venue, I began my undertaking of going through the entire show booth by booth and stopping at whatever seemed interesting. I won't touch on absolutely everything here; there were, after all, over a hundred developers there! I will be going into detail in the coming days and weeks with individual developers and projects that garnered my interest.
My first stop was a "meditative experience" called Reflections at Sunset by Charles Hans Huang of Mudita Heart. A game made in Twine, it sets out to ask thought-provoking, personal questions. Anyone who has seen a Twine game understands that it's a very simple experience, and in terms of its imagery and visual design, it wasn't particularly remarkable, something the developer readily admitted. He felt the strength of the game was in the writing, and he was absolutely bang on. I read rather quickly, and some of the questions I faced stopped my brain cold as I really had to think about them. One prompt gummed me up because I felt there were no good options (it asked what I saw, and my mind went to the sun but that was not an option), but the others that did really made me think for a moment. Mr. Huang killed it with his booth presentation, and while his game might not be the prettiest or most technologically-accomplished feat on the show floor, it was undeniably one of the strongest in terms of writing and the ability to both provoke thought and resonate with me on a personal level.
Game Revenant's Where Shadows Slumber was nearby. I've spoken with one of the developers a year prior, and we've recently reconnected shortly before Play NYC as the game ramped up for launch. I'm told that an experience akin to Monument Valley can be expected for players alongside a very lovely art style; a style that I was particularly fond of for how clean and simple it looked to me.
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One of the interesting things about Playcrafting as an organization (and by extension, Play NYC) is the weird stuff you can see. There were plenty of traditional developers selling games of varying types, but there was also a good bit of weird stuff floating around (and "weird" in this case is by no means a term of denigration). The first truly strange thing I saw was an arcade game experience whose controller could only be described as a log. Salmon Roll was an installation presented by Andy Wallace and Jane Friedhoff where two players controlled a log held by beavers moving upstream. The controller itself was patently ridiculous; Ms. Friedhoff happily conceded that it was simply two joysticks attached to a large wooden assembly with handles for two people to hold onto. They weren't there to test a market or seek investment from Dave & Buster's; they were there to provide a fun experience, and judging by the line of people behind the controller all day, I'd say they accomplished their mission. It was surely helped along by just how likable and energetic the pair presenting the installation were.
Around this point, I had to scoot downstairs to check out Mushroom Wars 2 thanks to an appointment made in advance. I had looked into the game a bit, but I prefer to go into a new experience as blind as possible, whether it's a review or on the show floor. Russian developers Zillion Whales have a great game on their hands. In essence, it's like a multi-faceted version of the Nexus Wars game on the Starcraft II Arcade. You capture little mushroom huts by sending out attackers, reinforce your own, and attempt to dominate the entire map by keeping your troops moving strategically. While troops are always moving, it's difficult to tell where exactly they're going to land until they actually hit. I got my butt kicked in my very first game, but in fairness, I was up against the game's designer. My second game against another Zillion Whales member went a little better, and I had a good bit of fun in both cases. It's easy to pick up and deceptively simple at first glance, but there's a lot of room for strategy and intense play even at the seemingly slow pace of the game. I found it as enjoyable to watch (and easy to understand) in a similar way to how I feel watching Starcraft II tourneys, and much like that RTS mainstay, I found the execution in the game itself a bit more challenging than I had anticipated. Even so, I picked up on it quickly, I'd readily play it again, and I think it wouldn't be so brutally unforgiving that I'd go 0 and 5 like I did with my Ladder placement matches in the great game of Marines & Mutalisks.
The next thing that stood out to me was Hero's Crossing by One Method Monkey, a game that at its face seemed to be a bit like Carcassone. After chatting with the fine folks at that booth, I learned that it was more or less the kind of game that I might end up worryingly addicted to. You'll manage a town, build it out, upgrade it, and provide supplies and support to RPG heroes in a fashion that's a mix between a tavern or inn simulator and something akin to Recettear. I love Tycoon-esque games like this, and the possibility of trying something like that in a tabletop environment was appealing to me.
A pair of visual novel experiences stood side by side. Ghosts of Miami by Pillow Fight was something that was right up my manga-addicted alley—a combination visual novel and detective game with romance elements mixed it. It gave off the feeling of Phoenix Wright but if our favorite legal counsel was a Latino girl in 1980's Florida with a bit of a Nancy Drew flair to her. Next to them was Four Horsemen by Nuclear Fishin' Software, a game that I tried out a bit on a lark. A combination visual novel and SLG ("Simulated Life Game," a term I had to actually look up), you take on the roll of a bunch of teens who set out to build up a hangout for themselves, work their way through life, and deal with Serious Business issues like racism and poverty in a way that was actually entertaining. I'm sure that that last bit may set off some warning bells for people expecting a pile of cringe—goodness knows it did the same to me—and I have a strong aversion to projects that get too preachy. Four Horsemen managed to be entertaining while still tackling serious issues, and while it had a few stumbles here or there, I largely enjoyed how what I played of the game handled itself.
Nearby the two VNs was what can only be described as a bunch of lightbulbs hanging from a ceiling. I was surprised to see that it was a game and not just a bit of fancy lighting. Adelle Lin and Matt Pinner were presenting Star Catcher VR, a game that's exactly what it says on the tin. It's a bit tough to describe when a video will do it much more efficiently, so let's have a look at a demonstration Mr. Pinner has online:
I'm 6'5" and I have an above-average wingspan, but I still had to move around a good bit to try and intercept the little celestial buggers on their way down. I nabbed a few stars and then I immediately returned the net controller to Ms. Lin. This was not because it wasn't fun; rather, it was because it was too fun and I could see myself spending way too much time there and missing out on other developers I wanted to see. My mind flashed back to the countless hours (and countless tokens) I spent at arcades playing games that similarly engaged me. In honesty, I was also concerned about the potential collateral damage my poor, uncoordinated self would have unwittingly inflicted on some poor bystander or innocent piece of equipment. It was simple yet beautiful to see firsthand, and while this definitely felt like an art experience, I feel that there's something magical here that would be fun to play on a wider scale. I think if this were in a summer camp or daycare, it'd get kids moving. Heck, it got adults moving. It was wondrous.
One of the neat things about Playcrafting as an organization is that you'll see developers of all levels, including brand-new developers with one of their first games. Sometimes it actually is their first game. Fitting nicely into this category was Shape Shots by Shadow Ripple, a straightforward & fun mobile game. You have one of three shapes selected at the bottom of the screen and can switch to them by swiping. Tapping shoots a pixel-y bullet at incoming shapes, but you can only destroy the shapes that you currently have selected. It was a simple game with a simple design that was a bunch of fun.
Around this point, my battery was running low and I went out to kill two birds with one stone; the developers of Otis kindly loaned me their power strip while I chatted with them about their game. Otis is a game in the loosest definition of the word—an interactive film with three perspectives that you can switch between at will. You can check out the first episode right now, and I think you should if only to try it once and see what it's like. The team behind it is working on making it into a series, and I have to give them their props for doing something interesting in the film space in an interactive way. DVDs touted the ability to see certain scenes from alternate angles, but very few films in my experience made much use of this feature. I can't think of anyone who had attempted to do an entire piece like this from start to finish. It's not only a technical challenge, it's a writing and artistic challenge and they've pulled it off. People argue about what is or is not a game, and I think this qualifies (although just barely). You can change perspectives and experience the narrative from one of three different POVs on a whim, and that's an interactive experience that I haven't seen anywhere else. It's not passive; it can't be done without some kind of input from the user. I think it's cool, and I really want to see where they're going to take it.
I finally got to meet Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye Games in person. He was there to showcase his upcoming title Unavowed. Wadjet Eye Games makes old-school Adventure games, and anyone who has played one of their titles can tell you that they do it very well. Mr. Gilbert was an affable developer who's passionate about his craft and Unavowed looked fantastic. A year after a demon possesses your character, you join the titular group of individuals who are out to combat the evils of the world, "kind of like Dresden Files," in Mr. Gilbert's words. I don't know if I'm going to be the guy who reviews it, but I will definitely be a guy who plays it no matter what. I'm a sucker for demonic adventure—goodness knows I must have watched Angel five times over—and I'm sure I'll get a kick out of what Wadjet Eye Games is putting together here.
Miasma Caves by Windy Games immediately stood out to me thanks to a cute girl on a poster. That had my curiosity, and when I got a look at the game itself, it certainly had my attention. My mind immediately went to Beyond Good and Evil due to the green-haired protagonist running around in a 3D world on the screen. In short, it's an exploration game where you delve into dungeons to collect treasure, avoid hazards, and come back out (hopefully unharmed) to invest in the town, prepare for your next expedition, and reveal more of the story. While the game has hazards, there's no combat to speak of, and I actually liked that bit about it. A kid came up to play it and his mother had no problem whatsoever with it, but I think adults would enjoy it too judging by the gameplay I got to see firsthand.
StarCrossed was something simple that caught my eye just on the character design alone. Two players each take on the role of a magical girl (think Sailor Moon or Cardcaptor Sakura) in space with a star bouncing between them. As you move, the star tracks towards you and curves to meet up with you. It's up to the pair of players to move around and slice through the enemies on screen. I'm a big ol' weeb, and they had me at "magical girl game" alone, but it certainly helps that it looked like a good bit of fun, too.
The second-to-last thing I saw was something that I can only describe as capitalism in its purest form - a fidget spinner Bluetooth motion controller called FIdgetly CTLR. I genuinely wondered if I had perhaps collapsed from exhaustion and entered into some sort of delusional alternate universe where such a thing can exist, but alas, it's real and it works. The controller tracks rotations and angle, and it is a controller; they had a couple of proof-of-concept demos showing off a Flappy Bird clone and a game where you could remix music like a DJ simply by moving the controller and adjusting its speed. I gave the devs a lot of flak for creating this monstrosity and they took every bit of it in stride by laughing right along with me. It's not even that it's a bad product; it definitely works and it's very well made. It just felt so patently ridiculous that I could barely contain myself, and yet I couldn't help but stand in awe at what they had created. Goodness me, they even have a developer SDK. I walked into the booth slightly bemused and mildly perplexed and I left in an even more bemused state for having seen it in action. They may have set out to capitalize on the latest fad, but it's undeniable that they created a unique product that works and can provide a motion-based controller experience in an eye-catching and fun way. I found it admirable that they were able to be completely serious about what seems like a crazy idea on its face, back it up with tech, and believe in their product one hundred and ten percent. They're probably going to make boatloads of cash and they deserve every penny, if only for their ability to make something that is actually pretty cool on a technical level.
My last stop was Cutthroat Gunboat by Minor Faction. I passed by the booth earlier and the developers had really wanted me to check it out, but time was running low and I had a couple of other stops I wanted to make before I sat down and gave it a spin. I promised the developers that I would return before the end of the show and I managed to get there just in time. In honesty, I was so exhausted that the comfortable barrel-shaped chairs they had set up for players might have biased me a bit in their favor after an entire day of moving and grooving with devs and attendees. As nice as it was to sit down—oh goodness me, sitting down never felt so good—any hint of discomfort I had floated away to the back of my mind as I played the game. You take control of one of a handful of "historically dubious" ships and sail around a map filled with hazards attempting to blow up other players and be the last man standing. I noticed people playing the game throughout the day out of the corner of my eye, and I could easily see why—it's a ton of fun. I was treated to a few matches of four-player action and was sat next to a lovely woman who trash-talked better than anyone I've ever seen in my life (and backed it up by sinking more ships than all the icebergs in the Arctic Circle). I really enjoyed it and I think it would be a ton of fun for couch co-op, and at $7.99 on Steam it's a friggin steal.
A bit after 6:00 PM, the show wound down and the regular attendees exited the venue. Most devs took a few minutes to sit down and relax after eight hours of constant standing and moving around, and many of them immediately began breaking down their displays. Dan Butchko assembled his team before the streaming stage and announced that Play NYC did better than expected on its first day in terms of attendance and thanked his team for helping make this all possible. As always, Mr. Butchko somehow still had energy and positivity to spare after what surely must have been an exhausting day. If I could bottle whatever it is that keeps Mr. Butchko going, I could probably buy an island or three.
I headed up to the roof for the afterparty by traversing four flights of stairs; after an entire day of walking around (and a lengthy commute) it felt like climbing a mountain. I took a few minutes to sit down, chat with some devs, and just zone out for a bit to recover for the trip home.
Reflecting on my time at Play NYC, I can only say that I feel privileged to have been at the inaugural event. The playability of most of the games was definitely a factor in making things way better than staring at video in a booth or crowding into a theater to watch an "in-engine" trailer (that totally isn't running on five thousand dollars worth of hardware, we swear guys) or be treated to bullshots that are surely representative of the final product and not at all gussied up by the boys in marketing. Sarcasm and cynicism about the industry at large aside, Play NYC was an enjoyable interactive experience that was genuine and real.
The dev is right there, the game is right there, and you can play it for yourself. It didn't matter if it was the dev's first game or their fifteenth game. It didn't matter whether a game was in development or available on the market. What mattered was hundreds of developers and thousands of attendees, all smiling and united in their love of video games for an entire weekend. This was a hell of a start for Play NYC, and I can't wait for it to return next year.
If you live in the New York City area and love video games, you'd have to be out of your mind not to come check it out next time. It is a unique experience with developers from all walks of life that has something for damn near everyone. I can't wait to do it again. You can learn more about the convention at its official website play-nyc.com, and if you're not keen on waiting until next year you can check out playcrafting.com to see what kind of cool events and classes they have coming up next.
Did you have the opportunity to attend Play NYC? Do you think it's important that you can play games at a convention or are you fine with seeing big videos and demonstrations instead? What's the most interesting project that's come out of the show? Let us know in the comments below!