Flammable Penguins

Claire Blackshaw's Forest of Fun

Judging Daring Doers

Judging Daring Doers
This year was the first time I was involved in Dare to be Digital. Now I’ll admit that due to time commitments and unfamiliarity, I sent others from my team to mentor but agreed to judge. Now I’m kicking myself, why did I pass up the opportunity to mentor such amazing and brilliant students. In a few weeks these students have produced high quality vertical slices and complete products which in some cases surpass the level of quality I’ve seen in many studio incubations, RnD or pitch teams.

Every game, bar one, blew me away in quality and the teams were talented, engaged individuals who clearly have a future in our industry if they continue at this level. A wide range of platforms and ubiquitous brilliant tools really pushed quality and innovation to an all time high. This year was apparently a watermark year according to the other judges and I’m glad to have been there. In fact my only WTF moment was, where were Microsoft? Some brilliant Kinect work on the floor, almost all of which hit the mark.

So onto the teams themselves...

TeamGamePlatform
Yummy TummyLucky GhostPC + iPhone
A Necessary EvilCarne CarnePC
Digital HazardsShadow LightPC
Evolved ApeDreamweaverPC
FunBoxThe Lost MemoriesPC
Ape-y EyesPaperQuestKinect
Crispy Nugget StudiosGalaxy GuardiansKinect
Digital KnightsJoust!Kinect
Furnace GamesScorcherKinect
Faraway GamesAldaiPad
Fatdog GamesThe Tale of YogiPad
SwallowtailTick Tock ToysiPad
The Weather FactoryThe BalloonistiPad
Rebel DonutPlunder in the JungleWindows Phone 7
Tea and TechnoFull English FusionWindows Phone 7

Update

Just found out the winners were Joust!, Tick Tock and Dreamweaver. (^_^)

Joust!

Honestly there is no feedback I can give that would improve this game.

Yes, it is that good. It’s a fun Kinect title which has cleverly avoided all the technical limitations of the Kinect at the design phase. It’s fun, energetic, well-scoped and polished to a pretty shine. The audience loved playing this game, and were it on my XBox today it would make a great party game, though it is probably too small scale to be a stand alone product.

A choice of different characters do as the title says and joust. The player jumps and slaps themselves too giddy up and go faster while trying to precisely align their arm as their jousting pole. It’s a brilliant combination of energy and precision which avoids all the pitfalls of Kinect. The single player is nicely couched in a training narrative which effectively adds a game mode while training the player for the two player experience.

The only negative comment I would have is towards Microsoft: with all the great Kinect titles at Dare, where are you? Seriously, this gem needs to be delivered in some form to your console. Mini-game collection, XBLA or just in the FunLabs project. Parents were asking the team where they could purchase it, thinking it was a complete game, and I agree with them.

Tick Tock Tows

The most polished product and a lovely team with a good idea of how to move this to the market. A brilliant use of Unity3D and in fact my only negative point on this game, why isn’t it on the market already? With all the publicity and foot traffic from the general public they would have already garnered hundreds of sales and, within the week, possibly thousands.

So the game is a puzzle affair, a fixed camera looking into a lovely toy box filled with life and animation. The art style delivers stunning, appropriate visuals, all the while reinforcing the narrative. It’s one of those games that just make you smile at the iPad and go, preeeeetty iPad. The game is intuitive, the flow of puzzles is steady and never frustrating while never getting monotonous. They have several themes with plans for more and a nice collection of puzzle mechanics.

There isn’t much in the way of innovation but a solid fun puzzle game. Why innovate when what you have feels fun and fresh?

Lucky Ghost

Okay, I fully admit they have my mind buzzing with possibilities. Some explanation is needed (_) So I’m going to wax on about tech for a bit then return to the game.

The game is a brawler multiplayer game hosted on a PC but then a range of iOS devices serve as the controllers for the game. So think WiiU but with any amount of devices, up to whatever the network traffic can support. The problem with this is that Apple would never let it through the app store. The team talked about possibly using the iPad as a hosting device to make Apple happy but sod them I say. This is an awesome idea I want to see more of.

The solution I came up with on the spot has me giddy and I want to explore it, so I shared it with the team. HTML5 web app! Seriously, the control interface is a touch screen joystick and a few buttons in one mode and a few buttons in the other mode. HTML5 web app using websockets would serve that function. That would mean that any smartphone or tablet could run it. No need to go through the app store, no install, and no device lock-in. This opens up a massive range of TV gaming options to my mind. Sadly, Microsoft policy is that XNA is not allowed web connections on 360, Sony has no equivalent indie dev solution, but a PC or Wii solution is available.

Back to the game: several characters run around a flat arena with smash style play and power-ups. On death you gain access to GM style powers which affect the game state. Honestly, the game itself was highly polished and the audience was loving it, but the game design was nothing thrilling. The concept of the bring your own controller, with touch, is the Wii-U done right and it excites me greatly. So much so I’m tempted to knock up a quick library for Unity.

Dreamweaver

I really loved this little game, it's a wonderful narrative driven platformer aimed at kids with a whimsical graphical style that is delivered through strong graphics programming and strong camera work.

You’re greeted with beautiful 3D menus which feel natural and flow elegantly as part of the game, rather than a front end on it. The material and presentation of the product was particular strong. The game presents the setting of a childhood dream which oscillates between sunny dreams and fiery nightmares. Complete with brilliant puzzles, a fluffy companion, chase sequences and a well scoped vertical slice of a very solid children’s game.

The saddest thing is while this game would have been brilliant in the 90s, these days it would die on the vine. It really needs Walmart sales and those are hard to get without an established license or IP. This is the biggest weakness of the project and it is more a market symptom than a product fault. As once in the hands of children they would love it, just reaching that market requires getting attention and parent purchases.

A few areas of the game could have used improvement. The animations were poor and the transitions sloppy. The jumping animations lacked weight and the double jump needed some added feedback on the mid-air jump. The sliding animations in the chase sequences would have been nicely grounded with a few particle effects or similar. Also, the ending is a bit sudden from a narrative point of view and the fail logic in the chase sequence during a two-tiered section was frustrating. Overall these are nit-picking and I’ve seen shipped games with worse that did well.

I hope they release Dreamweaver for free as its a gem with no market potential sadly. The team however has a strong demonstration of their skills and I hope to see them in the industry soon.

Carne Carne

Meatballs with tongues, Tacos, Multiplayer Griefing and flying carrots garner this brilliant dish of 2D humour. A great game which started as a single player project but really found its feet in the multiplayer mode.

It was developed in Java, which was impressive as most entries used Unity, XNA, UDK or similar. Again the team and game both blew me away with their awesomeness. Given a rework to bring in online multiplayer and a more polished single player experience I feel confident that they could deliver a strong candidate for Steam.

It needs a design pass and just to be made more approachable. The controller mapping was infuriatingly frustrating on the game pad but is simply sorted with re-mapping. Though the game would work, and does according to the team, brilliantly with a keyboard and mouse setup.

Overall it was a slightly unfinished product which could go to market with some more work, polish and a bit of biz sense. The team was brilliant to chat to though and a lovely talented bunch of devs.

Conclusion

I’ll try write up more when I have time, I have reams of notes and honestly there were so many games I enjoyed. PaperQuest deserves a write-up and the artwork and theme of English Fusion from Tea and Techno had a brilliant colourful art style with accompanying quirky theme which just lit me up.

Overall it was an amazing experience I greatly enjoyed and I’m looking forward to hear the winners. Never before have I seen so much young talent in one place nor have I ever seen such a high quality output from an incubation or prototype project.

This bodes extremely well for our industry and speak volumes on the quality of these students. One thing I think it highlights even more strongly is the maturity of the tools available to craft games. Never before has our craft had such a low barrier to entry with such high quality potential.