For someone who had never been to a video games convention before, I had certainly chosen an unusual one as my first. I eschewed the glitz and glamour of E3, PAX and various other acronyms to attend the Limerick Institute of Technology’s (LIT) Tipperary branch. This was the venue for one of Ireland’s largest game developers’ events, known as the Games Fleadh.
While the conference was light on news and upcoming titles, Games Fleadh proved to be an interesting experience in terms of its various developer talks and competitions.
The Games Studio Endless Runner competition
Upstairs, in LIT, I was greeted by a long corridor that stretched out in front of me, the sun beaming brightly in upon a collection of lit-up screens, PCs, laptops, and smartphones. This was the spot where the developers for the competition had their titles on display, for both the public and the competition’s judges.
For the contest, teams had to make a game that fit into the genre of endless runner. For those not familiar with this genre, Temple Run and bit.trip.run are prime examples. In these games there’s no finish; you keep going until you inevitably fail, but the reward is in the high score.
Speaking with the different developers I learnt that many games here had only just started to be built just before the convention, and that changes were still being made on the day itself. Some devs were stripping back their ideas and taking modes out; some were tackling bugs; and others had ideas that they still wanted to implement.
I also got an insight as to what it was like to be studying games development in Ireland. In terms of career prospects, the general consensus was a desire to take the concepts they display in the competition further, with many planning to continue the hard work they had already put into their competition entries. However, some developers realised a career in gaming may be impossible to accomplish in Ireland, and a change of scenery may be required due to the larger tech industries in other countries.
As I walked around, there was a feeling of tension emanating over the presence of judges. Unlike industry veterans at giant conventions, the competition area here was filled with students that were nervous, but eager to please. The prize at their fingertips was a chance to showcase their title to industry veterans Brenda and John Romero, and the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) Greenlight Committee.
The first game I got my hands on was Super Galactic Sound Smuggler. The 2D side-scrolling spaceship shooter had a style similar to old-school games such as Gradius. What made the title stand out was how the vertical lines, which constituted the obstacles, were created. Beat detection was used to pick up the rhythm of songs, and this affected the length and pace of the lines. The beautiful thing about this was that the game would generate a course based on any music track you desired, with Gangnam Style proving to be particularly popular.
In comparison to the above dark-space environment, the next title I played, Catastrofist vs Innocent People, was a bright, colourful 2D side scrolling game in which you got to punch your way through a whole variety of foes. The artwork was done in an eye-catching comic book style. Gameplay was simple, fun, and challenging, but the team had also taken the time to create an entertaining story to accompany it.
I was terrible at VRoot 64; the controls seemed difficult and the required preciseness was demanding, and the ‘optional’ tutorial seemed near-mandatory. Nevertheless, of all the games I played, I found this one the most rewarding. Its core mechanic was simple: you needed to swap around three connected circles so that their colours matched the incoming sequence in order to pass through it unhindered. The designers said that some were wary that the title lacked accessibility. Nevertheless, I was reminded of difficult, yet popular titles such as Super Hexagon.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to play everything on offer here, but what I did play, I definitely enjoyed. People began packing up around mid-afternoon, but the awards wouldn’t be dished out until after the games conference.
During the morning, another programming competition named Robocode took place. This competition consisted of teams setting forth programmed graphical tanks to do battle against one another. A team from the University of Limerick won, and a team from Limerick Institute of Technology got runners-up. This also ended around mid-afternoon, by which time, everyone was ready to sit down to listen to the guest speakers.
Research and Professionals Presentations
Ronan Lynch from the Dundalk Institute of Technology was first up. His talk was to be about alternate reality games (AR), and more specifically his own. Plunkett’s Pages was aimed at teaching the history behind the Easter Rising (an armed rebellion in Ireland in 1916). First, he outlined the genre, which still isn’t normally in the spotlight within gaming circles. AR games use the real world as their platform, and use different forms of media (e.g. YouTube, Facebook) to deliver a story which may be altered by players’ ideas or actions.
Lynch spoke about some of the difficulties with AR: how they’re time specific, and how they have roadblocks in terms of dealing with real people. However, speaking about the benefits of the genre, Lynch also explained that AR games have been shown to increase attention span, and therefore can be invaluable for teaching.
Running on from this idea, James Broderick from the National University of Ireland Galway, spoke about his research around bringing gaming outside of games. In contrast to Ronan’s talk, he spoke about a more traditional method: using gaming engines. He began by speaking about the engines commonly used, and how they’re becoming easily accessible – Unreal Engine 4 being a prime example.
He went on to speak about specific projects that used engines, making reference to titles such as Triage Trainer, a game that uses medical data to help people who have been injured. In closing, he also asserted his excitement about how VR could affect teaching within games.
Paul Keating of the Limerick Institute of Technology spoke more about using games to treat broader issues, such as social injustice. He began by making reference to an AR game called Evoke, which won the Social Impact Game of the Year in 2010. He also spoke about a game called World Without Oil, which explored the state of the planet without one of its primary fuel sources.
What Paul was also promoting was the idea of cyberactivism through games that empower people with positive social views. This could be seen as in conflict with titles such as the typical FPS, which glamorizes killing.
After the three doctoral researchers were finished, it wasn’t long before the professional speakers took their place. Brian Neider, the senior vice president within EA’s global publishing and marketing organization, was the first to speak.
What Brian covered was the increasing diversification of the gaming industry, making reference to the now-massive mobile market. He spoke on how nearly everyone plays games now, and how people who would never have played games before are accessing them through their phones. What he seemed to assert was that the idea of being a ‘gamer’ is fading into obscurity. ‘TV watchers’, and ‘music listeners’ aren’t a thing, so does playing a game mean you’re a ‘gamer’?
Neider made reference to how developers could use different tools to see how they could improve their title; what is it that scares the player away? He also quickly and smartly dismissed the resulting idea (brought up specifically in an audience question) that they were spying on their users through excessive data collection in apps; a fear-inducing issue.
Stephen Howell, the academic engagement manager at Microsoft Ireland, has a big interest is in the teaching of STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine) at different stages of education. The majority of his talk was on showcasing Microsoft’s Project Spark. He messed around with different parts of the game, and put it forward as a way to get down to the basics of game creation in a fun and creative way. Creating levels, modifying AI, tweaking mechanics, creating the basics of a game – Howell showed examples of how these concepts could be engaged with at an introductory level.
After he finished creating goblins that flew through the air, it was time for Brenda Romero’s talk, which was via video link. For those not familiar with Brenda’s work, you really should be. She’s the longest serving lady in the video game industry, and has had influential positions in the likes of EA and Atari. It was also Brenda and her husband John who’d suggested the Endless Runner theme for the Games Studio competition.
Brenda highlighted the idea of developing a core mechanic by using the unique example of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). It was a perplexing reference, but understandable once explained. What Brenda pointed out was that the AA focuses solely on one issue, and they do this very well. This idea transfers quite well into game design; a game needs to be built on a strong core mechanic.
She then expanded upon this idea, and talked about game creation as a broader concept. She spoke strongly about games having something unique, saying that there needs to be something special about your game in order to have a reason to make it.
Critiquing also came up, something which would doubtlessly be on the audience’s mind, since many had had their games judged earlier. She outright stated that there’s no such thing as a perfect game. Even the best game has something that can be built upon. There are always elements that developers will have contemplated doing, but never had the time or resources to finish.
She also spoke about the small details that need to be examined in game design. She described the need to go through every core mechanic, every screen, and to only include what you need. Here, she referenced Minecraft, which started as a very minimal game, and expanded into something much larger.
In closing, one audience member asked her if there is any game she saw as perfect. Showing some conviction she said there was no such thing as perfect, and that there’s no game she has ever played which she’s believed is perfect. Nevertheless, she did say that she could play FTL all day.
Her talk, despite the technical difficulties inevitable with video link, was one of the strongest points of the day. It speaks volumes that someone who isn’t even in the room can have such a presence. Finally, all that was left was to give out the awards.
Game Studio Awards
The plaques were lined up on the table and eager whispers were floating around the room. There were quite a few categories, but only two top spots. I was glad to see some of the games I played given some recognition.
Super Galactic Sound Smuggler’s LIT team won Best Original Innovation in Gaming; VRoot 64’s Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) team won Best in Game Play; while Catastrofist vs Innocent People‘s DIT team won Best in Original Story, and also managed to win the Game Studio Runner Up spot.
Curse of the Pharaoh’s Tomb (a game I didn’t manage to get my hands on) came out the overall winner. The title was put together by a team from IT Carlow, and also managed to win Best Multiplayer Game at the contest.
After the awards, people began to disperse to get some food, untie knots in their stomachs, and to muse over the words of Brenda Romero. The Games Fleadh 2015 was an absolute joy to attend. Organiser Liam Noonan wore a face which was consistently smiling throughout the day, and it’s fantastic that an event such as this can take place in Ireland. Doubtless, Power Up Gaming will have a presence at the event in 2016, and I think it’s safe to assume the quality in Ireland’s burgeoning games development will continue.
How do you feel about growing games development? Think you’ll be heading to any gaming events in Ireland? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.
Photographs are credited to Flickr., and you can see more of his pictures from Games Fleadh 2015 on