Day two of the Explay conference continued to cement the prevalence of developers and companies active in the South West. After registering attendees milled around the conference floor, where two gaming cabinets vied for their attention.
The first of the these is the mighty Plymatron, an arcade cabinet based on the designs of the Canadian Bit Collective's Winnitron. Hand built by members of the Explay community, the Plymatron is the first of its kind in the UK - Bit Collective's design allows people to make their own gaming cabinet and even supply a batch of modern indie games to play on the system but they require the machine to remain in public spaces and be free to use. After the conference it is going to remain in use at whichever bar hosts the Explay's monthly meetups.
The second game that was drawing the attention of those on the floor was the very nifty R-fidghter, a research project that looks set to evolve the card games market. Taking games like Pokemon cards and Magic: The Gathering as its inspiration, R-fidghter gives players a set of physical cards, each depicting a monster and a set of special attacks The cards could be used to battle like other trading card games, but in each of these cards is an RFID chip, so once it's slotted into the bespoke controller and connected up to the R-fidghter videogame you and your friend/enemy can battle in a virtual arena. It's a great idea, and one which I'd be surprised isn't already in the works at companies like Nintendo, there was certainly something similar Sony tried to launch on the PS2 that used the Eye-Toy camera but was never too successful. Yet there is a simplicity to R-fidghter that's appealing and some of the characters they had on display were charming, so it's definitely worth looking out for future developments from the project.
Distracting games aside the talks began with Dan Efergan from Aardman Digital, his talk, titled 'Sex, Lies, and Video Games', stayed true to it's word: he lied about it containing sex. So what do you say about videogames to an audience of videogame developers? Efergan gave a run down of the told us of how the digital department at Aardman expanded from its original four members to twenty, and how their remit, which was originally just to maintain the various websites for different Aardman products became making games, to the point that they're about to release their first commercial product. The emphasis was very much on baby steps, well, baby steps for Aardman.
They're first game was commissioned by marketing to promote the Wallace and Gromit special 'A Matter of Loaf and Death'. Rather than create the thing entirely from scratch the team - and Efergan wholeheartedly recommends this approach to developers - licensed their engine from Flash Game Licence. Using a small team, only three developers: one coder, one artist, and one producer they made a game that was played over 13.5m times in three years. Using the same formula, their next gam, Suspension Invention, was played almost 17m times in two years. And their most recent game, Home Sheep Home, made in just 12 days, has been played over 105.5m times in two years. So a quick run down of his tips: license engines where possible to speed up your process, don't waste time making pretty prototypes because "you should be able to have a hell of a lot of fun with rubbish graphics, and test loads.Off the back of these free web games they were able to pitch Home Sheep Home 2, their first commercial release, which is set to come out in the next month or so.
The day ended with a keynote from industry godfather Ian Livingstone. Livingstone's been in the games industry since 1975 when he began Games Workshop with John Peak and Steve Jackson, a mail order boardgames shop. He talked about the early history of the company, which for all the his gilding sounds to have been a pretty turbulent time: upon securing the rights to distribute Dungeons & Dragons (D&D)in the UK Peak left the company, they were kicked out of their flat in Hammersmith, spent three months living in a van, and were unable to get a loan from the bank because no one was willing to invest in these so-called "Roleplaying games". Though, through this time they were steadily selling copies of D&D. Eventually they were able to open a shop in 1978 and from then things went up and up for the pair.
Although that covers the start of a company that is close to many gamers' hearts - elvish fantasy having been a mainstay genre of the industry for decades - it wasn't what brought Livingstone to speak to a crowd of developers in front of the world's most distracting screensaver - for those who didn't read yesterday's coverage, the conference is taking place at Plymouth's aquarium in front of a tank full of eels, rays, and sharks - it was what Livingstone worked on after Games Workshop that brought him to Explay. Upon selling out of the business in 1981 he invested his money in a games developer called Domark, makers of Championship Manager. Domark merged with Eidos and was later bought by Square Enix, becoming the Western arm of the Japanese company. So as Life President of Eidos he is at the top of a very influential company in the UK games industry, a company that owns some of the most recognisable brands in the world.
Throughout the talk the point being driven home was the importance of intellectual property (IP), D&D wasn't owned by Games Workshop so after their three years of exclusivity they lost control of it, they could have licensed something else but insteda they chose to create their own game: Warhammer. Owning the IP to this game they had a consistency to their company, they weren't continually hounding developers for new games, instead their strength came from being the exclusive rights holder of the most popular miniatures game in the UK. Similarly, when Core created Lara Croft and the first Tomb Raider game, Eidos, their publisher, held onto the rights. Yes, this first game was wildly successful selling over 7m copies but because they'd retained the rights they were able to licence the image to Lucozade, Hollywood, and merchandising companies, deals that made Lara more recognisable than the Pope. Livingstone repeated "Own IP, I can't stress it enough," just to make sure everyone had got his point.
So that wraps up day two of the conference, tomorrow I'll take a closer look at what's been going on at the Games Jam.