A Small Convention With A Few Big Ideas

While my coworkers Dana and Nate got press passes to go to Gen Con last weekend, there were other events happening elsewhere. Adam, Wyatt, and I headed down to New York City to check out a brand new gaming convention, Play NYC: a video gaming convention hosted at Terminal 5. While I didn’t think to count the attendees, the building has a maximum capacity of only 3,000 people, so it was quite a small convention (relatively speaking).

Despite its small size, Play NYC had some fun things to offer. As you might imagine, such a convention isn’t going to draw out the big name publishers, so it ended up being more like PAX’s Indie Megabooth scaled up to a three-story building. The one exception was Avalanche Studios, the developer behind the Just Cause series. I’m not quite sure what brought them out to Play NYC since they didn’t seem to be showing off anything new, but they do have a studio local to New York City, so I suppose it was convenient and a good chance to advertise.  However, as much as I love grappling around tropical islands blowing up everything in sight, on this particular day I was more interested in what the indie developers were showing off.

Set up in a three story concert venue, the ledges were packed with games to fit as much as possible under one roof.

As is often the case, particularly with indie games, you have to do some digging to find the ones that speak to you. However, once you finish digging, you'll find the offerings that stand out and are worth playing.

Adam's Take: A Great Local Look At Indies

Play NYC, for me, resembled something of PAX’s Indie Megabooth, decompressed and exploded over three floors of Manhattan’s Terminal 5 space on the West Side. Have I mentioned the Indie Megabooth might just be my favorite attraction at PAX? While there were plenty of things that seemed especially rough around the edges or toyed with concepts that just didn’t interest me, there were a few real gems I was genuinely glad to have come across. My highlight of the convention was Unavowed, by Wadjeteye Games. I’m a sucker for pixelated artwork lovingly rendered and a fresh, modern take on old school point-and-click adventure games. While the developers say this game won’t be ready for some time (think 2018 at the earliest), let me say that the screenshots on the developer’s website don’t do justice  to the 10 minute demo I played. There’s a certain personality that comes across both in the game and its characters, even in that short period of time, that has me hooked to experience more. Expect me to keep my eyes on this one.

As for Play NYC, I have to say it’s really great to see a “hometown” convention. For their first year, I’d say there were some good offering.  It might take some time for this convention to gain traction and seek a larger venue as crowd sizes swell, but there was a certain quality to the atmosphere and the people showing off their creations that made itself known. I look forward to returning next year!

Wyatt's Take: A New Convention With Room To Grow

I'll be honest - while I had fun at Play NYC, it certainly was the first year for this event. I overheard on the way out a teenager shouting back to their other friends "It's like visiting the Steam Indie page in real life", and I can't really put a better phrase to it.  You could turn the corner to see a wonderful throwback to the old era of point-and-click adventures, and then find yourself looking at something that appeared to be more technical demo than actual game.  It also felt very cramped, because it was a concert space after all, but the space wasn't always the best used. There was a main stage which had a Twitch set up for interviews and with specific speakers, but there was no easy way to hear them if you were actually at the event. There were some areas that were crowded with no easy way to get to the next set of games, and some areas that had a ton of space leftover.

With the criticism out of the way, I am certainly happy with what they were trying to accomplish, which was giving designers and developers a chance to show off their products in a way they normally wouldn't find possible.  I had two major finds that I walked away wanting, the first being Cutthroat Gunboat, which just came out on Steam. It's a local multiplayer brawl between various gunships, and that's always a huge winner in my book when you can trashtalk your friends sitting next to you.  The other game that really caught my eye was AVARIAvs, which is a game that hopefully will be out in 2018. It was flashy and dramatic, and is looking for a way to take the JRPG of old and make it feel new and frantic again, much like how XCOM: Enemy Unknown made turn-based combat feel fast paced. I mean, look at the small preview below if you don't believe me.

Finally, I think Play NYC really found a voice in attempting something different in a merging of game and art installments that were spread throughout the show floors. Calling it Games Graffiti, creative game designers made small, relatively simple games that had a twist to make it engaging and fun at a live event.  There were installations that let you make a gif of yourself, to catching stars with a small butterfly net as a controller. The best example of this was a game called Salmon Roll, which was designed by Andy Wallace and Jane Friedhoff. To play, two players held a long wooden beam with a joystick on each end; it controlled the log two beavers were using to guide a salmon across a river covered with bears. Coordination between two people was a key part of a game that would have been easy for just one to control, and a crowd always seemed to be forming around the game throughout the convention. I had a blast giving it a few tries, and I am always a fan of making games feel more like a community experience.

Play NYC worked with a lot of ideas from previous conventions, and tried to make something that felt new and different. To me, it came across as something unpolished, but distinct. It was a party for the idea of development and creating games, which makes sense considering the originators of the event. I loved that it celebrated creativity, and I am so glad that they succeeded in their first year, getting more than 5,000 attendees and generating a lot of buzz in New York City. With a more organized floor plan, and more of a focus on things which felt unique, like Games Graffiti, they will have a true winner in their hands.

Eric's Take: A List Of Dug Up Good Games

I’ll begin with the odd man out. Return to the Stars was the one tabletop RPG among the many rows of computer and console games. More a proof of concept than a proper demo, it was still enough to catch my interest. Return the the Stars is a sci-fi RPG, but a refreshing change from the dystopian grimdarkness that’s so common to that genre. It’s closer to Star Trek than Shadowrun, with emphasis on social interactions, exploring, and discovering new things. Sprites and Dice is expecting a PDF of the rulebook once it’s ready, so stay tuned for a full article on this one.

Return To The Stars draws inspiration from nerd culture as well.

Bomb Shelter Games was showing off Depths of Sanity, an underwater exploration game that’s a bit like if Metroid had the control scheme of Asteroids. You explore the depths of an ocean where, for some reason, sea creatures fire bullets and everything is trying to kill you. Once you get a feel for the controls, you’re ready to take your submarine with its incredibly high-tech assortment of weaponry down to the lowest depths of the ocean, where you will promptly be murdered by a school of tuna. It’s a little silly if you start thinking too hard, but it is fun to play, and Bomb Shelter Games currently has a pre-alpha demo available for download, so check it out!

The last game we played right before leaving was Star Crossed by Contigo Games, a co-op bullet hell where you and a friend work together to take down waves of enemies. The action gets even crazier because your only means of attack is a star that bounces between your two characters, which you can speed up by timing your button presses to when the star reaches you. That means you need to keep an eye on yourself, your partner, the star, and the enemies. It gets really crazy really fast, and it’s a lot of fun. It really embraces the mahou shoujo (that’s “magical girl” for the non-weebs) genre that it’s based on, bringing themes of togetherness and cooperation to a fast-paced action game.

Our editor has informed me that I am not, under any circumstances, to use the phrase “Friendship is Magic” while describing Star Crossed.  

A Strong Start To A New Tradition

Those were just a few of the many titles on display at Play NYC. It’s obviously nowhere near the level of PAX or Gen Con, but indie developers have an appeal all their own. Unlike AAA studios, which can keep churning out newer and shinier versions of games we already love, indie devs have to find a gimmick to stand out. Whether it’s a sci-fi RPG that’s actually optimistic about the future, or a strange mash-up of magical girl anime, rhythm game, and bullet hell shooter that somehow all works together surprisingly well, you can bet on there being a few hidden gems among the offerings.

That’s the real value of a convention like Play NYC: so many small studios together in one place, showing off what they’ve got without being overshadowed by larger companies. Also, the fact that they don’t have to cater to 60,000 guests means that they can offer things like free lemonade - since we had just walked several blocks from Grand Central Station, we were overjoyed to be handed bottles of lemonade as we went in. It’s a closer, more intimate, and often more strange experience, as well as being a much cheaper one. Play NYC was a fun little convention, and we look forward to visiting again next year.