There are few experiences I cherish more as a games reporter than walking into a room full of new, unfinished video games, each one of them ready for me to play. It makes it so easy to be excited about the future of gaming. Every time.
I don't tell you this to gloat, but instead to share my optimism with you.
I remember, before I was a games reporter, the excitement of going to GameStop on a big day of new releases. I more vaguely recall being surrounded by games in the arcades back when I was a kid. None of that compares, though, to being in a big room full of new video games, half of which you've never heard of, all of which could be the next wonderful game to be excited about and none of which are even done yet. It's like being on several frontiers at once.
Maybe you've been to a PAX East? Or an E3? Or some other show where a bunch of unreleased games are on display? If so, you've gotten a taste of this, but those events are usually so overcrowded and loud that they're not ideal. I'm fortunate to be able to attend smaller, quieter events where I can check out a bunch of games with little line-waiting and—get this—with the people who made them standing next to me to tell me what's up. I love this.
This is a long preamble just to tell you that I went to an Xbox showcase a couple of weeks ago, ostensibly to see a batch of indie games coming to the Xbox One (*Few of the games were Xbox One exclusives.) I saw some awesome stuff.
The event was set up in a garage-sized event space in San Francisco and was packed with games, press and game developers. I never leave myself enough time for these things and I got there with maybe half an hour before closing time and raced through, playing as many games as I could and leaving, about 45 minutes later (I also always push the limit) excited yet again about the future of games.
I'd like to now tell you about a bunch of these games, if you're up for it.
Oh, and some context. As I noted, the event was set up by Microsoft's Xbox team and branded to promote ID@Xbox, the indie game development program Microsoft has for their new console. Microsoft is clearly trying to prove that they care as much about indie game development as Sony has, Sony largely beating them to the punch of making support for indie development a press conference-worthy thing. The San Francisco event was intentionally or unintentionally scheduled opposite Sony's unveiling of their Morpheus virtual reality headset, and so wherever you might have been back when you first heard about that, I was possibly getting giddy over some indie games for Xbox One.
I really wish I had taken a photo of the SF showcase to give you some flavor, but I did see that Microsoft just posted a video today (handy!) that they shot at the event:
Perhaps a more exciting way to show you how game-stuffed this thing was would be to show you a screencap from Microsoft's press website to just point out that, yes, all of these games, pretty much, were under one roof.
Pretty cool, huh?
I walked into the venue and, remember, I only had half an hour. So I asked a powerful person at Xbox which games I should check out. He directed me to these two:
The first game here is called It Draws a Red Box, though the signs I saw all said #IDARB, which is a way cooler way to refer to the game. It's a multiplayer sports game. Single screen, arcade throwback.
The press sheet I was handed indicated that "#IDARB is a chaotic 8-player eSport jumping jetpack future arena ball game that is as inspired by Bomberman and Smash Bros. as it is by cans of soda, paint-by-numbers books, and driving five miles faster than the speed limit." It's made by Other Ocean, who's head of development, Mike Mika, among a million other things, is the guy who hacked Donkey Kong so that his daughter could play as Pauline and rescue Mario. The guy who showed me the game, Other Ocean's Frank Cifaldi, elaborated about the game's design a little more by describing the game as a Super Mario hockey basketball rocket pack sports simulation. Yeah, it's like all of that.
You can see the game in action, briefly, in the video embedded above, starting at 16 seconds or so. It's really simple. Get the ball into the goal. You can pass to teammates, steal, hop up platforms, do some weird burst move. It's for eight players, for Xbox One, PC, and Linux. And if you're thinking: "That's an awfully simple-looking game for a $500 console," well, that's true. It seems like a fun game to play casually with some friends, all squeezed onto or in front of one couch. Follow the game's development through the official #IDARB Twitter feed.
The second game up there is called Fru. It's the most clever Kinect game I've ever seen, which isn't saying a lot, but really! This game is promising. I think you'd like it. And you don't need me to describe it to you, because you can just watch someone play it...
...or you can just download the PC version of it from the developer's website. (We did!) That downloadable version was made in 48 hours for a game jam. It's just a proof of concept. The team making the game is essentially building a new version for the Xbox One. They expect it'll take them about a year or so. Keep an eye out for news on the game. It was really fun to play.
If I had time, I would have checked out Super Time Force.
Wow, that looks good. It really is too bad I couldn't/didn't/had-enough-confidence-that-it'd-be-neat-that-I-didn't-feel-the-need-to.
And with good reason...
How cool is that?
True, that's not gameplay. You can see gameplay here:
Hyper Light Drifter is a top-down adventure game. Some Diablo. Some Zelda. I played a co-op arena battle mode, because that's the kind of mode that works when people like me are speed-dating a room full of games. This game, lovely as it is, was also the event's reminder that cool-looking indie games are usually not any closer to coming out than cool-looking big-budget games. Hyper Light Drifter is slated for PC, Mac and Linux at the end of this year (agony!) and for console—Xbox One, PS4, Vita, Wii U, Ouya—in early 2015 (arghhhh!).
Goofiest game at this event? Probably Roundabout, which is indeed a game about a limousine that can't stop spinning on its center point. Lead creator Dan Teasdale described it to me as a Behind the Music of Revolving Limousines. Yeah, that too.
Here's a teaser, which even includes some of the intentionally-cheesy full-motion video clips in the game:
(Recognize anyone in the video? Hi, Eka!)
The game is sort of like Kuru Kuru Kururin, a Nintendo game never released in the States. Spot the similarities:
Teasdale told me that European reporters pick up Roundabout fairly quickly, because they have played Kuru Kuru Kururin. I hadn't played that game and I got the hang of it quickly, too. Maybe this helped?
Roundabout is fun. It has a dash of Crazy Taxi to it, as you spin the limo through the game's city streets, picking up passengers and dropping them off, trying to avoid obstacles along the way. You can get power-ups to make the limo jump, shrink, drive on the water and lord knows what else. It's coming to PC, Mac, Linux and Xbox One.
The developers of a game called The Last Tinker pulled me over so I could see their game. I still don't know what to make of it.
It's colorful, right?
The idea is that the world of paper and glue has been separated into different colored zones, each representing different moods or ways of life. Exploring each zone will teach the player new moves and modes of play. Green represents fear, blue is sadness, red is anger. I didn't fully get it, though the red bit made sense, since it involved combat. I was more intrigued by the developers' comments that a lot of the gameplay wouldn't be violent.
I am a sucker for color-in-the-world games like De Blob, so here's hoping it turns out well.
This next one's cool, too.
It's called Chariot and is mainly designed to be played two-player co-op, though you can solo it. In co-op, one of you plays as the princess, the other as her suitor. You're pulling ropes connected to a chariot that carries the spirit of the dead king. It's a physics-driven side-scroller with lots of challenges that involve having to hang from the chariot, swing from it, reel it in and so on.
Did you play the part of Gears of War... 2, was it?... where two players have to carry a trunk or bomb or something, each holding one end of it? It's vaguely like that. Vaguely...
I'd never seen Chariot before and was told it was debuting at the show. One of the game's producers handed me a fact sheet. Fall 2014. Xbox One, PS4, Wii U, PC.
And... "Target audience: Males 24-35 who are gamer dads/cousins/older brothers looking for co-op games to play with friends or their younger siblings."
Game stars a guy and a girl. Is made to be played co-op. And it's ostensibly targeting men? This made no sense to me and reeked of someone not having a clue about who plays video games these days (or maybe I don't, to be fair!). I asked the producer about this and he sheepishly claimed it was a marketing thing but then pointed out that there's surely a difference between games a dad might play with their daughter and games a hardcore gamer might play. To which I reminded him: women are hardcore gamers, too. Really, this threw me for a moment and I think is a vestige of a narrower way of thinking about who likes what kind of games. I am going to go out on the shortest of limbs and guess that gamers of either gender would enjoy Chariot. Attention game developers: I think women might enjoy many of your video games. That said, I am but a man and I liked Chariot. It's good.
By the time I was done with Chariot, my half hour was up. I missed a bunch of games but did at least steal a couple of moments to stare at Habitat, some sort of space-junk-assembling game that I made a note to find out more about.
And that was that.
Yeah, I missed the Sony VR debut, but what a fine way to miss it, huh? I got to saunter into a room full of games, most of which I'd never heard of, all of which I'd like to play more.
I find it hard to be cynical about video games when creativity abounds in every corner. I hope you all get to experience one of these room-full-of-games moments some day. And if not, I'll do my best to bring you there with me in spirit. They're a lot of fun.
Note: The original, too-clever-for-its-own good headline for this story was: "Happiness Is Being In a Room Full of Unfinished Xbox One* Indie Games"