Saturday 29 February 2020

Through the Storm...

We're back!

There's no denying it's been a rough year or so, as evidenced by the lack of updates on this blog and our social media channels. Captain Long John Silverside and his motley crew of bovine buccaneers may have been drifting in the doldrums for a while, perhaps even headed for the rocks - but at the eleventh hour the sails billowed, and last weekend the good ship Bullion docked once again in the safe harbour of Margate, our perennial Winter show.

Leda Entertainment has exhibited in this old English seaside town every year since 2013, missing only last year as there was no February half-term expo in 2019. Perhaps the disappointment of that had fed into the slump we'd found ourselves in. So a triumphant return to the Winter Gardens venue was just what we needed! Not this time the brightly lit, cold corridors of Dreamland; instead we were back in the cavernous space of the old theatre, the semi-darkness making the retro console screens 'pop', with chip music echoing off the walls. All that was missing was that copper-and-ozone smell of the old video arcades. We set out our stall on the exact spot of our 'breakthrough' year in 2014, exhibiting our platform runner 'Bopscotch', when such was the demand that we'd had to trawl local GAME stores to gather enough kit to build a second rig overnight! All the omens were there for a similarly epic gig this time around.

So many memories...

10am Friday morning, the doors opened, and the first few visitors eagerly approached our stand - families with children aged 8-12, our usual target market. Our hearts lifted! And they spoke to us with wide eyes, saying.... where are Fortnite and Minecraft? And our hearts sank again. But we'd have the last laugh when those same children would come back to Bullion, some several times, during the course of the day - eager to have another go on our family-friendly brawler. That MarioKart-style local multiplayer magic lives on!

Families are still our biggest audience

The team had done us proud: we had both a new character (Kanonbul, a new favourite amongst our younger players) and a new island (Chilli Con Carnage, which certainly lived up to its name!) to reveal to the public. It wasn't flawless - we had to make a few new builds of the game during the event, and notably one day we were still coding at the venue and deploying to the demo rig 15 minutes before the doors opened! We found one (fortunately rare) game-ending bug, but otherwise all the issues we spotted as developers didn't spoil our players' enjoyment of the game. The feedback was extremely positive, with many players somewhat disappointed to discover we still have a couple of years of development to go. Many commented on how great the game looks, with strong characters (thanks Matthew and Stuart!) and beautiful environmental artwork (thanks Paul J!). Sadly the venue was too noisy for the great sound work of Tristellar to get the appreciation it truly deserves. Constructive criticism from our players included confusion around the character select screen, the lack of an "escape" mechanism when being mobbed by enemies, and that the AI players would often easily beat less experienced players. The former was solved with some brainstorming on the journey home; the second is because the signature "bull rush" move is still awaiting animations for most of our characters, so had been disabled; and the final issue is the focus of ongoing AI enhancement efforts. Addressing these issues will be the priority for the next phase of development.

Chilli Con Carnage got a thorough playtest

Is that parrot debugging?!?

Good interest from press and Youtubers too...

As ever, the camaraderie between the indie developers and other familiar faces at the event made it special. The hardest working man on the UK indie scene - Quang, of Asobi Tech - was there with the incredibly cute Mao Mao Castle (launching soon!); he also gave a presentation about his extensive collection of retro game gear. Drive Buy from Glitchers drew a crowd; a neon-electric capture-the-flag driving game, impressively demonstrated on two Nintendo Switch cabinets alongside a couple of PCs. The dungeon-crawler Millions of Minions, by the young Matt of Head Tilt Games, was impressive in its first outing. And the beautiful retro-styled beat-em-up Okinawa Rush from SteveX felt right at home in the vicinity of the Double Dragon arcade cabinet and the Street Fighter 2 tournament playing by the main stage.

Certainly quality beating quantity in the indie presence!

All in all, a great event - and there are so many people to thank! The tweenagers who kept returning to our stand, bringing friends and family along, buoying our spirits. Andy, Simon and the rest of the Replay Events crew, who were great hosts as ever - and we're looking forward to future events with them. Friend of indies Trista Bytes fending off illness to hold court on stage, hosting several talks. Kim Justice and Stuart Ashen keeping watch over events, feeding back all they saw to their audiences on YouTube, the latter finding time to enjoy a quick game of Bullion with our character artist Matthew ("it's fun already, being halfway done", he observed). And our spirits were lifted by the Gaming Muso rocking out on stage; days later I'm still humming along to the earworm of Outrun's Sound Wave playing in my head.

Matthew and Ashens take on Chilli Con Carnage

Even Replay's Simon got in on the hats!

But the enduring memory of the event will be the sound of Ben cheerfully screaming "Volcaaaaanooooooo!!!" while helping our players test the new Chilli Con Carnage level. Here's hoping we rise, phoenix-like, from the remains of the past development phase, reborn from the lava.

Observations of Play Expo Margate 2020 by AI coder Paul H

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