LocoMo-Con – Insomnia 2018

Returning to Birmingham New Street station after a few years away feels like being a grizzled old detective finding a murder with the hallmark of a serial killer you thought you put away long ago. It’s a sense of growing despair and concern, and a particular building horror that the dire situation you find yourself in is nobody’s fault but your own. In this case, however, I drew into the familiar cellar-like platforms with enthusiasm, because I was attending Insomnia as an exhibitor, working with other members of Polyfox to show off LocoMotion!

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This blurry, shitty phone image is of LocoMotion on one of the big screens, as one of three games selected to showcase the Indie Zone, a sight which made me tear up a little.

Testing LocoMotion

Over the course of the weekend, something like a hundred and twenty people played LocoMotion – probably more than played it in total before. I spent most of that time hovering at people’s ear with a clipboard, making notes as soon as they so much as strayed from the expected path or glanced up for assistance. (It must have been quite unnerving for them, as was my habit of grinning broadly whenever they fell into one of the puzzle traps I laid. (This was because I was pleased to see my design working well, not because I like seeing people frustrated, of which I was accused)). Four pages of notes, and the main conclusions I came to were below.

  • This was the first time we tried to run the game publically on a controller rather than keyboard and mouse, and the controls we tried were… not good. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with what we selected, but ten minutes honest effort with them found that they simply weren’t aligned with how people instinctively tried to play the game. I’ve redesigned them since, largely by holding the controller in my hand, closing my eyes, and thinking “go forwards” and seeing what my hands do. It was a little like a sort of technological dowsing.
  • When using a different control scheme, people behave differently. Perhaps this is only a surprise to me, but with a neat camera control under their finger, players were consistently swinging and rearranging the camera. And with changing tracks relying on selecting through them manually rather than a simple click, the natural “flow” that players took went an entirely different direction, with players on the second level very often retreating the entire way across the map instead of switching a track that would solve everything immediately.
  • The scoring system – by which players are given a “class” based on how long in terms of distance it takes them to complete the level – is surprisingly unpopular. Completing a level within a shade of “First Class” is a nice high point, but we felt that players were stressing out about it more than we wanted, and that it was a very clear signal to players “you’re not doing very well”. I think this feeds into a broader conversation that we need to have internally about how we reward players, how we gate content, and how we allow players to compare themselves to each other.
  • The game might actually be pretty good? People seemed to enjoy it. It was included in the trailer for the indie zone itself, and so broadcast on some very large screens. People recognised it from Norwich, and at times we even had a queue of people waiting to play.

I tell you what, it’s really hard to keep the requisite impostor syndrome going.

Insomnia Itself

I can see why Insomnia would be fantastic for some people, but for me it was a bit of a sensory overload. Particularly when crowded, there were so many people and things vying for one’s attention as to be exhausting. I’m not a fan of crowds at the best of times, and at it’s worst this place was so crowded as to require physical effort to move against the flow. It must be the worst place in the world to lose track of your child: every square foot is trying to claim the attention of an eight-year-old-boy. There was a massive noisy booth devoted to Fortnite (which became the biggest game in the world while I was looking away), and what must have been a hundred copies of the collector’s edition of ReCore. If you wanted to buy something with Pickle Rick or Deadpool on it, you were in the right place.

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I saw this and very clearly thought “I’m an adult, and can leave if I want to.”

There was an awful lot of Gamer(tm) Tat(tm), but some neat things as well. I picked up some boardgames for cheaper than usual, and the only thing that prevented me walking off with a £27.99 Collector’s Edition of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst was the fact that it was the size and weight of a microwave and I would have no earthly way of getting it home on the train.

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There were another few piles as big as this around, just of ReCore.

Other Cool Games

I had relatively little chance to play games at the event, but wanted to highlight three near our stand that I’m really looking forward to picking up. Hell, I might even play them rather than letting them sit in my steam account for years.

  • This Dead Winter, by @Rob_Potter. I played ten minutes or so of this before the start of the event, and the creator was leaning over my shoulder fretting the whole time, apologising for the “early” graphics and claiming “it’s all Unreal’s work anyway”. He needn’t have worried: it’s a stunning game, brisk cold blues and whites, and a rich orange fox to run around, investigating what appears to be long-ruined technologies. The brief moment I played raised very many questions: I’m sad I didn’t get to play a full version to answer some.
  • Luna: The Shadow Dust, by @Lantern_Games. I was unable to actually play Luna, since it was so constantly busy, but I was watching it over people’s shoulders (usually instead of watching LocoMotion, oops) and I’m intrigued. It’s absolutely gorgeous, with animation that would put a professional studio to shame, and the gameplay looks similar to Machinima, using light and shadow to guide Luna and her shadow… dog… demon thing?screenshot04
  • Inops, by ZRZStudios. Not nearly as similar to World of Goo as it looks, Inops is a cute little puzzle-platformer that doesn’t seem to revolutionise anything or provide any staggering new mechanics but looks absolutely packed with neat ideas, and looks to provide the same sort of constant flow of new things to combine that I’m hoping to achieve with LocoMotion.

More Locomotion Lessons

In the name of closing with a joke, some more lessons from watching people play LocoMotion:

  • People like the word Tarnation.
  • I spelled “LocoMotion” wrong in one of the conductor lines, which is worse than the time I misspelled my own forename on a greetings card.
  • Some people made little choo choo noises when driving the train, and more than one person, upon seeing the horses, said “Horses!” and tried to click them. This brings us to two conclusions: Firstly, we need to make the horses do things when you click them. Secondly, LocoMotion makes players significantly more adorable while playing?

Worth putting as a tagline, I think. Bears further investigation. Come to EGX Rezzed in London from 13th-15th April 2018, play LocoMotion, and become significantly more adorable yourself.

 

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