Today is the fourth and final day of the 2nd Power-Up Digital Games Conference (PDGC), with the last talks of the conference concluding less than an hour ago. Given that it is a free event, with almost no funds spent on advertisement or on recruiting speakers, the quality of the talks was quite high, with speakers from a broad swathe of the game industry generously volunteering their time to share their thoughts on game development with around five hundred attendees from all around the world – 40% more than the 350 attendees from last year.

While the general theme of PDGC was “The Devs Strike Back!”, each day seemed to have a theme as well:

Day 1 focused on the past and future of games, with talks like “Restoring the Classics – Turok, System Shock, Fallout, and Rise of the Triad” and “Programming the Atari 2600” alongside “Procedural Generation” and “Making Players Care: Designing for Empathy and Positive Psychology.”

Day 2 largely focused on the business of games, with talks such as “Writing For the Computer Gaming Industry”, “Pitching to Publishers 101”, “Indie Games & Merch: What Are My Options?”, “VR Roadshows: Lessons Learned” and “Growth Hacking 101 For Games.”

Day 3‘s talks were more player-centric, with “What Happens In Our Brains When We Play Games?”, “The Troubles of Development With Emerging VR Peripherals” and “Interface Design for Unusual Hardware” covering both the psychology of fun and practical limits to what people were likely to buy or enjoy. This day also saw talks on growing communities, with gaming charities and indie marketing being two hot topics. 

Today’s theme seems to be case studies, with the two highlights of the day being “Major Games: A Retrospect and Futurespect” by Gabriel Orlandelli of Major Games (an indie studio), and “Storytelling In Games With StoryStylus” by Jean and Blair Leggett of One More Story Games.

The Major Games talk was a frank discussion about the company’s past and their future plans, centered around their two IPs: Bit Evolution, a modern-retro platformer that pays homage to video gaming from the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, and  Vector Mirror, a puzzle based platforming experience that can be described as Mirror’s Edge meets Tron (expected 2017).

Orlandelli talked at length about the process of developing Bit Evolution, with some of the biggest challenges simply being to figure out what direction the game was going to take, what games to use for reference, and what engine to use. While the team was experienced with engines like Unity and Unreal from their time as students at Full Sail University, for their first game, they ultimately decided to use GameMaker, as Unity and Unreal were both a bit excessive and a tad unwieldy for something as simple as developing a 2D platformer game.

For their update to the BiT Evolution IP, though, which involves both an upcoming game tentatively titled Super Bit Evolution as well as BiT Builder, an indie, PC-compatible Super Mario Maker that allows users to create their own levels in the BiT universe, Major Games ran into issues with processing power and other limitations of the GameMaker Engine, and so are moving to Unity.

As for Vector Mirror, a much more sophisticated game being made in Unreal, Orlandelli commented that the biggest challenge was to discover all the features of the engine, the nooks and crannies he hadn’t been exposed to in his classes, and that he was excited about putting into VR, as it just seemed to fit – like it had belonged there from the beginning.

The takeaway from the talk was that the best engine, after all, “is one that best suits your purposes at the time” – something that rings especially true for indie developers.

Of course, what do you do if there isn’t an engine that suits your purposes?

If you’re anything like Jean and Blair Leggett of One More Story Games, the answer is to develop your own, a topic they discussed at length in “Storytelling In Games With StoryStylus” (slides here).

In their experience as game developers, they saw that very few engines – whether Unreal, Unity, GameMaker, RPGMaker, or other such – were designed for a writer. Most were complicated contraptions with a steep learning curve, and those which weren’t (like Ren’Py or Twine) simply didn’t have the functionality to do more than simple choose your own adventure games or visual novels – at least, not without a lot of technical knowledge and effort.

Being enterprising individuals who both believed that games should story first, and saw that many authors interested in writing interactive fiction were barred from doing so by the tech barrier, they saw the potential of developing their own. It was hard work, but over two years, they’ve managed to build an engine/storytelling platform for collaborative story game creation, which allows for easy integration of photographs, videos, and audio into narratives, development of branching and looping structures, integration of inventory and crafting systems, and more.

Their goal is to create and empower a generation of digital storytellers, forging an army of Telltale style writers who prioritize rich storytelling over the trite blockbuster experiences that most AAA game companies strive for, since the largest segment of the population buys games for story.

To ensure StoryStylus was easy to use, Blair and Jean decided to put on a summer camp for young children in the area, reasoning that if they could teach 10-year olds how to take a story concept and turn it into a functional game with complex branching narrative, then surely they could teach writers who were skilled at their craft, but had simply never worked with interactive narratives before.

The summer camp was a big success, with several interesting games coming out of it, one of which is discussed in the link below.

11 YO Keira shares her game – go behind the scenes

Currently, StoryStylus is in beta, and is available for interested storytellers to try, with the existing library of games made with the program available through One More Story Games’s Story World, their online platform for distributing StoryStylus games.

As engine development is a complicated business, Blair and Jean are continuing to work on StoryStylus in response to feedback (looking at how to implement support for Korean/Japanese/Chinese, for instance), but that hasn’t stopped them from taking on projects like a game adaptation of the Shakespeare’s Landlord, a novel by New York Times Best-selling author Charlaine Harris, the writer behind HBO’s popular True Blood series.

That wraps up the highlights for the fourth and last day of the PDGC. Remember, if any of the talks interested you, you should be able to find them on the conference website starting tomorrow! We’ll give you the details when we get them. Until then, we hope you enjoyed our coverage of PDGC 2: The Devs Strike Back, and that at the very least, it showed you a few possibilities you hadn’t yet considered.