GameBlast 2017: let’s do this

This afternoon, I’ll be taking part in a marathon video game session with a group of friends and bloggers that’s set to last for 72-hours. It’s not just an excuse to game for three days straight and forget about our adult responsibilities though: it’s all in honour of SpecialEffect.

Anyone who has visited Later Levels previously may already have heard of the charity but for this who haven’t, it’s a fantastic UK-based organisation that helps people with physical disabilities to play video games. They do this using equipment such as modified controllers and eye-control technology, all free-of-charge. It’s not just about fun though: levelling the playing field in this way promotes inclusion and kickstarts rehabilitation and confidence.

Our stream-team is called Gamely Giving and our aim this weekend is to raise as much funds and awareness as possible for SpecialEffect, while at the same time giving you guys something entertaining to watch (and possibly embarrassing ourselves live on air). Join us on our Twitch channel from 16:00 GMT today until 16:00 GMT on Monday to witness the following batch of gorgeous gaming delights:

Great games Each of our streamers has chosen a genre (I’m taking care of adventure) and will be playing both a classic and a new release to show off the best of the category. We’ll also be attempting a game we’ve never played before nominated for us by the rest of the team to put our credentials to the test. I’ll be taking on Simon the Sorcerer, Ether One and Four Last Things – more details and times can be found on our stream schedule.

Embarrassing forfeits Whenever we hit £100 in donations, we’ll be using our Wheel of Forfeit to randomly select one of these challenges submitted by our followers for completion at the top of the hour. We already have two lined up: playing Dad Quest while cosplaying as the hero and trying to steer a car in Jalopy while blindfolded. These don’t worry me so much, but the karaoke forfeit… I highly recommend having some ear-plugs handy if you’re watching the stream when that one comes up.

Awesome prizes Several lovely developers have kindly donated keys which we’ve used to put together some excellent PC game bundles. For every £50 received, we’ll use our Wheel of Fortune to randomly select a lucky supporter to win one of these 20 prizes and will announce the winners next week. All you need to do to enter the giveaways is follow the Gamely Giving social media channels – good luck!

Big explosions My stepson Ethan is a huge fan of Minecraft and has come up with his own unique way of supporting the charity: for every £1 donated, he’ll place a block of TNT on the tower set up in his online world along with a sign showing the supporter’s name. He’ll then be completing his own mini-marathon next month (date to be announced), the finale of which will be to blow the tower up. BOOM!

Plenty of feels Everything we’re doing this weekend in is for SpecialEffect and all money raised will go directly to the organisation to enable them to continue their wonderful work. Donations can be made via our JustGiving page or by texting ‘GGGB99 £5’ to 70070, and we’re so grateful for every penny given. Big hugs to those people who have already sponsored us – you’re amazing.

Come on, how could you resist? Join us over on the Twitch channel from 16:00 GMT today and send us a tweet to give us some encouragement. We really appreciate your support!

The dilemma of the video game blogger

Earlier this week, I wrote about how I no longer apply for press passes when I’m going to video game expos. It’s an experience every gaming blogger should have at least once and there are certain benefits that come with having such a wristband.

But there are hidden advantages to going for a normal ticket too. I don’t feel that not being officially recognised as a ‘journalist’ at events hinders my ability to report on them, and I’ve enjoyed myself and had way more interesting conversations when I’ve been just-a-regular-attendee.

Another dilemma that presents itself for video game bloggers is that of free game copies. When you’re added to a press distribution list either by applying for a press pass or requesting access yourself from the developer, you’ll soon start receiving emails containing offers of preview and review keys. As with press passes, there’s a buzz that comes from getting your first and the feeling is pretty special; but there are some associated pitfalls and obligations which, during my time blogging, I’ve learnt I’d rather avoid.

‘But free games,’ I hear you cry, ‘Why on earth wouldn’t you want to accept them?’ There are several reasons for my thinking. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t enjoy writing reviews and if I’m completely honest, I don’t particularly enjoy reading them either. While accepting a key from a developer or publisher doesn’t mean you’re legally required to publish one, it does mean that you’re somewhat obliged to do so: taking a game could be seen as an ‘agreement’ and I’d feel guilty if I didn’t follow through on my side of the bargain.

There’s also the fact that I simply don’t have enough spare time to be able to play a title quickly or thoroughly enough to be able to do a review of it justice. I could possibly get through a few hours to enable a ‘first impressions’ post but there’d still be that feeling I wasn’t entirely sticking to my part of the transaction. And if I did aim for a full review, it would be published too long after the game’s release to be of any real worth to the developer. There would be thousands of others already available on the internet and I’m not in the habit of fooling myself that a reader would wait to specifically read mine.

In addition to this, more of our lives are taken up by adult responsibilities as we get older so there are fewer hours available for gaming. I’ve written before that I don’t want to spend that precious time playing something I’m not enjoying and it’s my choice if I decide to put a game I’ve purchased myself to one side; but if it’s been given to me by a developer, I can’t do that as the end goal is the review. We’re meant to look forward to our hobbies – that’s what makes them ‘hobbies’ rather than work – so the obligation I’d feel under in accepting a free key seems a bit self-defeating.

The primary reason for my thinking though is something unrelated to reviews: although not in all cases, these games are usually the means of the developers’ livelihoods. It could be seen that free keys are a way of ‘paying’ for marketing but each one given out to a blogger is potentially a cut into the money they’re earning for their hard work. If a title catches my eye and I’m interested in playing it, I’m happy to purchase it for myself and support independent and smaller developers in this way.

And who knows, if playing their project inspires me it may just end up being the subject of a post anyway. But that’s my decision to make, rather than it being a choice arrived at as a result of any kind of accountability – and it’s one that adds to my confidence that the words contained within this blog are completely independent.

Expos: press pass not required

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been writing about my time at Rezzed 2017. Take a look at my photo gallery to get a feel for what was there and read about my highlights – go take a look at The Occupation by by White Paper Games and Four Last Things by Joe Richardson.

A number of other WordPress bloggers were at the event too and it’s been lovely reading about their own experiences in their posts. When somebody talks about their first time at a show you’ve attended yourself for several years, it brings back a warm glow of nostalgia: you remember the excitement of walking through the doors and seeing the crowd, the anticipation of meeting developers and talking about their work, and the happy exhaustion that comes from spending days on your feet.

There’s also the buzz that comes from getting your first press pass for an expo. The process itself is pretty simple – you usually complete an application form on the event’s website, provide details such monthly traffic and number of subscribers, give links to your work and keep your fingers crossed – but that feeling of walking into a show with that wristband on your hand is special. It’s an experience that every blogger should have at least once and some members of the WordPress community had their opportunity at Rezzed this year.

Rezzed, video games, gaming, expo, Tobacco Dock

Every show I attended during my first years of blogging was on a press pass and it taught me a lot. But over time I’ve stopped applying for them for several reasons: although there are certain benefits that come with having such a wristband, there are hidden advantages to having a just-a-normal-attendee ticket too. For anyone who’s worried about not being recognised as an official ‘journalist’ at an event, please don’t let it hold you back because you don’t need that pass.

No press pass: no pressure

Although I love going to shows like Rezzed, there’s one aspect of them I don’t completely enjoy: that’s having people watch me play video games. I guess that sounds a little weird when you consider I write for this blog but there’s something about having a developer standing there while you try showing off your gaming credentials without messing up that makes me feel really awkward. I’d much rather play their demo in the comfort of my own home where nobody can see my character die a hundred times or struggle with a puzzle.

There’s even more pressure on the developers themselves, who are there trying to promote their projects above hundreds of others in the same venue. Some have a tendency to watch out for press-pass-wearers who come within a metre of their stand and jump on them with a rehearsed sales-pitch; I understand why but I’m not sure such a situation is good for either the creator or the journalist. Both feel under pressure to ‘perform’ for the other and the conversations that arise as a result aren’t as useful as they could be.

Rezzed, video games, gaming, expo, Milkmaid of the Milky Way, Kim

The best experiences I’ve had are those where people assume I’m a regular attendee. I’ll walk up to a stand and ask if I can play their game; they let me sit with the demo while they take care of other duties on their stand; then if I like what I’ve seen, I can have a chat with them rather than feeling obliged to ask interview questions. When a developer isn’t performing for a journalist, it’s easier to get a true sense of who they are as a person and why they’re passionate about their work – a much more interesting discussion that the pitch they practised in front of the mirror the night before.

Professionalism works better than any pass

While talking to developers after playing their demos, many have guessed I’m a blogger even though I haven’t been wearing the appropriate wristband. It shows that you don’t need a press pass to be recognised as a journalist and first impressions count: the way you present yourself and ask questions reveals far more about you than your ticket ever will. If you rock up to a stand in a nonchalant manner, spewing expletives while trying out a game and coming across as uninterested in the work behind it, no amount of press passes will ever convince someone to take you or your blog seriously.

As such, I’ve never felt as though not having a press wristband at an event has ever hindered my ability to report on it. Most creators don’t care that you’re not officially recognised as press and with the pressure removed, the opportunity of a really insightful conversation arises. I’ve stayed in touch with a number of people I’ve met at expos over the years and we now bump into each other at places like Rezzed – which then presents a good excuse for a catch-up and chat about how their game is progressing.

Experience the event as an attendee

Rezzed, video games, gaming, expo, Tentacle Collective

In a post I wrote about my blogging history back in February, I explained that in the past I attempted each new gaming experience in a way that was almost clinical. When I realised I always had one eye on the lookout for material for the next article and had forgotten about the sheer joy that comes from playing video games, I decided it was time for a change and set up Later Levels with Ben. Our new home has given us the chance to remember that a game is more than the sum of its parts and to love them for what they are.

I think the same can be true for expos and conventions. It’s easy to switch to seeing everything through a journalist’s eyes once that press pass is on your hand and the focus shifts to networking, interviews and making sure you’re not late for appointments – the ‘fun’ of the event is put to one side and you forget to experience it as an attendee. I’d much rather hear about how it felt to be at the event and what caught your eye there as a gamer in a blog post, than reading yet another ‘news article’.

Here’s the advice I gave in that post I mentioned above: play for playing’s sake, and write because you have something to say rather than something to post. The world of blogging is a wonderful place and you have something unique you can bring to it.

Even the downsides of a regular pass can be overcome

Although I mentioned at the start of this post that a press pass does come with several benefits, having a regular pass doesn’t mean you have to miss out – it just takes a bit of preparation. Being recognised as a journalist will mean that you can get into an event for a day or two for free but with day tickets usually costing around £20, they’re not extortionate and can be saved up for if you give yourself enough time. Train fares and hotel rates can be pretty expensive though and so I’d recommend booking these as early as possible if you need them as you may find you receive a bit of a discount.

Rezzed, video games, gaming, expo, Little Nightmares, Kim

The main advantage of having a press wristband is that in completing your application form, you’ll automatically be added to the mailing lists of the developers attending the show. Simply use the event’s website or associated mobile app to find out which games are going to be exhibited; get in touch with the creators; and politely ask them to add you onto their press list so you can stay up-to-date on announcements. Sorted.

Hopefully I’ve managed to explain why a press pass isn’t necessarily a requirement for shows like Rezzed, and that you can get just as much out of events with a regular ticket. For anyone thinking of attending their first expo or convention this year, take a look at this post on NekoJonez’s Gaming Blog for some useful advice.

And importantly, don’t let that wristband hold you back!

Rezzed 2017: volunteering for SpecialEffect

This year’s Rezzed event took place from 30 March to 01 April 2017, in the gorgeous Tobacco Dock venue in the east of London. Thousands of attendees had the opportunity to play hundreds of video games – many of which haven’t yet been released – and chat to the developers of these projects on the show floor.

Several friends were at the expo and as usual had an excellent time there. For half of it, I had the pleasure of volunteering on the stand for SpecialEffect: an amazing charity that helps people with physical disabilities play video games, using equipment such as modified controllers and eye-control technology. They do this work completely free-of-charge and it has a profoundly-positive effect on rehabilitation, confidence and inclusion.

Going into the event was still a slightly nerve-wracking experience despite volunteering twice in the past, because you never quite know what you’re going to face on the stand or the questions you’re going to be asked. I needn’t have worried though because I met some great people during my days there. I spoke to developers who wanted to know how they could assist the charity; voice-actors who offered to donate their time; students who were studying courses on accessibility in gaming; and gamers who hadn’t yet heard of SpecialEffect but wanted to help after visiting us.

Several interviews took place around the stand and you can watch one of them below. That annoying person who keeps clipping in on the left-hand side of the screen? That’s me!

The games on display this time were Abzu, played with a chin-controller and soft-touch buttons, and Towerfall Ascension played with a simplified control scheme and large buttons. I tried out the former before the event started and found it extremely insightful; it’s amazing how much we take our hands and reflexes for granted. As for the latter, I think I’ll leave that to the experts from now on – I got my butt thoroughly kicked by Becky from SpecialEffect and several visitors!

During a quick break on the first day, I made sure I visited the Excalibur Games area which was situated in the same room not far away from us. This awesome group have been extremely supportive: they’ve donated some fantastic items for our Wheel of Fortune and have given us two challenges for our Wheel of Forfeit. Whilst there I had a quick go on Jalopy and Pete tried his hand at Dad Quest, and based on how we did we’re going to need a bit more practice before our marathon stream…

Thank you to Becky, Bill and Barrie from SpecialEffect. They made me feel so welcome and I had some really interesting conversations with them about the charity’s work; and it was obvious how much effort Becky had put into coordinating the stand. Hello to the other volunteers also – Dan, Emma, Daniel, Gemma, Scott, Cassie and Shaz – these lovely people all donated their time for free and were so friendly.

So that’s it for Rezzed event for another year. Our support for the charity isn’t over yet however. We’ll be starting our 72-hour gaming marathon at 16:00 GMT on Friday, 28 April 2017 and all money raised via our JustGiving page goes directly to SpecialEffect. You can watch us live on our Twitch channel – we hope to see you there!

Rezzed 2017: Giant Cop

This year’s Rezzed event was a special one for me: I had the opportunity to volunteer on the stand for SpecialEffect, and it was the first time we’d taken my stepson Ethan to the show. We’d held off on doing so previously as he was a little too young for the experience but he’s due to reach the grand-old-age of ten very soon and is really getting into his gaming.

During our journey to Tobacco Dock he threw hundreds of questions at us so we told him what to expect. We also explained there’d be a number of games at the event that could be played using virtual reality (VR) and he should try it out; but being the cautious child he is sometimes, he wasn’t entirely convinced this would be a good idea. Still, Ethan was buzzing with excitement by the time we got him into London and literally dragged us all the way to the venue from the train station.

The plan was for me to volunteer for the morning and then meet the boys for lunch, before spending the rest of the afternoon playing various video games with them. A couple of hours after the start of the show they made their way to the SpecialEffect stand so while my stepson tried out Abzu using a chin-controller, I asked Pete how they’d been getting on. It turned out that Ethan had actually been brave enough to try VR – couldn’t get enough of it in fact, and wanted to queue up all over again.

The game that made him change his mind about it was Giant Cop by Other Ocean, a satirical narrative-driven title set in a funky 70s-style open-world. Players are given the freedom to fight crime in a big way – literally – as they step into the shoes of Giant Cop on the first day on the job. Your size is used to your advantage as you tower high above the streets and enforce the law, using your wits to uncover a criminal plot that threatens the future of Micro City.

The environment is split into districts, each with a distinct identity where pedestrians react to your moves, and you’re tasked with missions such as cleaning up neighbourhood crimes like noise complaints and keeping pesky protests under control. There’s even a mission which sees you ridding the city of the savage cabbage: during his second go, we watched Ethan pick up tiny hooligans and shake them to check whether they were hiding the evil vegetables in their pockets. And if they were, they were flung straight into the Metro City Police Station jail – again, literally.

I think that’s one of the reasons why my stepson enjoyed Giant Cop so much; everything looks incredibly tactile and there are so many objects with which you can interact. When you’re bored of throwing wrong-doers through the air you can show everyone how groovy you are by shaking maracas or fire a dart-gun with suction-cup bullets that stick to everything. Marketing and Consumer Sales Manager Gillian Hickman even directed Ethan towards a huge doughnut and told him to eat it: we couldn’t help but laugh at the chewing actions he was making in real-life and the tiny fist-pump which was replicated on-screen.

Rezzed, video games, gaming, expo, Giant Cop, Ethan, Gillian, Hickman, virtual reality

We’d like to say a big thank you to Gillian and the rest of the Other Ocean team who were at Rezzed event. They really made Ethan’s day: they were so patient with him and answered all of his questions, and even let him play the last demo of the show (his third go on Giant Cop) which pleased him to no end. When I asked him what he thought of the event the following morning, here’s what he said:

It was one of the best conventions I’ve ever been to. Some of the people were so friendly and I’d definitely go there again. My favourite game I played was Giant Cop because it was my first virtual experience ever and the developers were lovely. I’d definitely buy it.

The game will release shortly on the Oculus Rift and Touch, with other VR platforms coming in future months. Head over to the official website for more information and follow the Other Ocean team on Twitter to stay up-to-date on their progress.

Rezzed 2017: Impact Winter

Back in January, I wrote that perhaps the popularity of the survival genre could be attributed to the fact that gamers love exploring open words and survival titles offer the possibility that these environments are more than just pretty textures.

But with acclaim comes oversaturation and we’re now stuck with a huge amount of inferior releases – many of which recycle a formula that revolves around building-stuff and building-more-stuff-with-the-stuff-you-just-built.

It was with some surprise then that I sat down to play the demo of Impact Winter at the Rezzed event at the end of March and found something which may just break the cycle. The developers themselves, Mojo Bones, are calling their game ‘survival adventure’: although it has obvious survival mechanics such as crafting and resource management, it also has an equal blend of RPG elements including team members and story-paths. As they wrote in a blog post earlier this year:

It’s not our aim to try and compete with the already-long list of ‘survive-as-long-as you-can-’em-ups’, and Impact Winter definitely hasn’t been created to capitalize on a popular genre / theme.

The game takes place in North America and is set eight years after ‘the catastrophe’, an asteroid collision that has ravaged Earth’s population and buried the planet under perpetual snowfall. Players step into the shoes of Jacob Solomon and are charged with leading a makeshift team who are trying to survive in the Church. Your robot companion Ako-Light intercepts a scrambled radio transmission which announces that help will be coming in 30 days; but there’s no way to tell from where, and so all you can do is hold out until it arrives.

Jacob represents an all-round leader who’s capable of exploring the Void but his team possess specific skills that boost your chances of survival. For example, Blane’s expertise can be used to craft traps, lock-picks and weapons while Maggie’s mechanic skills can help build upgrades to your base. Although their behaviour is fully-automated, they look to your character for guidance and your actions directly affect relationships. So be warned: if a member is depressed from being too bored or running low on energy from being worked too hard, you shouldn’t expect them to do exactly what they’re told.

The Void is a harsh winter environment that covers a derelict underworld, and players will have to contend with both the harsh outdoor weather conditions and the haunting interiors that lie deep below. You can dig for buried secrets, hunt wildlife at night, investigate mysterious signals and set up camp during long expeditions. Scavenging for supplies is a key part of Impact Winter too and Ako-Light’s limited inventory will no doubt create some tough choices later on in the game.

Rezzed, video games, gaming, expo, Impact Winter, Kim

The thing I liked most about Mojo Bones’ project is the fact that you can influence the 30-day rescue timer. A key part of the gameplay takes inspiration from classic RPGs where you earn experience and level up; so you’ll be rewarded for your discoveries and choices, and strengthening Ako-Light’s signal in this way will reduce the time left on the clock. Dynamic story events replace a traditional mission structure and these can be completely random (such as wandering strangers or strange illnesses) or scripted scenarios tied to certain conditions (such as storms damaging the Church or depressed team-members going missing).

Unfortunately Impact Winter will be released a little later than expected but you’ll only have to wait until 23 May 2017. The developers have advised that this is because the title has become a lot bigger than they originally anticipated and one of their main priorities is to ensure that the initial stages of the game aren’t too overwhelming. They’ve stated that the delay is all in aid of ‘giving everyone the best experience possible’ so we can’t fault them for that.

While you’re waiting for the release date, why not head over to the official website for more information or follow the Mojo Bones team on Twitter for updates.