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PixelPop Festival 2019: A Community for Gaming

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I’m Dexter Woltman, a Game Writer / Designer here at Brunette Games. On the weekend of September 13th and 14th, I had the pleasure of representing our narrative design company at PixelPop Festival. For those who aren’t familiar, here’s an official description of the event:

PixelPop Festival is a game conference and expo in St. Louis, Missouri, that celebrates unique games and the many people who make them possible.

PixelPop Festival features independent tabletop, digital, and experimental games produced by local and national game creators. Two full days of diverse conference sessions from industry professionals are curated to equip you with creative tools and resources to make remarkable work that makes a difference.

There are two main components to PixelPop. The first is the expo hall, where dozens of designers show off their creative visions in gaming, whether that be video gaming or tabletop gaming. The second is a series of talks coming from industry veterans that cover a wide range of game design topics.

This was my first time attending PixelPop. Aside from stories of past years, I didn’t know what to expect. I put on my Brunette Games shirt, filled a pack with notebooks, and went in with an open mind. The first thing I saw when I entered the expo hall was an overarching sense of community. Not only were there dozens of faces I recognized from classes and industry appearances, but everyone was actively engaged with one another. They were talking, laughing, and, most importantly, playing games together.

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An image of the PixelPop expo hall.

The community of PixelPop was filled with visitors from various cities across the country, like Chicago. Many local St. Louis developers also attended. As for the presenters themselves, some were part of companies with personal IPs to showcase, and others were independent developers demonstrating their design skills. Everyone was there to be part of something and engage in a supportive atmosphere.

As for the expo hall itself, it was a large room to accompany the dozens of stations and tables inside. Oddly enough, I noticed a strange lack of prominent lighting in certain areas. As the day went on, I realized this dim lighting lead to an explorative atmosphere where the games shined.

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Gamers playing a chicken-themed dice game called Dice Fight.

In the hall, imagination flourished in small-scale indies. While some presenters told a story with their games, others displayed gimmicks. Both concepts were equally as entertaining. I went from playing a game where you slap a fish controller in a dual fighting game to a narrative tale focused on the discovery of Earth’s roundness. 

Coming from a narrative design company myself, I couldn’t help but wonder about the story behind each game I played. I asked the developers what their inspiration was for their games, as well as the messages they’re trying to convey. One particularly adorable dog shelter management game, To the Rescue, had a darker, more hidden message. It called attention to the ongoing issue of kennel euthanizations, something players in the management game could do when their kennels got overfilled. Of course, this mechanic was optional, especially for younger audiences.

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To the Rescue is adorable and honest.

Beyond that were a plethora of narrative-based games. I spent over an hour playing a fun tabletop roleplaying game called Thalassophobia. The game was described by its creators as Dungeons and Dragons meets The Thing. My friends and I were each given occupations and were tasked with investigating reports of missing patients at a nearby hospital. I received the role of doctor. Coming from a narrative background, I constantly strived to push motivation onto my character. The end result was an obnoxious doctor who heals critical injuries with band-aids and who probably but definitely doesn’t have a real doctor’s license.

I also can’t forget to mention the roleplaying game, Starry Messengers, where I could only communicate with other players through handwritten letters. The setting may have placed me centuries ago, but I still found ways to put modern-day memes in all my letters. There was also the occult choice game, Hills & Hollows, that features tarot cards as a decision device. I’m proud to say I’m one of the lucky few who discovered a hidden ending and somehow summoned the Devil. Last but not least, I found a texting game called We should talk, where I texted my in-game girlfriend from a bar. Again, I discovered a rare ending that definitely got me broken up with.

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The poster for Hills & Hallows.

Throughout these many narrative-focused games, others also relied on the amusement of gimmicks. I probably spent too much time at Hellcouch, a game where an actual couch is a controller. A previous professor of mine and an active member of the St. Louis Game Developer Co-Op, Rob Santos, also presented two incredibly fun games. One featured an Infinity Gauntlet as a controller and put players in the shoes of Thanos. The game was a parody of the recent blockbuster hit, Avengers: Endgame. An endless runner, players used Infinity Stones to avoid being caught by Ant-Man before the superhero flies up Thanos’ personal “endgame.” Santos also showed a mouse cursor battle royal. There were computer mice scattered around the table, and players scrambled to find an active cursor to move around and shoot others with.

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Santos' Infinity Gauntlet and mouse battle royal games side-by-side.

 

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Hellcouch is a game you control with standing and sitting.

Beyond the expo hall and games was an impressive line-up of industry talks. While I didn’t attend every talk of the festival, I did pay special attention to the ones with a narrative focus. The first I attended was a talk about visual novels. They spoke of the various ways to go about writing a visual novel and how to deal with branching choices. As someone who recently worked on an interactive novel with many, many choices, I was particularly interested in their organizational methods.

There was also a talk on depicting mental health in games. This can be a sensitive topic, and I admit struggling with it in my own game writing. The talk focused on ways to approach mental health respectfully and realistically. The largest takeaway for me was that writers must consider mental health as part of the character, rather than merely a status ailment.

Lastly, I attended a talk on procedurally generated storytelling in the real world. It was all about how designers can use sounds and images in the real world to influence the story of a game. Not only was this a very intriguing subject, but it opened my eyes to various ways in-game environments can convey stories beyond just typical dialogue and cutscenes.

Oh, also there was a mini talk about Bad Tetris. Someone intentionally made an aggravating version of Tetris that moves a character around based on regular Tetris block movements. The comments the developer received for sharing the game online were just as funny as the game’s actual existence.

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Bad Tetris, "It made me frustrated but like in a good way."

Throughout all these games and talks, PixelPop taught me that no one has to forge the gaming industry alone. This festival builds a community. It’s about finding reliance and mutual interest in ideas and mechanics. It’s for people trying to bring awareness to their creativity. It was an honor to be part of the festival, and I hope Brunette Games is even more involved next year.


St. Louis' PixelPop Festival Is This Weekend!

 

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Developer Philip Hayes, of Bravendary, demo-ing Super Bobbert at PixelPop 2018.

This weekend St. Louis hosts PixelPop Festival, a conference featuring independent tabletop, digital, and experimental games produced by local and international game creators. Here's an official description of the event:

Two full days of diverse conference sessions from industry professionals are curated to equip you with creative tools and resources to make remarkable work that makes a difference. Plus, our official after-parties are designed to help you unwind after the conference and see more of what St. Louis has to offer.

This year Dexter Woltman will represent Brunette Games at PixelPop, so if you're planning to go, please get in touch with him to connect. To support the festival, I offer the below recap of the 2018 event to give you a sneak peek at what might be in store for you this weekend.

From the 2018 blog archives:

As mentioned previously, I gave a presentation this weekend at PixelPop Festival. (If you missed it and wish you hadn't, there's also coverage on the blog with the post "Narrative Design 101: Do We Need Stories? How Do We Make Them Work in Games?" because apparently I'm obsessed with questions-as-headlines.)

Organizers Carol Mertz and Mary McKenzie Kelly and their super-cool army of volunteers did a fantastic job of creating and running a high-quality, highly-inclusive game con. More than one person I met commented on the open, friendly, encouraging atmosphere and the extremely helpful takeaways.

Here are some pics!

The expo hall was overwhelmingly dominated by console games, but I stumbled upon an awesome mobile game by developer Bravendary (photo at top), and since I was tasked with judging games for the Select Award, I gave it my vote. Super Bobbert and the Infinity Tree is a "risk/reward collection game." You play by dragging your finger on the screen or tilting your device to move a pair of telescoping hands up a tree, rescuing kites, balls, and yes, cats–and avoiding collision with tree branches. I gave them some feedback about making the game more accessible to casual players, but I think it's super cute and has great potential. I'm excited to see two developers of color bringing something new to the table.

One of the most interesting talks I attended was the fireside chat between Leah "Gllty" Hayes, a Street Fighter e-sports champion and Jason Li, a longtime fan and competitor in fighting games. Hayes first learned to play in the arcades of her youth here in St. Louis and is from nearby St. Charles. I knew nothing about fighting game culture and found her insights into the differences between U.S. and Japanese subcultures fascinating. For example, in Japan, gamers might be somewhat hostile to those outside the homogenous Japanese culture, but they are very supportive of women learning to game.

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Here's a demo of a game in development called Stepsisters. It's based on the darker, Grimm's fairy tale version of Cinderella, so the object is to, um, get your toes cut off in order to fit your foot into the glass slipper, marry the prince, and win the game. I feel kind of conflicted about it, but I was schooled on feminist references to classic fairytales in the style of Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber. What do you think?

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Created by students from Bradley University. Pictured here: Warren Guiles, who's in St. Louis this summer interning with Graphite Labs, and Jake Velicer.
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Creepy, or cool? You tell me.

In the category of "That talk you wish you hadn't been late for" is Kevin Snow's presentation on accessibility in games, but I made up for it with a one-on-one afterward, and I managed to snap a pic of this super-helpful collection of resource links.

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Next is a couple of guys down from Chicago, reps from a student-run studio at DePaul University. I was drawn to their table because they had a bunch of books on display, and book/game crossovers are something I would like to see much more of at game cons. They used fish for controllers, so even though I'm not into fighting games, I had to play this one.

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Josh Delson of JDE, for Junior Development Experience.
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The game is called Sashimi Slammers.

One of the cool things about attending a game con in your own town is running into former students--which happened a lot! It was great to see so many game design majors from Webster University representing. Here's Sarah Brill, showing off a game she helped create through her summer internship with local developer Graphite Labs.

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Sarah created art for Compost Conundrum, an educational game about the value of garden composting.

Another Webster face in the crowd was my friend and former colleague Rob Santos, there showing off a unique game interface. You communicate with a spirit through a Quija Board to uncover a mystery in the game Good Luck. The planchette lights up over letters on the board, allowing the spirit to relate the tale.

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The creativity on display here is why students rave about Rob as a teacher.

I think I might have been the oldest presenter at this youthful con, but it's OK. I just told everyone the reason my hair is this color is because I'm a Targaryen.

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I chose "she" as my pronoun sticker only because "She Who Must Be Obeyed" wasn't an option.

Now attending this con was for me personally a surrealist series of flashbacks. Some of you know last summer I moved back to the Midwest after nearly 20 years away. This con was at my alma mater.

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My dorm from 1989-90. Back then it wasn't emblazoned with the school's name.
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I staffed this cashier booth when the garage first opened. It's now undergoing renovation, and maybe I am, too.

To conclude this pic-laden recap, I've presented at and/or attended big cons like GDC, Casual Connect, AWP, and PNWA. But this is one of my favorites for the inclusivity, friendliness, and hometown vibe.


Celebrating Our Successes, with a Little Help from Our Friends

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Making games involves a lot of hard work, sweat, and yes, some tears. So when the opportunity comes along to take a step back from the computer and celebrate, we take it.

That happened on a Monday evening here in winter, when our local game co-op hosted a big event. The St. Louis Game Developers Co-Op provides support, resources, events, and community to game developers in St. Louis, and Brunette Games is proud to be a member. Indie game development especially can be a lonely pursuit, so it's great to have a cooperative of likeminded solos and studios to tap for inspiration and commiseration. 

One of the coolest aspects of membership in the Co-Op is the annual party - where the above patch is given to every developer who made a game that year. It's basic game theory: We came, we saw, we kicked their @#$; now we want the reward. And it works. The patches are fairly well coveted. Just ask Brunette Games team members Dexter Woltman and Tamsen Reed, who received their first one.

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Lisa Brunette, Dexter Woltman, and Tamsen Reed, showing off their 2018 patches.

The most thrilling part of the evening was hearing all the games made by St. Louis developers in 2018. It was a loooong list!

We also had a little Brunette Games pre-party at HQ, which was an excuse to hang out a bit and enjoy the lovely gift sent to us by our friends at G5 Games. You really can never go wrong with chocolate and Champagne. We're proud of our work on G5's high-quality games Homicide Squad: Criminal Intent, Jewels of Rome, and for two years now, Survivors: The Quest.

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We toasted to G5 as well as our friends at Cherrypick Games, whose games My Beauty Spa: Stars & Stories and an interactive novel series called Crime Stories we are also very proud to be a part of.

As some of you know, Dexter and Tamsen are both former students of mine from the game design program at Webster University. It was fun to have them bring +1s for the evening that also have connections to Webster: Sam Falvey, another former student of mine and a great artist, and also an artist and Webster student, Ellen Warning, whose acquaintance I first made in game form. Dexter had created a game inspired by her and submitted it for an assignment in my World Design class ("Ellen: The Game"). This might be the first time I've ever met the game version of someone first, and then met her in real life.

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From L-R: Lisa Brunette, Tamsen Reed, Sam Falvey, Dexter Woltman, and Ellen Warning

Sadly missing from the festivities was our fourth team member, Elisa Mader, who represents Brunette Games in Seattle. But all was not lost, as her contribution was celebrated in absentia, and we sent her both a patch - she is after all an honorary St. Louis developer - and a pack of chocolates with Missouri pecans. She said she couldn't put them down.

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Thanks to all our clients, players, supporters, friends, and family. You helped make 2018 a successful year of accomplishment and change for Brunette Games!