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Five things we learned from ExPlay 2012

#ExPlay12 Dispatches from the tub

Five things we learned from ExPlay 2012
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Bath is a bloomin' lovely place, and ExPlay 2012 made the most of its historic location.

An opening keynote, for instance, took place out in the open-air at the city's ancient Roman Baths.

The conference itself, meanwhile, was held in Bath's Georgian Assembly Rooms. Even the event's raucous after-party was held slap bang in the middle of a UNESCO world heritage site.

But, between gawping at chandeliers and baulking at the high price of a pint, attendees also spent some time learning about games development from a glittering roster of industry speakers.

Here's some of the most interesting lessons we took on board.

Accessibility is important – and easier than you think

Colour-blindness affects some seven percent of the US male population. Despite this – and despite mobile gaming's continuing march towards inclusivity – plenty of games still ship with visual design elements that exclude colour-blind players.

Obviously, this needn't be the case, and most developers want their games to be enjoyed by as many players as possible. At a panel on games accessibility at ExPlay 2012, attendees learned how to easily ensure their games can be enjoyed by gamers with disabilities.

As accessibility consultant Ian Hamilton explained, it's simply a matter of designing with a consideration for players who might not be able to see, hear, understand or control things as well as others.

So, you might allow your players to fully re-map the game's controls, for instance, or give them control over background colours and brightness levels. Subtitles, one-button modes and auto-fire options are all relatively easy-to-implement, and can make a big difference for your players.

Personality trumps bland broad appeal

Making accessible games isn't the same as making bland, safe games, though.

Indeed, Mediatonic's director of games Paul Croft explained to ExPlay attendees how injecting bold character into your designs is a "super cost-effective way to create games that generate attention."

As the audience for mobile gaming has opened up, it's become clear that casual games with broad appeal can do very well for themselves. For smaller developers, however – and those working in more hardcore or niche genres – crafting games with personality may be the way to go.

"Character can help lift you out of this sea of games," explained Croft, who's worked on titles such as the Amateur Surgeon series.

And it can help you gain players without a massive user acquisition budget, too.

Writing games is hard, but it's easier for small teams

In a panel on writing for games, four industry scribes shared some dos and don'ts of video game narrative with ExPlay attendees.

Writing for mobile games is undoubtedly a challenge. Splash Damage's Edward Stern is relatively new to the space, and he noted that the process was "very hard, much harder than I'd anticipated."

Opposable Games' James Parker agreed, adding, "all of the things that are true about writing in games generally – being concise, being punchy – these are even more true in mobile games."

Immediacy is important then, and mobile gamers don't have the same financial incentive to stick with a slow-buring story on mobile – after all, they're unlikely to have spent $60 on the game.

All that said, however, the small team sizes associated with mobile development can be a real boon for writers.

Mode 7's Paul Taylor – one of the men behind indie hit Frozen Synapse – explained how his studio's low headcount allowed him to get involved in the game's art direction before release, marrying his narrative to a complementary visual aesthetic.

That's a level of involvement that simply wouldn't have been possible in a larger team, and the easy communication afforded by small team sizes is good news for games writers.

How to get the press interested

"Every small studio should have someone press-facing - someone who's prepared to talk to the press," explained The Guardian's Keith Stuart in an ExPlay panel on games and the media.

Indeed, Stuart was a particularly rich vein of practical advice for attending developers. He explained that studios should make high-quality screenshots easily available from their websites, for instance, and display contact details prominently.

In other words, you should consider what assets and information any journalist would need in order to write about your games, and make that information easy to obtain.

What's more, if you're trying to get press attention for your game, make sure to give the press a story.

If someone from your studio worked on Halo 3, then that's a story. If your mobile game features a revolutionary mechanic that's never been done, then that's a story. Tell the press your story, and it it's a good one, people will want to write about it.

Of course, if you actually do have a revolutionary idea, you may not want to share it with the press for fear that someone will copy it. This is pointless, according to games consultant Will Luton. "Ideas are cheap," he explained. "It's the execution that's key."

"There has never been an easier time to make a game than now"

While plenty of other ExPlay speakers were attempting to practically address the problems of discovery and user acquisition that the rapid growth of mobile gaming has uncovered, Boss Alien's Alex Trowers took a more celebratory stance.

"When I started out, you could buy a computer, and when you bought a computer, it came with everything you needed to make a game," said Trowers, an industry veteran of some 22 years, at the start of his ExPlay session.

"But once you made the game, there was bugger all you could do with it.

"Nowadays, you can get everything you need to make a game for free. Unity is free. Gimp is free. Audacity is free. And you can actually do something with that game once you're finished."

James Nouch
James Nouch
PocketGamer.biz's news editor 2012-2013