The lights are on
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Tulsa, Oklahoma is a fairly strange place for a gaming expo. It's in the mid-northeast part of a state near the middle of the country--hardly a popular tourist destination. Most events that boast the title of "gaming expo" fill up huge auditoriums in east or west coast cities, swarmed by game developers and rabid fans alike. Such grand shows offer smatterings of the latest tech and newest designs from the top professionals in the industry. They're filled with booth babes and awkward celebrities.
The Heartland Gaming Expo of 2013 was obviously not one of those things. Held in a few conference rooms at the University of Tulsa, this small expo gathered a handful of teams from universities and colleges in the state of Oklahoma to present their projects to the public. It wasn't a high-stakes show filled with constant noise and attempts to impress throngs of people. There wasn't a cloud of anxiousness about big industry stakes and money problems. Instead, it was a concentrated, stripped down showing of a few teams with interesting ideas and some creative presentations. To be honest, I found it a bit refreshing.
The Heartland Gaming Expo included an 18-hour hack, other than the floor show, included an 18-hour Hackathon (in which teams compete to create the best game possible in a given stretch of time), a gallery showing of game art from the entry teams, and a gaming competition. Different university departments and colleges, ranging from Engineering and Computer Science to English, Art and Film studies, sponsored the event, offering a behind the scenes glimpse of the interdisciplinary position of video games on the academic spectrum. Do we consider them in terms of their mechanical devices, or do we look at narrative? Does art direction matter if the game sacrifices responsiveness? Can we judge a game on its atmosphere, or should we take only fairness into account? Do we read them as texts, or do we consider them in terms of classic game theory? The answer to all these contradictory questions is an apparent "yes," and I found the expo, with its collision of university standards and gamer enthusiasm quite compelling.
However, the most important aspects of the Heartland Gaming Expo were, of course, the games themselves and the people behind them. Most games ran in Java or Flash, but the entries were more aesthetically and mechanically varied than I had anticipated. Side-scrollers, puzzlers, shooters, and rhythm games all showed up, and I was genuinely impressed with the diversity on display. Perhaps even more interesting was how some of the games worked within their own genres to make basic game structures seem fresh.
For instance, "Gun Mage," a side-scrolling shoot-em-up, had you mixing magic powers and weapons to offer a variety of approaches to combat. "Greywater" is a Diablo-style isometric dungeon-crawler set in a steampunk sewer system in which the player controls a mechanic who crafts weapons and devices from the remains of the robots he fights with his wrench. The art direction was quite impressive as every bit of the environment and characters were hand-crafted in GIMP. One of my favorites was a top-down game called "Pet Duck" in which the player controls a spaceman looking for his titular pet duck across an ever-changing tile map populated with dangerous robots. The trick, though, was that with each shot taken at the robots caused the landscape to rearrange more erratically, so you had to develop a strategy that balanced ease of navigating your environment with the need to defend yourself.
One student even developed a multiplayer shooter on the Unreal engine (made available to the public). "Project Landminded" pitted the player against three bots in an arena in a seemingly standard deathmatch--except you're armed with a rocket launcher that creates landmines with every shot that doesn't directly hit an enemy. After a brief amount of playtime, the ground becomes covered in mines that are just as dangerous to the player as his/her opponents. Equally as impressive was a puzzle game called "Block to Block" in which a player slides two blocks simultaneously across the screen to solve puzzles. The player often has to make the two blocks collide and then separate to solve increasingly complex levels, and the game was playable on the computer as well as an iPad.
These and other impressive projects were all playable builds from dedicated teams, but even more exciting than the games themselves were the genuine conversations I had with the team members. We chatted about the games that inspired them, the ideas behind the artwork, the ways in which they hoped to enter the games industry, and their enthusiasm for their own projects. Most of all, it was nice to talk about video games outside of industry journalism (where we usually get our game news) or deep critical discussion (where I usually find myself in the books I read). I hope to see the Heartland Gaming Expo expand. There's a lot of talent out there, and I look forward to seeing what wide-eyed industry hopefuls have to show off.
David is working on his PhD and currently writes for awesomeoutof10.com, where this article was originally published. Follow his hilarious acts of academic vigilantism on twitter and please feel free to ask questions and offer criticism!