Konsoll 2015

It's a bit after the fact, but here is the fun and games that was our Konsoll 2015 experience.

Konsoll is an annual games conference that takes place in Bergen, Norway. Regular readers will already know that I like both games conferences and Norway, so this one hits an awful lot of bases.

This year we were only slated to do a workshop on game design and I was also set to resume my traditional place on the Dragon's Den panel. We were also bringing Willow with us, which always puts an interesting slant on conferences like this. Instead of staying at a hotel, we were taken in by Yngvill from Henchman and Goon. This also meant that, like last year, her mum, Anne, would graciously take on babysitting duties.

Flying out with us were fellow speakers Gary Napper, Creative Director on Alien Isolation and Clare Blackshaw from Sony. The flight was largely uneventful, which would lull us into a false sense of security for later.

Snow Cannon

The night before the conference proper saw the official launch of Snow Cannon Games. Essentially, a bunch of Konsoll stalwarts and Norwegian business types have got together to form a publisher - something that has been a little thin on the ground over there. Their launch party was held at a library, of all places. But wait - this is a Norwegian library, which means it also has a bar. I have no idea if that's a thing that's repeated throughout the country, but it's certainly a different approach to the way we do books and stuff over here.

Day One

Reindeer hotdog. Delicious.
First day of the conference proper and we're pretty much left to our own devices. This means catching the bus in to town* and wandering up to the venue. Rather than catch all of Lee Petty's talk on Headlanders, we loiter outside, catching up with Andy (who we really don't need to catch up with) and Alex (who we shouldn't need to catch up with seeing as how he lives in the same town as us and yet we only see him once a year in Bergen).

After another lesson in marketing techniques from Emmy, it was lunchtime. After huffing a sandwich and engaging in a spirited debate with Clare in the greenroom on the car crash that is Star Citizen, we had to pop back to sort Willow out. That meant public transport followed by a quick trip to the store to pick up food**. That was an interesting exercise that took far longer than it actually should have but that was nothing compared with trying to operate Yngvill's oven...

Day One - After Party

Then it was back in for the evening's festivities in a rather fancy hotel in the middle of town. The highlight of that for me was being invited to sit on the panel for people to ask questions.

What normally happens on these things is that everyone is quiet and polite and you normally get the same answer across the board. In fact, I'd like to see some stats on just how many answers start with "What he said", or "I agree with...", but these things, whilst useful insights for those with the questions, generally run the same way.

Not this one. Largely thanks to Clare who was only too happy to call bullshit on peoples' answers and tell it how it really was. It lead to some incredibly cool debates and was most entertaining to be a part of - even if it did take the organisers a little by surprise.

Day Two - Workshop

Second day and it was workshop time! For the uninitiated, my workshops are centered around making a game out of whatever junk the conference organiser can lay their hands on at the time. Normally, when I run this thing at Animex, we have a whole day. That means the morning can be spent coming up with ideas and prototyping and the afternoon can be used to playtest and refine. By the end of the day, most teams have got something pretty nifty going on.

At Konsoll, we only had the morning, which meant we needed to compress the format slightly. Do away with the icebreakers or the get the creative juices flowing bits and just dive straight in. To this end, we applied a few more restrictions to the design process to make it a bit quicker and easier.

You'll note I said 'we' up there. Yes, Leanne was there to run the workshop with me. This made my life much easier as we could be in two places at once - each roaming around the teams and observing, then meeting up to compare notes and point out the interesting features from each one.

Workshop space is always limited and usually goes pretty fast***. We were told we had space for 30 and it had filled up real quick. On the actual day, only 15 turned up - I guess that's what happens when you're scheduled for the morning after the party the night before. It was a bit of a shame as we had to turn away a whole bunch of people who were enquiring after spare spaces. Never mind - 15 made for 3 teams of 5 and away we went.

The items available to people included coloured card, pens, boxes of matches and bags of balloons. Now if you can't make a game out of that little lot, you're in real trouble. The teams did pretty well - there was one game that played a bit like the hacking bit in Paradroid, another that added a strategic meta-game to rock, paper, scissors and the last one which... well, was bonkers and genius in equal measure.


Jonathan in action.
It was eventually called Jonathan, for reasons that will become slightly clearer in a bit, and I'll try to explain how it works.

It's for as many players as you want really - 5-6 is a pretty good number. Each player gets a balloon and stands around the table. In the middle of the table you tip out the matchsticks, placing the box upside-down in the centre. One player starts by picking up the box and placing it in front of them. They're now the Picker and they can pick up matchsticks one at a time and place them in the box. The person to their right becomes the Blower and they must start blowing up their balloon.

The Picker continues to pick up matchsticks. If they run out of matchsticks in the middle, they can start taking sticks from any player they choose. They can stop at any time by turning out the matchbox in front of them. Any sticks inside are added to their stash. They can then place the matchbox face down, back in the centre of the table. At this point, everyone else shouts 'Jonathan!', which is the cue for the Blower to become the new Picker and the person to their right to start Blowing.

The game continues until a Blower manages to overinflate and pop their balloon. At that point, any matchsticks still in the box are awarded to the Blower and everyone else must pay one matchstick in tribute. The person with the most matchsticks is declared the winner.

It's a pretty simple game, but one with lots of interesting strategy. On the one hand, you want to spend as long as possible collecting sticks. But the longer you do, the more the guy next to you will inflate his balloon, potentially ending the game - and giving themselves quite an advantage when it comes to scoring. There's an interesting physiological element in play too - having to start a slightly fiddling manual task after effectively hyperventilating is entertaining****.

The only thing that remains is to somehow work alcohol into the mix. Then be prepared to see this baby at the Olympics.

Day Two - Dragon's Den

See the level of bemusement?
Each year I sit on the Dragon's Den panel and each year, people come up and pitch their projects at us with varying degrees of success. This year was simultaneously the least successful and yet, conversely, most entertaining.

The scoring mechanic had been revamped - for the better. Now we had three tokens per pitch. One for marking it out as a high-risk investment, one for low-risk and one for hell-no-but-I'd-like-to-play-it. This got around the problem that arises with either a fixed monetary resource or a traditional out-of-ten scoring system whereby the earlier submissions might get gimped as you want to save your big score for what might be coming up. Instead, because we had enough resource to fully 'fund' each and every project, this went away. The winner would be decided by whoever had the most high risk tokens with the others being used in sequence in the event of a tie.

I'll start with the final pitch of the day. Basically, this guy had written Minecraft. I mean, it was a carbon-copy. Technically, it was impressive enough - especially since he actually had plenty of ingame footage, but his entire pitch was "Minecraft but more". When pressed on what the "more" part actually was, he revealed that's what he was going to have to hire a designer for as he had no idea. Brilliant. To top it all off, when the finance guy pressed him on investment and equity, simple maths dictated that he valued his company at £10m(!). He received precisely zero tokens from anyone and a rather incredulous look from Finance Man.

The second pitch was one of the funniest things I've seen in a long while. I mean, crazy and delusional, but hilarious. This guy's design centred on three core tenets - Brains (those brain training apps), Boobs (does that really need an explanation?) and Hard Sci-Fi (er... what?). It seems like, after a particularly intense play session of Hunie Pop, an anime, Match-3 dating game, he came up with the idea of ripping out the Match-3 bit and swapping in Dr Kawashima instead. Skin it all up to look like Mass Effect and boom! Sit back and watch the money roll in.

I had no words as there are just so many problems with that as a concept. But the pitch had us in stitches.

So it was left to the first game. A game that I can't remember many of the details about. I think it was some kind of RTS where people would take it in turns to send their troops out in particular directions and watch them shoot the crap out of each other. A little bit Pikmin, a little bit Galcon but easily the most well-rounded title of the three.

Day Two - Wrap Party

Prior to the evening's events, we just had to pop back to the house. Largely to welcome back Yngvill's husband, Thomas, from his stint out at sea in the Navy. It was the first time Yngvill had seen him for about a month so naturally we just dumped the kids on him and left him to go to the wrap party.

This year's wrap party was held at the Bergen Game Collective - a shared office space for a number of Bergen-based game devs including Rain Games and Henchman And Goon.

Special props to Anders from Antagonist for graciously sharing his pizza with us and to Gary for trolling people on Twitter who don't like odd socks. Actually, that last bit entailed going around to find people who wouldn't mind swapping a single sock with someone else so we could take a photo of a larger group.

There was much alcohol and discussion of games as well as several bags of Smash, so I was properly in my comfort zone. As was Leanne who, whilst critiquing Rain Games' latest project, managed to make Peter cry with her vicious barbs...
Don't think she's afraid of heights.


The next day was spent recovering from the night before. Oh, and taking the kids to an awesome soft play area. Seriously, that place was fantastic. Willow spent most of her time in the ball pool or doing laps on the slide but they had everything from rope bridges to trampolines to cannons that fired foam balls at a big pirate ship. All of that for what amounts to £5 for the whole day. "Adults" go for free.

Little did they know that I was the biggest child in that place...

Return Trip

As always, we had a fantastic time at Hotel Yngvill and it was a real shame to leave, but leave we did. Thomas took us to the airport in plenty of time for our flight. We grabbed some Smash in the duty free and a bite to eat in the small cafe.

It turns out there was plenty of even more time as our flight was delayed due to the ridiculous level of fog at Gatwick. After a couple of hours, we were getting a bit antsy. Not only was Willow a little bored of the small cafe - there's really not much at Bergen airport - but we were now a little concerned that we'd miss the last train back from Gatwick when we landed.

Willow makes a great Smash mule.
Three hours later and still no flight. The airline gave us vouchers for food, which, as we'd already eaten, pretty much spent on more Smash, loading it into every container we had - including Willow's backpack.

By now, I was frantically looking around for other methods of getting home once we reached England. We could probably get as far as Brighton and then cab it, but it was going to be pricey.

Eventually, our flight took off and we were homeward bound. We meandered through passport control, baggage claim and into arrivals before we realised that we actually had 5 minutes before the last train to Worthing would leave. Thank you Westward flight and Time Zones!

I ran ahead to the station to get tickets... only to find the queue snaking back into the airport itself! Obviously a little concerned at this state of affairs, I tried short circuiting the system and going to the guard by the ticket barrier. Explaining our situation, I asked if it would be okay for the three of us to nip through and buy a ticket on the train.

Thankfully he said yes!

So we scuttled through and, just as the elevator arrived at the platform, so did the train. We hopped on and breathed a sign of relief... which turned into a gasp of concern as the tannoy announcement asked for the three people who just got on without buying a ticket to get back off again. Did they mean us?

Thankfully no, but now we knew we had to deal with a guard who already had previous for throwing people off his train. The train pulled away as he approached, positively reeking of Jobsworthness.

He was a bit taken aback that they'd allowed us through the barriers at Gatwick, but he was only too happy to let us buy a ticket. Hell, he even did us a sneaky group one that saved us... well, 3p, but it's the principle of the thing.

After that, Willow promptly fell asleep and we were home free! Back from another excellent Nordic adventure. Thanks go out to Linn for inviting us, John for organising everything, Yngvill, Thomas and Anne for looking after us while we were there and Unnamed Conductor Chap for not being a dick when you could have so easily done so.

*It's always entertaining taking public transport in a place where you don't speak the lingo.
**It's always entertaining buying food in a place where you don't speak the lingo.
*** It must be fun or something.
**** To the other players or spectators at least.


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