I’ve just returned from an amazing week at Edinburgh Interactive 2012, a yearly UK games industry conference in Scotland’s beautiful capital. EdInt takes place annually during the Fringe, the UK’s biggest comedy festival, which means you’re attending a funference full of fun people in the industry of fun, smack in the middle of a citywide funfest. What could be more fun than that? That’s right, nothing. Everything else sucks by comparison.

My session topic in the program was Bridging Gaming Styles in the New Reality, which, between you and me, sounded a bit yawn, but it kinda had to in order grab those transmedia monetizing gamificators in the audience, otherwise they would have skipped out for a pee and a tweet. By Slide 3, the actual content of my session took a bit of a left turn, but regardless everyone stuck around for a fun ride, a few laughs, and a different take on the industry than they were probably used to.

With lofty aspirations, I took on the Evolution of Games as a Biological Life Form. I’m not talking about evolution in the business sense or strategic sense, but in the Darwinian sense.

I began with the primordial ooze of Pong, from which we learned that dots on a cathode ray tube could be fun and quarter-worthy if arranged in the proper order. I then took the audience through evolutionary developments like diversity (the anything-goes games of the 1980s), complexity (Moore’s Law of Console Buttons), mutation (games shifting and merging and twisting to spawn new genres), and extinction (the killing off of the simple, unprofitable genres from the console market, rendering them only fit for the lunch hours of casual browser-game scavengers).

Then along came the smartphone, and suddenly half the population now has a personal game console in their pocket. All those casual game styles deemed extinct (a.k.a. unprofitable) by the console have been brought back to life. The battle for supremacy is raging anew.

It was a pretty good talk, if I may pat my own back. Best of all, it got me and a lot of the audience thinking about their long-dead favourites, and how they’re seeping back into the mobile industry. Furthermore, the games of old and games of new now seem to be mating and producing offspring in ways nobody could have predicted. It’s like dinosaurs and mammoths suddenly roaming the earth again, mating with modern day horses and house cats. Who knows what’s going to come out the other end?

I’m really enjoying some of these mashups; I love wacky hybrids and genre-crossers… the first-person word-scramblers, the pattern-matching dungeon-bashers, the point-&-click-platformer-punchups, the family-friendly-survival-horror-sandbox-gamblers (truth be told I haven’t run across this last one, but I’m waiting for the day). I love when a developer takes two separate genres – best if one is traditionally hardcore and the other traditionally casual – and squashes them together into a new freakish crossbreed.

I thought I’d pass on a few of my recent favourite hybrids of the past little while. When I say ‘favourite’ it could be for a number of reasons: seamlessness, cleverness, the quality (or rough-around-the-edges crudity) of the design, and in some cases it’s not the game itself but the audacity of the combination and the potential it could hold for an even-better Version 2.

RPG + Card/Gambling = Sword & Poker

The RPG is a surprisingly versatile game genre, covering everything from platformer to hack-n-slash to real time strategy, but it seems the old turn-based nature of foe fighting is an open window to just about every kind of game style out there. Traditionally, we’re talking dice around a table, but on the mobile it can be just about anything. Even… poker?

Sword & Poker (actually I’ve got Sword & Poker 2, so it’s already doing fairly well for itself) has a lovely simplicity to the artwork, story, and gameplay. It begins with the simple yet unnecessary explanation “This is the story of a magical world based on cards” after which your character works her way through floors of a tower challenging cute beasts – mushrooms, baby birds, broccoli – to poker duels.

In my opinion, it’s a perfect example of what could have been “just a card game” but was turned into something with story and shape and direction, and thus made it that much more appealing.

8-bit Arcade/Action + Rhythm = The Bit.Trip series

I’m really impressed with what Gaijin Games been coming out with in the past year. There are about 7 games in the series, but for the sake of simplicity I’ll focus on just one of them: Bit.Trip Beat Blitz.

I find it amazing that no one’s come up with this one before, but it’s brilliant. The Bit.Trip guys have started with Pong – a heaping scoop of ooze from the dawn of time – and simply added an 80s synthesized backbeat to it. Rather than just protecting your endzone from a single ball (block), a series of rhythmic balls (blocks) are coming at the paddle.

What’s more, they’re not always coming in straight lines. There are sine waves and stoppers and troopswaves and supersizers that are all hitting your paddle in time to the music, and because of the music, you’re going ‘damn, I know that thing’s going to hit me on the beat, but where the @$%# is it headed?’ It’s surprisingly challenging.

The clincher for me came when I got dangerously low on power. See, in the thick of it it’s all psychadelic colourful rhythmic shapes swirling around in the background for eye candy, but when you’re near death, they strip out all the distractions for you, and it’s good old white-on-black Pong again. It totally works. Grab the whole series.

2D Platformer + Puzzler = Continuity 2: the Continuation

I had seen the original Continuity as a browser game a couple of years ago, and (relying entirely on my own sketchy memory rather than actual research) it was a gold medal winner of a student gaming award. I wasn’t able to find the original on the App Store (side note: in my opinion, calling it ‘2’ may end up hurting their sales, since rarely to people buy the second without the first… may want to remedy that with a re-release, guys).

Anyway, this too is brilliant. On its base level it’s a 2D maze/platformer; a stick man runs about in a series of simple caves and tunnels, grabbing coins and a key, then searching for the exit. Nothing you’ve never seen before in terms of left-right-jump. But, on its second tier, it’s a shifting puzzle; you have three (or five or eight or more) blocks of tunnels which you can push around on a higher plane to rearrange like a magic square. The tunnel that got you from the cliff to the coin shifts to become the one that gets you from the key to the door.

As most games, it starts easy and builds quickly to difficult, challenging, and even frustrating… but it’s a really good kind of frustrating. Most games nowadays are all about constant reward and constant success – after all, they want you to finish it – but this is a throwback to the days when you couldn’t just walk through to the end. It takes some serious thinking, and the success is that much sweeter as a result.

Continuity 2 is a perfect example of the sort of game that sports that rough-around-the-edges feel, and makes you realise that they were built solo, or with a small team with more passion than cash. It’s an idea that needed to get out of an indie developer’s head and onto a screen in whatever form. And Continuity 2 is a fantastic idea.

I think it’s an ideal time to be an indie developer. I’m a sucker for a good idea, in whatever raw form I may discover it, and the games that come out of the indie market are fueled by ideas first, profit second.

If you were to ask me what the next big idea is going to be, I’ll happily admit that I don’t know. After all, evolution has no endgame, does it? The chimps of today aren’t going to become the humans of tomorrow. The strong adapt to the new environment, mutate and make babies, and who knows from what small corner of the swamp the next mutation (or, God forbid, entirely new original idea, if there are still some left) is going to come from?

Where? Now, THAT I felt I could answer. It’s the outer circle of the games industry – the indies – that are always going to provide us with the new ideas, because when you’re an indie, the idea is the only thing that matters. Big business has to answer to market tests, focus groups, and bottom lines, but little guys aren’t afraid to chuck something out there to see what happens.

We should be supporting the little guys with big ideas (which is why, contrary to most of my articles, I actually bought the full versions of these). If you see something out there that’s good, but has the potential to be great, please shell out the couple of bucks you would have otherwise spent on bottled water or something, and encourage the little guys to change the course of evolution.

If you’d like to see my whole session on the Darwinian Evolution of Gaming, check me out on the @EdiInteractive Youtube channel.

If, on the other hand, you don’t care about game industry trends and would rather just see a really awesome Ecto-1 I made out of Legos after my four year old went to bed, here’s that: http://www.beimers.com/index.html?page=adventurer.
(I tried a DeLorean yesterday but I don’t have enough grey slanty bits to pull it off. I am accepting requests though.)