The air around me in Braamfontein’s Digital Innovation Foundry (DIZ) is filled with excited whoops and shrieks. Developers, players and A MAZE staff are crowded around myself and three other players, cheering us on as we battle for bragging rights in a match of Raptor Polo.
The rules are simple. Four players rush onto a field and try to leap onto the back of one of three slumbering raptors. Once they have a mount, they’re given an axe with which to batter their opponents (including the lone poor soul who missed out in the latest game of musical raptors) and they score points by punting other players through one of two goal mouths on either side of the field. Score the most points and you win.
Playing Raptor Polo, however, isn’t as easy as it sound. The degree of control players have over their movements are negligible; the speed at which their avatars move isn’t really complimented by the lousy turning arch they have. Furthermore, unless you hit another player dead centre (which hardly ever happens), they’ll fly in wildly unpredictable directions. Imagine playing ice hockey without any ice skates and you’re starting to get the picture.
All of this makes Raptor Polo gleefully anarchic fun and that spirit is infectious even to those who are watching a game play out. As the scores tick up and the clock ticks down, the atmosphere around the terminal I’m playing on starts to remind me of the video arcades I frequented in my youth, where gaggles of kids would crowd around a cabinet, enrapt by what was unfolding on the screen. Raptor Polo can transport players right back to that moment of childlike wonder they had when they first marvelled at a videogame.
So it’s a pity that very few people will have the chance to play it. Raptor Polo – along with the 60 or so other indie titles that are being showcased at A MAZE 2015 at Digital Innovation Zone in downtown Johannesburg over the next two days – may never enter into commercial developments.
According to Hanli Geyser, one of A MAZE’s organiser, the games showcased at A MAZE aren’t geared towards pitching their way onto consoles or the Steam store although, some of them certainly could. Rather, they come across as tech-demo/art-project hybrids, explorations of spaces, concepts and ideas that the gaming medium is capable of conveying.
“Very few of the games at A MAZE are saleable. They aren’t aimed at the blockbuster Triple A title market,” says Geyser. “A lot of the developers who have games at A MAZE are working on those types of titles, but this space is mainly for their ‘passion projects’.
Raptor Polo is a rambunctious kick-about, but it’s not wholly representative of every game on A MAZE’s show floor. Potter three or four terminals over and you can play Desperation, a game set in a post apocalyptic world where you and your AI buddies encounter some strangers who want to kill you and loot your belongings. However, this is no run-and-gun affair; the object of the game is to use negotiation tactics to defuse a potentially situation.
Right next to Desperation sits Ludum Dare Simulator, a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure game shot from the perspective of its creators, a slice of real life ported into the format of a game. Then there’s Criquette, a low-fi 2D bowler-vs-batter game where players hurl bowling balls, beachballs, soccer balls and, yes, cricket balls at their opponents. In this game, the only ball physics that are any good; whirling the bat in an arch too quickly can sporadically send your avatar airborne.
There are a multitude of videogames on display and attendees are encouraged to pick up controls and start playing. But this is only a small part of what A MAZE offers.
Over the course of the showcase, developers are offering intensive workshops, which both introduce newbies to the craft of making games and help seasoned pros with problems that may have flummoxed them. There are also panels and discussions looking at different tropes and themes in gaming, as well as presentations about what’s happening in the local industry.
A MAZE, then, creates a friendly space in which developers and players from all over the country can meet, share ideas, show off their games, get help with projects they’re working on and, most important of all, indulge in their passion for videogames.
“One of the reasons we hold A MAZE every year is to break down the [physical] distance between developers,” says Geyser. “There are developers in Gauteng, in Cape Town, in Durban and due to the distance between them, they hardly ever get to meet and interact with each other. A MAZE can help with that.”
“There have been times when a developer has wandered in with a laptop asking for help with a problem they have with their game and the next thing you know they’re surrounded by other developers who can help them brainstorm,” she says.
This genuine sense of camaraderie extends to the playing space too. As I and my four opponents head into the final stretch of our Raptor Polo match – the clock ticking down to a handful of second – the game crashes and the sound of a dozen disappointed groans fill the upstairs DIZ loft.
“This is the second time this has happened in three games,” one of my opponents says.
“Dude had better fix it,” says another. “We can let him know.”
He stands up, takes a picture of the error message on the screen and tweets the designer.
“Done,” he says. “What’re we playing next?”