Games Storytelling
Published in

Games Storytelling

Bitsy to VR: Bristol’s Experimental Games Scene

By Chella Ramanan

Charlotte Gore

Bristol is a city dominated by water and a keen sense of its history. From the Georgian grandeur of its buildings, belying its role in the slave trade, to the engineering prowess left behind by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the world famous street art and music, Bristol remains a cultural centre. The warehouses lining Bristol’s 19th-century harbour are now home to restaurants, shops and key cultural institutions, including Watershed, which is an arts centre nurturing projects and creators across a broad range of disciplines, including digital.

Verity McIntosh is Managing Producer at Watershed’s multi-disciplinary R&D lab, the Pervasive Media Studio. She is also one of the founders of the Bristol VR Lab and curates a vibrant mix of projects and events in Bristol, working closely with the Studio’s resident artists, creative companies, technologists and researchers.

She describes the role Watershed plays in bringing creators from a wide range of disciplines together, offering opportunities to collaborate and experiment. McIntosh explains; “Here at Watershed we support artists, creative companies, games studios and students to promote their games by facilitating early play tests with audiences, creating showcase and exhibition opportunities through festivals, talks, collaborations and international development programmes.

The projects supported by Watershed may start in Bristol, but the nature of digital works mean they have a much broader, even global reach. “Through our Playable City strand we have taken works such as Hello Lamp Post by Pan Studio, a playful exchange with the post boxes, bus stops, hydrants and general street furniture of a city to players in Bristol, Manchester, Tokyo, Austin TX, Singapore, Malmo, Astana, Bordeaux and London, sparking playful conversations among residents about life in each city.”

The Pervasive Media Studio is a thriving centre for digital projects, based in Bristol’s Watershed. She describes how the theory of Creation Nets forms the foundation of the Studio; “Pioneered by John Hagel and John Seeley Brown, Creation Net theory asserts that in times of rapid change, be that social, economic or technological, creativity and innovation thrive when people seek to collaborate with those who are not like them. This involves drawing influence and insight from a range of disciplines and from those with different life experiences to fuel new modes of thinking to your own.

“It is with that in mind that we carefully curate difference into the Pervasive Media Studio community, and are as likely to welcome a new resident into the community because they are exploring something completely unknown to us within the network, as we are because we see parallels with what we already do.”

The idea of bringing different people together who are pursuing different interests was also instrumental to the success of the Bristol Games Hub. Founded by one of Bristol’s best known games developers, the Hub supports smaller studios and solo creators. Auroch Digital was looking for a new office space, alongside fellow developer Opposable Games and they decided to get some space together, which became the Bristol Games Hub.

Tomas Rawlings, design director of Auroch Digital, explains how Bristol Games Hub began; “As Bristol is good for office space, we were able to get a good deal that gave us extra space for others and we took a risk that, as the phrase goes, if you build it, they will come. We did and they did. We’re currently the largest independent games hub in the world. By that I mean we’re not attached to a university or venture capital fund; it’s just the games community here that runs it.”

Bristol Games Hub hosts a monthly meet-up called the Antisocial — a joke around the misconception that all nerds are introverted and don’t socialise. The events include talks that are open to everyone, as a place to share knowledge, receive peer feedback and network.

Rawlings explains how the Bristol Games Hub is more than just a meeting place, “We have talks on everything from how to start a games studio to in depth stuff about coding. The hub also organises the Global Game Jam each year.

“We partner with other Bristol organisations such as the Pervasive Media Studio and the VR Lab, as well as hosting and supporting the Grrrl Games group and the Unity and Unreal meet-ups. We also have a board games group and the latest group is Ludo narrative, which is basically like to book club for games.”

By playing host, rather than organising all the groups that the Hub supports, Rawlings says this allows other creatives to lead the way. McIntosh agrees, adding that it’s about opening up the term ‘games’ to help artists explore the medium fully.

“We read the term games pretty broadly and find that elements of gameplay and playfulness can permeate and enrich many other contexts. Residents Free Ice Cream recently created a simulation game, 2030 Hive Mind that ran alongside an ODI/UN conference about the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, allowing delegates to test out different policy decisions in the moment and have numerous interdependent scenarios play out in real time in response to the decisions made. The ODI published an excellent blog about why they chose to gamify such a serious topic and the value that they saw when key influencers could experiment with and share complex and high-stakes scenarios in a playful arena.”

For developers working outside London, which remains the biggest location for the games industry, these local creative spaces and support networks are vital. One of the big benefits of being outside the Capital is the availability of more affordable office space and housing. Rawlings explains; “We don’t have the population numbers that London has, so we have to find other ways to compete and the fact that we can have this space and make it cheap to rent desks is a big plus.

“One of the innovative things we do is to offer the desks as ‘Pay as You Go’, so people pay for one month at a time. We don’t require residents to sign long leases that tie them in for long periods. But to be able do that is only possible with an understanding landlord and a rental environment that is more conducive.”

When it comes to taking risks, McIntosh believes that, as a smaller city, Bristol also allows creators to take a chance, which also allows smaller creative hubs like the Pervasive Media Studio and Bristol Games Hub to thrive.

She says; “Anecdotally, we understand that Bristol in general and the Studio in particular, offers an unusually safe place to take risks, to share ideas and process, and to test early, iterating in a way that can be difficult elsewhere, including London.

“Companies we work with who have presence in both cities describe the pressure to only share polished work at a make or break moment, and are encouraged to withhold, protect and guard ideas until ready to release, lest competitors steal the march, or investors balk at the early stage nature of the proposition. This can lead to a risk-averse culture, both in the production side and in the investment community, feeding a similar conservatism in audience and consumer expectations, which can reinforce the cycle and inhibit innovation.

“We find that providing a physical space for creative tech R&D, with a deliberate culture of openness, generosity and interruptibility, individuals and teams organically build informal networks of peer support, referral and knowledge exchange that enables them to enrich their practice, and to act ambitiously and collectively as greater than the sum of their parts.”

One of the communities springing up in Bristol, is a thriving group of Bitsy game developers. Bitsy is a free web-based tool for making small narrative pixel-art games in a very easy to learn code-free format. It was created by Adam Le Doux in late 2016, but has been updated several times since, to include more features, though it maintains the core simplicity and limitations Bitsy game developers enjoy.

Claire Morley is a hobbyist game developer and artist, working on the narrative game, Before I Forget, for 3-Fold Games, as well as being a key figure in the Bitsy scene.

The Bitsy community is still in its infancy with only 750 games currently published on itch.io, from around 450 authors worldwide. Most people interact online, commenting on each other’s games, entering the monthly Bitsy game jam and joining the conversation on Twitter and the Bitsy Discord accounts.

Bitsy is a tool with lots of limitations, but this is part of its appeal for creators like Morley. She says; “The simplicity of Bitsy lends itself to very experimental approaches. It allows people to stretch beyond the bounds of what is possible within the tool, and I think it’s almost a natural consequence of using it. More complex tools such as Unity or Unreal are fantastic for game development, and allow a huge range of amazing projects to be created with an enormous amount of excellent free resources and documentation, but they take a huge amount of time (months, maybe years) to master, which not all of us have.

“At the risk of sounding pretentious, Orson Welles once said that ‘the absence of limitations is the enemy of art’; the idea of this being that innovation and creativity is heightened when constraints or limitations are in place. I think some people may look at Bitsy and be put off because it doesn’t seem to be able to ‘do’ much, but the beauty of Bitsy, for me, is in the innovation of its authors.”

Accessibility is a vital aspect of Bitsy. It’s free and easy to learn, allowing anyone with access to a laptop or desktop to start playing around, making it an ideal tool for anyone thinking about game design. With this in mind, Morley created the first Bitsy tutorial, helping more people enter the community.

“You can finish creating a Bitsy game very quickly, allowing you to gain confidence in your abilities to develop games, as well as then being able to iterate on your design process,” Morley says. “At least in my experience, I found that, with more complex tools, I would get bogged down in technical details, which took me away from the focus of actually creating the game. In contrast, if you spent a day or two using Bitsy, you’d become adept enough to experiment.”

“The fact that Bitsy is free and web-based is very important too, as it doesn’t require money, a big software download, or a fancy machine to run it, which can be a barrier to game development for many people.”

Morley and Wannacott are also champions of small games, which allow developers to prototype ideas or just focus on a small project that can be finished in a weekend or even one night. The pair started a small games meet-up in Bristol in 2017, which aims to encourage co-development and knowledge sharing. Bitsy is just one part of the small games scene and its simplicity leads to more intimate, personal stories, as well as a lack of the violence often associated with larger, more commercial games.

“It’s a tool that is perfect for games that tell a short story, which may be a personal tale, a vignette of something much larger, a poem or anything that’s either a very condensed, focused idea, or a snapshot into a bigger world (though there have definitely been some very large, expansive Bitsy games too). Since the only real ‘interactions’ are moving, picking things up and talking to people, the tool lends itself very well to exploration games about place or people. It’s also pretty difficult to put any violence into a Bitsy game, which I think is something video games on a larger scale are in need of, and is a direction that a lot of smaller games are heading in, which is great.”

A lack of funding is one of the key challenges facing anyone working in the arts and it’s just as true for games. When it comes to future developments for Bristol Games Hub, Rawlings says; “There is a lot we can do, but we do need support in this. Remember the hub is funded out of the rent and the time and effort of the residents. I’d love us to have some funds for mentoring, marketing support, helping less advantaged communities in the area get some support, having some pots of money we can use to support raw talent, having some funds to work more with schools in the area. With all these there is so much more we could do.”

Constance Fleuriot, founder of GrrrlGames, a group for female game developers, which operates out of the Bristol Games Hub, echoes Rawlings; “In my daydreams I would like to set up an annual grant for women in the South West, so they could take some time out and get support or access to tech to finish their game.”

There are some benefits to being a game developer outside London, explains Fleuriot; “It’s a smaller community, which has its limits, but it’s a smaller community, which makes support easy to find. It’s friendly and everyone is really supportive of my efforts to get women involved.” However, she finds the lack of funding challenging; “It’s hard to do all this as a volunteer, when you have to make a living.”

Working on a much smaller scale, Morley has used crowdfunding to host games jams. She aims to continue running workshops in Bristol and hosting meet-ups for people to meet, create and share together. She says; “It’s so amazing to see people being able to express themselves through a game-making tool so easily and naturally and I really hope that Bitsy continues to spread and introduce game development to people in a way that they may not have experienced it before.”

For bigger projects, the success of key cultural cornerstones like Watershed are crucial for helping to attract funding to Bristol. The growth of VR has seen Bristol take centre stage as the technology takes off. McIntosh is a key figure in the VR scene in Bristol and celebrates the opportunities that VR presents for collaboration across artistic and cultural disciplines. She says; “VR is an exciting new medium for practitioners from many art forms and we are already seeing some incredible work from our own community and beyond drawing influence from theatre, film, music, games and documentary practice. This is still a medium in its infancy, and we very much look forward to working inclusively and collaboratively with practitioners from different disciplines and backgrounds in the coming years.”

She also praises Bristol’s unique blend of culture as part of what makes it the perfect place to become a centre of VR development. “Bristol has a fantastic dual specialism of creative practice and hi-tech development. Due to the relatively modest scale of the city, key figures from the BBC and Aardman Animations often rub shoulders with those from IBM, HP and Toshiba, as well as cultural organisations such as Watershed and Spike Island, who in turn have deep and broad collaborative partnerships with the city’s two universities. There is a vibrant and super-connected eco-system of small and medium companies that connect to these larger players in myriad ways. As such, collaborative working is rife and ranging.”

McIntosh is currently leading Watershed’s virtual, augmented and mixed reality experiences, particularly the launch of the new Bristol VR Lab, which is set to open on 16 April 2018. The Bristol VR Lab is a landmark new facility establishing Bristol as a central development hub for Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) skills and content. She says of the project; “With recent developments in VR the conditions were perfect for a collaborative partnership of Watershed, UWE Bristol, University of Bristol and games company and founders of VR World Congress, Opposable Group to set up a new space in the city.”

Quickly becoming a leading light in the VR space, Bristol is already providing exciting opportunities for practitioners from many disciplines to work together using this technology. At a recent showcase of innovative cultural content, CreativeXR supported by Digital Catapult and Arts Council England, of the 20 supported projects were from Bristol. These included Open Space by Roomsize, a spatial audio experience that invites an audience to seek out and manipulate an invisible orchestra, Immersive Histories, a VR recreation of the inside of a Lancaster bomber during the Dam Busters raids in WW2 by All Seeing Eye, and The Collider by Anagram, a theatrical experience staged in and out of VR headsets examining why humans still profoundly need one another.

From city wide zombie chase games, to geo-located apps, battle robots to stackable beasts, game design and development has long been a part of life in the Studio. McIntosh reveals that some of the Studio’s resident’s games have seen global success, but few could be deemed to be purely commercial or mainstream in their approach.

Echoing the ethos of all the game development hubs and communities that are nurturing creativity in Bristol, McIntosh says; “We continue to support work that can be commercial or cultural and more often than not straddles both in different ways. We find that at the early stage of a game idea, particularly one that utilises an emerging technology, the market or audience for your work is not yet established or clear.

“There is some advantage in being the first to market and shaping new industries, however it can be a lonely, confusing and often frustrating process as funders, investors and partners may not have a frame of reference for what you are doing. You can spend a lot of your time engaged in conversations, that sound like ‘it’s a bit like x but not really x, imagine if x and y came together and it felt a bit like z’. Places like the Studio give space and time to practitioners to expand their thinking and offer advice, advocacy, validation and support for work in that uneasy space of peerless-ness that many be three to ten years ahead of the cultural zeitgeist.”

Back at Bristol Games Hub, Rawlings is also positive about the impact local communities and networks can bring to creators in the region. He says; “London is so big for so many industries and has so much name recognition, it exerts its own gravity. Hence we need to offer things like flexible office space and a connected community. To compete we have to find methods and an identity that are not only about us, Bristol, the South West, but also can’t be done anywhere else.”

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
British Council Creative Economy

British Council Creative Economy

British Council Creative Economy team. We work with artists, entrepreneurs, and creative communities globally to tackle today’s cultural and social challenges.