At PAX Australia 2015, it was pretty difficult to get near most of the indie game booths. Some were more packed than others, thronged the entire three days with gamers anxious for a try.
One of those booths was Rivalry, an odd-looking game in which two players take turns trying to manipulate ragdoll figures into stabbing each other. It looks very barebones, with shadow-puppet silhouettes and the gouts of red blood vivid against the primary blue backdrop.
Movement is slow and surreal, the active player indicated by a circle that shrinks down as their turn progresses. Once you grab a mouse, it makes more sense. You click and drag parts of your character's body to try and attack your opponent. The circle is a timer, counting down how much you can move. Stop moving and the timer stops too.
"The way I like to describe Rivalry is that it starts out like sword chess and ends like Octodad with knives. You drag limbs and weapons around with the mouse and get your player into weird and unnatural positions. But you only have a specific amount of movement so you have to work out the best way to cause damage to the other player but also have enough movement to set up a defense. Each move you make is vital and very quickly just one misplaced foot can end in a whole leg missing," he explained in an email interview with CNET.
"You will start to figure out tactics and techniques to cause maximum damage or even disarm your opponent. As more and more damage is taken from both sides you will get to a point where most of your body is uncontrollable and the best way to cause damage is to fling yourself across the room at the opponent, which we call 'going the full Octodad', hoping to land a lucky hit but sometimes finding that you had accidentally impaled yourself on the opponent's blade."
Development of Rivalry began two years ago, but its story started well before then, with Kew and his father, James McParlane, who develops his own games under developer name My64k. According to James, Kew had been struggling at school. But the family had an advantage. The McParlanes had never been concerned about screen time and video games, and in fact encouraged Kew to create his own content in game level editors, where he would spend hours.
"To support him, we started reading a book about game design together, which improved his reading, which in turn had been holding back progress in maths and science. Like most kids, he got heavily into Minecraft. A rule we had for Minecraft was that if he wanted to chat online, he had to spell properly," James said.
"I also appreciated that while trading Minecraft blocks of varying types and value with other players he was learning valuable numeracy and negotiation skills. He ended up running a Minecraft server, which taught him a lot about dealing with difficult people, interpersonal relations and diplomacy."
By creating a physics-based game, Kew was able to better understand physics, geometry and chemistry, with James incorporating what Kew was studying at school into the design process. This progressed to using Processing.js to visualise the maths and science curriculum, which in turn fuelled an interest in coding.
When he was 12, Kew came up with the idea for Rivalry.
"Around that time I was playing many mobile games and a game called Little Big Planet. I first conceptualized a game where you play as a giant robot and you move its arms and legs around to punch through buildings and crush cars. I was aiming to make a game a bit like Grabatron but with robots instead of UFOs. After a few days I refined the idea down to just moving the limbs of a person instead of a robot and using swords instead of lasers," Kew said.
The game can be played online here, and is currently collecting votes on Steam Greenlight. Prior to the game's appearance at PAX Australia, the game had been collecting sceptical comments on Steam, criticising the unfinished appearance.
After a day at PAX, the Rivalry booth was packed with people wanting to play, and, as you can see from more recent Greenlight comments, they had a tremendous time.
"The response from the PAX crowd was overwhelmingly positive. The first day we were swamped with enthusiastic players. We had three machines going and there was rarely an empty line," James said.
"The second day we were mobbed by people who had heard about it from friends and people who kept coming back. We had an issue on the first two days with people not being able to see the game, so I went dumpster diving with a friend to get parts to Macgyver a monitor stand to raise one of the screens up high so people at the back could see."
Not only did the game win some positive feedback, it also generated some helpful suggestions from players.
"Many people suggested new features such as adding a playback feature after a fight had ended which was probably the most suggested feature, and others suggested more wacky ideas such as adding the ability to drown in your own blood," Kew said. "A lot of people would tell me that the core gameplay is perfect and that I shouldn't change that much because it might ruin the experience and the awkwardness is what makes it so funny and appealing."
The game is just about ready, and will be released shortly after it reaches Greenlit status. At some point, Kew would like to be able to pay an artist to create better art for the game, but at this stage, the core gameplay is top priority. After that, he intends to continue making games.
"Game development is something I definitely want to continue doing in the future," he said. "After Rivalry (which might be quite a while), I hope to help my dad with his game that he is currently working on."