I hadn’t planned to attend Gamescom, but when the opportunity to exhibit Hyper Sentinel in the Retro Zone came up, I decided to take the plunge.
I knew it was going to be intense. After all, with Jonathan Port and John Ogden looking after the stand at Insomnia 61 (which coincides with Gamescom), I was going to be heading out to Cologne alone, dragging a tonne of Hewson Consultants paraphernalia with me.
So, I did what any sensible person does when faced with a daunting expedition such as this, I ignored the problem until the last possible minute. Indeed, it was only when an email arrived from the airline 72-hours ahead of my flight that I really began to think about the trip. That email fired the starting gun for a spectacular series of self-inflicted disasters, occasionally punctuated by the sweet relief of triumph over adversity:
Whilst filling out the online checkin-form, I discovered that my passport had expired – cue a lot of swearing.
In my panic, I managed to book not one but two appointments for an emergency passport for the morning before my flight, and had my credit card charged for both. More swearing.
The passport office meant a 2.5 hour drive (each way) from Manchester to Durham, but while waiting for my shiny new passport, I had time to explore the town on a sunny day, and it turns out Durham is jaw-droppingly beautiful!
Thanks to the heft of the aforementioned Hewson Consultants paraphernalia, my suitcase was a spine-splitting 35kg. At the check-in desk, I was told that the limit for checked luggage was 32kg, and thus I set about transferring 3kg of goods to my already stuffed backpack which, along with the two roll up banners I for some inexplicable reason decided to carry instead of check-in, left me with me the distinct impression that I was splitting the concrete beneath my feet as I trudged through the airport.
Sonic Mania on Nintendo Switch while speeding through the sky in a large metal tube powered by dead dinosaurs. Glorious!
The inertia of landing in Cologne was apparently enough to eject my brand-new headphones off of my lap, beneath the seats in front of me and through a portal to another dimension, never to be seen again.
Just when I thought I had finally arrived, my AirBnB host phoned to say that she was standing outside her place, at number 28 like she told me, but I was not there. I assumed I had got the wrong street, and proceeded to drag the heaviest suitcase in the world plus backpack plus banners around the block several times before returning to the same street and finally realising she had been saying 20A, not 28, the whole time.
After dragging the heaviest suitcase in the world across Cologne and up lots of stairs, I finally found my exhibitor pass, my stand and managed to setup a rather lovely Hewson Consultants display before heading off for meetings.
Having gone without food for about 20 hours, the blissful, blood-sugar boosting relief of a chocolate muffin and a raspberry smoothie, followed by very successful meetings with big, important industry people, propelled me back to my stand with a spring it my step.
I began to setup Hyper Sentinel and discovered that I had brought the wrong HDMI to DVI adapter. Fortunately, the first day of Gamescom is only open to the industry, so I still had time to find a replacement before the public were let loose the next day.
With help from the lovely guys from SceneWorld.Org I located a “Music Store” which apparently had the adapter I needed in stock. Armed with Google maps and a determination to save money on taxis wherever possible, I strode off into Cologne.
Unfortunately, after discovering that Google maps is utterly useless in Cologne, I suddenly remembered that I was a ginger man without any sun block on an extremely hot day in a city I’d never visited before. I spent the next hour or so darting from shadow to shadow like a lunatic and squinting suspiciously at the painfully slow-moving clouds to ascertain if and when one might drift mercifully between my scorched skin and that giant Nuclear fusion reactor in the sky.
After throwing caution to the wind and speed-walking across the final stretch of sun-bleached concrete, I plunged into the air-conditioned relief of the gargantuan Music Store. I was momentarily perplexed when several Germans in succession approached me and began asking me questions which I couldn’t understand, before realising that they had all mistaken me for a member of staff because of the Gamescom Exhibitor lanyard dangling around my neck. I shoved it into my back pocket and found what I was looking for at the electronic desk on the fourth floor of the superstore. Mission accomplished!
I returned to the exhibition centre a wiser and somewhat crispier man, and with Hyper Sentinel now running on my stand, I turned my attention to the C64 I had brought to run some classic Hewson games alongside it. Although I had tested the C64 successfully before Gamescom, a series of technical issues hampered my progress.
Christian Gleinser, who had offered to lend me a C64 monitor was unfortunately ill and couldn’t attend the show, but he went out of his way to hook me up with Michael from Dragon Box who kindly came to my rescue.
From there, Lars Grüttgen of the German Remix Group went above and beyond to help me get everything up and running, lending me replacement power supplies and a disk drive as a substitute for my two temperamental datasettes. Lars, like me, was looking after his stand alone for the entire event, and thus became my Gamecom brother-in-arms.
Although we eventually lost the battle to keep the C64 running, the fact that we got it running at all is thanks entirely to these fine gentlemen and the attitude of comradery which Lars summoned up perfectly; “this is the retro scene, we are all one big family”.
Although I have exhibited at several UK events on my own, they are usually a day or two long and close each day before 6pm. Gamescom was five days long, and the retro zone was open from 9am until 8pm each day.
By the end of day one, having eaten only a chocolate muffin and a hotdog in the space of 30 hours, it was beginning to dawn on me that this time I really had bitten off more than I could chew, particularly as I had booked myself into several networking parties in the evenings throughout the week.
As I walked the seemingly endless corridors of Gamescom searching for an exit, I decided that my priority had to be nourishment, and that there was bound to be food at the Steel Media party I was due to attend that evening. Then, as I finally reached the exit of the colossal Koelnmesse exhibitions centre (which is composed of 11 gigantic halls, from what I could ascertain), I realised that I had left the keys to my AirBnB apartment in my jacket pocket back on my stand. So, I haggled my way back through the one-way barriers, battled upstream against the flow of thousands of attendees and stomped my way across the litter-strewn floor of hall 10 back towards my stand.
By the time I had walked for half an hour to the venue for the Steel Media party (getting a taxi was a non-starter) there were just two spring rolls left in the buffet. As I reached for the crispy treats, my metal tongs were blocked by a rival pair held by a very tall, very hungry looking man. I looked up and exchanged a grimace with my rival, but somehow his friendly, jovial face melted my facade into a smile and a laugh, and we decided to share our bounty and exchange pleasantries.
As I drifted back into the crowd away from my chance encounter I realised that I had recognised the man, but couldn’t put my finger on how or where I knew him from. It was only later that I realised my spring roll chomping friend was none other than Charles Martinet, the voice of Mario. Mama-mia!
Back on the stand, the newly implemented Survival Mode, which we debuted publicly at Gamescom for the first time, was a massive success! A stretch goal on our Kickstarter campaign, Survival is an endless fight against the clock, and we had many players returning time and again to raise the bar and set a new best time. It was fascinating to watch players master new techniques and we gathered lots of great feedback to help us polish back at base. My personal favourite moment, captured in the video below, shows a player so engrossed in the pursuit of a record time that he practically flips the table when he falls just short. Result!
It is always privilege to meet Kickstarter backers at events, and at Gamescom I had the pleasure of acquainting myself with more of our supporters and to chat to them about our progress with the game. Hyper Sentinel wouldn’t be possible without them, and there is nothing more rewarding than meeting the people who value your work highly enough to support it.
At the Nordic industry party, I decided to get into the swing of things and participate in a little Mariokee with the always awesome Quang from Asobi.Tech. I chose “The Power of Love” as our song, assuming quite naturally that the pun-powered lyrics would be based on the Nintendo Power Glove. Turns out it was about freemium games and in-app-purchases. The audience, who had been raucous up until that point, didn’t seem to get it. I’m not sure I did either! I mean come on, the Power Glove people!
However, the biggest disaster was my food choice. After a long day at Gamescom, I thought a pizza was in order, but the only variety they had left was apple and raisin. Whoever decided to put these on a pizza needs to go home and rethink their life. Yuck!
Thanks to Quang, I met a bunch of great people, including his brilliant roommate Colin, the awesome Jupiter and her lovely husband Lewis. We went out for delicious meals together, hit up the Amazon party and Colin, who is a Star Citizen fan, located the Bar Citizen event. I hoped I might bump into some of my former TT Fusion colleagues from the dev team, but it wasn’t to be. Still, it was great to witness the passion of their community up close.
After manning the Hyper Sentinel stand alone, for 11 hours per day, for 4 days straight, the inevitable happened. On the Friday night, I felt ill and stayed up all night gargling salt water with the kind of sore throat which makes swallowing a constant source of anxiety. The following night, the sore throat had gone, only to be replaced with a horrendous fever and chest pain unlike anything I had experienced before. Indeed I’m pretty sure I remember semi-hallucinating that I was being pinned to a table by the crew of the Nostromo as an Xenomorph attempted to burst out of my rib cage.
Although I had shifted several copies of our book Hints & Tips for Videogame Pioneers, my suitcase remained depressingly heavy as I packed up the stand and headed for the exit of Gamescom for the last time. Then, as it thump-thump-thumped its way back down the steps I had wrestled it up at the beginning of the week, the telescopic handle designed for pulling it along on its wheels finally buckled under the pressure, bending and ultimately snapping clean off in my hands. I felt like a tragic character from a cheesy 1990s sitcom, staring pathetically at the twisted metal clamped tightly in my fist as the canned audience laughter swirled around me.
When I finally got back home to Manchester I was exhausted, full of a cold and mentally drained. It took me over a week to recover, not least because my ears refused to pop after my flight, rendering me semi-deaf.
When I look back at my journey, it is not difficult to see that most, if not all, of the disasters could have been avoided if I had decided to reserve some of my brain capacity for actually planning the logistics of the trip. However, even though my final tally of triumphs versus disasters is 10-10, I am reminded that the disasters, though excruciating at the time, were merely fleeting moments which will morph into entertaining anecdotes in the end. The triumphs on the other hand – making friends, meeting backers, watching new players becoming enthralled by our game and building important business connections – these are all things which will endure and resonate into the future.
Gamescom 2018? Bring it on.