I've been to a few expo/con-type things in the past - chiefly, the MCM show that they have in London a couple of times a year.
I went to the Doctor Who 50th anniversary event in London, and was lucky enough to visit to the Star Wars Celebration in Florida a few years back (although, regrettably, that happened to coincide with the worst holiday of my life). Beyond trade shows, though, this was the first time that I'd ever attended a thingy that was purely about the gaming.
Naturally, the geek lines tend to get blurry at these sorts of occasions. As well as the games, there were celebrity guests from the worlds of Star Wars and Doctor Who. The ubiquitous Dave Prowse was there of course.
Alas, given the slightly distressing lack of queue to meet him, it was hard not to feel he might've signed all the "Dave Prowse Is Darth Vader" autographs the world might ever need. Seemingly, there was about as much clamour to meet him as there was for the bloke who stood immobile as Bossk in Empire Strikes Back for a memorable three seconds of screen time. And he was naked from the waist down!
All those kids cosplaying in their worbla bras and knickers, holding 'free hugs' signs... I'd have either come across like pensioner infiltrating a school disco, or tried so hard to avoid looking like a dirty old man that my neck ended up snapping.
The joy of Play for me is that the audience is a spread between the younger ones who are there to play new Indie titles and collectible card games, and the older audience that is there to immerse themselves in the old games. I felt at home.
Play still took me by surprise though. I'd expected the usual stalls selling tat that none of us need, but many of us want. You know: the t-shirts and posters of questionable legality, the collectibles, the replica swords...
Yet I hadn't anticipated the sheer number of old games that would be there - just sat on tables, free to pick up and lick. Name a system, and they had it. Binatone. Colecovision. I finally got to play on an Intellivision, a Vectrex and an Amstrad GX4000 - all of which managed to disappoint to varying degrees. I brushed my stinky fingers over a ZX Spectrum and a CD32 for the first time in decades.
I saw old arcade games that made me squirt with excitement: a couple of Virtuality units, Return of the Jedi, Spy Hunter... I played Tron for only the third time in my life. And it wasn't just arcade games, but electronic games - Tomy's Pac-Man, Astro Wars - and old board games: Perfection, Buckaroo, Screwball Scramble...
To many, these names will mean nothing. To those who were able to see them in the flesh for the first time, despite coveting them from afar as children - or for the first time in many, many years - the nostalgia would've been profound.
At least, it was for me. It's hard to explain that feeling. Just seeing those systems, and the games running on them, I felt a surge of something lovely and comforting. A momentary emotional trip back in time, when life was easier, lighter, newer. It was like encountering the ghost of a beloved grandparent.
I would've gladly gone to the Play Expo for the show itself, had I known what it was like.
As it was, I was there on the invitation of Replay Events to take part in an on-stage Q&A with Paul Drury of Retro Gamer. Paul had interviewed me years ago, but he hadn't given anything away as to his line of questioning this time.
He preferred that I remain spontaneous - no doubt recalling the way in which my gob tends to run away with my brain, and how that might make for good entertainment.
I'm by no means an expert at public speaking, mind. I've done a few talks in schools, a couple of events talking about writing kids TV, and it's always feels a bit strange and unnatural to me. I'm certainly not comfortable with being in that sort of spotlight - rightly or wrong, I don't think I deserve it. I'm striving to get over that as I find my feet with the Digitiser2000 YouTube videos. Age helps massively; I've become a lot less self-conscious.
So, I wasn't particularly nervous as such. Generally, not a lot makes me nervous. I was more mildly anxious over whether enough people would show up, convinced that there'd only be a handful in the audience. The potential public embarrassment of that - and letting down the organisers' faith in Digitiser's enduring popularity (or lack of) - were the only things I feared. I needn't have worried on that score.
SLEEP NO MORE
Unfortunately, I'd slept appallingly the night before. At the best of times, I never sleep well on the first night in an unfamiliar hotel room. This coupled to the banshee-like shrieks from a wedding a few floors below, and pillows that reeked somewhat of cigarettes, and I stumbled into Manchester's EventCity venue with all the dynamism of a mogadonised beetroot.
Frankly, I'd woken up with a godawful headache, and I was slightly concerned that I wouldn't be high-powered enough, or engaging enough, or funny enough, or that I might accidentally be rude to somebody. That even if people did show up, they'd bugger off halfway through, bored of my slurred rambling, or having taken unintended offence.
My other half, who is no stranger to my anecdotes and unintended offensiveness, assured me otherwise - and thank god she was proven right: every seat was filled, and there were even people standing at the back.
Digitiser was a long time ago now, and though Digitiser2000 has its readers, we're hardly massive. Plus I'd been away from the gaming scene for almost eight years before I returned last year. I've no right to have expected anyone to show up to anything I do. But show up they did. So thank you to everyone who came along.
Dosed up on Nurofen and caffeine as I was, I think it went about as well as it could've done. Paul and his colleague Martyn Carroll had put together an excellent set of visual prompts. Thanks to those, I was able to waffle at length, and recover after opening the talk with an inappropriate, irrelevant, and swiftly curtailed, anecdote about a Facebook video post I'd seen that morning, which had showed a tortoise having intimate relations with a rollerboot.
Still, I successfully went on to inadvertently out myself as Hitler, and be slightly too indiscreet, as I have a tendency to be, about my lavatory habits. And, hopefully, reveal a few previously unknown things about the Digitiser story inbetween.
I've no real idea how it went down - on stage, I could hear or see nothing of the audience - but enough people came up afterwards to say lovely things, and grab a photo and some freebie stickers, that it made it all worthwhile. To be in a position where people - strangers - tell you they enjoy your work is a rare privilege.
I know how scary it can be; I've only ever done it myself on one occasion - to the Doctor Who writer Paul Cornell. I hope he appreciated it as much as I appreciated everyone who came to say the same to me... from people I know from Twitter, to old mates from my games journo days, to those who just happened to be there.
Ultimately, I had a brilliant time doing the talk, and if Replay Events ever want me back, I'll be there in a shot.
Stay tuned to our YouTube Channel - we should have the panel up for you later today, along with some highlights of the show (we were told off for filming Dark Souls III, but you might just get a glimpse of it).