On 8-9th May this year, third edition of Digital Dragons game industry conference happened in Kraków (Poland). I was on all of them, second time as an indie. It was the best Digital Dragons, hands down. Why? Basically, no errors have been made. This is my attempt at quite detailed coverage. Also it's reminder for myself, do's and dont's for next events, lessons learned and maybe some good tips for others.
Little background: I came with special build of Ninja Cat and Zombie Dinosaurs PowerPack - new dinosaur (Archeopteryx), new powerup (dynamite), first equipment (spiders), some bugfixes, and all the things prepared in Pixel Heaven version (new ninja cat, vignette in underground, color mapping in water, blood stains on screen when player damaged, yada yada). I was hoping for finding someone who will help me with distributing the PowerPack electronically, so that players can buy it. Also I wanted to promote the game further across player and dev community.
Indies were put in two long rows of tables, in the center of the main event hall. There were around 30 indie teams, from one-man-army doing things after work (The Miners), to 5-10 people teams with external investor (Gloria Victis). Each indie had one table to present game - not a lot of place, so things were crowded. We had electricity plugs underneath, and internet in the air.
My girlfriend Martyna, was helping me with booth. Without her help my throat at the end of the day would be like black metal singer. I would be grumpier than many cats, for answering the same questions ("will it be available for mobiiiile?") and introducing game mechanics over and over again (I hate repeating myself). And I wouldn't be able to attend any lectures or play other indie games. Thank you darling! I think that having at least 2 people at fairs is a must. I saw few other indies were alone, and I know from experience that it's not good. Pro tip: try at least to get a help from friend or gamedev colleague for a few hours.
I wanted to have unique booth, so I hand drawn this zombie TRex, instead of printing yet another flashy rollup with helvetica (or calibri) and flat design. I spent 16+ hours looking for references, drawing small mockups, then going progressively bigger - up to B0. I was planning to make it in colors, then as time was low - only in pencil, but redraw it on another piece of paper... eventually I had to use the unfinished prototype :D Some people commented on it, and I think it was nice complement to the booth (when it was not falling down on us).
However, it didn't make sense to take my huge ergonomic divided keyboard MS Natural 4000 (only one person used it), nor the dinosaurs album. Nice idea about presenting your game that I've seen when other devs were showing me their games: explaining how to play while showing trailer. It has the advantage that trailer in one minute can show most of the features of the game, whereas in my case player would have to play half an hour, to see every dinosaur, powerup, level style, feature etc. So player can get much more excited watching trailer, than playing tutorial level. My usual plan was to explain the gameplay while player started playing on easy level. Maybe next time I will try trailer approach a few times, to have a comparison.
What went really right is the staged tournament: who will have most points at level 4, will win cool Ninja Cat mug. At first it was at hard difficulty, but then seeing most people can't even finish 10% of this level (beginning is hardest though) I decided to lower it to medium. Then again, most people died in the first 20%. It can be because that they are used to other keyboard, they were distracted, the game is too hard, they can't touch type... or generally suck at typing :D
Note: competitions with prizes are great, do them often. It makes visitors emotionally attached to their performance, they care and treat the game (and you) more seriously. Hmmm, looks like gamification of game booth to me :) I made a similar tournament at Poznan Game Arena 2013 for T-shirt, and players loved it. It was very popular, many players regularly came back and asked whether their result was beaten. Some were looking at others playing and cheerleading them. Players who won or got good results are happy and also will tell their friends about your game etc. Huge win for the developer who has this situation. People are competitive and respond to challenges, so use that psychology hack wisely. Anyway, list with the best results:
And the winner issssss.... Michał Gardeła, of new studio Moonlit, who I know from KrakJam and Shader. He scored 15514 points. Second place was Dominik, former CD-Projekt AI programmer - he had only 129 points less. I was third with 14398, but later with Michał and Dominik we did a second round on hard, and there I was the clear winner, as it should be ;) Anyway, Michał won the mug, and we did the award giving ceremony at main DD stage (after everyone was gone :P)
There were also other competitions, sponsored by DD. Some judges (veterans, industry luminaries, press) were visiting us and playing every game. Also every person had one sticker to give to a game/team they think deserves to win. I got some, but not the most.
As for the lectures, I was at half of panel about PR and marketing your games (because I suck at it - take a look at my homepage or my facebook fanpage fans count), and here are three things I noted:
- Video trailer is pretty important - you still need text, screenshots etc., but the video should be your focus.
- Youtube is big. Youtubers might be better for your game promotion than so called traditional gaming media.
- Twitch.tv is going to be even bigger. It's essentially your own channel in digital TV, where lots of player eyes are looking
So now everyone heads off to Adobe to buy Premiere or After Effects, get rid of few thousand bucks and learn how to montage crazy awesome clips...
Also I was on Adrian Chmielarz's lecture (last third of it) and the first thing I observed, was the utter silence on the quite big hall. Everyone was listening in focus. Adrian was talking about narrative structures in games, how to tell stories that enhance gameplay (and vice versa), or so I understood. Funny was the mention of diegetic storytelling - it reminded me of diegetic UI, simple concept with cool name. I love UX stuff.
He also showed some gameplay from Vanishing of Ethan Carter, the Astronauts first title. Later I caught occasion to have photo with this polish gd star :) although I forgot to introduce myself. Maybe next time.
As day was coming to an end (btw, weather was perfect), the usual afterparty thing started to loom more often in discussions. I bought Expo pass (poor indie), so I wasn't allowed for the official afterparty, nor some of the lectures. Also I couldn't find the alternative Atari-online afterpaty that was close (as I was told), so I went back home. I was loaded with energy, so I didn't sleep well :] it was very good day for me. Heard that some party animals finished the afterparty at 4 in the night, so I guess they had rocky sleep as well.
Random observation #1: Unity is very popular, multiplatform, tools and documentation are state of the art, they are actively developing their technology, they have wildly active community, the plugin penetration goes higher. I see some teams (ie. Evil Indie Games) make very good use of it. However, most of the games look very similar. You can even tell most of the Unity games by looks (shading, obviously GUI). Hmmm, something to ponder for future projects. Curious if they will change their pricing politics, in response to recent Epic and Crytek moves.
Second day was even better, I was prepared for what to expect, and people seemed more conversational (maybe the evening afterparty helped with that). They were playing my game and the feedback was gold. I got lots of gameplay, design and business advice. The tone and content was very positive. Some people were even saying "take it to Steam, there's perfect audience for this kind of game" :D It was really encouraging. I'm not ready now for Steam/Greenlight, but in a few months, who knows.
The crowd at Digital Dragons who was visiting me was mostly developers, press, and some publishers. Lots of familiar faces. Big difference to Poznan Game Arena, where 96% were players. At DD people didn't come to play your game (to find nice entertainment), but show off theirs, or make some business. Until I realized that and started ie. asking where are they from and what they are doing here, I probably missed some opportunities trying to get them obsessed with my project.
A lot of people asked me for mobile version of Ninja Cat, which is kinda irritating. Perhaps I should make separate post why I don't want to solo/indie develop for mobile, but quickly: it's overcrowded and getting noticed is ****** hard, you need luck/publisher with willingness to do some real marketing work, or luck/press contacts. Whole mobile industry seems to me to be a balloon... everyone is doing it, and this is alarming. In stock market when that is happening, it's a sign that the disaster is going to happen. Sure, some people make a lot of money there, but on the other side there are 100's more of those who sold 14 copies and went bankrupt (and you don't hear about them). Visibility is everything, and tell me how to promote a 347th version of the same game...
I think the artistic values of games are lost when zillions of game developers try to make the another women 18-35 focused, match-3, fappy bird (typo intentional), one-button-masher, racing, tower defense etc. copying off each other, whoever or whatever is now popular. I didn't become indie because I like producing crap, going with the crowd and hoping for easy money. It's easy to earn money in gamedev (just work for big western company or even polish one, they also send regular paychecks); the problem is making cool games, trying to innovate, and making money (as an indie). You may say, I'm a dreamer... ;)
Anyway, enough ranting. If I had a fast & easy way to port Ninja Cat to mobiles, I could try it (hell, why not). Flash / AIR allows to build mobile version (even iOS), so technically it's possible. But porting this kind of game would require total remap of control mechanics (typing at keyboard with all keys -> small touch screen) and lots of content changes, so it's like a half year, boring, annoying project. I think that's rather obvious, but still people (devs!) were helplessly asking me about mobile version. I'd rather polish graphics, work on new features, make fantastic game on PC, and go with it on Steam.
Random observation #2: funky hats are all the rage this year. My beanie seems so 2013!
The organizers learned two lessons from last year: 1) there were much more people allowed to attend (800 vs 350) so the event was lively 2) indies were clearly visible, in one place and easy to find (you could even say they were in the center of attention). To be fair: last year indie situation was most probably forced by the Arteteka floor-plan. Also, on DD 2014 there was Indie Big Pitch (for mobiles), the day before, and HP was borrowing laptops (really helped me). BIG THANK YOU for helping indie devs, KPT, DD and sponsors!
I think one thing that could be improved is the price for Dev pass (90 EUR early bird, 120 regular) - some people were complaining about it, that it's too much difference over Expo (30 early, 50 regular), for attending 2 more lecture tracks and afterparty. Ok, I know that pricing is controversial topic, and for some whoever mentions that something is too expensive is hippie not working student, who needs to get real because things are NOT FREE. Whatever. As explained above, I think the cost/benefit ratio of Dev over Expo was too high. What helped is that DD made a lot of price promotions. But, it seems others were willing to pay premium for some more lectures and afterparty, because when I arrived first day at registration desk, there were more people in the Biz queue (120 early, 200 regular) than Expo queue, and the Dev queue was easily the longest.
To repeat myself a little, but stress a point: competitions were well organized - industry luminaries were walking from booth to booth, playing the games and talking with devs. Heaven - look at the photo below. Do you know who this guy with glasses is? Yep, it's Jason Della Rocca. I almost once got a chance to bring him to my booth. Damn it, another missed opportunity... but at least had this opportunity.
Allowing the community to vote was perfect choice. Also 800-900 people.. quite a crowd, but not too much. And it's probably 99% gamedev people, so great place if you want contacts in industry (I don't want to count how many business cards I exchanged), not so good if you want build fanbase (+4 fans on facebook - diff for me; update: after posting this relation, it became hot thing and I got 10 more) of players. There were quite a lot of foreigners, and English was used during all the lectures and panels. I heard the recordings of lectures will be available on internet, just like last year.
I made more photos, you can see them on facebook. Yesterday I went through all of my business cards, visited websites, send few emails. Perhaps one of them will help me release paid version of Ninja Cat to the world. But even if that doesn't happen, it was still worthwhile to attend Digital Dragons 2014.
PS Cheers to indie guys from Cyber Sentinel (this game fcuked my mind), Evil Indie Games (really pro prototype made in... 3 weeks? and some great advice), The Miners (game from one man studio with touch of genius), King Zebra (rescuing unicorn from pack of narwhals won my heart), Moonlit (promising kayak game with unique steering, and speed-killing hundreds of zombie dinos) and to 2 girls behind the monster-cookie-bakery, who made lovely polished game for kids (Foodo Kitchen), which as I learned won the Indie Big Pitch the day before.