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EPXCON 2014 Postmortem

Making a public appearance as an indie developer for the first time ever is terrifying and exciting all at once. In my post, I talk a bit about my experience at the University of Iowa's EPXCON and what I learned from it.

This is a cross-post from my personal blog at eaneuhaus.com.

About two weeks ago, one of my coworkers approached me and asked if I had heard about EPXCON, an annual game and animation convention event run by the University of Iowa's EPX Studio. I replied, "Totally, I'm actually going to have a prototype on display at the Iowa City Public Library's booth. It's super exciting."

"Well, yeah, but what do you think about having your own booth?"

--

On the morning of the second day of EPXCON 2014, I arrived at Art Building West, tired and afraid that I had bit off more than I could chew. The week leading up to the event was a roller coaster of emotions: First, I was like, "This will be fun!" I made some plans and thought that everything would go smoothly. However, I failed to realize how much time I would need to actually gather all the necessary equipment, get a banner and business cards designed and printed, tweak my two games for touch compatibility (as well as finish the prototype for the library)...

Oh, and did I mention we were wrapping up our latest release, as well?

--

In retrospect, agreeing to attend EPXCON was probably fairly ill-advised for a lot of reasons (most evident in my slight total failure to take care of my school obligations), but I made it happen. When the day of the event arrived, I was there with equipment, banner, business cards, and (mostly) working demo builds in tow. And thanks to the tireless efforts of my amazing team, I had a shiny new Crystal Control to show off.

Speaking of my amazing team, it's unfortunate that none of them were able to attend the event with me, but luckily my roommate Madde stepped up to the plate and really helped me keep it together the night before. I was already quite close to becoming a sobbing mess while trying to get Lonk to run on a tablet with any level of virtual competency, but I'm pretty sure I would have been up all night if she hadn't taken the reigns on inventory duty.

--

Madde and I plopped down our collection of boxes and bags behind the table and began to set up. While the "Interactive Play Lounge", as it was called, was not open on Friday night, I was smart enough to drop by anyway and get a feel for the space. The tables were way larger than I had expected. That was a nice surprise. The other surprise, however...I couldn't quite decide how nice it was.

The table marked with an unassuming little sign that read "Virtually Competent" was right next to the entrance. Like, immediately in front of the door. First thing you see. No pressure.

Of course, if that second surprise wasn't enough to make me sweat, the third surprise most certainly did. The sign on the table next to mine read "That Dragon, Cancer". 

I'm pretty sure all color drained from my face right then. I felt a little ill.

I'm not going to try and describe this particular game for fear that my words simply could not do it justice, so I'll simply recommend you visit the game's site for more info (seriously, if you don't know about this game already, stop reading my thing and go check it out now).

Don't misinterpret my reaction. All at once, I was honored to share a space with someone from the game's team, but also embarrassed that I'd be demoing something called "Dikdik" next to such a serious and important title. What have I gotten myself into?

--

I began to unpack the tablet mounts and clamp them onto the table before realizing that I should probably first figure out where I want to place the mini-projection screen. Far left end of the table? No, then people can't see it right away when they enter the room. Far right end of the table? No, then it'll block my booth neighbors, and that's not very nice. Center? No, then I can't pull the projector back far enough to get a nice, big image (and even if I did, I'd have to leave it precariously perched on the front edge of the table).

A lot more planning was required to arrange the equipment than I had expected. The tablet that showed off our first release, Dikdik, had to have enough breathing room to allow two players to stand in front of it, while the tablet that showed off our Flappy Jam entry, Lonk's Awakening, didn't have the same constraint (as it only supports one player). Both tablets also had to avoid monopolizing on the projector's space, as our new release, Crystal Control, was a two player ordeal as well.

Since the walls were white and it quickly became obvious that we did not have the right kind of space on our table for the projection screen, Madde and I agreed that it would be fine if we just projected it on the wall behind us (as long as we were mindful about not walking in front of it). This freed up enough space to place the two tablets with the proper amount of elbow room.

--

There were a lot of great guests at EPXCON, but unfortunately, being responsible for your own table at an event like that means you can't attend all the cool talks they put on throughout the day. I was able to sneak away for both of Brian Colin's (Rampage, General Chaos, Xenophobe) talks, but for the most part, I was glued to my post, ready to shake hands and talk about what we do at (with?) Virtually Competent.

There were a few minor hiccups in our operations that made our first few guests have sort of a rocky experience (sorry guys!), including one of the Xbox controllers for Crystal Control failing to work immediately. I figured it was likely a driver issue of some sort, but the fact that I couldn't get the computer on Wi-Fi immediately sort of made that difficult to troubleshoot.

After a bit of doing, I was able to easily resolve both problems (as well as a few other ones that popped up), but I learned a few lessons in the process:

  • Test EVERYTHING before the day of the event. The controller was from a third-party manufacturer, so I should have known it would have issues. Testing it at home and finding out it wasn't working the night before would have given me an opportunity to fix it on a working internet connection.
  • Prepare backup plans. I was unwise to not bring a third controller as backup (or perhaps a second controller that wasn't third-party), but I was wise enough to save a local copy of Crystal Control to the computer (as opposed to relying on the web-based version). Of course, it wasn't ideal since the local version ran in a window (while the web version can go full screen), but it did at least allow me to get one problem under crystal control while I panicked about the other problem. Which brings me to my next lesson...
  • DON'T PANIC. As mentioned at the beginning, I was pretty tired and nervous coming into the event that morning. This amplified my stress levels when something went wrong, which made me less efficient at troubleshooting the problem (which is especially embarrassing for me, who does IT support for a day job). Getting on Wi-Fi was as simple as connecting to the University's "setup" network and following the prompts, but I was panicking so much that I forgot that step.
  • Make sure your helpers know how to troubleshoot. If you have to leave the booth, make sure you leave your helpers with enough information to deal with any hardware/software failures that might arise. At one point pretty early in the day, I left Madde to go to a talk and got a message ten minutes in that Lonk had locked up. I didn't want to try to explain how to kill an Android app over a text message, so I recommended that she try powering it off and powering it back on. Luckily, that worked, but it would have gone a lot more smoothly if I had told her how to deal with that beforehand.
  • You will probably forget SOMETHING. Be resourceful. Despite Madde doing an excellent job gathering everything I wrote on my checklist the night before (and adding some extra things that I didn't even think of), there's no way either of us could have prepared for every issue that could possibly arise. One such issue was the fact that picking up the wired Xbox controllers would inevitably pull on my projector/mini-PC combo (which you can find here on Newegg, by the way, if you were one of the many people who were asking about it) and severely misalign the projected image. If we had considered this, we would have brought some zip-ties to manage the cables better. Since we didn't have any, however, I improvised by simply tying the controller cables themselves around one of the table legs (which kept any tugs on the controller end from reaching the computer).

Now that I've rambled on about how to prepare for things going wrong, let me talk about how to do things right:

  • Develop a "spiel" and get used to saying it...a lot. Having never done anything like this before, I had no idea how to manage my interactions with so many people. I've been to conventions before and talked with people at booths, but it never really occurred to me that the first things they say to me are likely the same that they said to the last guy. There's nothing wrong with that, though; Being able to go on auto-pilot for a minute to explain what you're all about ("Hey, the game on the end is single player, while the two over here are two player. If you don't have anyone to play with, I'd be happy to play with you! And make sure you take some business cards with you before you leave..."), is a good thing because after you're finished going over the basics, you can start answering questions they may be left with.
  • Get some pictures of people playing! Ask them for permission first, of course, but do ask. Not only do the pictures look good on your website/Facebook page, the fact that the visitor knows that their picture may be online may make them curious enough to check the page (if they weren't going to do so already). I've only tagged one person (a friend I already knew) in our Facebook album, and that picture alone got nearly 300 hits just from popping up on her feed (and her friends' feeds).
  • Observe trends and get feedback! Undoubtedly, one of the most valuable parts of my experience at EPXCON was getting to watch so many people play our games and being able to ask them what they liked/didn't like. Both Dikdik and Crystal Control have some really crippling user interface issues (players had a hard time learning controls or navigating menus) that we never realized before. Also, don't be afraid to ask fellow developers to come by and check out your stuff! There were a lot of talented people there that have been doing this a lot longer than I have and each of them had a lot of helpful wisdom to impart. It was kind of scary to ask Josh Larson (That Dragon, Cancer) and Brian Colin to play with me, but they ended up being super friendly and happy to answer my questions and offer suggestions to improve our games.

The nine hours that I spent at EPXCON '14 flew by. No sooner did we get all set up, it seemed like people were flooding into the space and taking interest in all of our titles (and even when it slowed down, I still had a great time chatting with the folks over at Shapetrix Entertainment and bitDungeon and everyone else I mentioned earlier). It was a great experience for so many reasons.

I already said it on Twitter, but I'll say it again: Thank you so much, everyone who stopped by Virtually Competent's table! It was truly inspiring to hear so many kind words and see such a diverse group of people take interest in what we do. I remember vividly that a few people said something along the lines of "man, your stuff is really cool...I wish I could do that" and every single time, I responded: "You can!"

There are a multitude of free tools you can find RIGHT NOW that will let you make games of your own with little to know programming knowledge required. All of Virtually Competent's games are built in Scirra's Construct 2, which is super easy to learn. Please, if you have a game idea that you'd like to make a reality, give Construct (or any number of the other free tools available) a shot and see how it turns out. The most important thing is just making something...anything. I've heard that advice preached by all sorts of famous developers and I can't stress it enough.

If I convinced even one person to download Construct and try their hand at game development from my appearance at EPXCON, then I will consider my attendance worthwhile.

I'm realizing that I'm horrible at remembering names now that the event has passed, but please don't hesitate to contact me via Twitter or Tumblr/Twitter or like us on Facebook.

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