Burning Sky Games had a great start to the new year at the Music and Gaming Festival (MAGFest)! Our team kept a booth running for three days straight, allowing guests to play Runaway at any time of day (or night). It proved an incredible experience and one we hope to do again next year. Here’s what stood out to our rookie team the most:
1. Don't come alone!
If you’re going to a short event, you might be able to get away with manning the booth yourself. I know I have, and it’s usually not too bad. But MAGFest is not a short event. It’s 3 days (72 hours to be exact) during which your game could be running. Sure, you only need someone at your booth for 21 hours of that, but that’s still a long time. And with as much as there is to do at MAGFest (checking out other games, exploring the art vendor space, networking, and parties, just to name a few things), you won’t want to just sit at your booth the whole time. You’ll tire yourself out, so your whole schedule will just be “Wake up. Watch the booth. Go to bed. Repeat,” and that’s not good. Bring at least one other person. We had a team of four, which also allowed us to engage more groups and take turns to save our voices.
2. It's not just a booth. It's a booth presence.
You can get by with just the basics — a computer, a screen, and some controllers — but that won’t attract people to your booth. You’re battling against all the other teams there for guests’ attention, and you’re only going to win if you go big. We were constrained by both a budget and whatever I could bring on the train alone to get there, so we didn’t have a lot. But we still brought a tablecloth, a couple of standing vinyl banners, a 23” monitor, desktop speakers, and a bunch of postcards and business cards. We kept things rather simple, not having the capacity for extra chairs much less a couch. But once we got there, we picked up some markers, sticky notes, and a board to create a makeshift graffiti wall, just as a little something to set ourselves apart and give the guests a way to engage with us and our game. This gave our booth more verticality and brighter colors too. We know have some great goals to increase our booth presence, such as a nice start screen for the game with an attract loop, and a second machine running the game so that more people could play at once.
3. Keep your game running the full 24 hours.
They give you the option, so you should use it. And believe me, the guests will too. It can be scary since you’re leaving all your equipment unattended, so just make sure to take proper precautions. We bought two Kensington locks to secure our laptop and monitor. If you’re unsure whether your device is compatible, just CTRL+F in the instruction manual for “Kensington”, “security”, or “lock.” You can usually also find mention of it on the product’s website under Features or Specifications. We also bought some cable traps, but it turns out the Kensington locks would not fit through, so we didn’t get to use them. We also like to use wireless controllers when possible, but this time we chose some AmazonBasics Xbox One Wired controllers. They’re cheap so you can get a lot, they don’t have to be charged, and Windows supports them right out of the box. Not to mention, they’re not nice enough to be worth stealing. Just make sure that, when you lock down your computer, you also disable the shortcut to open the Windows 10 Xbox app by pressing the Xbox button. Someone did that overnight at our booth, preventing people from playing the game until I discovered it the next morning.
We also did a bunch of things to make sure no one could tamper with the computer itself, like disabling the keyboard and mouse input. We used BlueLife KeyFreeze for this, and it worked perfectly. I found this Batch script online that ensured Runaway would open again if it crashed. I put a shortcut to that and KeyFreeze in the startup folder of a non-admin user account. When I logged in to that account, it would automatically launch Runaway and lock down the keyboard. Then all I had to do to update the game was re-enable the keyboard, sign out and into my admin account, and copy over the game’s files. Sign back into the demo user, and we’re good to go again. We left a piece of paper out each night labelled “Bug Reports/Suggestions”, and that also came in handy. We got plenty of feedback and a couple of leads for hunting down bugs. Special shout-out to one person who not only wrote that they clipped through the wall but even drew a picture and detailed each setting they had. If that doesn’t make you want to fix the bug, then I don’t know what will!
And for the record, we are using Unity for Runaway, not GameMaker.
4. Bring a computer that you can work on.
The first day of the festival was the most rough because just about anything that could break found a way to. Luckily, I had my personal laptop on hand, so I spent the whole day developing hotfixes to patch the game-breaking bugs. It was an exhausting start, but it gave me peace of mind through the rest of the festival that the game could be left alone without issue. I had to fix things a few times after, but not nearly as much as that first day.
Here I am in my natural habitat. You can tell I'm stuck since I'm staring off into space.
5. Create a mailing list, both in-game and on paper.
Make sure to include a value proposition, something to entice people to sign up. At the suggestion of our awesome neighbors Starfall Studios, I put a sign into the main menu that allowed players to submit their emails in-game. That way, we didn’t have to worry about handwriting, they’d have no idea how many people came before them (so they wouldn’t feel like the first), and more people could give their email at once.
Players need a reason to give you an email address, which often feels a lot more personal than simply finding and following someone on Twitter. We gave the promise of an alpha build. In doing so, we give players a continued means to stay involved with Runaway’s development and allow them to enjoy it in the comfort of their own home with whomever they want. That way, they enjoy it in their ideal setting, and we get more people playing it, testing it, and giving us feedback on it.
Speaking of, make sure you sign up for our mailing list if you’d like to be among the first to get access to that alpha build! We’re shooting for the end of January/beginning of February, so sign up now at the bottom of this page and keep an eye out for that email! All we need is your email address, which we promise will not be shared with anyone else.
6. Take advantage of analytics.
Insights into which modes are chosen most, how long players spend on each level, and many other things can shape how you view your game and tell you a lot about what parts matter most to your players. Not to mention, they’re handy for knowing how many people play your game at different times of day. Unfortunately, we’ve learned the hard way that Unity will cache analytics events that it cannot log (like due to no internet connection) but not the times they were initially fired. Because of this, we cannot give a time breakdown for our data. We know how many times players went to the main menu throughout MAGFest, but not when; instead it all shows up as happening on January 8th, when I left the game running for an hour to let the analytics catch up.
I’d like to take a moment to give a special mention to some of the people we talked to at MAGFest. Unfortunately, this list is nowhere near comprehensive of the awesome talent and incredible people that were in attendance because I did not have time to walk around and meet everyone. However, it gives just a little sample of the cool people that were there!
As mentioned above, Starfall Studios, working on a gorgeous stealth-action game Sneaky Ninja! Our other neighbor was Odyssey Entertainment, working on a sci-fi puzzle platformer called Transmogrify. We had a lot of fun getting to know both teams and talking about different tricks of the trade! I’d also like to thank everyone who played Runaway. We got plenty of helpful feedback and were honored by how positive everyone was. You all made the experience worth it (even if I did almost break my back getting there!) Most of all, I’d like to give a shout-out to the incredible staff that made MAGFest possible. They were friendly, helpful, and all around just fun people. They were excited to try out each of our games, and it felt great to know that we were being supported. The whole festival was just amazing, and I would love to be a part of it again next year.