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Post-Mortem: An Indie Startup's Debut Game Show

We go over what went well and what we can do better next time based on our experience debuting our game at PlayExpo as a first-time show-goer, in the hopes that our experiences will be useful information to other small developers in similar situations.

[City of the Shroud is a real-time tactical brawling RPG with a community-driven narrative. You can download the gameplay prototype from the Abyssal Arts website.]

City of the Shroud made its game show debut a few weeks ago at PlayExpo, a video game expo in Manchester, and the experience has left us with nuggets of wisdom about what we did right and what we can do better the next time around. Rather than hoard them for ourselves, we want to share them with any and all who are interested. Hopefully this information will be useful to those of you in similar positions!

This was our first expo showing off our own game, and so this information leans towards the novice side of demoing games in public. We did quite a bit of research and prep beforehand, following handy guides around the Internet, like this one by Ryan Evans, and while we had never seen the venue, we did have a general idea of what our booth would be like. A few of us also had experience showing our friends’ game at Rezzed back in March, and I’ve been to shows where games I was involved in while working for Capcom were on display, but I was never part of the event staff or had much connection to what was going on. Basically: I’d had a taste, but never a full drink.

The show itself went really well for us, and players had great things to say about our game. The feedback alone was worth attending, but seeing players bring their friends over to our booth to play more was a huge confidence boost. This isn’t the focus of this piece, but if you’re interested, I’ve written about connecting with players for the first time (always nerve-wracking) over on the Abyssal Arts website.

Without further ado, here are the main takeaways:

What went well:

Multiple PCs and an Internet Connection (when it worked): City of the Shroud is currently in prototype for gameplay testing with both a single-player AI (that was a bit too hard for new players - should’ve tested that!) and over-the-Internet versus multiplayer.

We had paid for an Internet connection for both PCs during the show, and when it was working, it was by far the best way to play. Players could learn against each other, get into the fights, and start learning the mechanics in a clever way. Fighting the AI is currently more of a ‘can you out-DPS it’ battle, so it’s less engaging.

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Playing online was especially helpful for (really) young players.

Unfortunately, the venue’s Internet went out around 1 PM on Saturday and stayed down until about 4:30 PM that evening - the busiest part of the show, which meant we could only have players fight the less-interesting AI. More on that below.

Smaller Show: PlayExpo is a smaller show than EGX, which is a few weeks earlier in the year. It’s also not in London. As a result, there’s less competition for players’ attention, as most of the big games aren’t there (Dark Souls 3 was, but that meant we all got to try Dark Souls 3). Players are less rushed since there’s less to take in, and so they seemed more willing to try new stuff than at Rezzed.

Best of all, indie games got excellent treatment, being put right in the middle of the show floor. We got tons of foot traffic, and just about anyone walking around the show had to come through our section. This fed into the next section exceptionally well.

Stickers and  Prominent Branding: Badges seem to be all the rage with developers right now, but we decided to go with stickers instead - bigger than badges, easy to transport, easy to pass out, and you get to stick them on things! And then, when you look at those things, you remember our game (and see our URL). These proved very popular, and we gave out more than I expected.

We saw quite a few attendees walking around with our stickers on their clothes and bags - it was really cool to see people happy to sport our game’s logo on their stuff.

We also wore the logo on our chests in the form of t-shirts. This worked especially well when we made a coffee run and the barista recognized the game, calling it “awesome and retro” (not sure where the retro part came from). It was also useful while participating in an indie panel at the event, as each of us had a distinct shirt so that the audience could tell the devs apart.

It pains me to put this picture online, but that’s the best example of the shirt I have.

We also received word that our booth would allow us to hang up a big ol’ banner - we had originally only planned for a pop-up poster, but we managed to get a banner printed in time that spanned the width of the booth.

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We changed the wallpaper to our logo and had our speakers playing the game’s music.

Also, our game logo has a lot of purples and pinks in it, and I managed to find a material at a local craft-supplier that’s purple but shines pink/green depending on the light. It is garish and brilliant, and definitely popped. We may not have had quite the swagger of Raging Justice’s sweet brick wallpaper, but it definitely got people to look.

3 people: while it would be possible to run the booth with two people, in order to preserve our sanity and retain enough energy to drive us home at the end of the show (driving was the cheapest way to get us there and back!), we recruited a friend to help us show the game.

This meant we could safely send one person off on errands for water/snacks/caffeine without diminishing our presence at the booth. It also meant that we could occasionally wander off to check out the show and talk to other developers, which is always a highlight.

Plus, having three people helps keep conversation going!

We can reuse a lot of the materials: All the posters, leftover stickers, and designs we did for the show can be reused, lowering the cost of attending the next show. This may not be the first thing that comes to mind, but capitalizing on the investment of attending PlayExpo is something I’m hoping we get several chances to do. Of course, not every show will have the same setup, but only needing to expand our kit instead of acquiring a whole new one is an improvement.

What we can do better next time:

Account for horrible traffic: I was naive about driving times - back home, we generally only had horrible traffic in the mornings and evenings, and you could get where you needed to go the rest of the time. Turns out, that sort of thinking doesn’t really apply in the UK, and traffic ended up delaying us by several hours. By the time we got in, we only had an hour to set up the booth and missed an event we had planned to attend that evening (as a result, I carried an apple crumble around with us for the entire weekend). We didn’t even eat until after 9 PM (not the crumble), so next time we will leave with a generous buffer, ignore the SatNav, and beeline it for the toll road.

Book hotels, order materials sooner: this cost a good deal of money and was quite stressful to boot. I wasn’t sure if we would be able to commit to attending until closer to the show, but as a result, lodging costs went way up, and selection went way down. Luckily, a cancellation must have popped up, because at the last minute an affordable room for three appeared within driving distance of the venue, but we almost ended up spending more money to stay much farther away. Book early, and if you’re not sure, spend a little extra to book with the option to cancel and get your money back!

Similarly, I had to rush order/purchase expedited shipping on the stickers and banner (some of which still barely made it), which added to the cost/stress of attending. Had I prepared sooner, I would have saved a few meals-worth in cash.

Not everyone can be perfectly prepared, and there will almost always be last-minute curve balls, but the more things you can prepare for in advance, the more money it’ll save...

Be better prepared: We assumed that our rented PCs (couldn’t bring our own) would come with everything we needed… but that wasn’t entire true. The keyboards and mice were wireless, but no batteries were provided. Thankfully, one of the other developers gave us a few batteries, along with wipes for the dirty rental monitors, and saved us a frantic trip to the shop.

Our booth’s walls were compatible with hooked velcro. We had brought velcro tape to hang things up, but I didn’t bring any scissors to cut it with… so we had to go buy scissors.

The venue provided all the cables - power adapters, extension cords, PC cables, ethernet… but tracking them all down was a bit hectic, and it would have made our lives easier had we brought our own just in case.

We also noticed that several of the more experienced show-goers had brought or rented large monitors/TVs to demo their games on. Smart! They were large, looked much better than the rental stuff, and acted as a vibrant, animated billboard to all passersby. Also, one developer put their large monitor on a small dais, raising it above seated-player head height. Genius!

Finally, if you didn’t notice in the picture above, the booth walls and floor were pretty ugly. Some developers had brought wallpaper or sheets to cover the walls in game-appropriate colors, and a couple even had covers for the floor. These really made booths look complete compared to our own.

I’m not sure how I feel about the return on effort for elements like couches, but they certainly bring attention.

Social Media: I could have been louder over social media during PlayExpo, and it would have been nice to band together with the other indie developers to see if we could drive traffic to our booths. This worked quite well for us at Rezzed, but being constantly indisposed with the booth and a less intimate layout meant it was harder to pull this off.

Make the build more expo-ready: Lastly, and there are checklists like the one above for this online, we made a few avoidable mistakes in our show build.

  • We didn’t turn off the Exit Game button. Guess what happened: players exited the game.

  • The game required an Internet connection. The game couldn’t run without the Internet because it checks for things at startup and prevents you from playing if the connection to the server fails. This will be important for the final version of the game, but for an expo build, we should have changed the game so it didn’t need the Internet to run, still allowing players to fight the AI. When the venue’s connection went out, we had to rig up a solution involving installing iTunes and tethering over USB to trick the game into getting online every time a player exited the game. As a result, we definitely missed out on showing the game to more players.

  • Should have had looping gameplay footage on the title screen. Thankfully, I had uploaded gameplay footage to YouTube before the show and was able to “fake” it using a watch-on-repeat site. It probably saved us a bunch of programming time, but any time someone tried to interact with the machine running YouTube, I had to step in and alt+tab them into the game.

  • Add animation to the title screen. Our title screen is currently just our logo with music, so it can be a bit dull to look at. Next time, I want to make sure we have some sort of animation in the background, even if it’s just a simple particle effect, to make sure it catches people's’ eyes.

  • Test the AI more broadly before the show. The AI was ultimately too hard for players who were still getting used to our game. It was easy to us, and game developers at our local indie pub night were able to win, so we assumed it would be OK, but that was naive. (Thankfully, even players who lost to the AI seemed to be having a good time and had positive things to say afterward, and some came back for round 2).

    Still, we had done a bunch of user testing the week prior and made a few major gameplay adjustments prior to the show. These went over very well, so we were able to make some beneficial changes going in… just not quite enough.

All in all, this was a big learning experience for us. We absorbed what we could by reading other people's’ guides and post-mortems online (and a good thing we did, too), but at some point we had to learn by doing. Hopefully, our experiences and oversights are useful for you in preparing for your own game show appearances.

Finally, a huge shout-out and thank-you to James Monkman over at Retro Gamer CD - his managing of the indies was tremendously helpful, and made the show a huge success for us.

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