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SAAM Arcade 2017 - An Indie Perspective

A little over a week ago, I showed off my very first game at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) Arcade and had an absolutely incredible time. Here's a quick look back at my experience and what I learned from the event.

Thomas Sharpe, Blogger

August 15, 2017

7 Min Read

A little over a week ago I had the tremendous honor of showing off my debut game Sole at this year's Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) Arcade in Washington DC. The two-day event brought together a collection of new indie titles and classic arcade games in a celebration of the artistry of video games. As one of the first big events we've participated in, I walked away with a few key lessons and tons of memories. Here's a quick rundown of a couple big takeaways from the event.

Sweet Validation

Five years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian American Art Museum during the opening weekend of the Art of Video Games exhibition. At a time when the artistic merit of video games was in hot debate, watching thousands of people enjoying some of my favorite games in an art museum was endlessly inspiring. Though I've since overcome my own insecurities about the moral/cultural value of video games, the event greatly helped validate my decision to pursue a career in game development and was a great talking point for discussing my work and education with skeptical family and friends.

Me & thatgamecompany five years ago vs Me & Gossamer Games today

After talking for hours with some of my industry idols from thatgamecompany, I walked away determined to work on projects that are celebrated for pushing the boundaries of artistry in games. Flash forward to last week and that moment finally came when I got to show off my debut game Sole at the 2017 SAAM Arcade.

Walking into the courtyard early that morning to set up for the event, I was overcome with a tremendous sense of validation. Though this wasn't our first time showcasing the game in public, it was by far the biggest we'd attended. For a team of brand new developers, the experience was a huge boost of confidence that made us feel like a real life professional indie game studio.

The Lead Up

For context, Sole is an abstract, aesthetic-driven adventure game where you play as a tiny ball of light wandering through a world shrouded in darkness. Similar to games such as Flower or Journey, Sole is all about capturing a particular feeling by immersing players in the sights and sounds of a dreamlike world.

The initial reveal trailer for Sole

As our very first full-length production, we started working on Sole as a side-project in college before graduating and turning the game into a part-time professional project. Having attended a few local events in the past, we realized that we couldn't keep showing off the game without having a clear call-to-action. So a few weeks before the event, we sat down and decided it was finally time to get serious about our marketing and production.

The day before the start of SAAM Arcade, we launched a Kickstarter to ensure there was an easy way for fans to support us during and after the show. As a result, the weeks leading up to the event were pure chaos (which I'll dive into much deeper in another write-up), but we ended up with a ton of new content to reveal. This made it relatively easy to put together media for banners, postcards, stickers, etc. since we needed them for the Kickstarter campaign too.

The Booth

Our booth setup at SAAM Arcade

Our booth featured a 55-inch TV and speakers hooked up to our PC workstation which proved extremely effective in drawing crowds to the game. Next to the TV, we had a smaller computer monitor displaying our Kickstarter page so people could watch the campaign in real time. We also set up the iPad version of the game in front of the monitor, but most visitors seemed to prefer waiting for the big screen.

The 2.5x4ft vertical signage (positioned a few feet off the ground for extra visibility) also appeared to draw a lot of visitors as I'd watch guests scanning the banners to determine where to go next. In front of the booth, we always ensured at least one of us was there with postcards and stickers ready to do a quick elevator pitch to anyone who'd listen. Starting with a friendly, "Hey! Have you seen this one yet?" seemed to be an effective icebreaker before diving into the pitch.

One of the biggest problems we encountered at SAAM was the strong sun glare obscuring the screen. Though inside, the courtyard has a (gorgeous) glass ceiling that gives the illusion of being outdoors. And unfortunately, our booth just happened to be positioned facing the sun. For a game dependent on dark visuals, playing in direct sunlight is far less than ideal, but thankfully we'd already implemented an in-game brightness slider and played around with the TV settings until we had a decent picture.

The event also suffered from a few power outages due to the crazy number of machines drawing power. Thankfully, we were able to continue demoing the game on iPad during outages, but most of our guests moved on since having a table full of blank screens isn't particularly inviting...

The Game

Visitors played through the second level of Sole

Though it's hard to judge at events like this, the reception to the game seemed overwhelmingly positive. There was constantly a line waiting to play the game and it was incredible watching so many different types of players enjoying Sole. From people who'd never played a video game before to skilled veterans, young children to grandparents, watching the game resonate with audiences from all walks of life was truly inspiring.

That said, we didn't make it through both days without any hiccups. Despite playtesting the demo to the best of our abilities, we did see a few undiscovered bugs crop up during play, mainly as a result of players wandering into obscure areas of the level and getting stuck on objects. We also watched as guests would routinely get hung up on a particular aspect of the level's temporary tutorial that required a bit of verbal explanation. Moving forward, we'll be sure to spend a little more time testing the final demo build with brand new audiences.

On the second day of the event, we were also faced with a horrifying moment as we discovered that the game simply refused to progress past the titlescreen minutes before the event started. Despite using the exact same build on the same machine, the game was suddenly totally unplayable. After downloading and reinstalling the backup build on both hard drives to no avail, we finally pulled an audible and ran the demo off my laptop while making a brand new build on the main machine as the crowd grew.

We're still not exactly sure what caused the game to totally break like that, but suspect it might have something to do with the unexpected power cuts. In the future, we'll definitely make sure to always have a second machine on hand just in case the game starts to act shy again.

Murphy's Law folks. It's real.

Final Takeaways

SAAM Arcade, 2017. Photo by Daniel Schwartz

Overall, aside from a few tech hiccups, SAAM Arcade 2017 was probably my favorite event we've participated in. The diversity and enthusiasm of the attendees, gorgeous venue, and friendly event staff made for an unforgettable experience that left us feeling humbled and inspired. If you're willing to make the trip to D.C. this is definitely an event to keep an eye on.

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