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Showing At GDC Play 2015: A Solo Dev's Tale

I want to describe in detail what it is like to demo your game at a GDC Play booth as a solo indie developer. You will learn about what lead to me getting a booth, the preparation involved before the show, and how to manage a booth with just one person.

I want to start with a little bit about myself, and how I came to become a game maker, then I will get into the conference. If you want to skip ahead, look for the next note that looks like this note.

My video game kick started in the 80s when my mom got my sister an Apple IIe. My sister would let me use it to play Maniac Mansion, Kings Quest, and D&D's Curse of the Azure Bonds. Nintendo was just starting to become a huge deal at this time.

Maniac Mansion

I learned to program by making hacky "progz" for AOL, that would punt people offline by sending them dozens of instant messages filled with HTML that AOL couldn't process. This would freeze or error their client. I was a kid... I tested out of high school in order to go to a trade school called The Computer Learning Center in San Francisco when I was 16. I would later hear from a friend's dad that my school was featured on 20/20, an investigative journalism show, for passing people through their program that could not program. I don't know anything about that, but I do know they were still teaching COBOL/CICS 1998. They were trying to convince people they would get a lot of work after graduating fixing the y2K bug.

I made dozens of Flash games. I even made a 2D Flash MMORPG called Tenth Tower. Making MMORPGs is an infamous new indie game dev trap of course. The scope of an MMORPG ends up being much too big for a beginner, yet a new indie dev comes along each day with the very same plan. One time, I got really in to NES emulators, and learned to make old NES games using assembly. The NES game I made was a 4 player multiplayer deathmatch game, where there are four smiley faces on the screen which can move and shoot. We'd play it on an emulator loaded onto a Dreamcast.

Tenth Tower
Tenth Tower xD (I think this is around 2005. I'm not exactly sure.)

I worked at a company called Mindscape, which got bought by a company named The Learning Company, which got bought by a company named Mattel Interactive, which got bought by a company called Gores technology, which got bought by Ubisoft around 2000. I was QA. Sometimes we would have to play Babyz, a sim about raising babies, for 10 hours a day for a couple of months, and life was rough. Sometimes we would play multiplayer Warlords: Battlecry all day with friends, and life was pretty good. After a department wide layoff, I would end up becoming a programmer for business software in an unrelated industry for a number of years, as well as earn a BS in business.


I wanted to come back to games. I started a game development company in 2013 called Last Life Games. I still have a day job however. I have released one commercial game...on mobile only. That first game where you actually try to reach out to the press can be pretty hard. There comes a point in every indie developer's life where they realize that there are a lot of us out there, I mean a lot, all competing for the same very small indie spotlight. Realizing that can be pretty liberating though too. There is such a huge community to draw inspiration from. There are so many talented people to collaborate with.

This brings me to recently. I have spent the past 15 months on my latest game called Trial by Viking. I work closely with a few very talented freelance artists (Nerijus Civilus (@FrontNC), Jessica Cooper, Tan Ho Sim, and Bernard Bittler), and I have bought a Unity Pro license. The game is all self-funded so far, and I am okay with that. I love the game, and I am lucky enough at the moment to be able to afford it. And who knows, it could come back to me someday, right? Trial by Viking is side-scrolling, with a hint of Mario, Metroid, Rogue Legacy, but with some Telltale-like narrative decision making and fundamental game play switch ups that I think make it really good. I might be a little biased. You can turn into a bear, and you can fly, alright?!

Trial by Viking

Now I will talk more about how I got to the conference, and the preparation leading up to it. If you only want to hear about during the show, skip ahead to the next note that looks like this note.

After not making the cut for Indie MEGABOOTH or the IGF, I was feeling a bit low. You have to realize these things get thousands of games submitted, and they have to pick, like, 10. You can't let it discourage you if you don't make the cut. That's around when I got an email from the GDC offering IGF entrants an extention on the early bird booth rates. 3,000 USD is what it costs for GDC Play (at early bird prices). You get a lot for that money though. First, you get 7 expo passes (well 3 staff and 5 normal expo passes). If you are buying these the month before the show, they normally cost $250 each. You also get 25% off any summit passes you might want to buy.

The booth itself comes with one 6 foot long table, two chairs, one 24 inch monitor with speakers, one wifi connection, and 500 watts of power. I've worked booths at tradeshows in other industries before. Everything at a tradeshow costs a lot (for an individual like me anyways). That's just the way they all are it seems. If you want a second wifi connection for your booth, it's gonna cost around $500. You want to rent an extra monitor for the 3 days of the show? 500$. You want to try to rent your own elsewhere and bring it to the show? Sorry there is a fee for that. It's gonna cost you $500. So you start to get the idea that the original 3,000 you pay for GDC Play is a pretty good deal for indies on a budget, since it's basically turnkey.

Empty Booth
This is how the empty booth appeared when I first got to GDC.

I signed the paperwork and got the booth, and now the anxiety starts. The only way to alleviate that anxiety, is to make a "to do" list and start checking things off of it. Questions pop in to your head like, how much power is 500 watts? Can it run two computers? Two computers and a tablet? Two computers, a tablet and a phone charger? On the advice of some fellow developers, I bought a $6 wattage meter that allowed me to get an idea of how many watts I would be using before the show started. It turns out a mid-range gaming PC running my game and a Macbook Air looping video use about 200 watts all together. Plenty of power.

Next on my list was promotional stuff. I hate (HATE!) doing PR. It makes me feel like a shill. Sorry for using that word. I know it now carries some ridiculous baggage at this point. What I mean is, you have to be a salesperson, and nobody likes salespeople (No offense to any salespeople. I know you are just doing your job!). The best sales people, are ones that you don't even realize are sales people. The worst part about having to pitch your game, is that you've actually been following these people (games journalists and others) on Twitter and such for a long time, and you actually like a lot of them! You don't want to annoy them. Like, I would rather get a beer with them and just shoot the [email protected]# about games or the latest episode of Better Call Saul. I don't want to be trying to shove Trial by Viking in their face. But to a certain extent, you have to promote your work. If you don't sell your self, the next guy/girl will. Just try not to be annoying about it.

Trial by Viking
Hey guys, did I mention my game, Trial by Viking?

I got two prints put on poster board at FedEx Office for 250$ delivered. One for behind my booth, and one for the front of the table. I got 500 business cards. I probably won't need all those, but VistaPrint gets you with the deals. Just $5 more and you could go from 250 cards to 500 cards! Something like that anyways. I had my friend, who works at a screen printing shop, make me 24 t-shirts. Small runs like that are pretty expensive per shirt, because a large chunk of the cost is the setup fee. Bigger runs end up cheaper per shirt. My friend who runs the printing shop also surprised me with 25 stickers! He said he had to test his new sticker machine anyways, and used my game's artwork to test it. These were great because I got to use them at the Touch Arcade sticker swap later on.

PrintingObligatory shout out to A&G Screen Printing in San Rafael, CA! Thanks Andy!

Another benefit of exhibiting is that you get access to the GDC press list. It's a list with contact information for all attending press. It can save hours and hours of hunting down press email addresses when you are trying to promote a game. I went down the list and recognized a lot of the people on there from Twitter and articles I'd read. I reached out to one person from each actual gaming site on the list, with info about the game, and an invitation to meet at my booth. I got maybe 7 responses. I made only two official meetings.

Being a solo dev running a booth, the biggest worry I had was going to the bathroom! I can't leave the booth all day or someone might walk away with my laptop. It has been known to happen. I knew I would have some help from friends, but I couldn't count on that every single day of GDC, so I posted this tweet. There were of course many jokes to be made about this tweet later on... xD


Thomas Noppers (@ThomasNoppers), a really good pixel artist I follow, took me up on the offer. He's from The Netherlands and is bringing his wife with him for the trip. I had just taken a trip to Amsterdam myself last October and discovered that I like The Netherlands a lot. It's a very pretty place when the weather is right. They also have some good coffee if you are in to that sort of thing. You should probably also know that Thomas is really talented. Just look at his work! He also hates compliments, so be sure to let him know what you think of it.

Thomas Noppers work on Penarium.

I gave a few other passes out to friends who agreed to come help on one or two of the days each. I also gave a pass to Erik Braa (@erikbraa), a friend of mine who happens to be a bad ass voice actor. You may know his work from Telltale's Walking Dead, as Jax and Draven from League of Legends, or as The Tree in the upcoming Ori and the Blind Forest (such a pretty game by the way if you haven't seen it yet). Erik will also be doing the narration and main character's voice for Trial by Viking. It's going to be awesome.

The weekend before GDC, Thomas Noppers let's me know he's in town early and we to meet up and have dinner at Zero Zero in SF. Thomas and his wife Elise are the best kind of people. I learned that Thomas had worked on Mutant Gangland (a Team 17 game), and was now working on game called Penarium, a game about a boy in a creepy circus full of deathtraps from what I can gather. It looks really cool. We talk about games, and the game industry. We talk about toy stores and SXSW. We have the best pizza around. A good night.

Elise and Thomas at Zero Zero.

The first Monday of GDC, I had set up a meeting with Carter from Touch Arcade in the Marriot lobby. When I showed up they had an El Gato game capture device set up that I could plug my iPhone 5s directly into to record some game footage, as well as a microphone for commentary. I basically play through the demo with some commentary, and Carter is asking questions. It's harder than you think to answer questions about your game while at the same time trying not to die in it. Unfortunately the first half of the commentary got cut off due to technical difficulties, but I still really appreciate the coverage. The video looks great, and I finally got to meet Carter, whome I had been following on Twitter for ages. I'll post a link to this at the end of the article.

I should probably mention that I had not expected to show any mobile versions at the show, but then when mobile press started taking an interest, I scrambled to get Trial by Viking running on a phone. I hadn't tested a mobile build in months, and ended up having to upgrade my Unity version to get the game to work properly on iOS 8. Upgrading your engine two weeks before demoing at GDC? What could go wrong? Everything went wrong for a couple of days there. Moving platforms broke. Blocks got stuck. Eventually, I worked the code back into proper shape, and got a build running with 30fps frame rate on my phone (I have done very little mobile optimization yet, so this was a nice surprise).

I walk around GDC for a bit, getting the lay of the land. I check out Ori and the Blind Forest (so cool). I check out Indie MEGABOOTH. I check out Mild Rumpus. A lot of stuff is set up Monday and Tuesday, but the main expo floor as well as GDC Play do not open until Wednesday. I regret not being in the know about the schedule of things, because I missed a talk later that day from the Night in the Woods crew, some really talented game developers. I saw them the next day while waiting for my wife at Mild Rumpus, but I was too chicken to say hello. I didn't want to be that weird person interrupting people's coverstations out of the blue and being awkward trying to stammer out "I really like your work!" I kind of regret that I didn't though. If you haven't seen it, Night in the Woods is really cool. I don't know any other way to describe it.

Night in the Woods at Mild Rumpus

Tuesday is set up day. I have to get my booth ready. I live in the East Bay, about 30 minutes from the Moscone Center in SF. My wife, Alyssa, works in SF at Rhapsody a few blocks away, so she comes after work to help me set up. My booth is right in between two "Best In Play" winners, some sort of contest judged off of trailers for GDC Play exhibitors. There are benefits to winning but I don't recall what. My setup is a bit more budget looking than many of the exhibitors there. I am self funded, so I try to save money where I can. I set up two computers on each side of the table for people to play the demo, and one laptop in the middle showing a teaser trailer on loop. With the posters up and the computers running, I'm feeling pretty good at what I was able to accomplish with what I had.

My wife taking one last test drive of the demo.

After setup, my wife and I head to a small get together at the Marriot bar where there is a sticker exchange thing going on. We trade stickers with all types of mobile developers. It's nice to get to meet fellow developers and talk about their work, and the interesting things they have been making. I got to play some cool games as well! Some people hate a bit on mobile games, and I understand why to an extent (generally more casual, and that whole f2p thing...), but there is some awesome work being done out there if you look hard enough. We were supposed to go to another event, but I decided sleep was more important. Tomorrow was the first day of GDC Play!

Here is where I talk about actually running the booth for three days, and a touch of the aftermath.

My friend Roy has agreed to help me on the first morning. Roy and I used to work together, and have run booths together before in another industry's tradeshows. The first day of the show was a bit of a blur. You talk. a. lot. How long have you been working on this? Did you use an engine? How many people are on your team? How did you make that opening sequence? Who made that awesome poster?! Are you looking to hire? GDC Play was very close to the Career Center this year. Some people said they had no idea that GDC Play was back behind the Career Center, but luckily found it while wandering. This is not to complain. I got plenty of traffic each of the days, and many were willing to join up on the mailing list.

I got some really great feedback too. It's not something you consider when deciding whether to have a booth, but I was able to get like 3 months worth of polish just out of watching people play, watching where they get hung up, and some stuff people mentioned that might make it even cooler. Ian Stocker (Magical Time Bean/Escape Goat) even stopped by to play the game a bit, and give a few pointers. So cool! I made a list, and already implimented most of it. Some of the stuff I would even impliment each night after the show. Lots of small tweaks that end up making a big difference for the game play.

People are actually playing Trial by Viking!

Overall people seemed to really dig the game! I ended up meeting a few editors, some publishers, some incubator/investor/mentor types, some events people (Indiecade, Casual Connect, etc), some console/device makers, lots of fellow developers, tons of artists and sound people, and even a few lawyers. Everyone was very friendly...well, almost. There was one guy who came up, picked up the controller for 5 seconds, then told me he hated it and stormed off. I'm not one to sweat that kind of stuff though. I had a few technical difficulties as well. For instance, the XBox controller I had bought had a giant XBox button in the middle of it, and if a player presses it, it tabs out of the game. Then players would think it broke or something and walk away.This happened a few times.

Thomas Noppers came to help out with the booth a bit on all of the days. I'm so glad I met this guy. He's really very funny. We will be friends long after this. Erik Braa stopped by the booth a few times, sometimes bringing much needed supplies. People got a kick out of the fact that Erik would be doing the VO work on Trial by Viking, because he looks a lot like a viking himself. My friend Joey (@joeyfameli), a super talented video pro who works for, was shooting some video at the conference and stopped by to take a few shots of the booth (maybe for later use?). He's also making the Trial by Viking trailer! One other friend of mine, Owen, even bused all the way from Sonoma County just to come lend a hand. Anyways, a big thanks goes out to all of my old and new friends that lent a helping hand.

My friend Owen at his first GDC.

After the show each night, there are a lot of events going on. Some are more exclusive, and you need to get someone to pass you an invite (usually a link). Others are pretty public, but may cost a few bucks to get in. You can usually find someone on Twitter posting links to a Google calendar with all of the public events on it. I had planned on going to a board game night, as well as the Telltale event that I had somehow got on the list for (don't ask me, because I have no idea). By the time the show ended each day however, I was exhausted, and knew I had some things in the demo I wanted to fix. I ended up going home and getting some sleep instead of all that. And you know what, I don't regret it. If I didn't have a booth to run however, I would have gone to everything I could.

Early in the morning of the show, there was a good amount of hung over people there. Some people didn't make it to there own booths at GDC Play until some time after the show had already opened the doors. Just blank screens and no people at their booths when the doors opened. I should have gotten a picture of that.

During GDC Play, there will also occasionally be VIP tours happening. These will be editors, publishers, incubators, investors, and other people who don't have a lot of time, so they get lead to the highlights of GDC Play from a tour guide. Meeting these people was a good opportunity. Just make sure you have your game's pitch down, because your time with each person is very limited.

Two days worth of business cards collected at the booth.

This brings me to the close of the show. A sad time. I had to say goodbye to Thomas and Elise. I had to shut the booth down and haul the stuff out. Now it's time for one final goodbye GDC beer... After you've been on your feet for 10 hours each day, your legs become a little noodly. Your step isn't quite as sure, and San Francisco's curbs are high. On the way to a bar with Alyssa and Owen, I fell hard while stepping off a curb. My ankle rolled, there was a sound, then blinding pain. I was on the floor in the street, crawling my way back to the curb. I was feeling queazy.

Owen of course snaps a pic.

Everyone from the show stopped to ask if I needed help, which was nice. If you saw me there and asked if I needed help, thank you! There was one guy that told me to get out of the way...dick. Alyssa ended up driving me to the ER where I found out I had sprained my ankle pretty bad. At least GDC was over before it happened. I'd post pictures of the aftermath, but it's a little gnarley looking with all the black and blue (not white and gold!).

Thanks Tenderloin ER!

It looks like I won't be walking for a few weeks, but it should give me a chance to follow up with everyone from GDC. Thank you to everyone that came by to say hello!


My final thoughts are that it was worth it. If you have the money, and a game you are confident in, I'd recommend it to you. Just make sure you have someone to watch the booth while you pee, don't forget to eat lunch, and make sure to watch your step! If you can't afford a booth however, you should come anyways. You can still try to schedule meetings with press people in hotel lobbies or whatever. You will still meet tons of great people either way. You can learn a lot even just talking to people, and if you've seen anything from the GDC Vault, you know the talks are really good as well. Take a risk. Meet everyone you can. Stay in touch.

- Dustin


Also on Facebook, IndieDB, Mailing List, Web


Here's a couple of links of coverage for Trial by Viking so far that I know were a direct result of demoing at GDC:

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