I've been to a fair number of conventions, video game and otherwise, but I passed a milestone for myself on September 23rd, 2017: showing my own game for the first time.
I had thrown together a small checklist of things I wanted to have for my booth to help maximize my time there, and I wanted to share what worked, what didn't, and what I plan to change for next time.
For those not aware, the Boston Festival of Indie Games is a yearly one-day event that takes place on the MIT campus and is organized by some fine folks in the game development scene in New England. It does about 5-6000 people and has two separate floors for both tabletop and digital showcases. There used to be a bunch of speaking panels involved as well, but that has spun off into its own event called the Boston FIG Talks. But I digress. For those curious, the demo I showed is listed on my itch.io site here: https://activeupgames.itch.io/gravestuck
Pre-show observations and preparation
In previous shows like PAX East (which will be my primary reference), I would periodically poll other game developers to ask how they are doing, what are things they liked so far, and if they needed anything that hasn't been attended to. Usually I would get the same things from just about everyone: "my feet are tired", "my voice is shot", "I can't get internet", "we ran out of power outlets", "I wish we could have food in here", "I can't leave right now because nobody is backing me up" and my personal favorite "the response is so good for my game I don't know how to handle it".
I figured that would help me with most of the pain points: get good shoes, have friends help (in shifts in need be), drink water on the regular. Simple, right?
From a con-goer, I knew things that would attract me to a booth as well: a large screen showing the game, good/interesting artwork, take-home documentation like cards or fliers, availability of stations to play at, and friendly-yet-unobstrusive developers eager to talk shop about their game and the industry at large. So I put together a list of supplies to help in this endeavor:
I thought this was a pretty solid list, but I discovered a few things within a short time of starting to show the game that I should have added.
I knew I needed to test the TV connection, and relying on the idea "that it will just work" was a terrible idea, so I did a test run in my living room by setting everything up as if it was at the booth. I'm super glad I did this because in how my game was constructed, the changing resolution of one of the laptops adjusting to the TV connection caused the game to break in strange and showstopping ways on the weapon selection screen. I ended up having to make another build specifically for this, so the two laptops were running slightly different builds. If I hadn't have done the test run I never would have realized that until it was too late. I also introduced a healing mechanic in the game for the first time the night before to help people mitigate the game's difficulty. This introduced a new bug, but I'll get into that later.
The rubber hits the road
One of the quickest lessons I learned was that the festival didn't have enough chairs to supply people in front of AND behind the booth table. I found out that this was due to a supply chain SNAFU and was not normal, so that's good. This meant that me and my buddy were going to have to stand for the majority of the show. We probably would have stood nearly the whole time anyway to talk to the people, but it would have been nice to sit down without having to wait for the booth to be empty of a seat. It was a good problem to have though, since not being able to sit down meant people were enjoying my game. Because of that though, other challenges introduced themselves fairly quickly.
We needed water because we were constantly moving and getting overheated. From that, I learned the lesson that I should have worn shorts and not pants. My sweatshirt was quickly discarded and I was glad I put on a healthy amount of deodorant earlier that morning. By the end of the day I felt wrecked and needed a shower. I got the sentiment that I was far from the only one.
I tried to head off the "losing your voice" route by supplying the game's controls and helpful tips on printouts that were next to the laptops. Since this is an arcade-y style game, complex mechanics didn't need to be explained. I would say that this helped about 30% of the time, because mostly people would just fiddle around unti lthey figured out the controls themselves. So because of that I still had to talk a LOT. The water was crucial. Losenges probably would have helped too. That's okay though; it led to interesting discussions about design decisions in the control scheme and the game's influences.
Me and my buddy both came to the realization that we should have gotten alcohol wipes for the controllers and laptops. We both brought it up to each other and within seconds, as if orchestrated by a director, a little girl full-on sneezed all over one of my controllers and continued playing the game as if nothing had happened. My buddy quickly ran out to a convenience store on-site and got some handi-wipes. Not the best solution but it helped, even if just for peace of mind.
I also learned VERY quickly that people will brute-force their way into every bug that you have present in your build. I had to swallow my pride right away and just let it go. I fixed the weapon selection resolution bug the night before, but three others showed themselves up right away: When you died, the game would sometimes crash because one of the enemies was unable to detect a nonexistent you, and in another situation you could apparently just heal yourself indefinitely. Of all the bugs that the game could have had, these were by far two of the least-intrusive and I was super relieved that they were pretty much the only ones. There was another bug where people could sometimes get stuck on left walls, but dashing out of it worked to fix it. The indefinite healing one actually enabled a lot of kids and people of less gaming skill to play the demo through to beating it, so in a way it actually helped the mood a lot. I didn't have my build laptop handy to fix any bugs because I figured I wouldn't have time and I would agonize over it the whole time, but I heard from other people that making that decision helped save their days, so I'll probably bring one next time.
The audio of the game was also barely audible from the sounds of the festival drowning them out, but that's ok. I expected that to happen and I didn't want to overpower everyone around us with our theme music. The next booth over had loud speakers for their game audio and I can hear their battle music in my sleep now.
People will also give their opinions on how the game is designed as well, especially since it's not finished yet. I welcomed the feedback but I did get tired of explaining some of the same things over and over again. I don't see a way around that though, so I consider it my penance for not getting some of the design fixes done before the show. Other items of feedback were very revealing in how people played the game, and I took those notes to heart and will likely change them before I show the game again.
We also got asked constantly if the game was out or when it would be released. Again, a great problem to have: it showed that people were interested in it. I've been planning for a Summer 2018 release but nothing is set in stone since it's on my own schedule, so it may be a little tight but I figured it would help realize that deadline. The marketing cards I printed up (I printed 100, gave out 92) were crucial in letting people look up the game on their own time, especially if they weren't able to play the demo on the show floor. My main regret in that regard though is not having a good and finished website currently. It's okay and is utilitarian now, but it's not exciting like I'd like it to be. Having business cards is always good at industry events and this was no exception. It was especially flattering when people saw and played the game and immediately wanted to work together. I recommend getting cards made with Moo; they offer a great service and a great product. I also had a stand-up banner made from Uprinting, and that was also a super nice thing to have. Having the banner made also made the game feel more "real" and was a great addition.
The high highs
Of all the things I didn't prepare for, which is the crazy thing, is having kids play the game and seeing their reactions. I don't have kids currently but I love em, and for some reason I didn't even think about them when deciding how to show my game. The kids that played the game LOVED it. Their reactions were just humbling and heartwarming, and it made me think about when I was a kid playing my favorite games and having my imagination set on fire. Seeing their little faces lighting up was an amazing delight. There were kids that came back multiple times to play, and one of them said "When you put this out I am going to buy this one day one. I promise." He was so serious about it, it melted my heart.
Having the larger TV showing the gameplay also helped draw in a crowd, and seeing people's faces express joy and awe at some of the flashier aspects of Gravestuck was also phenomenal. I could see people walking by and looking our way and literally mouthing "wow" before they came over. I knew that the game had a fair amount of pop to it, but I didn't expect it to stop people in their tracks.
Honestly if I could come away with any major takeaway that was disappointing, it's only that the game isn't finished yet for people to enjoy it at home. It would have been great to hand out cards and tell them that they can "get it now". Our booth saw about 200+ people (and we were tucked away in the corner due to me stupidly forgetting a submission deadline) and I can't imagine how many more people we could have had if we were in the center of everything, or if we had one more station at the booth to play the game. Having the game available would have led to a handful of same-day sales I suspect, so that was a miss.
Overall it was an amazing experience, and the staff at Boston FIG were exemplary. I can't imagine doing this for more than one day though (or now the 4 that PAX East is going to be and PAX West already is) but if I get so fortunate to show at one of those I'll tough it out.
So here's my short list of the most crucial items:
I hope this helps anyone that's going to show a game or if it's helped illustrate some items you may have missed in your times showing a game. Let me know in the comments!