Lessons Learned From My First Time Showing a Game at a Con
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Dylan Bennett is an independent game developer in Oregon. He co-organizes the UnityPDX user group and is an active member of the Portland Indie Game Squad (PIGSquad), a very large and active game development and enthusiast community serving Portland and surrounding areas.
This past weekend, Indie Game Con (IGC) was held in Eugene, Oregon. I attended as an exhibitor and showed the game I'm developing. This was the first time I've ever shown a game at a conference and I learned quite a few things. I wanted to share some of the things I learned that I wish I had known beforehand.
For those of you who have exhibited at cons before, much of this may be old news to you. But for those of you who have never done this before and plan to exhibit at a con in the future, I hope I can give you enough helpful advice to at least partially defuse that omg-I've-never-done-this-I'm-so-nervous feeling.
I was really bad about preparing for Indie Game Con until the last week. I could (and do) blame it on a hectic schedule and the heavy travelling I had been doing in the months leading up to IGC, but there's a kernel of truth that I was also just so nervous that I kept putting off sitting down and figuring out what I needed to do to get ready. Don't do that. Plan ahead. You'll be so focused on getting your game ready in that last week that you don't want to also be anxious about making sure you've booked your hotel, figured out transportation, figured out your exhibit schedule, and so forth.
In terms of materials needed for IGC, there were only a couple things I wish I hadn't waited until the last minute to get. They were small things, but they just added to my already scatterbrained state and I could easily have gotten them way beforehand. The first was simple acrylic paper stands. Nothing fancy, but I waited until the night before to get them, and I don't know what I would've done if Staples had been out of stock that night. Next was batteries. I use four XBox 360 wireless controllers to demo my game. These things eat batteries and I didn't want to be without a controller mid-day. Again, not a huge deal, but buying these more than 15 minutes before the con started would probably have been better planning. So, don't leave even the little things until last minute. They add up.
Don't Touch the Working Build!
Actually, this is something I did right. I've heard enough stories of developers doing last minute work on their game and inadvertently introducing showstopping bugs. I had been working like crazy on the days leading up to IGC, but once I got a working build that was solid, I left it alone. There were plenty of things I really wanted to add and actually felt like I could maybe have squeezed them in, but I left it alone.
This was definitely the right thing to do. Everything worked perfectly and went off without a hitch with regard to the playability of the game. No crashes, no glitches, smooth.
Make Sure Your Language Is Appropriate to Your Audience
After spending half the day talking about my game to all types of visitors, an interesting situation arose I was completely not expecting. I had two girls come up who were about twelve years old and they wanted to know about the game and wanted to play it.
As I'd done probably 80 times already, I started describing the game. But I kept catching myself on what I was saying. It was phrases like, "this guy's shield..." and "...but his energy drains slower..." and "...while his shot charges up, he can't run around...." (Emphasis mine.) But here's the problem: The characters in my game don't have a gender.
My game is so early in its development that the character's are just neutral humanoids. And I hated that I was just automatically explaining my game to these girls in such a way that they wouldn't be able to identify with the characters when there was no actual reason why they shouldn't identify with the characters. Had I thought about this beforehand, I would have altered my patter to be gender-neutral.
It all worked out fine in the end, but I still had a lot of attention on what had happened and it changed how I talked about my game for the rest of the day. The two girls loved the game and actually played far, far longer than I expected them to, which means they are definitely part of my target audience. My own language about my game should be appropriate to my audience, and my audience is most definitely not targeted at a specific gender.
Cons Are Exhausting
I knew it would be a lot of standing, and I was prepared for that. What I wasn't prepared for was how mentally exhausting it would be to exhibit my game.
Take a game you really love. One that's close to your heart. A game you want others to love as much as you do. Think of how excited you might be while telling your friend about that game, how awesome it is, what it's about, and why they should play it. Now imagine telling that friend exactly the same thing 10 times. Are you still as excited and enthusiastic? How about 40 times? How about 100 times? How excited are you about telling people about that game after the 200th time in the space of a few hours?
That's what exhibiting at a con is like. You may love your game, but after 8 hours of saying basically the same thing again and again, it can be hard to maintain that cheerful enthusiasm you started the day with. Which brings me to my next point....
Communicate As Much As Possible In As Few Words As Possible
Also known as an elevator pitch. I've heard plenty of my developer friends talk about refining their elevator pitch when promoting their game. I understood that. I could see why. I mean, of course you want to be able to hook someone in as quickly as possible when you have a limited amount of time to talk to them.
But there's another reason to refine your elevator pitch: You're going to be delivering that pitch hundreds of times in a single day. If it takes you two paragraphs worth of talking to communicate the idea behind your game, that's a lot of talking. If you can get it down to one paragraph, even better. If you can distill it down to a single sentence, well, that's not so hard to deliver hundreds of times a day.
I'm nowhere near distilling it down to a sentence. I'm still at about two paragraphs worth of talking to say what I want about my game. I know it's too much, but it was shorter at the end of the day than it was at the beginning, so that's progress. I'm also dealing with the issue of my game still being early in development. This means that my pitch is a combination of selling you on playing it, but also explanatory because the game does not yet communicate enough on its own without me talking.
Finding Out What to Keep Is As Important As What to Throw Away
Before Indie Game Con, I assumed I would get lots of feedback on features to add or things to do differently. And I certainly did receive a lot of that kind of feedback. But I was also able to observe which features really worked well and what I should not mess around with too much. These were not things that players told me with words. I had to pay close attention to how people were playing the game to see what aspects of the game were a keeper or not.
Have a Way for People to Stay Connected to the Game
This might seem extremely obvious, but I didn't think about it until it was too late. (Again, preparation is important.) I'm new to this, so I didn't think about getting a bunch of business cards printed up beforehand. This was a big mistake. I had many, many people who wanted to follow the game's progress, follow me on Twitter or Twitch, be notified when it launches, and so on. Way more than I ever expected. Unfortunately, I had to make do with snippets of paper, or re-purpose some PIGSquad business cards that I always bring with me. This wasn't very professional and I felt bad for not having an easy way for people to stay connected to the game after IGC.
Lastly, Take Care of Yourself!
As I mentioned above, exhibiting your game is exhausting. If you're trying to do it on top of hardly any sleep from the night before, little or no food (or junk food), well, you're going to have a bad time. Several times I had to make a conscious decision to go get some water, eat some food, sit down for a few minutes, etc. And even then, I was still totally worn out by the end of the day.
It was all totally worth it. I was extremely nervous going into Indie Game Con. Now I feel like this is something I can do with confidence: show off my game to large crowds of people. That's really important as a developer and not something to be taken lightly. And who knows, now maybe next year I'll have a booth at PAX....