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My teammate Peter and I recently returned from Dreamhack Dallas 2019 where we showcased our upcoming indie game, Summoners Fate, at a major event for the fourth time. Events like this are major learning opportunities that continue to help us improve both our marketing and game design (see here for data on our past events). What makes indie development so compelling to us is the comradery we share with our fellow devs. By being open and honest about our experiences with each other, we can all up our game and share in the success of what we learned. In that spirit, here's an in-depth look at our budget, detailed session data, and our unexpected discovery of how originality and choice influence player perception that we learned at Dreamhack Dallas 2019.
Dreamhack has an outstanding reputation for supporting indie devs that apply for the playground with a category award that includes a free 10x10 foot booth. This year, we were among those that received Best Strategy game. The only out-of-pocket cost required for the booth to showcase is power, which cost $150 at this event. So let's take a look at the other costs involved for travel and marketing:
Since this is our fourth showcase, we already had booth essentials such as our vertical standing banner, horizontal hanging banner and equipment to showcase the game (laptops, tablets, cables, mounts, etc.). See our prior showcases for specific breakdowns on these costs (or roughly calculate between $100-$200 for banners depending on size and where you order from). It's important to note that Peter and I maximized our budget by traveling incredibly light. We brought our entire booth setup as carry-on luggage (that includes a 32" flat-screen monitor).
We designed our game demo to run automatically and onboard users to the experience as well as provide a vertical slice of what's to come in later gameplay. The demo takes between 11 and 15 minutes to complete, divided roughly equal time between the onboarding missions and the final boss battle. Our demo tracks detailed session data so that we can determine precisely how much traffic we received at the booth, downtime between sessions, and specific insights on where/when players are dropping off in the demo. Here's a summary of the data we compiled:
Notable callouts include:
Here's a summary of our gameplay funnel showing the percentage complete and where users are dropping off:
Not surprisingly (since we did not alter the demo) our data is consistent with our PAX East demo:
I agree with Alex and caution that data should inform how to grow and improve, not define the metrics of how successful your convention was. I measure our success by the vigor and excitement of the crowd and I highly recommend you do the same. We asked our players who played our game to tell us what they thought, and here's what they had to say:
Politely ask players after they've tried your game if they'd be willing to give a short response about their experience. Compile these together and you've got yourself evidence that the trip was worth it.
One thing we did different at this expo was take more time to play other games created by fellow indie devs, and this turned out to have the greatest impact on our learning from the experience. Shout out to Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mask, Wildermyth, RoundGuard, Rogue Empire: Dungeon Crawler RPG and Bound by Blades for the opportunity to play your games and learn from you.
So what exactly did we learn? The games that excited us at Dreamhack were those that exhibited unique and original mechanics. The parts less exciting were those that felt derivative to other titles and implemented to satisfy perceptions of trends in the current market.
This gave us pause to question our own design - Why were we implementing systems like our saga-style map, and would players perceive these mechanics as original and exciting or derivative and out of place?
Branching saga maps are trending in the market, but we learned we aren't doing ourselves a favor standing out by making derivatives.
Our first breakthrough was questioning why we were using certain mechanics in the first place. When I thought about our over-arching saga map, I reasoned it was there to provide break points and present choices to players - but were these choices meaningful or rudimentary? How informed is the choice I make on the path I take, and what can I do if I don't like the outcome (especially if the outcome is an unfair challenge I cannot overcome)? The saga map also directly conflicts with one of the unique and compelling aspects of Summoners Fate - our ability to tie tactical grid levels together as a seamless world.
We built an engine that supports seamless transitions between levels. Why aren't we doubling down on this?
Our second breakthrough was asking ourselves what underlying motivation as players made us feel the most compelled to move forward.
Making a choice was the most prominent factor - but, not just any choice. It has to be a meaningful choice. It has to be a fair and informed choice. The choice must contribute to sense of progression and development of the ultimate character destiny we aimed to play out in our fantasy. Once we realized our mistake and let go of it, other pieces of our design started falling into place and got us excited about how we can deliver on choice:
In retrospect, these insights seem obvious, but it's easy to forget how clouded our judgment can become working in isolation from the creative input of others. I highly encourage setting aside time to play other games at conventions as a catalyst for creativity.
Exhibiting our game continues to empower us with new insights that we learn and grow from. Here are three takeaways to consider for your next expo: