Indie Megabooth / GDC 2016 Post-Mortem
I had the privilege of being part of the selection for Indie Megabooth at GDC 2016. Here are my thoughts on the experience.
Before going into any of this, it really was an awesome experience! Various attendees were at different levels of stress with the experience, but having the Indie Megabooth folks around was very reasurring - you could tell they had done this before.
Day 0 (Sunday)
Arrived in San Francisco on Sunday and went into Moscone West in the afternoon to set up the demo machine. Seeing my game up on the Indie Megabooth standup sign somehow made it all suddenly feel very real. It's hard to explain all the feelings, but it was a mix of pride and joy.
Going in, there was a bit of uncertainty on the specs of the machines we would be getting, so I was prepared to use my own laptop to demo (though I was really hoping I wouldn't have to). Luckily, the machine I got was powerful enough that could run the game at a decent framerate so could just use that.
The setup process was mostly uneventful, except for a sound issue. After half an hour of fiddling with sound card settings (I suspected it to be a sound card filter or auto adjust/duck), it turned out the headphones I was using were faulty. Having my own laptop there to do a bit of binary-partitioning problem-solving turned out to be really helpful.
Day 1 (Monday)
Just as I was trying out the game for one last time on Monday morning, I discovered two different bugs. None were game-breaking, but potentially affected the experience. One of the bugs could potentially make the whole ping-inside-portal bit confusing. The other one allowed people to "game" one of the later levels and progress without going through the proper motions. Fortunately, that later level was an execution-based challenge (rather than a puzzle one) so it didn't really matter.
Not sure how I managed to resist the temptation, but I decided not to attempt fixing any of the bugs on the spot. I figured it's not worth the risk and I'm happy I made that call. In the end, only one person found the first one and while the second one happened a handful of times, it made for some nice conversation around having bugs.
Having shown my game before, it didn't feel really stressful. It helped knowing I had a bunch of older builds I could fallback to - I've been saving all of my game builds since I started the game (currently around 50 different builds). Not having made any last minute major changes was also really good.
I also got to see the auto-restart in action. I settled on 30 seconds before automatically showing the menu and a 20 seconds countdown for auto-restarting. First day was busy enough that I still had to manually restart for a few people. Having restart be an easy combo really helps.
I forgot how uplifting it can be to have your target audience play and enjoy your game. Developer conferences (such as GDC and Unite) are packed with people who enjoy a challenging puzzle. Seeing that smirk of "cool, I get it" on players faces on the first portal level made it all worth it - an awesome reminder of why I make games.
This year there was a bigger group of Calgary people so I could get food brought over without leaving the booth. More time observing players is always a good thing.
Day 2 (Tuesday)
Bugs still not fixed (on account of parties and being tired), very similar to day 1. Standing for a long time is starting to feel a bit more tiring. Really thankful for running and having a standing desk for building up a bit of conditioning/resistance there.
Playtesting working as expected. I didn't have to interact much with people while they were playing, the game is set up almost perfectly for self-sufficience. Typically, I would chat with a player after they finished playing while someone else is playing. Trying to pay attention to the conversation while also observing gameplay was a bit difficult.
I decided early on to try not to look at people's badges/name tags before talking to them so I don't get weird knowing someone's famous. This resulted in conversations about the game, then me asking, "What about you, what are you working on?" at which point I would look at their badges. A few of the times the name was instantly recognizable so I had to go "Nevermind, sorry for asking
Day 2 was just as busy as Day 1.
Day 3 (Wednesday)
Did a quick new build in the morning - just removed one of the levels that was early on and felt a bit too slow. This made the progression ramp up a bit faster but overall a better experience.
A slower day since the main conference was now open. Some press people coming around the megabooth area. Starting not to have a few breaks in between when sessions are on - really helpful for getting a bit of rest.
Pretty happy with my booth setup. I had a sign with the game's name on one side, double-sided (orange/blue) business cards for the game on their respective sides (see photo) and a mailing list sign-up sheet on the other side (same design as used before, inspired by Ultimate Chicken Horse).
I also had my personal business cards (well, half personal since one side was dedicated to the game). Having the game half be recognizable was really helpful in identifying me as the dev of the game for people wandering about the booth.
My rule of thumb was - only offer a business card to people I actually talked to for a bit (or if they offered me one). This turned out really well - players would end up typically getting a business card for the game and then one of mine if we chatted. This also meant I could remember most of the business cards I received.
I'm a bit surprised that some of the business cards were not very memorable and the online presence very poor. If you don't have a photo of yourself on the business card or something about your game that I'll remember, at least have your website/twitter/linked have a photo of you and a clear description/location. I always asked people where they're from, what they're working on, role (programmer/audio/etc) and the answers help me remember who's who.
I didn't figure out exact numbers but for the entire conference, I probably went through about 200-300 game business cards and maybe 100 of mine.
Day 4 (Thursday)
By now I can accept that fact that I somehow got injured. It's really painful to stand but it really helped wearing running socks with arch support (for gdcrun.com
which I was really hoping I could make at least three times, oh how naive...). I need to test this theory more at other conferences.
Using the same build, getting the same kinds of feedback. Getting repeat players bringing over their friends to play. Also got to meet some people I only knew from their online presence and/or email exchanges, which was really sweet.
Starting to wander about to meet more of the attendees of the megabooth. It really helped I tried to organize some reddit/madewithunity promotion for the games made with unity (11 out of 15!) so the moment I introduced myself people recognized me from all the emails I had sent before GDC. I also set up a slack group that only a few people ended up using, but it was nice coming in and already feeling like I knew at least a few of the people.
I didn't get a chance to play more than half of the games in the megabooth - part of that being that I don't like playing games in public. I'm glad other people don't have this problem so I can observe them play my game
Day 5 (Friday)
Friday was a short(er) day - only until 3PM. Really looking forward to the end, amazing experience but really grueling standing for 5 days. Manning the booth solo and not taking breaks adds up after a week. Parties didn't really help recovery either. By this point it's starting to become a blur. Thankfully I still remember all (most?) of the people I met. Really challenging seeing/talking to tens of people and then seeing some again a few days later and trying to remember which day I talked to them, if they played the game, if they liked it, what do they do.
Throughout the entire conference, knowing my game is in the megabooth made me feel like it established my credibility and also helped a lot with the impostor syndrome. I only attended GDC one time before this, in 2014, when I didn't have a non-mobile game I worked on. Still, even now, not actually having released my game, I still felt like a fraud waiting to be uncovered. Thinking about it at a rational level doesn't really help that much. It did help that I was tired enough and so talked-out that I couldn't think about it a lot.
(photo courtesy of Jason E
Most of the questions I got about the game were non-technical. Here are the most common ones (and my answers), in decreasing order of frequency: Q:
What's the status of the game? When and where will it be released? A:
Nearing release, hopefully in two months/end of April on Steam (already greenlit), then on consoles (PS4/XB1/maybe Wii U) Q:
How big is your team? A:
Just me and an audio guy (sometimes mentioning him working on the music for Antichamber) Q:
How long did it take you to make the game? A:
Since December 2014, about half of that time being full-time and the other half less than part time (due to contract work). Q:
How many levels do you have? A:
In this demo build, just 15 levels. In the game, I'm looking at it more in terms of gameplay time, hoping to be somewhere around 2-4 hours of content on release. Q:
Have you thought of X? (two-player mode, having power-ups not be consumable, additional buttons on controller, adding a story, etc) A:
One of the things that surprised me was that people were appreciative of the effort it takes to make a game solo. This veers into the impostor syndrome territory again, but I used to be ashamed of the long time it took me to get here, seeing it as an indication of my competence/skills (or lack of). It was really encouraging seeing positive response on this aspect from people knowing what it takes to makes games.
Last day was also when I had to collect/upload the analytics. I had set up Unity analytics to figure out play time for the levels in the demo build. This was in hopes of extrapolating to figure out how much play time I have for first-time players. This was a bit more effort than I had thought as nobody seemed to know where the local analytics cache is stored on Windows. Used my phone as a hotspot and ran the game again to allow it to upload the analytics and also copied over some of the local folders where I suspected these would be stored. I wish I had planned this a bit better as being tired made it a bit more stressful than it should have been.
No San Francisco post-mortem could be complete without the food. Definitely one of the highlights of being in this city. Having worked there for about half a year, I got to be the food guide for my group. We managed to visit most of the food places I wanted to go back to.
Here are my top places and must-have's on their menu:
- Tropisueno - best Mexican food I've ever had: Tropisueno torta (sandwich) and the Mole poblano plate. Margueritas are great, especially if you can get them during happy hour.
- Ryoko - still the best sushi I've had, all great but their staple is Jumping Tuna (deep-fried spicy tuna roll), also the only place I've ever had real wasabi (not this time though)
- Boccalone - the Mess Piggy is an amazing pulled pork sandwich, especially if you're not into the traditionally sweet pulled pork taste (like me)
- Katana-Ya - late-night ramen, always a solid choice
My only regret is not remembering about the crab at Thanh Long sooner. It's a bit of a trek, but it's also walking distance to the Pacific Ocean. Maybe next time.
Overall, best GDC yet. A few more things I'd like to remember for next conferences:
- bring a ziploc bag for your passport, useful if it rains
- if bringing a laptop, ask your hotel/hostel if they have a safe
- running socks help for standing a lot (need to validate this a bit more)
- it's not pokemon for business cards - don't give/ask for business cards unless you've really connected with that person
- book parties in advance if you want to attend, some get sold out really fast
- figure out why you're attending GDC, it's ok not to attend sessions if learning is not your goal
- don't be afraid to say "nice meeting you" and move on to meet more people and find those that you're really interested in talking to (be it indies, AAA, audio, devs and so on)
- if you're exhibiting, find a way to sit down more and avoid more standing and dancing in the evening/night
- try to save your voice, if night-time events are too noisy, it's ok to be quiet
Huge thanks go out to the IMB crew for making this experience possible and to the whole Calgary group for support!
Also got to take the printed sign home as a trophy: