On exhibiting

Hello! Convention season is upon us. We currently do not have any appearances planned for Backworlds, but having been part of shows as an attendee, an exhibitor, staff and also part of the group evaluating what games get approved for inclusion and not, I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk a little bit about what I have learned that could be useful to know before you exhibit a game for the first time.

Application

If you are applying for your own expo space, usually you just have to front the cost and your only concern is that your game meets the rules (in terms of safety and decency) of the event. If, however, you are applying for a competition or for an exhibit with limited space, your game will likely go through an approval process where it is pitted against other applications. Typically the people making the call will be industry professionals much like yourself, so when creating the application think about what would be interesting to you and your peers rather than what you should say to an investor or hardcore fan of the specific genre you are making a game in.

In this case, it is much like applying for a job – first impressions are hugely important so make sure you have a good understanding of what the event is looking to feature and why this is a good fit for your game specifically. Highlight this in your written material but do not make it too long. Make sure you are being approachable – make it as easy as possible to download and test a build. Test your build on different hardware setups to reduce the risk of people being unable to play it. Have plenty of screenshots and video material demonstrating your game as a backup.

A few more specific notes regarding your preparations;

  • If you are submitting an application to an event where the dominant language is one you are not comfortable with, have a translator on-hand to review your application and respond to any questions that come up.
  • Multiplayer games show well at conventions, but can be difficult to test since most people doing the judging are doing it on their own. Be clear about the intent and limitations of your game in terms of number of players, and try to have a way to experience the game as a single player regardless of whether this is the ideal experience or not.
We did not exhibit at E3.

Executable

Preparing a preview build can be a disrupting affair – you are forced to go through a polish pass on a small part on your game before the core systems, tools or even gameplay mechanics are set so there is a good chance you will have to do extra work and throw the results away when you are done. Make sure to plan enough time to prepare the demo, as you do not have the authority to change the release date yourself.

When making a game for public display, try to tailor the experience you are providing to what feels good in the setting. Rather than just displaying a released product, give a custom 15-30 minute experience with a definite ending and a clear call to action. It can be tempting to use your display time as a testing session, but try to focus on making sure the players are having a good time and feel special for trying your game at the show. One of my fondest memories from PAX East was playing Sabotage Studio‘s The Messenger – the fourth-wall breaking narrative had been rewritten with new jokes lampshading the changes in pace that came from making a convention-exclusive build.

  • Have a trailer to show so the game will not just be stuck on the title screen if no-one is playing. If you can integrate this into the game itself (ie, an attract mode) it will be less overhead but for Backworlds we would just have a video running in the background and switch between it and the game.
  • Playtest your build to make sure it meets your time target for a playthrough – if you are seeing wildly different times with different people it might be prudent to add a time limit to a session.
  • Make a key shortcut for resetting the game and clearing the save state from any point so you can quickly let a new player try if one finishes or gives up halfway through.
  • Similarly, try to enable simple cheats for quickly progressing the game or moving elements around so you can ‘repair’ a playthrough even if the player encounters a bug.
We did not exhibit at GDC either. Sorry.

Floor

Application was accepted, build is as good as it is going to get and you are getting ready to take to the show floor – at this point the nature of the event, the nature of your game and the size of your display is going to have a large impact on how you want to approach it, so this last part may get a bit focused on the small, plucky indie showcases we have done for Backworlds.

I think the key part here is (again) to make sure that the players have a good time – be prepared to help them if they get stuck (but do not butt in and interrupt them before they need it), try to resolve any issues they may have to let them finish their game, celebrate their success and make sure to listen to their feedback even if you can’t do anything about their requests. Debugging technical or gameplay issues is important, but in this case your focus should be to make as many people happy as possible.

  • Juha talked about this after EGX, make sure to have enough people to staff your booth at all times and try to take breaks or check out the rest of the show when you can so you are at your best when showing the game. Also make sure to sleep well, eat well and hydrate!
  • If you are bringing giveaways, make sure to check with the event staff what the rules are beforehand – PAX will not allow stickers, for instance. If you are planning to sell items at your booth there are typically many more rules to pay attention to.
  • This probably should not be saved for last, but think about what you are getting out of the event and try to set quantifiable objectives to determine if you are meeting those goals. Tricia over at Our Machinery wrote some insightful things about it.
Nor did we exhibit at San Diego Comic Con.
Or at Hogwarts, for that matter.

… That’s all we had for now! An old joke that I’ve mostly heard in the games industry but that probably exists in some form in any creative business is that the first 90% of the work takes the first 90% of the time, but the last 10% of the work takes the second 90% of the time. We are working on Backworlds on the side so unforeseen extra work translates to a longer development time rather than overtime, but we are slowly finishing up everything!

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