8.18.2017

Expos For Indies

By Jess Hider

Introduction

Hello! Jess here again, following up with another 'For Indies' blog (if you haven't already, check out the first in the series 'Marketing for Indies'). First up I’ve got to give major shout-outs to David Dino and James Megretton (Sumo Digital) and Chris Wilson (Cardboard Sword) for their contributions to this article. Being seasoned expoers themselves they’ve added a lot of their own insights and advice to this blog – cheers!

The idea for this blog came around last month when I was up at Dare Academy sharing stories about my expoing exploits and many of the things I subsequently learnt with this year’s participants. I thought it might be useful to share this knowledge wider, so I’ve written up my talk (and the aforementioned contributions) into another blog covering three main sections:

  • Expos & Builds: Why, where and how?
  • Booth Setup: Logistical booth creation
  • Personal Prep: How to manage when you’re there

I hope you find it helpful!

Unreal Engine Booth Unreal Engine GDC Booth 2016

Expos & Builds

Why Should I Show my Game at an Expo?

With game development, it can be very easy to be pulled into an all-encompassing development where even eating can be forgotten at the wayside. That feeling when you get sucked into a creative flow, where you’re making and making and making is amazing. But, we all hit a moment when we get stuck, we are constantly hitting the same blocker and need a different perspective, which is normally a new set of eyes. Well that’s where expos come in – they give you that fresh perspective on a massive scale.

Not only do expos give your brain a rest from development, and let your subconscious filter through ideas and thoughts, you get to see your game through untested player eyes – basically a lot of free playtesting! That sign marking the path you want the player to follow seem obvious to you? Well, when 80% of people run straight past it you might need to reconsider. It turns out that puzzle you thought was only solvable after a series of difficult manoeuvres can be completely avoided by climbing up a pole and jumping across the majority of it. When the 100th person walks away angry they couldn’t get the character to go where they wanted, you may want to revise the unique control system.

Expo’s aren’t just for finding the flaws in your project, they are also there to celebrate the successes. My favourite moment in game development is when you see someone playing your game for the first time and they crack a smile – the funny smile when an in-game joke has made them giggle, the proud smile when they’ve managed to make a tough jump or beat a difficult boss, the ‘I’ve-gotta-go-tell-my-friends-about-this’ smile when they are so excited they just have to run and grab their mates but at the same time they are so engaged they don’t want to put the controller down, and the ‘this-is-awesome’ smile when they are blown away by what they are experiencing.

Enjoying Gear VR Jeremy Anderson (London is Unreal Meetup Leader) enjoying Gear VR at GDC 2016

Game development is tough, but seeing somebody enjoy your game not only makes everything you’ve done feel worthwhile, it motivates you to keep making more. It’s addictive.

And what’s more, at an expo this isn’t happening in isolation. There can be hundreds of other developers sharing this experience alongside you and it brings you all together. You get to know the other people showcasing around you, sharing stories of what’s happened throughout the day and trying each other’s games, so when you all pack up and leave, you’re leaving with a new set of friends as well as ideas for your game.

blogAssets%2F2017%2FAUGUST+2017%2FExpos+for+Indies%2F770_ExposForIndies-770x391-d288f58a2bba585d48905cad161cfbe40d680181 Unreal Showcase Teams at EGX Rezzed 2017

Where Should I Expo?

As is the case with most of game development, you have a finite budget and timescale for going to an expo, so how do you choose which one is the best to go to?

Well it completely depends on what you are trying to gain from showcasing your game. If you are wanting to attract publishers/press/financing you would be better off at one of the larger scale expos (like Gamescom, EGX, PAX and GDC) because there are simply more people attending, and those who do are there to find and meet with companies. The downside is there is a lot more competition and it’s far pricier. If you do go for a big one, it’s worth pre-booking as many meetings as possible before you go and then using any leftover time to slot in meetings that happen on the day. Many conferences now run a meeting service (like MeetToMatch at Nordic) to make it easier for developers to reach out to other companies.

If you’re wanting player feedback on your design or game direction, a smaller expo can be more beneficial. With less players in attendance you can focus on each player longer and gain qualitative data. Shorter expos also work well if you are early on in development; most bugs in a build come to light in the first day of an expo, so instead of having to watch the same bugs be found over and over at a week-long show, you could showcase for a day, work on the build for a week, and the showcase the updated build the following week.

If it’s your first time showing off a title, I’d recommend starting at a smaller expo. Not only do you learn a lot about how expos work and gain some ideas of what to do next time, you can also ensure you have a suitable and stable build before going somewhere larger.

If budgets are tight, look to see who you could partner with to get a discounted or free space. At this year's EGX Rezzed we hosted the Unreal Engine Pavillion where Indie teams could double their space for free. We also sponsor the Indie MEGABOOTH at GDC, PAX East and PAX West so more developers can showcase their games. On top of this, we may even extend an invite to showcase on booth with us at conferences like Nordic, Develop and GDC.

But we are not alone in this, Nvidia, PlayStation and Xbox to name a few are always on the lookout for fantastic games to showcase. Places are limited and in high demand but it’s always worth a shot. If you’re building for their platform or using their technology, reach out to the teams and see if there are any opportunities available. At worst you’ll get a ‘not at this time’, at best you’ll get a yes!

How Do I Create a Build for an Expo?

When creating a build for an expo, have a goal; is it for promotion, or for play testing? It can't be both. When you’ve decided on your aim, keep in mind:

  1. Player Turnaround

Let’s say you have four workstations at an expo, it’ll be open for 8 hours and it will take players around 20 minutes to finish your demo. Seems reasonable, except even at full capacity all day less than 100 people will have time to play. In practice somewhere between 5 – 10 minutes works well. If you can get your player into the game, give them a sense of accomplishment and leave them wanting more in that timeframe you’ve got a good build!

  1. Get to the Juice

If we think about the start of many games, you often have to go through a tutorial section teaching you the controls and systems which you will need to understand in-depth for long term play and be able to learn without any outside guidance. At an expo you don’t need to do that. You can be on hand to quickly show how the controls work or give advice during play so you want to drop the player into a point where they can immediately do something fun/cool/awesome but most importantly attention grabbing.

  1. Polish

In games, systems and mechanics are often overlapping and interlocking so it can be hard to bring everything up to a layer of polish (when you do, you’re ready to release!). Consider branching off of the main build to create an expo demo. This way you can implement horrible hacks without affecting the rest of development or interrupting the majority of the team. Having less content but all to an equal polish is less jarring and more immersive than a build with greatly differing quality levels. You want to give off the best impression of your game, so if something’s not ready leave it out of the expo build.

  1. Lock it Down

Do your best to finish the demo build at least a week or so before the expo. It’ll save a lot of mental stress to get things done early than try to fix them in the few days/hours before the expo opens. If your build is ready, you’ll feel a lot more confident when you arrive and showcase.

  1. If Possible, Make it Standalone

If you can, create a build that doesn’t require an outside server or internet connection. Both can be difficult to maintain a connection to so best to avoid. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible, so make sure if you need to connect to a secure server that the locations IP is white listed, or any other setup, is in place before the event.

I’ve also got to mention different types of games showcase more effectively than others. Fast paced, instant reward games with simple controls are often the best because they can be picked up and put down easily. Strategy or narrative based games are harder to show because they require time and investment from the player, both of which are limited in an expo scenario. If you can’t find an expo set-up that works for you, spend your time looking at different options for gaining player feedback (online playtests, etc).

With all of that in mind, let’s next look to booth setup!

Booth Setup

Know your Limits

Every expo is completely different. The limitations on how you can change your space and what you can have in it differ vastly from conference to conference. If you’re sharing a booth with others (it’s quite common to see publishers and countries have their own space) you may need to keep within a certain style, so I highly recommend before you plan anything you read up or contact the organisers to find out what the major no-no’s are (if there are any).

Also make sure you know what you can and can’t do legally. Did you know that in Boston, at PAX East for example, due to union show floor guidelines you yourself are not allowed to carry anything that requires two people to carry? Or how about the fact you're not allowed to use power tools on site. Labour laws are a thing and if you're found breaking them in any fashion, they could mean a hefty fine with the potential of your booth being shut down. 

Tailoring the Space to your Game

Expos are incredibly loud and are full of movement. Is your game quiet, relaxing or serene? How can you recreate that atmosphere for your player inside a space that can often feel like a concert? Can you give them somewhere comfortable to sit? (After a long day on their feet it’s often appreciated.) Can you dampen down the noise around them? Is there a way you can subtly shield their peripheral vision so they aren’t being distracted by movement? Noise-cancelling headphones are a must if your game focuses heavily on audio, but should still be high on your list regardless.

If your game requires players to move around, how can they do so safely? I’ve seen many a person (and have done so myself) elbow, slap, kick or push someone away because they unwittingly got too close without realising. It was bad enough with things like the Wii or Kinect when you still had a vague awareness of the space and people around you, but with more VR being showcased, your player has no way of knowing who is nearby. It is your responsibility to make sure they, and the people around them, stay safe.

Sprint Vector Sprint Vector by Survios at GDC 2017

I’ve seen all sorts of different solutions: the good old tape on the floor, mini fences around the play space with a gate so no-one can enter the play space accidentally, different (brightly) coloured carpet denoting the play space so people know where is safe to stand, and full individual ‘pods’ with walls that come right out so people don’t crowd around.

Gary the Gull Gary the Gull by Motional Entertainment at GDC 2016

Is the content in your game suitable for young ages or is there highly violent or adult content in it? If so, you’ll have to let the expo know. Many have special 18+ areas, or will require you to screen off your content so minors can’t see your monitors.

You may also want to screen off your area for other reasons:

  • To stop footage of the game being posted out on the internet.
  • If there’s a big reveal you don’t want spoiled for the next player.
  • To give your players some privacy if you have an emotional game (no-one wants to be caught crying on camera) or if you have a unique control system (some players can be very self-conscious about others watching them).

Seek Booth Seek Booth at Dare to be Digital 2014

When I took part in Dare to be Digital in 2014, I worked with Team Five Pixels to create Seek, an AR/VR experience where you used the tablet as a window to the world around you. During playtests we found some people felt self-conscious about the movement so we designed our space to give them a bit of privacy. Hence we had a large gazebo which we covered on two slides with cloth to help shield them.

Booth Artwork

Once you have an idea for the layout of your space, you have to decorate it! My advice, if you can, is to make it bold (preferably bright if it fits the game) but not busy.

RiME Booth RiME by Tequila Works at EGX Rezzed 2017

This is a photo of the RiME booth from our Unreal Engine zone at this year’s Rezzed. We had 14 teams showcase with us and they did a fantastic job of their artwork. They have a beautiful graphic that stretches across their area. It takes into account where the monitors will be so avoids any nasty truncating and by placing the text at the top it can be seen from across the room above people's heads.

Most teams followed a similar theme and it works - you can see two others teams work in the background, and even from this distance they are still striking and legible. It’s also a good idea to include your social media details on your booth artwork. People will be taking photo’s all the time so encourage them to tag you in their posts by clearly displaying your hashtags or @'s.

Normally you have to submit your booth artwork at least a month in advance to allow time for adjustments, tweaks and printing, so make sure you think about your artwork early on.

Hardware

Another point to think about getting ready for your booth is the list of hardware requirements you’ll be asked to submit. Don’t assume anything. Include everything down to how many plug sockets you need. List every type of cable or adapter required and if you need something very specialised – mine always used to be a hdmi to mini hdmi cable - it’s worth getting one yourself and taking it with you than relying on the conference to provide one.

A word of warning - if you are using mobile devices or controllers that can’t be constantly plugged in to a power source you will need double the amount you are demoing. So say you have four PSVR kits on show and each uses two move controllers, you are going to need sixteen controllers in total. This means you can have one set on charge whilst the others are being played so you can easily swap them out when they die without having to have any down time.

And on top of that, you will probably want to bring at least one spare of everything. Controllers, PCs, monitors, they sometimes decide to die when you least expect so always have a spare to hand.

When the time comes to actually setting up your booth, make sure to arrive early. I can guarantee, something will be broken if you leave it until the last minute, so give yourself as much time as possible to set-up. That way if you need any additional equipment or emergency fixes you have more chance of grabbing someone to help you. Arriving early also applies to show days, just because everything worked the night before doesn’t mean it’ll work in the morning. I’ve arrived to booths to find everything has been unplugged so make sure you come in with plenty of time to get things up and running.

Giveaways

People like free things. In some cases it’s not worth spending a lot of money on them, as most people will throw stuff away when they get home, but if you can make them memorable or unique to your game they can really be an asset. The Snake Pass team at GDC gave away inflatable snakes, and I still I have mine (who is named Sherman) at home.

Sherman the Snake Sherman joins Alex & I live on Twitch at GDC 2017

Stickers are always good as people pop them on their phones, laptop etc but make sure there aren’t any convention rules about them. At GDC companies aren’t allowed to give out stickers and for every sticker they find of your brand stuck somewhere nabs the offending company a hefty fine.

Practical items often go down well; coasters, usb sticks, bottle openers, pens. Stuff which has a use beyond just being (sorry!) ‘tat’.

Also think about you can use them to engage with more than just the gamers. At Dare we did non-helium filled balloons and colouring sheets for small children and it worked well. It kept younger siblings amused while their brothers, sisters or parents played the games.

Personal Prep

Once you have your booth setup, you actually then have the fun part of running it! I’m going to be blunt here, running a booth isn’t for everyone and that’s okay. It doesn’t look it but it’s incredibly hard-work; you are going to be on your feet for at least nine hours and constantly interacting with people in that time which drains you both physically and mentally.

Personally I really enjoy it, but I know I’m in the minority here. The days are long and can be stressful so I’ve got some quick fire tips for you to help you feel great throughout the day.

Think About Where to Stay

Staying close to the venue, or even in the venue, can be incredibly expensive and not always possible if you are on a tight budget. Staying further out can definitely be cheaper but you have to consider how you are going to get to and from the venue. That 45 minute walk might not seem that bad when you book it, but doing that in torrential rain when you’re knackered from a day of expoing certainly will.

If you have friends nearby, see if you can stay with them or if a group of you could share an Air BnB. I will say, spending that bit extra to be close by is worth it. It means you can quickly drop by your room at the end of the day to drop your stuff off, nip back easily if you’ve forgotten something and generally give your feet an extra bit of rest.

Wherever you do stay, make sure you plan a route on how you are going to get to the venue and back – especially late at night.

Have the Right Team Size

Depending on the size of your booth, you’ll want to have an appropriate team size. By a rough guide, half the number of screens you have plus two works well. So 3 people for two screens, 5 for six screens, 7 for 10 screens etc. This means you can have some people helping those play, some to talk to people watching and still be able to switch out easily for breaks.

If you do end up running a booth by yourself, see if you can rope in a friend for some extra support. An extra pair of hands who can bring you food or water (or watch the booth for a few minutes for a bathroom break) will make your day far easier.

Wear Comfortable Shoes and Clothing

I went out and bought reebok airs specifically for doing expos. You will walk miles during an conference - when I did my first GDC I walked through three pairs of shoes! Having shoes that properly support and air your feet makes a huge difference to your day when you’re on your feet, at the end of it when you take your shoes off, and in the morning when you have to put them back on.

Expos also tend to be very warm and sweaty. If you’re like me and can’t cope with the heat then make sure you wear clothing to stay cool so you don’t overheat. A word of advice on team t-shirts (which you should totally have!) don’t ever use grey as your base colour, out of all colours it shows sweat marks the worst.

During the expo if you are going off to business meetings that aren’t being held in your booth, it’s well worth having a set of ‘smarter’ clothes to change into. Jeans, t-shirts and trainers are fine for the expo floor but going into meetings (especially financial ones) it can leave you feeling underdressed when everyone else around you is in suits. Apart from reducing the chances of the ‘expo fud’ lingering on you, I’ve always found dressing smarter gives me a confidence boost which can be helpful if you’re nervous about a meeting. You don’t have to go crazy - decent trousers, shirt/top and shoes is all it takes.

Bring Your Own Food and Water

Staying hydrated is really important, between the heat and the air conditioning it’s amazing how much it dries you out. If you have storage space at the booth, bring a pack of bottled water for the team to drink through the day. Many conferences have water fountains where you can refill them too.

Don’t bank on eating during show hours. Lunchtime does exist but when you want to eat will likely be at the same time the 10000+ attendees also want to eat; queues at all the local food shops will be long so if you can, plan ahead and bring food with you.

When I’m at a conference I make sure to eat a big breakfast because I know that it’s unlikely I’ll eat again until dinner time. You can’t choose when you’ll get caught up in an important conversation, so make sure to also take things like cereal bars to snack on when you a get a few minutes down time.

Hygiene

If there are any germophobes reading, you ain’t going to have a good time at a conference. You are going to shake hands with an awful lot of people during a day, so always have a bottle of hand sanitiser nearby. Use it regularly, especially before eating to avoid the dreaded ‘conference crud’ as it’s dubbed.

Hygiene also extends to any hardware the public handles. Controllers, tablets, mice they all need to be wiped down regularly and if any of you are demoing a VR project, you need to buy the wipe clean protectors to cover the foam face rests and the headset must be cleaned in-between every single use!! No exceptions and no excuses.

Staying Safe

The majority of conferences these days have safe spaces for you to go to if needed and always have first aiders (or a full ambulance team) on site. If you have any worries or pre-existing medical conditions it may be worth finding these areas when you arrive and letting the staff on hand know your concerns.

Learn the Patter

Before the show, make sure everyone in the team knows what they should be talking about. What are the major ‘beats’; the features you are showing off, any upcoming milestones or announcements consumers should look out for, selling points about your games, etc. If there are things you don’t want to mention, again make sure everyone knows what is staying behind closed doors. Press and Media don’t always wear identifying badges, so treat everyone you talk to the same and don’t drop hints to anyone. If someone is asking questions you don’t want to answer ‘we’re not quite ready to talk’ or ‘we haven’t decided about this yet’ will suffice.

As you talk to more people, the patter will evolve over the course of the expo. When you describe your game to hundreds of people, you’ll find wording and phrases that you’ll end up repeating over and over again. If you find something that particularly resonates with the player write it down and share it with the team.

Having a ‘patter’ that you know off my heart and can even say in your sleep can be a life-saver. I once ended up doing a very impromptu pitch to Apple for Seek (previously mentioned iOS title) and I was so nervous I just switched onto autopilot mode for the demo. If I’d have had to make something up on the spot I don’t think the pitch would have been successful (which thankfully it was!).

Always Have Something Playing on your Booth

There will be lulls where no-one is playing your game. Crowds attract crowds so having an empty booth is not ideal. There are a couple of things you can do to attract people to play; when the pod is idle have a looping gameplay trailer on show so consumers can see what the game is about; or start playing it yourself and when you find people watching you offer up the controller to them. Hopefully you’ll have played your game a lot (and be good at it) so you can show off the cool/fancy things you can do in the game and get people excited to try it themselves.

And Finally, Smile!

If you are excited about your project, then those around you will be too. I see it a lot and it’s a really bad habit, but never start a conversation by apologising about the game – like ‘oh I’m sorry it doesn’t have this feature yet’ instead reverse it and make it positive, say ‘we’ve got this working so far and are looking to add x and y’.

If someone compliments you on your game, don’t respond with something like ‘oh it’s not that great, it’s still missing..’ just say ‘thank you’ and smile. I get there’s a line to balance between being humble and big-headed but new developers seem to err on the side of negative humility (Brits I’m looking at you especially). If the player didn’t like it, they will say it (trust me, kids in particular will happily tell you when somethings c***) so don’t try to justify the compliment and just enjoy it.

By staying happy you become approachable, which means people are more likely to talk to you. And every moment you are not talking to someone at conference is a moment wasted. The best connections I’ve made have been completely chance encounters, randomly talking to somebody whilst waiting in line or having a quick breather outside, so make yourself look approachable and who knows what may happen!

Happy Developers Smiling Developers from Top Left: Sumo Digital, Ocean Spark Studios, Pixel Blimp, Puny Astronaut, Right Nice Games, Pantumaca Barcelona, Planet Alpha, KeokeN and Bulkhead Interactive

I hope you found this blog useful. Again a big shout out to David Dino, James Megretton and Chris Wilson for their input. As before, if you’ve got questions, or have tips of your own that you want to share, feel free to drop them in the comments. I’ll keep an eye out and answer as many as I can. Thanks!

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