In this series of articles, Mars Ashton does a deep dive into a number of topics related to submitted papers, talks and games found at this year’s Meaningful Play Conference at Michigan State University. For this article, Mars offers an in-depth guide for students and exhibitor newbies who haven’t exhibited a game and may not be sure where to begin.
You know nothing. Everything you design, every idea you have, every intention you pour into your game is invalid until you get it in front of someone and see without a doubt that you communicated what you were going for (or not). Needless to say, it is super important to get your game out in front of people early while time is available to make changes.
Haven’t done that yet? Let’s talk.
Getting your work out in front of people, especially at an early level, can help to validate your choices and give you direction. Anyone can design, as it were, and people from all walks of life are capable of giving you a fantastic conversation about your work that can lead to essential changes for you to implement. As odd as it may sound, my own experience and that of my colleagues suggests that 90% of the feedback you get at an event will be uninformative. The comments might be flattering, full of praise or just reiterating what you’ve already been told before as it relates to the good, the bad and the buggy. It is 10% of those critical thoughts and discussions that drive problems you didn’t realize existed home and make the time and effort of exhibiting worth it. Be open to discussion and be mindful of the way you can encourage a conversation to become more productive. Praise and flattery are great, but not nearly as useful.
Recently, a game I am working on received feedback that was abrupt and misleading. People playing the game said they didn’t like the tone of the game’s dialogue. They dismissed the conversations characters were having as angsty and uninteresting. They don’t understand I thought. They don’t get it. Dismissing this criticism right away wasn’t a good reaction to have. We can’t react by thinking, how dare they perceive my game in any other way than what I had in mind. It can be difficult to take in negative comments, evaluate them, and choose not to react in a defensive manner. Take a moment before responding to determine whether criticism may be on target or not. Showing off your work isn’t easy, so how do we make the most out of these conversations?
The playtesters that provided the feedback seemed to be enjoying the game while I was discussing another game being showcased nearby. Several times I was distracted by their enthusiasm and reactions about my game’s experience. They thought it was cool, I told myself. There were key moments they reacted to strongly that was exactly what I wanted to have happen. I did it, I thought. Not quite. And that is okay. When one of the testers told me about the “angst” of the characters and a general lack of interest in the world I needed to take a step back and consider what they were really telling me. I asked if they had seen some of the silly and goofy exposition here and there and they did not come across that. Their perception became a little bit more clear at this point. We talked about alternative ways to convey information in the game, we talked about what was working and ways we can blend it all together to make them more engaging. Front loading certain content, setting a tone, reorganizing and shifting things to play out a bit differently were all suggestions and lessons learned. How could I shift events in the game to ensure players would get a variety of conversation tones? I left the discussion very aware of the fact that the game may come off a little...sad. This indication is important. If this was your game would you want the player to feel that way? In my case, yes. It is okay for the player to feel sad. In seeing this particular player turned away from the experience as a whole because of that fact, I can evaluate how I want to move forward.
The Meaningful Play Game Exhibition and Pure Michigan’s Game Expo and Celebration were great opportunities for games to be on display. For the Meaningful Play Expo, the peer-reviewed games submitted were presented among a solid group of varied, diverse games. Games for entertainment and learning were on display next to one another. Games inspired by mythology and folklore were present, taking on very different forms (physical card games and digital platformers) to communicate particular ideas and tell stories. These events are not unlike events most likely happening around you on a regular basis. Throughout the midwest we have a number of community-focused organizations leading showcases, members organizing their own exhibitions and opportunities for small and large-scale demoing happening on a regional, national and international level.
Every Spring I co-teach an Integrated Game Studio course whose final presentation is a University-wide expo run by the students themselves, student organizations and a variety of local businesses and developers. Last year we had over 600 attendees, 70 vendors and dozens of games on display. During midterms the students produce a dry-run of their “booth”, an 8ft table with power and internet provided, with the expectation that they supply everything needed to showcase their game as effectively and productively as possible.
Reach out to local schools and businesses. Schools need local talent and industry to be involved so they have an innate interest in bringing you in. See if the International Game Developers Association has any Chapters nearby. Find a local Gamedev Discord server, like the one we use in Michigan, and reach out to your community. Hunt these events down if you aren’t aware of where they are or start one of your own. Even a few people coming together is all you need to capitalize on some feedback.
So, let’s say you are preparing to exhibit your game. Where do you begin? What do you do? Is your game ready? Is your team ready?
Here are a number of things to consider or do, in no particular order, when showing off your work at any event.
Things You Should Consider
Test the Game in Advance: No last-minute builds. Prepare your big feature ahead of time and, if need be, use a stable build. Nobody likes to see a broken game or a developer struggling to fix a problem on the show floor.
Determine Your Goal: Are you there to build a community? Are you there to get feedback and improve your game? Set goals for the event and develop a strategy to track feedback through note-taking or provide your guests and players with free keys, download codes or the ability to sign up for a newsletter to be sent news and updates in the future.
Test the Setup in Advance: Plug your equipment in at some point during development to make sure everything syncs up correctly. Know how your hardware works, how to properly project or extend your computer screen and consider the need for additional cables.
Use an Attract Loop: After your game is idle for a minute or two, play a solid video reel of your best features and footage that may be difficult to encounter during a typical expo play-through. Think Arcade Cabinet. Look up a tool to play a video file as your screensaver or integrate the loop into your game itself.
Implement Dev Commands: Restarting the game, teleporting to certain areas and locations or settings a variety of stats can be helpful. Just in case, they can circumvent a complete restart if players find themselves boundary breaking, help you showcase certain parts of the game during discussion and provide quick and easy control without having to access the software itself mid-expo.
Design-on-a-Dime: Use your resources. Sell baked goods. Reach out to student government or admissions for financial support. Reach out to local businesses for sponsorship. Does your school/event/venue have monitors on-hand? Computers available? As a student, can you utilize a laptop you use for classes?
It Will Be Loud: If you are demoing a single player experience that is slower paced, relies on music to drive the point home, or just screams to be experienced outside of a venue like the one you’re at, prepare. Bring headphones (and sanitizing wipes to keep them clean). You do not want to be competing for sound bandwidth during a conversation with someone with your own game. Rest assured, other booths nearby will probably be bringing speakers. If you’re running a multiplayer game that needs that “live performance” component to keep people invested, speak with your exhibition organizers ahead of time to help them find the right spot for you. You don’t want to be on top of another multiplayer game.
Have a Tablecloth on-hand: Some events don’t provide this. If you can afford a branded cloth, great, but a simple black cloth can help cover up unsavory looking tables and keep the focus on your work and your takeaways. Speaking of...
Consider Takeaways: We’re moving beyond a world of “here is my business card”. Ask yourself and the team what can make an impact that goes beyond generalized feature lists or contact information. What would someone want to keep? Protip: pins and stickers are highly sought after and can be fairly cheap! If anything, go for the tried-and-true business card to have something for people to keep.
What Not To Wear: Be presentable. Groom, wear something nice, but don’t feel obligated to dress as if you were heading to a graduation ceremony. Bowlcut Studios has tailored polo shirts with branding. Paired with jeans or some khakis they are good to go. Consider having a relevant shirt for the event, a custom printed shirt or a nice jacket to go with your casual or business casual attire. First impressions of your game start with you and your exhibit design.
Consider Inclusive/Accessible Design Patterns: Consider your audience. If someone in a wheelchair wants to play your game, are you able to allow them to do so? Is the table height appropriate? Do you have controller cables that are long enough for anyone playing at a comfortable/reasonable distance?
Visibility: If a crowd is at your table they may be blocking your monitor from passersby and preventing other attendees from becoming a part of your audience. If possible, lift a sign, have something above eye level, or even bring an additional monitor that is only intended for a trailer or footage reel of your game.
Have An Elevator Pitch: It is important to summarize what you’re showcasing in a sentence or two that summarizes the game’s hook and theme/setting. What makes your game fun? Why do/would people give it a double take? What catches their attention? Focus on that. If you don’t know what it is during an expo, you’ll find out very quickly.
The Ideal Controller Scheme: A controller is a standard method for providing players with the ability to play your game. Obvs. Map your keys based on current patterns and precedents. Don’t swap the typical “accept” and “cancel” buttons. If you aren’t sure what they should be then test it beforehand to figure that out.
A Majority of Feedback You Get is Null: Building a following if you’re going for that is important and positive feedback is a part of that, but if you’re exhibiting work more than likely you’re looking to validate your design choices and make your experience as thoughtful, fun and engaging as possible. 90% of the conversations at an event will not be productive in this way. That is okay. Recognize the discussions that are really going to matter.
Don’t Push: If people want to play, they will play. Give them an invite if they pass by and something catches their attention. You’ll know when this happens. Don’t make a big thing out of it if they pass up the opportunity.
Wear Comfortable Shoes: Depending on the event you could be standing around for hours. This can hurt. Wear supportive shoes and remember to take a seat every now and then to give your stompers a rest.
Stay Hydrated: The more you talk the more difficult it will be to continue to do so. These events can be loud, forcing everyone to speak at a higher volume than they are used to, and strain yourself trying to communicate your well-prepared elevator pitch. Keeping water on hand will help alleviate this.
Don’t Be A Hater: Hate is a strong word. Be mindful of the way conversations develop and be aware of the impact you may have if you disagree or disregard feedback or commentary. Don’t fault your players and guests for misinterpreting your game or its components. Help them learn and reevaluate how you can better communicate that!
Charge your Phone: Keep your phone charged and you’ll always have a way to take notes and get contact information. Don’t stress out over designing a business card. These are tossed, lost, forgotten or straight up thrown out. If you get an email address on-the-spot and save a draft email, or send one, you can connect immediately and securely.
Prepare A Persona: A good friend of mine, Steven Zavala of Flyover Games and the amazing puzzle fighter WaveCrash!!, has spoken for IGDA Detroit on this subject. One of the most powerful revelations for some of my students involves his take on being shy and having to demo a game in a public setting. He cites that his own shyness is circumvented by playing a part. “You’re a performer.”, he says, noting the way you have to portray your best traits during the duration of the demonstration.
These, like anything else, become easier and easier to do with practice. Starting small may be the best bet if you haven’t exhibited your work before. Show off to a small group of people at home, work or school. Buy them pizza, bring a laptop and meet in a public place to share work and have a productive conversation. Make it a regular thing! As you build confidence in your ability to demonstrate your work you can move up to larger-scale conventions and even submit your work to peer-reviewed events. Doing so can help you improve your game, build an audience, win accolades and have game-changing conversations.