Booth Hacks 2

I was down in Austin for Classic Game Fest 2015 this weekend. I sold a few more copies of Super Win, saw some awesome cosplay, and checked out a bunch of amazing retro games. This week, I’m continuing my series on lessons learned in manning a booth.

What I’ve Learned in Two Years of Exhibiting at Events
Part 2 of 3: Presentation

Every event is going to be a little different. This three-part series of blogs is based on my experiences showing Super Win the Game at a number of conventions and expos this year and last. Some of this may be useful to other developers, some is just my own observations. I recommend researching any event you plan to attend to avoid any unexpected surprises.

Identify the goals of your booth presence

Are you promoting your game to increase awareness? Are you selling it? Meeting fans? Making connections with press and internet folks? More than likely, your goals will be a combination of all of these, but identifying this can help you tailor your booth and your game demo to suit your needs. You’ll want to make sure that the elements that are most critical to your goals are highly visible and immediately apparent.

Highlight critical information

If you have fancy-schmancy TV stands, use those! If you’re winging it with a TV on a table as I always have, remember that players will be standing when they approach your booth, so you’ll want to get your screen closer to eye level. I have some IKEA risers that were part of a standing desk solution I once put together; these worked perfectly for getting my TV a good distance off the table. Another option is to put a chair out in front of your table, but be aware you may need to back up your table to make room and not disrupt the flow of traffic in this case.

Your screen or screens will be the first thing people see, so make sure they communicate their purpose effectively. If you’re showing a playable demo, make sure the title screen (or whatever screen your game idles on) is clearly labeled as ready for play. The Super Win title screen reads “Press Start to Begin,” and I keep the controller as close as possible so the intent is clear.

Plastic sign holders that fit 8.5″x11″ sheets are super useful for whatever other information you might want to provide up front that doesn’t belong in the game itself. In my case, I use these for displaying the prices of items I’m selling and a “buttons and flyers are free, please take one!” message.

Pack extra everything

Extra cables, extra power strips, extra pens and markers, extra notebook paper, extra phone chargers, extra everything. You don’t want to have to run to the store at the last minute because you forgot an HDMI cable, and it’s always nice to have spares on hand in case another exhibitor needs to borrow something. I’ll also note that having a super long power strip has come in handy many times, as you never know where power drops will be located.

Keep a notebook

Don’t count on wi-fi or cellular service. Some venues do provide wi-fi, but in my experience, it’s a rarity, and the volume of devices often degrades cellular reception. Keep a notebook on hand instead to jot down any bugs you observe or improvements you could make. I filled many, many pages with Super Win bugs and polish items last year, and the game is immeasurably better for it.

Lock down your builds in advance

Yes, you could work on the game right up until the last minute just to make sure you get each and every new feature in there, but it’s not worth the risk if you destabilize the build. By and large, no one’s going to miss absent features, but they will notice broken ones.

Use discretion with regard to bugs

Bugs are embarrassing, and your first instinct may be to try to fix them on the fly, or to go back home and prepare a new build before the next day. And sometimes this might be the right choice. But keep in mind that any change may affect stability. If you don’t have time to thoroughly test your changes, it may be preferable to continue demoing with known bugs.

Audio considerations

Events are loud, and there’s little to be gained by making them louder. I’ve found myself having to shout to be heard over my games before, and that’s not really an ideal situation for either party. So here’s my take: unless audio is 100% critical to your game (e.g., it’s a music or rhythm game), keep the volume low. Headphones are an increasingly popular option as well, although this necessarily precludes speaking to your players, so you’d better make sure your game is foolproof if you’re gonna go that route.

Tutorial or not tutorial

All right, here’s an interesting one. Last year, the “demo” build of Super Win the Game that I brought to events was essentially the whole game as it existed at the time. The game started with a tutorial, so the demo started with a tutorial. It covered movement, jumping, the works. It was optional, but most players chose to play through it, and some got bored and quit and walked away before finishing it.

This year, I brought a build with no tutorial. It drops players right into the action with a few abilities that would normally be acquired an hour or two into the game. Most players picked it up right away. Some didn’t. So it seems that both options have their drawbacks.

I think in future games, I’ll try to find a nice middle ground by introducing mechanics naturally and teachably in a setting that doesn’t feel like an outright tutorial.

Attract mode

Hey, you know how arcade games always had attract modes where they’d play a short demo after sitting idle for a little while? Turns out that’s a really smart idea! I’ve observed time and time again that Super Win attracts a crowd while someone’s actively playing it. When it’s sitting idle on the title screen, most folks just pass it by. This was one of my primary motivations for implementation input recording, an optional fixed timestep path, and determinate randomization in Gunmetal Arcadia, as these will allow me to record and play back game events for an attract mode.

Demo-specific features

You don’t want to have to manually reset your demo each time someone finishes playing. I’ve automated this process for Super Win by adding a demo mode setting that will automatically reset the game after it’s been idle for a specified length of time (45 seconds during normal gameplay or 15 seconds if the game has been left on the pause menu).

Demo builds should also disallow exiting the game, and I’ve even gone a step further and disallowed saving and loading, access to the options menu, and anything else that would alter the play experience from the sort of default, prescribed vanilla one that I want to show.

Super Win demo builds also force all control bindings to be displayed using the Xbox 360 glyphs, as that’s typically the controller that I demo with. This is sort of specific to my needs in that it prevents the game from showing mouse or keyboard bindings if I accidentally bump my laptop’s touchpad or whatever. Your needs may vary, but in general, your goal should be to minimize anything that could possibly change based on player input.

A final thought on demo scope: the build that I took to events in 2014 was the entire game as it existed at the time. This was honestly just too much content. Unless your goal is to encourage players to camp out at your booth, potentially for hours on end, your demo should have a finite length and a clear ending. If you’re worried that a truncated, stripped-down demo might do your game a disservice, you can look for opportunities to showcase additional features in passing, but remember the adage about leaving audiences wanting more. In my 2015 demo of Super Win, the overworld map is only seen briefly and cannot be explored beyond a small walled-off region, but it’s enough to imply a larger scope than what’s available in the demo.

Put your best foot forward

Some might disagree with this, but I say if something will make your game look better for the demo alone, do it! It doesn’t have to be 100% representative of the shipping game. This is especially true if you’re demoing an unreleased game. As an example, I always demo Super Win with an unsupported, undocumented anti-aliasing mode enabled. Is your game especially difficult? Tune it a little bit easier for the demo so your players feel good about their skills. (I wish I’d done that sooner for Super Win. Or at all.) Treat the demo as a separate thing from the full game, and give it the attention it needs to be the best possible demo it can be. Just make sure you give yourself enough time to lock it down.

Part 1: Planning
Part 3: People