Artscape 2011, A Survivor’s Guide

posted by Chris on 19 Jul 2011

So we exhibited Alight at Gamescape this year, an exhibit at the Baltimore-based Artscape festival. And we survived! It was a fun to show the game off, and great to meet up with other game developers and talk shop. There are several big companies in the Baltimore/DC area, but thus far, it’s been hard to find other indie devs that are nearby. Go check out some photos from the event if you haven’t already.

It was also our first time showing off our work to the public, and while I think we had a pretty good first try, there were some lessons we learned along the way.

Artscape is kid territory. Maybe it was because the Target Family Experience Tent (seriously, that was what it was called) was right outside our exhibit space, maybe it was the nature of video games, maybe it was because it was a free, family-friendly festival, but a huge portion of traffic to our booth were kids between 8 and 12 years old. Fortunately Alight‘s game mechanics are fairly simple, so most kids could understand the general scenario and could hack the controls. Still, I inwardly quailed a little whenever the kids stopped to read the text — which a surprisingly high number did — because, well, Alight has a fairly grown-up sensibility. There’s no sexiness, but it’s a bit dark. I kind of wanted to refer them to the Shawn’s Bits table next to ours, which was demoing Pond Hopper, a logic puzzle game with cute, very kid-friendly graphics. Fortunately, though, none of the kids seemed particularly traumatized.

Interestingly, the most common question kids asked was: “What’s the goal of this game?” Adults instead asked, “What was your inspiration?”

You need a real demo. We were showing off a fully playable version of Alight. I assumed people would try a level or two, then get bored or otherwise want to move on. Most grown-ups did, but there was a subset of kids who would happily sit in front of the game for twenty minutes or more. It’s a vote of confidence in the game, I hope, but I think it discouraged some people who might have tried Alight but saw someone else at the controls. I think even people who enjoyed the game needed a little prod to say, “Thanks for playing, you’re all done.” It’s just human nature to want to complete things.

The Maniacal Games guys two tables down were demoing a single level that they told me was designed to take about six minutes, and that seemed like a really smart approach. On Sunday afternoon, I switched the demo to Where We Remain — Joel’s idea — and its quick-play nature seemed to work pretty well, too.

You also need a bajillion giveaways. We wanted to give something to people with a Web address where they’d be able to play Alight once it was released, and we needed to do it on the cheap, so I bought some blank business card sheets from an office supply store and tried to print out a simple design. My printer, unfortunately, crapped out in the middle of the process so we had even fewer cards than we wanted. We ran out literally halfway through Artscape and were reduced to pointing out the addresses on the placards we had on our table. Not very cool.

I saw that other exhibitors at Gamescape were giving away glossy postcards, which seemed like the right mix of quality and size. I haven’t looked into how expensive printing those is, but I’m a little afeard to find out. As always, we’re on a $0 budget.

People like big TVs. I brought my computer monitor to the exhibition space — it’s a 21″ one, so fairly big as monitors go. When I got there, though, I noticed several exhibitors had set up flat panel TVs and metaphorically slapped my forehead. I forgot that the flat panel sitting in my living room had a VGA input. As always, people gravitate towards the shiniest objects.

Eat and drink up. I figured that while I would be tired out by the end of each day, it wouldn’t be a particularly arduous experience. Gamescape was indoors and air-conditioned, and we had seats at our tables so we could chill out as much as we liked. I did not get off quite so easily. I ate lunch around 11 AM on Friday, then sat at the table until Joel got off work around 6. And though I drank a bunch of water bottles (thanks, Artscape organizers!), I was starting to go a bit spacy towards the end of my shift, and ended up collapsing into an unconscious, barely human pile afterwards. I basically needed to eat the entire contents of my girlfriend’s kitchen (thanks, kind understanding beautiful girlfriend!) in order to stand on my own two feet again.

I’m an introvert, so while showing off our game to strangers was a lot of fun, it was really draining. On subsequent days, I brought some Gatorade and munchable Goldfish with me, and it worked out a lot better. I was tired at the end of the day, but not dead on my feet.

The other thing I learned to do was let go. At first I wanted to hand-hold everyone through the game, but it’s just exhausting to do so. Eventually, I could tell who needed me to give them detailed instructions because they’re having trouble, and who I could let go for a bit and give myself some downtime.

Lock it down. The main way to interact with the Alight demo was through a repurposed Xbox controller, so I wasn’t worried about anyone breaking the equipment. Still, a petulant 12-year-old girl decided she wanted to fiddle with the volume knob on the speakers and annoy everyone, so once she left, I moved the speakers behind the monitor. (To her credit, I suppose, she stopped fiddling as soon as I asked her to.) Someone else decided to use a laptop at another table that was supposed to demo the Baltimore Gamer web site to check on their Facebook. So, sadly, you have to run a tight ship.

It’s worth it. While 99.99% of people who came up to the table were friendly, I only met one person who knew who we were. He came up to the table and asked me very politely if I was part of Twofold Secret. I said yes and introduced myself. I feel a little bad because while I think he said his name was David, I could be completely wrong — I said hello to so many people. David, or perhaps not-David-at-all, sat down and played, explaining to the woman he was with, “They did Where We Remain.” I didn’t narrate at all as he played and she watched. I wanted, maybe more than anything else that day, for them to enjoy it, to think it was as good and maybe even better than the two games we had done before, the ones that had made them remember us in the first place. This is the kind of experience you can’t get anywhere but in a venue like Gamescape. This was why I came.