Boston FIG – Post Mortems

Finally, a full summary on my experience at Boston FIG.

Background and Application

Vidar has been in semi-development since December 2013, and in earnest development since March 2014. The game was accepted to the Boston Festival of Indie Games Digital Showcase, a curated selection of roughly 50 games from developers in the Northeast. For the application, I sent the then-working build of Vidar which included the entire ice cave area, a build which by September was several substantial changes old. Specifically:

  • Level length was miserably long
  • Puzzles were way too difficult
  • Time spent in the ice cave got boring
  • There were only 12 quests in the ice cave, and because of the random mechanics of the game, it was not unheard of to see only 1 or 2 in a playthrough
  • All of the art was stock RPG Maker art, from title screen to the end of the demo
  • Bugs everywhere!

In spite of all of this, the curators let me in. I have no idea how that happened, but as I’m slowly finding out, people believe in the game as a concept. I hope I can deliver.

Before Boston FIG, the game was demoed only once, at NYC Games Forum’s July Playtest Night. During that event, roughly 2 dozen people played. Last year’s Boston FIG had 7,000 attendees, so I needed to gear up for a totally different scale of volume.

Preparing the Demo

The core of any showcase is the product, the demo. I have put a lot of thought into what a demo of Vidar looks like, and have mostly come up empty. The game’s core selling feature is a story that evolves not just in response to player choice, but randomly as the game progresses over a 4 hour playthrough. Paced random story generation can’t be demonstrated in 2 minutes, it just can’t. I’m candidly not sure how any RPG does it. Ultimately, I settled on a roughly 10 minute demo. I included 7 NPCs out of the 24 in the game. To demonstrate the random aspect of the game, I killed 2 at the beginning of each demo, and adjusted dialogue and quests available to the player accordingly. I fudged a little and made sure that both Sandor and Bernadett couldn’t die at the same time.

Close up of all the new artwork incorporated for the demo.

Close up of all the new artwork incorporated for the demo.

Depending on whether the player got Sandor’s or Bernadett’s quests, after free time in town they were sent to the part of the cave where they could complete that quest. Where a player got both quests, a coin was flipped. Sandor’s quest, to rescue his son, is a more contained but more intense story aspect of the game. Bernadett’s quest, to return a ghost to its grave, takes place in the same area as other quests. This allowed players to see elements from the quests they picked up in town.

At the end of the demo, depending on which quests the player did (and who died at the beginning), the player would see a little bit of text indicating what would come next in the game.

Booth Stuff

Because we were going for a 10 minute demo, I needed to have a lot of units. Having only one laptop would’ve meant that we got a whopping 40ish people to play the demo during the day. Not nearly enough. With that in mind, I wanted to have 4 laptops at the event. We were told we’d get a 10×10 booth with a single table and 2 chairs. Realizing that I couldn’t easily convert that into space for 4 laptops, I brought a cheap folding table and 2 extra folding chairs.

For signage and booth decoration I brought two table clothes, a runner with the Vidar logo printed on it (way cheaper than doing it on a full tablecloth), and an XL printed vertical banner.

The tag line drew a lot of people in - so many attendees wanted to know more. If any single piece of marketing did it's job perfectly, it was this poster.

The tag line drew a lot of people in – so many attendees wanted to know more. If any single piece of marketing did it’s job perfectly, it was this poster.

I also brought a candy bowl with some Reese’s cups, a clipboard with an e-mail sign-up sheet, stickers, business cards, beanies, and a placard saying that if people tweeted @VidarTheGame during the festival with a picture of them enjoying Boston FIG, they’d be entered to win a beanie. My plan was to give out 5 an hour. See below for how this largely failed.

Set-Up

When we arrived at MIT, we definitely did not have 10×10 booths. The 6-foot tables were all adjacent to each other, and about 5 feet behind us was another table. So we had 5×6 booths. Panicked that this totally scuttled my plans, I emailed, tweeted, and smoke signaled the coordinators. Almost immediately I had several responses telling me that I could set up in a 10×10 space so long as I talked to my neighbors about it, neither of whom were there, and neither of whom had set up the night before. So I moved their tables out to a 10×10 space for themselves, and then for me in between them as well. The result was that we were really the only 3 showcase exhibitors that had the space we were promised, and I heard a lot of other people grumbling about changing their booth plans to accommodate the layout they started with. Had they only asked, I’m sure they could’ve expanded as well, there was plenty of space at MIT for everyone to actually have what was promised. I can’t imagine Boston FIG had set them up smaller than announced out of malice, and everyone I talked to was nothing but warm and helpful.

Because of all of this, our booth looked fundamentally different than everyone else’s. For starters, we had 2 tables set up as a T, with the top of the T facing the attendees. All laptops were set up on one table, and then a monitor showing one player playing the game, plus swag and sign-ups, were on the other table. Having never done a convention, I can’t say this was better or worse. I do know that it seemed to work for us, and that we stood out. We were large and in-charge, and it felt awesome.

Business in the front, party in the back. Of the booth.

Business in the front, party in the back. Of the booth.

All of the power was daisy-chained power strips. Beyond being a fire hazard, this meant that if someone tripped over a cord on the other side of the room, we lost power. This happened several times during the day.

Reactions to the Demo

People were generally very responsive to the demo. Make no mistake, this wasn’t uniform, but people at conventions tend to just move on if they don’t like a game (rather than vocalizing what they dislike). It was important to make note of the people who started the demo and left halfway through, as much if not moreso than those who played it through and engaged me in a 20 minute conversation after. Because the goal should be to limit the bucket of the former as much as possible. While the statistics indicate that number was higher than I’d like for Boston FIG, I’m comforted by the fact that most of that was young children who instantly grabbed a laptop because WHY NOT IT’S VIDEO GAMES!!! Seriously, the joy you could see in these kids’ faces was priceless. And it’s maybe a good thing that they couldn’t get into Vidar; there’s occasional inappropriate language, and it deals heavily with death, with loss, with depression, with nostalgia. I don’t want to be responsible for putting these 8-year-olds into years of therapy. These kids often would start the game, run around town, not be able to find a puzzle or big bright graphic in the first minute, and leave, so it skewed our numbers concerning walk-aways. And I’m not even upset, those kids were having fun running around in a wonderland of gaming.

After generally trying to get a sense of positive/negative reactions to the demo, I wanted to see what was positive. Biggest selling point for the game was the random story telling. In fact, as I would go through the pitch, people’s eyes would widen or they get a big grin a split second before the punchline (“With this system, because the order of deaths is randomized, the story itself becomes random.”) And seeing that light-bulb moment, with people starting to get excited about the possibilities of this story-telling system, was awesome.

Full booth, happy gamers, exhausted and nervous developer.

Full booth, happy gamers, exhausted and nervous developer.

There were also plenty of negative reactions to the demo, most of which are very easily fixed (and indeed are in the main game). More tutorials on controls; easier ramping up for puzzle difficulty; eliminating unnecessary menu options for the demo. Some more interesting take-aways:

  • I added a handful of points where people could interact with the environment. Since NYC Games Forum, I’ve noticed that we’ve all been so conditioned by FF6 to check the grandfather clock for Elixers that, as soon as we see SNES-style graphics, we click on everything in every single house. Seriously, players just want to investigate every bookcase, every bed, every picture, every crack in the wall, and of course every clock. It’s crazy. So, in response to that, I added about 5 in the game. This only fueled the fire. Where before people would give up checking everything after a full minute where nothing was responsive, now when one thing works, players spend a good five minutes hitting enter in front of every table. I need to make a game-design decision to fully embrace this compulsiveness, or do away with it entirely. Half-assed was the worst way to go.
  • People who “beat” Erik’s puzzle were incredibly disappointed that Erik still died. While I’m mindful of “kill your darlings” issues, I’m sticking to my guns for now on this one. Everyone dies in this game – it’s the tag line on every business card, poster, website, etc. And I’m extremely hesitant to change that. That being said, customers are rarely wrong. I’m curious to see how this ends up playing in testing as part of the whole game. In context, Erik’s death may be more tolerable for players. If it’s not, I’m already playing with ways that you might save Erik. Of course, if he joins the main cast of the town, he’ll still need to die.
  • I loved seeing friend-groups come and play the demo together. When three friends each grabbed their own laptop, and the death notifications popped up in their demos, without exception they’d turn to each other and say “oh who died in your demo???” And that followed through – “oh which quests did you get?” “what room are you in?” “wait so is that guy really not in that room because he died???” And if one finished, they’d go over to their friend’s laptop to watch, help puzzle solve, and see something new. It was awesome, and it was the best expression I could have for Vidar In a weird way, this leans towards having fewer demo units in favor of a single bigger screen which a crowd can watch. Or perhaps, two units hooked up to two monitors so people can compare side-by-side. It’s tough to know exactly how to recreate this inspection of several simultaneous playthroughs, but it’s something worth brainstorming for the next event.
  • The end of the demo, which told the player about what would happen the next day in Vidar, was too much wall-of-text. How to convey the sense of exploration without that text is also something which needs to be resolved.
  • Some people immediately walked away on realizing that the game was made in RPG Maker. There’s not really much I can do for them. Even though I continue to strip out elements which clearly identify the game as RPG Maker-made, some parts will always be there. You can feel it in commercially successful games like Always Sometimes Monsters or Actual Sunlight. And that’s ok. Indeed, for every person that scoffed and mumbled “RPG Maker” under their breath as they left, another said “how did you do all of this in RPG Maker?! That’s crazy!” I never want to be a developer that says “if you don’t like my game, I don’t care,” because that leads to leaving money on the table AND a bad game. At the same time, this bucket of people may just not be the target demographic for Vidar. 

Reactions to the Booth

The stickers and the beanie giveaway were both duds, for different reasons. No one wanted a sticker – indeed, the only people that took them (besides the kids, who had dual focuses of playing every single game and collecting every single piece of swag, so matter how small) were those who thought they were business cards. So, now I have 400+ stickers and no idea what to do with them. My husband has suggested that maybe people only take stickers when there is brand recognition – no one wants a Vidar sticker but they might want a Destiny sticker. So maybe the rate at which people take stickers can be used as an unofficial metric of brand recognition? Who knows.

Nobody wanted any of those stickers. At all.

Nobody wanted any of those stickers. At all.

People actually really liked beanies, but were totally uninterested in tweeting. While my goal was to give away roughly 70-80 beanies, I gave away 4 to non-children. It wasn’t a drawing; it was a conditional. If you tweeted, you got a beanie. But, people saw them and thought they were pretty cool. Unlike the stickers, I think this one suffered because of the method of obtaining them. At the next event, I’ll simply hand one out to anyone who signs up for the mailing list, and see how that goes.

Interviews

I did four interviews during the day, and I was progressively worse at each, likely due to exhaustion. The only one which was not video recorded was by Jacob Wood from IndieHangover, and you can read his glowing review here. As of writing this post, the remaining interviews have not been posted. These interviews themselves were eye-opening. In advance of Boston FIG I made the conscious decision not to contact too much press, and to only focus on a handful that I thought might help at such an early stage. The thought process was that Vidar is too early. As it turns out, press responded to the concept despite how far we are to a release. I still don’t know that not reaching out to press was a mistake per se, and think that, with list in hand, I can now contact these outlets, journalists and podcasters as I approach a kickstarter saying I was at Boston FIG, the game was still so early but got into the showcase on the strength of the concept, and I’m about to kickstart.

Summary, Going Forward

Boston FIG gave me the courage to do a few big things:

  • Go back to NYC Games Forum in October. While I was concerned that the demo was not different enough since then, it is actually. It’s new art, new puzzles. But even if not, so what? The name of the game is exposure, and I’m sure that for every 1 person that says “oh I played this last time, no thanks” there will be 2 that wanted to but didn’t get a chance, and 5 that weren’t even at NYC Games Forum 3 months ago. It’s worth it.
  • Bump up the kickstarter to as early as late-January. I’m still going to wait to see community engagement metrics improve – more emails on the list, more twitter followers, etc. But one big concern I had was having a 1-hour press demo sent to press to get some really good quotes in order to further promote the game. And with four interviews at Boston FIG I might just already have those. Which would be awesome.

As for the former, there’s no rest for the wicked. I’m already planning on adding more content for the next showing on October 30. Expect posts about that soon, and thanks for reading!

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