Exhibiting at GDEX 2018: The Great Post-Mortem

Hey guys! Hope you all are doing well. The year’s almost over and yet so much has happened so fast… it’s almost hard to believe. Can’t wait to see what type of fuck shit 2019 is gonna be on, but we’ll all cross that bridge when we come to it. Either way, it’s sure to be something special. Until then, I can’t wait to finish off this year with a bang.

So about two weeks ago, I showed off She Dreams Elsewhere over at GDEX 2018 in Columbus, Ohio. I had the opportunity thanks to the Cleveland Game Devs, whom I shared a booth with several other local devs (much love to them and the entire group). My main goal for the conference was to get player feedback and continue building up a fanbase, so for this round I didn’t bother with hitting up any media; as far as I know, there weren’t many there to begin with. I did, however, make plans to network and make connections with other devs; they were a joy to be around and I plan on meeting up with them in the future.

This was the first time I’d shown off the game publicly to a large audience, so I was pretty nervous. I was confident in the game itself, but I was more worried about how exactly I was going to present it. JRPGs are a difficult genre to demo, especially since the game is meant to be experienced in longer, more immersive sessions and most attendees tend to bounce from game to game pretty quickly.

The expo took place from September 28-29th, and I officially knew I would be going about a month and a half in advance. That seems like a lot of time to prepare at first, but considering I had, y’know, the actual rest of the game to develop, that time whizzes by considerably.

My original plans were to take one of the sidequests (called “Dream Links” in-game) and have that be the demo, albeit with a little bit of content cut out. It was a pretty good slice of what the game was about, showing off the core gameplay, some of the main trio’s personalities, the lovely aesthetics, and even a bit of the social commentary that’s present throughout the game.

However, the day before I was supposed to leave for Columbus – scratch that, four hours before I was supposed to leave – I made the decision to change plans. While the level was coming along nicely, it wasn’t really there yet, wasn’t tested, and I wasn’t as confident in it as I wanted to be. (Also, I’d been up for 28 hours straight. Yikes.) So I ended up taking the opening hour of the game and splitting it into two – one for the opening party scene for those who wanted to talk to people and dive into the story, and the other for the first level for those who wanted to explore and get a taste of the battle. With a few cuts I made beforehand, both sections were around 20-30 minutes long, depending on the type of person’s playstyle. They had already been thoroughly tested, and I was confident in the gameplay itself due to positive feedback from a multitude of private testers and friends.

The original version of what the demo was going to be. Takes place in a nightclub where the trio is trying to meet a famous rapper.

With that, I boarded my Greyhound and made off for Columbus.  I was staying with a friend who went to Ohio State University, so thankfully I didn’t have to pay for lodging. (Major shoutout to Joe for hosting, and his roommates for their kindness and hospitality. Oh, and Logic and Lil Wayne’s new albums to get me through that godawful bus ride.)

So… how did it all go?

What went right:

  1. “Oh hey, people actually like this game”

Yeah, this was super validating. I got a pretty hefty amount of players who were able to try it out, especially on the much-busier second day. People seemed to not only enjoy themselves, but they also got the vibe I was going for, y’know? The simple, yet challenging gameplay, the mysterious, creepy aesthetics, the loose dialogue… it also seemed to really click with people. Not to mention, about 70-75% of people who sat down to play played the entire demo, which is also a huge plus since I was really worried about that. It helps that most players were RPG fans, so they were used to that kind of experience.

  1. Lots of valuable feedback

It’s one thing to get player feedback via email and Google Forms – it’s a completely different thing when you’re watching someone play in person. You can actually see how they’re playing, both on-screen and through their facial/body expressions. Even if they weren’t saying anything, there was still valuable information to be gained by simply observing and taking notes.

Most of the time, I remained quiet and stood a good few feet away from players as they went through the demo. Occasionally, they’d strike up a conversation as they played, so I was happy to chat with them. I had a lot of great conversations this way, not only about the game itself but also about totally random stuff too. Which leads into my next point…

A scene from the character-focused section of the demo.

  1. The people (and the other games!)

Man, I met a ton of awesome people here, from expo-goers to fellow devs alike. There were a lot of unique games, and I especially loved talking to people from all walks of life. It’s always inspiring to meet with people who share your enthusiasm about gaming, y’know?

I even met Rebekah Saltsman, the CEO of Finji who gave me tons of great advice about bizdev, so major shoutout to her. I also “met” Scott Benson, the co-writer/co-designer of Night in the Woods, one of my favorite games of all time, so that was dope. (I use “met” lightly – in reality, I didn’t know it was him at first, so then I walked over to say hi but he was in another conversation with another woman and his co-writer, Bethany Hockenberry… but I already walked over so I stayed and listened for awhile as he acknowledged me a little bit but we never actually talked and it was a lil awkward and probs a bit creepier than I wanted it to be and why am I like this ahsjahsjahsfjw)

…Anyway.

The people there were dope.

On that awkward note, it’s time to start the roasting session and discuss-

What went wrong:

  1. Awkward booth space

So here’s the thing with sharing a booth with other devs – when it comes to table space, it’s first come, first serve (in our case, at least). Sadly, I arrived later than I intended, so I didn’t have a ton of room to maneuver my stuff around. It was made even more awkward since I couldn’t even fit my laptop on the table, meaning it had to chill out on the floor and risk being (more) damaged. The second day was a bit better since I came earlier, so it wasn’t nearly as awkward as before but it was still pretty cramped.

This is by no means anyone’s fault – mine, maybe, for not waking up earlier – but definitely not my other boothmates (again, they’re amazing). It was always going to be cramped, nothing you can really do about that except getting your own (expensive) booth.

  1. Lack of awareness before and during the show

Other than a brief mention in the last blog post, and three social media posts (one of them during the show itself), I didn’t really advertise my presence there. I also didn’t have any “booth” signage or an attract mode installed, so people didn’t even know what the game was called unless they took a look at the tiny business cards under the monitor. This was all partially due to expo inexperience, not being sure how large the event was really going to be, the fact that space was limited and also, y’know… general brokeness.

Still though, there really needed to be a more physical presence at the booth. One of the other Cleveland devs had a flashing marquee atop his monitor in addition to these dope, colorful water speakers. Kids, he’s doing it right. Be more like him. Not like me.

The demo setup. Note the Starbursts to lure those hungry gamers in. Otherwise, not very interesting and attractive, yeah?

  1. Gameplay issues

Even though I had a lot of players, very few people played the “I want to talk to people” party scene, and those that did ended up not finishing it. While the narrative and dialogue got a lot of positive comments, gamers at an expo generally wanted to just get into the core gameplay, which is totally fine.

There was also a MAJOR choke point in the combat demo – midway through it, there’s a battle against two fairly challenging enemies while Thalia is still alone.

Everyone and I mean literally everyone died at this part. Multiple times even. Thankfully, most players were so invested in the game that they retried it and eventually got past it, but I still cringed every time it happened. Unfortunately, something else went wrong with this battle, but we’ll get to that in the next section…

The infamous choke point. Fuck those Blocboys.

Finally, and I’m still on the fence about this, but I think the demo still might have ran a little too long. Maybe. I don’t know, I overthink this kind of stuff way too much, and none of the players mentioned or seemed to mind the length. Again, maybe it’s because they’re used to RPGs. I’m gonna ask around and see what other devs think about this one, I’m very interested to see what they have to say.

  1. Glitches

So back to that choke point. The game uses on-map encounters for battles. Currently, there’s a major glitch where if you die, retry, and win again… the game doesn’t clear out the on-map enemy from memory, so the moment you exit the battle, you go right back in. If you beat it again, the game proceeds as normally, and the player is free to run away if they really didn’t wanna fight, but most people fought anyway. Again, not a huge issue after the fact, but it’s still pretty embarrassing. Definitely one of the bigger bugs I need to fix ASAP.

The glitch in question.

Also, due to the way RPG Maker MV weirdly handles audio, there was a glitch where if you died, the game wouldn’t play any audio until the player went into a new room. Again, not huge, but definitely awkward and a handful of players noticed. Still gotta figure out how to fix that one.

Wrap-up:

Overall, I’d say the expo was a success. I got more playtesting feedback than I hoped for and I’m very happy with how the game is coming along.

Next time, I’ll definitely be doing much more promo before the event, making the booth stand out visually, and attracting as many people to the game as I can (adding an attract mode, bigger monitor/TV, improved and themed décor, etc.) I’m not entirely sure yet, but I also might change the demo to the original sidequest idea now that it’s in a better shape. We’ll see – again, let me know your thoughts on this.

The revised “attract mode” as seen on the second day of the expo. As you can see, it just reused the opening area of the original GDEX demo.

Also, I’d like to have a full-time assistant for the event. For those of you who don’t know, I’m pretty much the only one developing the game (aside from the fantastic, already completed score and some artwork), meaning I was the only one specifically there for my game. It wasn’t a huge deal, though – if I wanted to walk around, I had the other devs to take care of things, but they weren’t actually associated with the game in some fashion. If a player had a question or a streamer wanted some information, they wouldn’t have been able to answer it. Plus, any time I was away from the table was time I couldn’t watch people play if they were there. Apparently, a girl came through and was super into the game; so much so that she remained transfixed even as tables and equipment were being moved around her. I can’t confirm this, though; I heard it from a fellow dev who told me when I returned to the booth. It would have been awesome to see that myself or at least have someone associated with the game see it. But alas…

So, let’s say you’re an indie dev and you’re about to show off your game publically. Here’s a few random tips for ya:

  1. Stay hydrated. You’re gonna be heavily active the entire time and I guarantee you you’re gonna feel exhausted in some shape or form after the show. (I got a cold as soon as I came back home, hence why this post is a bit late.)
  2. Don’t go alone. Even if you’re a solo dev, try to bring a buddy or put out an ad for an assistant if possible. Not only do you have reliable backup, but you also have a friend to experience the expo with!
  3. Lock down the build EARLY. Like, at least a week in advance. It’ll give you plenty of time to test it and make any necessary changes, but you definitely shouldn’t be working on critical content the day before the expo. The last thing you need is an uncaught game-breaking bug popping up on the show floor.
  4. If glitches happen, chill out. It’s not a huge deal, it happens. Unless the bug is absolutely game breaking, just take a note of it and make sure to fix it after the show. No use drawing attention to it if possible. Plus, since most of the games at the expo were indies, attendees were much more forgiving of them.
  5. If shit REALLY hits the fan, stay calm. Midway through the second day, I made a small change during the show and my computer crashed (a regular occurence for my rig, sadly…) Normally I’d be able to restart to continue on, but this crash ended up corrupting my entire game file. Thankfully, I had backups on hand, which leads me to my next point…
  6. BACK. YOUR. SHIT. UP. Seriously. Have one (or multiple, better yet) on-site and another off-site. Remember kids, if you just have one copy, you don’t have any.
  7. Shut up… at least while people are playing. I didn’t notice it at this expo, but at another indie gaming event way back when, a lot of developers would overly explain their mechanics, guide the player themselves and otherwise not let the player actually play the game. Chill out and observe. It’s all good.
  8. Have a physical controller layout nearby if possible. It’s something I noticed while playing Sony/Insomniac’s Spider-Man at the expo – they had an iPad constantly showing the controls nearby, so the player never had to ask the rep or fumble around too much. Obviously, this isn’t a huge deal if your game has fairly simple controls (such as mine, for example), but it’s still something worthwhile to consider.
  9. Connect with other developers! Like I said before, it’s always super inspiring to link up with people who are just as passionate as you are; it’s a good way to make new friends and support each other.
  10. Take photos. Document and enjoy the experience; it’s good to have for social media and for the sweet, sweet memories.
  11. Be attentive, look engaged. It’s all too easy to just pull out your phone and browse for a bit during a lull. Believe me, I’m guilty of it too. But please, look like you’re actually invested in your game (which I’m sure you are) and give out a welcoming, passionate vibe to people. If you’re sitting there looking bored, people passing by will certainly notice. Stay attentive, and greet people with a smile. You never know who you might meet out there…
  12. Have fun! It is a gaming expo, after all. Enjoy yourself. 🙂

Probably one of my favorite geeky pics. (That’s me on the left.) Sadly, I didn’t get the name of him, but whoever you are – you and your matching war-Luigi were sick.

Well, that’s about it for now! If you’ve gotten this far, you deserve a cookie. What do you guys think? Any other bits of advice you would add? What’s your expo experience been like? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

As for when you guys can play the game yourself… Well, the next expo is… well, I can’t announce it just yet. Check back next week 😉

For the non-expo goers, though… well, the demo is technically good to go now, I just need to make a few minor changes and wait for Oliver’s final art to come in. Once that happens, I’ll set a release date for it. Shouldn’t be too long now. I’m super excited for you guys to finally get a taste of the game, and I’m even more excited for you guys to play the full version.

In due time, my friends. In due time…

If you haven’t, I’d hugely appreciate it if y’all would wishlist the game on Steam. Also, feel free to follow the game on Twitter, Instagram or via email newsletter updates. There’s also my personal Twitter or Insta if you really care about what I’m up to.

With that, I’m off to finish the last episode of The Walking Dead (Season One). I can’t wait to get emotionally destroyed even more.

Until next time, y’all be excellent to each other, yeah?

-Davionne / Lorenze

Another great pic with the cosplayer Meerami (@meeramicosplay). Yes, I’m aware I have stupidly long fingers. Let the roasts continue, boys.

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