March 14-18 was the 30th edition of the Game Developer Conference in San Francisco. It was also my first GDC, first time in SF, and first time showcasing a game at a convention! I was there promoting OneShot, alongside the lead programmer Mathew Velasquez, at the Indie Megabooth on the 3rd floor of the West Hall.
I had been nervously anticipating GDC for several reasons; not the least of them being my high level of social anxiety. But I knew this was a great opportunity and after a few anxiety attacks the first few days, I was finally able to get out of my own head and show off the game to people with a zen calm and clear understanding. The only thing that didn’t get better was my feet which were completely numb after standing 8 hours a day for 5 days. There were bean bags nearby that were very inviting, and I admit to collapsing on them once or twice, but there were a steady stream of people walking up to the booth which allowed almost no downtime.
Mat and I took away a lot of lessons from showcasing the game over 5 days. While many of these lessons were specific to our game, some could be applied to anyone’s first time showcasing at a convention.
TOP TAKEAWAYS FROM SHOWCASING AT THE INDIE MEGABOOTH/GDC FOR THE FIRST TIME:
- At first, I was reluctant to approach people but I soon got over that fear. The trick is to walk up to someone and introduce yourself as soon as you make eye contact. It would go something like this. Me: “Hi, my name is Mark.” Them: “Hi, my name is [insert name here]. Is this your game?” Me: “Why yes, yes it is. Would you like to hear more about it?” I found the shorter the intro the better. GDC is more about making connections with other people than promoting your game. As soon as you start a dialogue with someone, they’re already invested. Lesson: Do a quick, organic intro to keep things from getting awkward.
- The first few days, Mat and I were still working on our pitch to people who would walk up and ask us “Tell me about your game”. At first, I would talk too much, trying to give them information on both the gameplay and story. I soon realized that the hook was the “meta gameplay elements where you solve puzzles both inside and outside the game itself.” I was able to work this into the first thing I said and attendees were instantly intrigued. It was easier to let the game do the rest of the talking. Lesson: Keep your pitch short, clear and mention the most interesting aspect of the game first.
- We very early on realized that our demo was too long for a convention setting. The demo could take a new player 30+ minutes to complete without aid. Many early players didn’t stick around for the entire demo not surprisingly. After watching several playthroughs, we got better at actively guiding new players through the demo. Ideally, we wouldn’t have had to interfere but there were 14 other games at the Indie Megabooth, plus all the other games and panels going on, and we wanted to respect their time. Lesson: Keep your demo short and only feature the most interesting aspects of the game.
- We buried our golden egg too deep in the demo. OneShot features classic adventure/puzzle gameplay but also has “meta” puzzles that you solve outside the game. We had one of these puzzles in the demo, but you had to complete a long classic-adventure game puzzle beforehand to access it. We quickly realized we should allow the player to solve the meta puzzle as soon as they encounter it and Mat hotfixed a change the first night. We also would guide players to the puzzle so that they could experience it before they left. Every reaction we got when players solved the puzzle was super positive aka “mind blown”. Lesson: Show off the best mechanics early-on.
- GDC was great for playtesting! I kept an Evernote file open and would write down observations and feedback from players whenever I had a chance. The live playtesting data we gathered was invaluable. The truth of remote game development is that most of the testing is done by users over the internet, so you don’t get to watch the minute-to-minute gameplay. What players don’t say but do is often much more insightful. We also got a lot of open feedback. Most of the attendees are also devs or students, and much of it was very insightful. We had a few people that were rude about it, but most everyone was cool. Lesson: Nothing beats live playtesting! Make sure to take notes.
- The first day, we didn’t bring nearly enough promotion cards. I left most of them back at our airbnb, thinking GDC attendance would be light. That was a huge oversight! We were flooded all of Monday and ran out of cards before the show ended. After that, I brought as many cards as I could carry. I also made sure to place them in an area that was easy enough to pick-up a card without distracting the player. Promo cards are important as many people are on their way to a panel or some other event, and don’t have the time to talk or play the demo. Lesson: Bring all your promo material instead of leaving the bulk of it at home.
- When we first started showcasing, we didn’t have an email sign-up list. This was a huge oversight. Many early attendees were interested in purchasing the game but because the game wasn’t out yet we couldn’t point them to the store. Even with the promo/biz cards, it was likely they’d forget by the time the game released. By having them sign-up for an email list, we could ping them on release, meaning more opening sales. Lesson: Not having a sign-up list is leaving money on the table!
- GDC was great for networking but not so great for press. We only met a few people from press outlets. We were fortunate enough to get one article from Destructoid (http://www.destructoid.com/the-key-to-beating-oneshot-probably-won-t-be-in-the-game-348635.phtml) but there were no other major articles that came out of GDC. Most press came by the first day. By Wed, the expo floor had opened, and there were also tons of VR booths competing for attention. We also had only reached out to the media list a week before to schedule appointments. Only one outlet replied, and then never showed up. Lesson: Make appointments with media weeks before GDC. Even then, don’t expect GDC to attract as much press attention as PAX.
Those are some of the key lessons we took away from GDC. There were several other lessons. For example, not using a Steam Box to showcase your game (seems most people will just ask you about the controller). In all, I felt GDC was well worth the investment and made me much more confident as a producer and a person. It also steeled me for PAX East which will be upon us soon enough.
Are you an indie preparing to showcase your game at a large convention for the first time? Perhaps you’re a veteran that’s already braved many an expo floor? Either way, I’d love to hear from you in the comments; whether you’re sharing war stories or fears and concerns about upcoming shows. The real key lesson I took away from GDC is that we’re all in this together and the more we can bolster each other up the better we all do.
You can also contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d be happy to answer any questions.