Lessons from exhibiting at an Indie Festival

I recently had Gears of Glory: Apex Ace playable on the floor of the Dare Indie Fest, which is the UKs largest indie games showcase. It was a great experience for me as the developer, both personally and from a development of the game standpoint. I made mistakes, but also did many things right, and it didn’t cost me an arm and a leg.

Right – Lighting Considerations
This is something many on the day did not prepare for. I have a poster and a large game logo board I wanted on the back ‘poster panel’ (viewable from the pics), but wanted to make sure visitors to the booth could actually see and read it, from a fair distance. I knew the event had run several times before, and last year in the same venue, so looked for photographs from the event to judge how lighting is handled. Just as well I did, as they used a lighting rig with various moving coloured lights, which when in the direction of your booth is fine, but otherwise, quite dim and nightclub worthy. Therefore I made sure to take additional lighting so brighten up key areas.

Right – Control instructions available outside of the game.
Even though I was demoing a racer, which used the standard left thumbstick and trigger buttons, visitors still kept asking as they got the controller passed to them to play. I had a queue forming, and being able to pass the controls around in a showcard form helped immensely with player throughput, especially during busy periods.

Right – Trailer / Playthrough video.
I had the game trailer on a loop in two screens either end of the booth, this was great, but late on I decided to record a play-through of the level on show – and this proved very useful. Players asking what is your best score is and then you being able to show you them how it can be played is great, and can show the depth of the gameplay. There was over 5 seconds in lap time between my best lap played at the show and the best lap of the whole festival – showing how this can be achieved is a real selling point on replayability.

Right – Swag
I designed sticker badges – it’s a time-trial racing game, so it had ‘beat my lap’ on them – and they were hot property. I made sure to give everyone a sticker who played, but also had them just laying around messily on the booth table. There is something about stickers, people love them, and I believe them to be the best return on swag investment for an indie. More on this in the budget section below.

Right – A ‘business/corporate’ oriented display
I’ve had to roll out my own OnlineServices framework for Gears Of Glory: Apex Ace. There was just nothing out there suitable, and I have been asking around other indies seeing if they would be interested in using my framework. I had a small strut card with the features of my service that differentiate it from the others available, at one side of the booth. People visiting the show from a business perspective saw it, and approached me. Don’t think because it is a consumer show that there are not business opportunities to be had!

Right – Treat the event as a playtest.
Watch everyone play as much as you can. Take notes – I had a small notebook and nearly filled it with points/issues. Usually, the points are UI/UX based – and if you are the developer, this is exactly the area of the game that usually escapes you, since you’ve been working on it so long. The feedback from this point is extremely valuable.

Right – Test your audience with price
When people asked me on price, I told people slightly different values. Nothing super different – I have a price range I know I’ll target, but this was to judge peoples reactions – and I got valuable information from it.

Right – Take Everything you can
I mean everything. I filled the largest suitcase I have with ‘stuff’. I calculated the amount of batteries I should need max, and doubled it. I had 3 different types of tape (Masking tape, standard sellotape and duct tape). I had two types of scissors. I had a whole extra pack of blu tack, Velcro sticky fixers, and glue at disposal. I brought extra white and black card too. I ended up covering the second ‘trailer’ laptop with this black card at the last minute and masking taping over the usb ports, so I did use them for things I had not prepared for the days prior.

Wrong – Not enough social media during the event
I should have been live tweeting best scores, pictures, maybe even videos. The event organiser main twitter was retweeting other studios with the hashtag, so I could have got more exposure.

Wrong – Not enough social media advertising at the event.
This one is annoying – Nowhere was the twitter account names, or the facebook page names. I had completely forgot. Many people were asking about how to keep in touch with the game, and to some of them I said twitter, but for everyone that asked me, there could have been another two that would rather have simply followed the account silently – and I lost that interest. ‘Keep up to date with X by following Y and Liking Z’ banners would have been ideal.

Wrong – Trusting my old hardware
This was done on a tight budget, and I used an old Centrino Dell laptop, which is over 8 years old. I had run it for hours in the days leading up to the event and it ran fine, but on the morning of the last day of the event the cooling fan gave up. I ended up running the laptop passive, showing the windows xp screensaver with screenshots, and looping game music. It died trying to play video after about 20 seconds, but coped with screenshots and mp3 playback – even if it did warp the plastic table it was on! The laptop could possibly have played video if I had a few of those USB fans that you can manipulate into positions – so if you have one of those, take it, just in case.

Did Wrong – Make sure you have a control system override
In the main build of the game you can play with a gamepad, but keyboard control still works. For some reason that is unknown to me now, I removed this in the days up to finishing my expo build – and this was a huge mistake. With kids – especially those with wii’s at home – they can get confused with the controls easily, even a simple racer. Being able to control with the keyboard whilst they ‘think’ they play is great for this – because it’s always better than having to take the controller off them to remedy going the wrong way, etc.

Wrong – I did not have a do not touch sign on the old trailer laptop
This was a scary incident. Even though I’d covered the laptop keyboard with card, a child still mistook the trailer playing on it for a free game spot. The kid jumped and reached across the table, pulling the laptop towards them, forcing all cables to detach from the back, and if it were not for the security cable connected to it it would have fallen off the table. Some kids get very excited, so you need to prepare for these things.

Wrong – Play length
If there is a distinct goal to your game (like in Gears of Glory – X number of laps) make sure it doesn’t take longer than 2 minutes to complete. On the first day I had 5 lap demos of a circuit I could do in 40 seconds, but a lap was averaging over a minute to the public at the time – I changed this to 3 laps after the first day, which helped immensely.

Budgets

As I stated earlier, I tried to do this on a budget. There are obvious hotel and travel costs which you just need to find a good deal with, but for kitting out the booth, here is my advice.

Print your own posters
Maybe I was just looking in the wrong place, but I found it quite hard to pay for posters. I had an A2 size logo (more on that later) and an A1 game info poster. Due to the fact I only wanted one of each, the overheads were pretty steep, and would have cost over £30 ($47) to print them onto good glossy paper. Instead, I went to the local pound discount shop and bought photo paper sheets and printed the posters at home. Amazingly, the windows 7 paint program (yes, the OS one) has support for multi-page poster printing, so just make sure the printer dpi is set super high, and the resolution of your source image is good enough. Use a Stanley knife and metal ruler to cut the white margins off. I jigsaw’d it together on the day and nobody cared about it not being 1 sheet of paper. ‘Good enough’ really is correct here. People could see it and read what was on it. Job done. Just make sure your printer ink consumption isn’t stupidly high – because then the line between the two options blur.

Booth Swag
Stickers Stickers Stickers. Seriously. Design a sticker, with a game character, logo or whatever, the website, and a tagline – for Gears of Glory: Apex Ace I had ‘Beat My Lap Time’ on it. Stickers really are the best return on investment swag. I went with Printed.com and got 500 2″ stickers for £20 pre tax/postage, and they have great templates so you don’t mess up by giving them bad art, and also – importantly – the adhesive on the stickers is good, and can be used on clothing etc. Get more than you expect to hand out, as you will want to mail them out to folk too. Ive done it a few times, each time folk have tweeted a pic of the stickers so it’s good marketing too.

Create your own showcards
Where I needed fairly simple conveying of information, for example in the controls or of some business information, I used cheap 600gsm card and just glued a strut onto it. For about £5 I created 8 displays for various things.

Big Logo
I wanted to make the game logo stand out a bit more than having it just on a poster; so I printed it out and then carefully cut around it all, and backed it onto craft foam board. I then used cheap (from the pound shop again!) ultra bright reading lights which could be placed around it to light the sign up. The result of this is that in pretty much all photos from the event (pro and by-chance delegate photos) the game logo is very visible even in the nightclub lighting of the expo hall. About £6 got me something that looked pretty good and set the booth apart.

That’s about it. I’m sure there may be something I’ve missed, but it’s quite a lot of information there already. I hope it’s useful to someone!