Tips for Showing Your Indie Game at Conferences, Part 2

EGX 2015 Show Floor

In my previous post, I looked at a few ways to make your indie game stand out at conferences. Having a great demo is definitely the single most important thing when showing your game, but there’s more you can do on and around your booth to help increase your impact still further, so in this post I’m going to outline a few of them.

1. Be visible
For gamers, part of the appeal of visiting conferences, aside from getting to play games ahead of launch, is the opportunity to meet the people behind the games themselves, and this applies doubly so for indie developers. Chatting to the developer(s) of a game forms a human connection which makes people more likely to remember it, so it really pays to make yourself as visible and accessible to visitors as possible.

Probably the easiest way to do this is with a game-branded item of clothing, as demonstrated by the developers of the lovely-looking Aareo at EGX this year, who all wore smart Aaero-branded t-shirts. This sort of identifier is valuable because people are more likely to talk to you about the game if they can see you’re clearly related to it, and are far less likely to ask around to try and find the developer if they’re not immediately obvious.

Aaero desert screenshot

Aaero, by Mad Fellows (Mad Fellows in t-shirts not shown).

2. Get people to stop, then get them to play
Playing your game is the best way to get people to remember it, yet most people won’t even stop to watch it, let alone take the time to play it. So your first challenge is to get people to stop and look at the game, and then to get people who are watching to actually play it.

Your demo can do a lot of the work here – and many of the suggestions in my previous post will enhance its ability to make people stop and look. But you can help things along by engaging people as they move past – try to grab their attention with a single phrase explaining what’s unique about it. And once you have people stopped and watching, you should take the first opportunity to encourage them to play it.

3. Make the stand reinforce the theme
Just as in your demo, if your stand offers something visually distinctive it will make people pay attention. For instance, at EGX the stand showing Super Mixtape was kitted out with Commodore 64 ‘demo consoles’, complete with tape decks. This inspired detail alone stopped people in their tracks to take a closer look before they’d even noticed the game itself.

Super Mixtape gameplay

The C64 theme on the Super Mixtape stand echoed the visual style of the game, making for a really memorable booth.

4. Don’t be a robot
Most people will inevitably forget most of the things you tell them at a conference, so there’s value in repeating and reinforcing the message your trying to get across about your game. But don’t beat people over the head with it – part of the appeal of the indie developer is precisely that they’re not a faceless corporate entity endlessly spewing marketing speak. Instead, try to relax, and concentrate on passing on some of the enormous enthusiasm you have for your game to everyone you speak with.

5. Hand out cards, fliers & badges
Rather than relying on people to remember your game off the top of their head, give them something to take home with them that they can remember it by. In my experience physical handouts are much better than advertising a twitter username, QR code or URL on your stand since mobile data connections are fickle, and people may not have the patience to wait for their phone to find them before walking off.

One thing to bear in mind with handouts – make sure they do more than just state the game name. You need to remind users of what’s distinctive about it, whether that’s through the use of an image, a tagline, or ideally, both. A few of the fliers I left this year’s EGX with gave me little more than a game title and a screenshot, which in most cases wasn’t enough to remember what I’d liked about it.

6. Arrange press interviews before the show
Talking to the gaming press will naturally increase the reach of your demo, so this isn’t something you want to leave to chance in the hope they might happen by and stop to look at your game. Instead, it’s best to contact them ahead of the event and schedule a time for them to come and look at your game – and ideally, do an interview with you about it too.

What are your experiences of visiting and showing games at conferences? What game particularly made an impact on you, or were there any tips you’d offer that I’ve not covered? Please feel free to post them below, and if you’ve not already checked out part one of this series, you can take a look at it here.

Aaero (Mad Fellows Games) –
Super Mixtape (Polygrammatic) –

Tips for Showing Your Indie Game at Conferences, Part 1

EGX 2015 Show Floor

Visiting the EGX conference this past week I couldn’t help but be awed at the sheer size and variety on show. This is something that deserves to be celebrated – these are great times to be a gamer – but will also justifiably terrify many developers. Amidst that maelstrom of ideas (not to mention the constant noise and lights battering the senses), the challenge is not merely how to get people to like your game, but rather how to get them to notice it at all.

This problem is particularly acute for an indie developer since you rarely have the funds to be able to afford a large booth or extensive marketing materials. More likely you’ll be squeezed in amongst dozens, or even hundreds of other developers, and relying mostly on your demo and your skills of persuasion to win people over.

Fortunately, there are lots of things you can do to improve your chances of getting noticed, and I’ve drawn together a few of the most obvious ones here. To start with, I’m going to look at the game demo itself, and in the second part of the series (which you can read here) I talk about things you can do on and around your booth.

1. Make it speak for itself
You won’t always be around to demo your game, which, er, sounds rather more threatening written down than it did in my head. Anyway, the point is, whether it’s chatting with visitors, doing interviews or simply visiting the bathroom, you won’t always be around to carefully orchestrate and narrate every single visitor’s demo experience. Things like controls, mechanics and the theme of the game can easily be communicated within the game itself, and are all things that you’ll need to implement for the final game anyway so it’s not wasted work. As an easy test, before the show give the demo to someone who’s never played it and see how they get on. If you need to step in and explain something then you still have work to do.

2. Give players a single, unforgettable image
It’s a fair bet that any and all game conferences will be stacked to the rafters with big guns, explosions, swords, mechs, flash cars, gleaming futuristic cityscapes and idyllic rural homesteads. Amidst this sea of similarity, if your game can deliver a single, memorable image that no other game has, you will vastly increase your chances of people noticing and remembering it.

This image could be a single moment from your demo – for instance, in the latest Mirror’s Edge Catalyst trailer there’s a moment where, leaping through the air, Faith is momentarily reflected in the falling shards of a mirror, which I found far more memorable than anything else from Gamescom this year. Or it could be a repeated theme between your game and stand – at EGX, Triple Eh?’s Lumo demo and stand were both liberally scattered with rubber ducks, a quirky and distinctive touch that lingered in my head long after I’d moved on to other parts of the show floor.

Lumo room with a rubber ducky

Rubber ducks: officially more memorable than flashy guns or swords.

 3. Make it short and focused
People might well be happy to spend several hours queuing, and fifteen minutes playing AAA titles but they’re unlikely to afford an indie title the same time and effort. Instead you want to make your demo short and to the point. Not only will this mean more people reach the end of your demo and thus experience everything it has to offer, but is also means more people can actually play it too.

Unless your game readily lends itself to short play sessions, you may need to customise the build a little to make this work – dropping the player into a few levels in, for instance, or artificially granting them abilities that might be unlocked more gradually in the final game. But if you can deliver a few short and sweet minutes that perfectly distil the essence of what you consider your game to be, then visitors are far more likely to walk away understanding just what it is that makes your game different.

4. Make it do something interesting when nobody’s playing it
Passers-by are more likely to stop if the game is actually running rather than sat on a title screen. An easy way to make this more likely is to add an attract mode, so that even if nobody’s playing it, your game looks interesting. Yes, they’re some work, but there’s a reason all arcade games have an attract mode.

Raging Justice screenshot

The arcade stylings of Raging Justice make an attract mode an easy fit but there’s no reason you can’t add one to games of all types.

 5. Time out the pause screen 
Bit of a boring detail this one, but useful. A common sight at conferences is screens sat displaying a pause menu, usually because the player has wandered off before the end of the demo. Not only does a pause menu not tell passers-by much about your game but it looks unwelcoming too. When you’re not doing something else it’s easy enough to fix this, of course, but as mentioned above, you might be too busy to do so.

An easy fix is to implement a timeout on the pause menu, after which the game returns to the title screen. Yes, this might occasionally mean that someone who’s paused the game intending to return to it gets kicked back to the title screen but incidences of this will be far fewer than people getting put off by a pause screen on an unoccupied console.

In the second post in this series I talk about getting more attention on and around your stand at conferences, you can read it here. And if you have any experiences of particular games that you found particularly memorable when visiting a conference, or any other tips for showing your game at a conference, then please post them below!

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst (DICE/EA) –
Lumo (Triple Eh?) –
Raging Justice (Makin Games) –

Five Lessons from Five Years Freelancing

At the last count there were about a billion* articles online with advice on how to be a better freelancer, and what I have learned from most of these articles is that yes, I could definitely be a better freelancer. I’ve also learned that the basics – like the importance of networking, making sure you have a contract sorted before you start work and the like – have been quite capably covered many, many times before (check the end of this post for a few articles I’d recommend). Still, there’s a few things I’ve experienced that I haven’t seen so commonly talked about, so I thought it would be good to highlight a few of them here.

Office desk with a computer and mouse

This isn’t actually my desk. You can tell because it doesn’t have nearly enough tea stains or whinging cats.

Thing 1: Most projects never happen, but you’ll expend a lot of effort talking about them anyway

At a guess, I’d say somewhere around one percent of the projects I’ve ever talked to potential clients about have ended up being a thing I actually got paid for. Maybe I’m just unlucky (or rubbish at negotiating), but comparing my experiences with fellow freelancers, this doesn’t seem to be an uncommon state of affairs.

Don’t get me wrong, talking about projects before starting work is really important – you need to understand and clearly define the scope of the work you’re taking on before you sign a contract, let alone before you start work. But it can be frustrating when you’ve spent hours, days and weeks talking about projects, and sometimes writing up schedules and task backlogs, only for that project to not go ahead. There’s a healthy lesson in this though – don’t become dependent on a single project going ahead, because there’s always a chance that it won’t.

Thing 2: You don’t have to take work just because it’s the only thing available

It’s a hard thing to turn down work when you have nothing else available but if you’re not comfortable with a contract – say the price is a little lower than you’re comfortable working for, or the timeline too aggressive – those problems aren’t going to go away just because it’s the only thing on offer.

Yes, it’s a risk to turn down paying work but then it’s also a risk to take on work you’re not happy with. In the best case scenario you’ll probably feel a bit robbed, in the worst case you could end up locked into a contract you’re unhappy with just as the perfect opportunity presents itself.

Of course, sometimes when you turn down a contract nothing else comes along, so it’s good to be honest with yourself about your likelihood of finding something better. And sometimes, you just need the cash, even if it isn’t what you would ideally have wanted. But either way, it’s always good to remember that you have a choice.

Crack Attack by Attack Games

Crack Attack is one of my recent freelance projects, and launched in early 2015.

Thing 3: Quality feedback is hard to come by

My erstwhile colleague Rob Yescombe (whom I had the pleasure of working with at Free Radical Design and Crytek UK) ranks as one of the most simultaneously annoying and yet invaluable people I’ve ever worked with, mainly owing to his uncanny knack for cutting right to the heart of something I’d totally overlooked in my work. It’s fair to say I didn’t always appreciate it at the time (because, well, I definitely had phases of being an idiot earlier in my career) but in retrospect I’m certain that that honest, direct feedback has been a vital part of all my best work.

This free flow of feedback is one of the main things that differentiates established teams from temporary ones brought together for a single project, which as a freelancer is where you’ll often find yourself, and it’s definitely the thing I miss the most. As a result it’s good to regularly invite honest feedback from your client, and where NDAs permit, to take your work along to a meetup such as the excellent monthly East Midlands Indies gatherings, where fellow developers will often be happy to offer their own opinions and suggestions.

Thing 4: Money moves slowly

You may have heard the advice that maintaining cash flow is the single most important thing for a small business. This might seem self-evident but it’s harder than you might expect because the way you get paid is a world away from the nice steady monthly paycheque you’ll get in a permanent job.

Let’s say you take on a month’s worth of work. You complete it on time and invoice your client, giving them thirty days to make payment (thirty days isn’t mandatory but it is pretty common). They then make payment towards the end of that thirty days, meaning that you’re finally getting paid for your work some two months after starting it. Now imagine what happens if the work is delayed, takes longer than you expect, or the client is late making payment. And if any of those things coincide, you could be waiting three or more months after starting that work until you get paid.

So whilst having a thick slab of cash dropping into your bank account all at once is lovely, you need to ensure it’s going to last you well beyond the point when you next hope to get paid. Oh, and for UK folks at least, don’t forget you’ll be paying your tax at the end of the year so make sure you have the money put aside for that too.

Thing 5: The relationship with the client is as important as the contract itself

Contracts are great. They are really useful documents and should provide you and your clients with a solid framework so you know what each is expected to deliver and under what terms. But it’s worth remembering that a contract alone enforces nothing – you need legal help to do that, and, well, that can get expensive really quickly.

I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve rarely experienced problems with clients simply not paying invoices. Late payment though is something I have encountered, and when that happens, whilst having a contract to back you up is essential, ultimately the most important thing is the relationship you have with the client. Positive, friendly relations make it far easier to resolve issues than a more acrimonious relationship, with the added benefit that clients you get on well with are far more likely to want to work with you again too.

* – Value may be approximate

How about you? Do you have any advice for freelancers that you don’t see so commonly talked about? Feel free to post that any other comments below.

Finally, as promised, here’s some recommended links to other articles giving tips on freelancing:

Shark Prototype Update 2 – Shark Sense

‘Shark’ is a game I’m prototyping all about roving (or whatever it is sharks do) the seas, hunting your prey and staying alive. It’s being built in Unity3D and you can read my first post about it right here.

Great White Shark from below

No, the game doesn’t look this good.

On my mind this past couple of weeks has been locating your prey. Now, in my case this normally involves going downstairs and rummaging around in the cupboard until something sufficiently tasty appears, but it turns out sharks are a little more evolved than all that. Which is fortunate as I’m not sure they’re able to order their groceries online anyway.

Rather than simply meandering around hoping to find something to eat, sharks have evolved the ability to precisely locate their target from afar, saving precious energy in the process. Helping them do this are a couple of extra senses (beyond the five they share with us) – electroreception (detecting electrical fields) and the lateral line (detection of pressure changes), both of which help the shark to locate prey from a distance.

Although I don’t want to precisely simulate these senses, this ability to locate prey from afar is a good fit for the game, which I want to keep focused on hunting down your prey rather than trying to find it in the first place. So my next step was to consider how this ability – which for now I’m calling ‘Shark Sense’, although is does sounds a little like an underwater self-help group – would be represented visually. There were a few options for this, from a simple screen-edge indicator, to a map/radar system. But I wanted something that felt a bit more organic, and a little more alien, so I’ve gone with a simple circular waveform instead:

Each creature in the game triggers signals that get picked up by the shark sense, and these signals appear as displacements in the wave form, which essentially means it points back towards the signal location. As seen in the video, players can also enter a ‘sensing’ mode where they move more slowly but the range of the shark sense is amplified, allowing them to detect movement from further away.

(For those interested in such things, the ring is a Unity LineRenderer, which stores a set of recent signals from other creatures and distorts parts of the ring based on the direction, distance and magnitude of the signal. A couple of passes of perlin noise across all the points of the ring gives an illusion of ‘background noise’.)

Does it work? Broadly speaking, yes – it brings more of a defined rhythm to play, as you hunt, sense, then hunt again, and you don’t waste time meandering around looking for the next target. One thing I would like to do is to extend the code to allow it to display more complex signal patterns, with each creature having a distinct ‘signature’. The idea behind this is that you can learn to distinguish different fish based on their signature, and use that to decide which you would prefer to go and hunt first.

But that’s an idea for the future – for now I’m fairly happy with the functionality as it is. I’m now moving on to experimenting with some simple shoaling algorithms for the fish, so hopefully (other work permitting) I’ll be able to update about that at some point in the next few weeks.

Great White Shark‘ by Elias Levy licensed under CC BY 2.0.

In the Details: GoldenEye 007

‘In the Details’ is a series about small but effective moments in game design. You can find all of the posts in the series so far here.

GoldenEye 007's Dam Level

This is a somewhat bold statement coming from someone whose last attempt at AI coding resulted in a recalcitrant hunchback who loved nothing more than taking occasional potshots at you whilst your back was turned, but the real challenge when designing and implementing an AI system isn’t how to make it smart but how to make it appear smart. Particularly in games where players cannot see or hear AI characters for long periods of time, intelligent behaviour can easily become indistinguishable from randomness, unless the game can convince players otherwise.

Fortunately, player perceptions of AI tend to carry a lot of inertia – show them a character is capable of doing smart things and they’ll continue to credit them with all sorts of intelligent behaviours even when they’re doing nothing of the sort. Thus a few moments of the AI being noticeably smart can go a long way.

Take the Byelomorye Dam level of Rare’s N64 masterpiece, GoldenEye 007. Early in the first level, you emerge from behind a security gate to spot a solitary guard standing in the open. There’s nowhere to hide, and so the guard quickly spots you. But rather than stand his ground, he immediately turns and sprints towards a squat concrete building in the distance. If this run is left unchecked, he soon reaches the building and his goal becomes clear – a button that triggers an alarm. The subsequent shrieking alerts the entire base to your presence and floods the area with guards.

This moment transforms the way you see soldiers in the game. Suddenly, each of them holds the potential to do more than just stand there and get shot, to instead work intelligently as part of a coordinated group. And yet, the reality is that this is one of just a couple of places in the game where you’ll actually see a guard triggering the alarm; it is in fact far more common to see them ignoring alarm buttons completely (alarms continue to be a major feature of the game, but they’re almost always triggered off-screen).

So the reality of what the AI can and can’t do is much less important that what the player thinks they can and can’t do. It doesn’t matter whether each and every character is capable of independently deciding to head off and trigger and alarm themselves or not. What matters is that the player thinks that they can, thanks to this early sequence, and GoldenEye is all the more engrossing as a result.

GoldenEye 007 (Rare Ltd./Nintendo) –