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Weekly Journal - A Tale of Two Conventions

Hi everyone,  

This week we will discuss all the preparations that go on behind attending a convention!

As you know, we are a medium sized studio that makes video games. While crafting games is our main passion, it would be wasted if we didn’t put ourselves out there to show the games and meet players. Here’s what that’s like:

PAX East 2015

Early in 2015, we released the first concept art for We Happy Few, along with the very first trailer. This was the first glimpse anyone had of the game. We did not reveal what the game was about other than it involved drugs, masks, and memory loss. Along with the trailer, we also announced that we were going to attend PAX East and bring a demo with us.  

To show the game just a month after having announced it was unusual for us. With Contrast, we took a year between announcing the game and showing it. But we always intended to show We Happy Few to the public early, and to have an open development. We knew that making a story-driven, first-person survival game in a procedural world was not going to be easy and that input from players was going to be crucial!  

Bringing a demo to a convention requires working on a separate version of the main game -- a smaller, more controlled version we can customize. At the time, we were a studio of only 12 people, and the entire team focused on the demo. This doesn’t mean we took time away from working on the main game -- but it was an opportunity to improve our features and see how they were being received by the players.  

Even a small booth can be a LOT of work! Once we’d chosen our location and booth size on the convention floor (in the Indie Megabooth), it was time to design our setup. There are more decisions to make than you’d think: How many stations (aka our own work PCs) do we want? PAX provides you two complimentary table for a 10x20 booth. With two tables, we could host 4 players, but then what about the media? We also had to think about costs: PAX has list of things you can rent for your booth for quite a hefty price, which means it is often better to just bring your own furniture; that is what most Indie studios do. We spent a while designing the floor plans to optimize the space to make everyone comfortable, while not blocking floor traffic and allowing passerbys to see the game. We also needed enough space for player lines, as well as a designated space for the media to play the game and do interviews. We will not tell you how many to Ikea and the hardware store this took -- let’s just say it is a good thing our studio is across the street from a Home Depot!  

But, of course, it’s not enough just having a booth space -- it has to be appealing! Aesthetically, we did not have a fancy plan. We brought some props from an Uncle Jack shoot, made some banners, and brought some posters from Contrast (so players walking by would know we were the same devs.)  

Oh, and going to PAX doesn’t just mean bringing PCs and furniture and setting up a booth -- it also means giving print shops a run for their money. Swag-wise, there are of course staples such as pins; they are easy, cost-efficient, and everyone loves them. (We decided to make bookmarks instead of fliers, because it’s easy to throw away a flyer but a bookmark can at least be useful.) Naturally this meant a lot of extra design work for the art team (Thanks, team!).

Boston is about 6 hours from Montreal, and the best way to get there with all of this equipment was renting a van and driving. Since most of us only have a standard driver’s license, there was a limit to how big a van we could legally rent. We weren’t sure until the last box was shoved in the van if we’d be able to fit everything. The day of departure (2 days before the convention started) was a grueling Tetris-like process -- all the while knowing there was a strong possibility we’d have to unload and reload it all at the US border. To cross the U.S. border with so much material, you need what they call a “carnet” -- an official document listing every single item you are bringing with you. This means that if you decide to add a power plug our a mouse at the last minute and the US custom decides to check your now inaccurate list, they might not let you in! But once we’d crossed the border, we could finally relax, listen to our COO’s cheesy music, and practice our messaging for PAX. We were 7 people traveling, and we needed to all be on the same page about the messaging of the game, agreeing on what we could and could not share story-wise.

The day before the convention starts is always really interesting. The convention center is in a frenzy. Indie devs go back and forth, bringing equipment on skateboards or whatever they can find from the loading docks, while the bigger companies all have cranes and heavy machinery building their stages and giant props. After finding our booth location, it was time to build it! Do you know how you can tell the big dogs from the smaller ones at conventions? The carpet at their booths! Companies like Microsoft and Sony have very thick, padded carpet while others will have a very thin one barely covering the concrete floor. This might seem like a small detail but after spending 3 days standing up on concrete, it makes a huge difference, and renting a proper padding underneath your carpet might be one of the most expensive items from the list of things PAX provides. It is not unusual for an indie dev to take a break and go enjoy a temporary moment of relief and bliss walking around the Microsoft or Sony booth. In our case, we ripped off our thin carpet and put some foam tiles underneath! (It helped, kind of.) Setting up the booth took a full day: we set up the stations, built the furniture, hid all the wires, set up the decorations, ran to a store because we forgot something (a couple of times), and -- oh, right -- had to make sure the game worked. And then the convention started.

Our goal in going to PAX was to show what we’d been working on for the past year, and to start building a community. To do this, we gathered the emails of those who were interested in We Happy Few but did not have time to stop and play the game, and we gave keys away to people who successfully finished one of our two demo encounters. We also also had a key-giveaway drawing for people who signed up for our newsletter.

What did the experience mean for us as devs? It meant introducing the game to thousands of players for the very first time, gathering emails, helping players who were stuck in the game or had a question, apologizing profusely for bugs, and doing interviews with the media in the back of the booth. PR-wise, we worked with a specialized company (Evolve) that reached out to the media to tell them we will be at the convention, they then gave us a schedule of all the media that were interested in playing the game (which, when fully booked, meant around 12 to 15 appointments per day -- and that is without counting the impromptu ones).

At the end of day 3, the convention closes at 5, but that’s not the end of the day for developers -- it’s merely the halfway point. Once the conference started closing, it was time for us to deconstruct our booth, pack the van, and hopefully get on the road fast enough that we wouldn’t get home in the middle of the night with broken knees and hoarse voices.

Overall, it was an amazing trip. We got some great feedback on what worked, and what didn’t. And we had a lot of fun, watching people try over and over again to beat the demo. This was also when the comparisons to Bioshock started. While very flattering, this worried us quite a bit back then. It’s definitely a good thing to be compared to something as high-quality as Bioshock, but it meant that we needed to make a few changes. We needed to make a better game than we were making at the time.

PAX East 2016

By PAX East 2016, we were successfully funded on Kickstarter, were picked up by Microsoft for their Xbox One Game Preview program, and we’d moved to a bigger office (still a leaky one) and our team had increased to 24 people. We were really grateful for both the players at PAX, and our pre-alpha backers on Kickstarter, for all the fantastic feedback. The game had improved immensely as a result.  

For PAX East 2016 we had a bit more budget than before. Some of you might remember the bigger booth with the giant masks we had that year. We’d asked a creative agency to come up with a cool design and build something, and that’s what they came up with. The plan was that they would send and build the structure of the booth -- and the super thin walls (important detail) -- while we would bring the TVs, PCs, props and giant masks. We also bought mannequins and some authentic 60s furnitures from thrift shops, which was great until it started falling apart. One of the very old 60s TV caught on fire out of nowhere in the middle of the day! Some of the chairs were crumbling under us!  

This time we’d planned to have 8 stations and a private room for the media. And by private we mean a room made of thin, paper-like walls. This was still quite an upgrade from hiding behind the banners at the previous PAX 15 booth. By then we were already on people’s radar, and we had a very close relationship with our backers. Between greeting players, assigning them a station, answering all their questions, giving swag away, socializing with players in line, and answering media interviews, every single person from the studio who came down was needed.  

Packing for this PAX was excruciating. Between really heavy mannequins, cool-but-unreliable 60s furniture, and extremely fragile props, it took 10 people and 2 hours just to pack the van. Then when we got to US customs, they turned us back because we forgot a black container (back in the office), which was on our famous list of items you need to have to cross the border.  

But instead of driving all the way back to Montreal, we stopped in the closest (and smallest) town to the border, bought a black storage/seat, kicked it around in the dirt and keyed it to make it looked used, then grabbed lunch (to make it seem like we went all the way back to Montreal) and tried again at the border. Of course, Customs decided to make us unpack our van, which had taken 2 hours to pack in the first place. After a few minutes of witnessing us slowly unloading things to the ground, they decided it was good enough for them. They probably didn’t want to spend 4 hours with us and must have realized we were harmless geeks.

Once in Boston, we did the same dance of unloading the van and setting up the stations. Have you ever accidentally borrowed the strolly of a syndicated worker? Hell hath no fury.  

This PAX was also a turning point for us, and to say that the booth was buzzing is a understatement. The line was at least 2 hours and went around the booth. We met so many fans, old and new, and were even surprised by some fantastic cosplayers!

We haven’t officially been back to a convention since, except for E3 2016, where we didn’t have to set up since we were under the Microsoft booth -- which meant they had stations with our game already prepared, and all we had to prepare was ourselves and a demo version to show off to the media. Oh that sweet, sweet Microsoft carpet!  

And that is the kind of preparation it takes to attend a convention and they are worth every bit of sweat and tears. Next time you will see us at a convention, the game will have launched and we hope to have a fun and weird booth, with really good carpet! (Looking at you Gearbox).  

Thanks for tuning in!

Naila

 

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