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Weekly Journal - A Tale of Two Conventions
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.