We recently returned from showing A Tofu Tail at PAX East! We pulled together some of the highlights and learning experiences from the show.
Read the details below!
TL;DR — Our major takeaways
- Contact the press as early as possible
Prep your contact emails much earlier than the moment you get a press list or do a social media search
- Consider the psychology of queues
Always have someone playing the game at your booth, even if it is you/your team
- Initiate interactions
Don’t wait for people to approach you and lose potential players; engage in conversation and be assertive, while being respectful to people’s comfort level
- Promote minimal effort
Make it stupidly simple for players to sign up for your mailing lists and follow your online presence
- Remember: not all devices are the same
Have a working show build, with backups, available for the devices you will be running it on during the show. Re-test everything when you put a ‘working’ build on that new device
- Have a streamlined show demo build
Within 5 minutes, a player should have played most of the demo, have a solid idea of the core and interesting game mechanics, and be able to get there while experiencing good game balance
What is the PAX East Indie Showcase?
The Penny Arcade Expo (PAX), as a customer facing games industry convention, is focused on bringing the tabletop and video game industry’s trade show experience to the players.
The PAX East Indie Showcase (PEIS) is a little bit less known at the show – it is a PAX selection of six indie games on mobile platforms invited to showcase on an individual table in a collective 30’x30′ area on the show floor.
The games selected this year were:
- A Tofu Tail –by alchemedium (that’s us!)
- Antihero –by Tim Conkling
- Open Bar –by Gingear Studio
- Shadow Bug –by Muro Studios
- Thumb Drift –by SMG Studio
- Unmatch –by Andrew J. Adams
P.S. you should check some of these other games out, they are pretty cool!
Who are we? And what is A Tofu Tail?
Our development studio, alchemedium, is a small team of indie developers located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We’ve been working on our first game outside of our day jobs, using it mainly to learn the ropes of game production, distribution, etc.
Showcase Layout and Gameplay Video
The booth space layout was pretty basic, but tried to keep it themed, visible, and simple.
PAX provided a monitor that we used to loop video of key gameplay, dialogue, boss levels, and stages not shown in the show demo build. We decided against displaying active gameplay from players mainly because, if no one is playing at the moment, nothing is happening on the screen used to pull people in.
HD resolution gameplay was recorded straight from a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 750 Ti video card using ShadowPlay, so that we could show crisp footage on a larger HD monitor. We cut, cleaned, and polished this recording, then threw in smoother transitions and an A Tofu Tail logo. The finished video was rather solid. Hooray for free software!
Previous attempts at capturing interest and viewer understanding have been less than fruitful… This video didn’t teach players enough about the puzzle mechanics for them to have basic understanding of what was going on before moving on to the next thing. The content of this new video was designed with our previous failings in mind: to show key levels with a focus on conveying enough transparency to the viewers for them to pick up the mechanics just by watching.
Mailing List and Social Presence
At past shows like MAGFest and BostonFIG, we had used a digital mailing list via the MailChimp Subscribe app on Android tablets. With this approach, we would see some people subscribe, but it was a lot less effective than the physical lists we brought to PAX East. This time, we put a physical clipboard with mailing list forms next to each tablet running the game, within hands reach, and a custom “sign up here” sign in a 8.5 x 11 Slanted Sign Holder ($8).
The physical list, in addition to our verbal mentions, resulted in over six pages of sign ups, tripling our existing mailing list that we had been maintaining for two previous shows and web site form subscribers.
In addition to contacting the gaming press and news sites WAY too late, we had an issue with poor social media presence and following. While our mailing list grew a good bit, our social media growth never picked up. Given this is where our main source of game dev and lore content is posted, we need to improve here greatly.
A Tofu Tail was primarily designed with a desktop and console focus, mainly due to our comfort with those markets; however, we knew that we wanted to push to mobile devices as well and had kept that in mind throughout the course of the game’s design and development. Up to this point, A Tofu Tail had only been deployed on our personal Android tablets, so we needed to account for having several tablets available for people to use during the show.
Acquiring two refurbished ASUS Transformer Pad Android tablets ($140/ea) and a refurbished Windows 10 Acer One 2-in-1 ($110) for use at the show, while the specs were not top notch, served a ‘many birds, one stone’ purpose:
- Owning lower spec machines for testing and future support
- Figuring out support for Windows 10 touch input, 2-in-1s
- Minimizing potential monetary loss from damage, theft, etc
We purchased a few Anker Multi-Angle Aluminum Stand for Tablets ($11) that worked out amazingly well in propping the tablets to a comfortable angle without falling over. They even collapse for nice and compact storage!
Logistics and Setup
Back in February, we showed A Tofu Tail next to Josh Sutphin’s game Legacy of the Elder Star at the MAGFest Indie Videogame Showcase (MIVS), and he gave us a ton of tips during the show, as well as putting this awesome postmortem together. You should give it a look, especially if you are interested on getting a setup that will run for 70 hours straight.
Our retractable 33″x80″ banner and stand ($123) had the game name as high above peoples’ heads as possible in our space (we previously learned the hard way to keep this visible). We had the standard swag 1″ pinback buttons ($0.20/ea; 100 ct), along with the multipurpose bookmarks ($0.09/ea; 1000 ct) reminding people of the game and where to find it. Not only were they themed for our folktale style aesthetic, but they had a better chance of being used and not tossed aside after the show.
Because the airline staff will visibly and unashamedly toss these around without care for damage to your stuff, we kept the shipping boxes in which the tablets were originally shipped for use in transporting them in a nice and sturdy Northstar Sports 16″x40″ Duffle Bag ($28), and all our other materials to the event via checked bag ($25 each way).
Show Demo Build
We have been maintaining a quick toggle with preprocessor directives to compile a “Show Floor Demo” version when needed. With this we are able to quickly compile a version of the game, specific to conventions where it will be shown to the public, and use the most current (and stable) features and puzzles in the game.
Creating these show-specific builds has allowed us to:
- Keep player interest over a smaller play session of 5-15 minutes
- Show a smaller, more focused subset of puzzles in a shorter time frame
- Have a better chance of keeping players playing “just one more puzzle”
- Let the code handle the flow of pulling players, engaging them, providing call-to-action and resetting the demo at play session end
The smaller subset of puzzles included: stages to teach each new puzzle mechanic without having to explicitly explain them, stages to improve on what was learned thus far, as well as some slightly more challenging levels (omitting many of the more difficult puzzles). This lines up with our full set of levels, but progresses at a faster pace, moving players through the experience to catch as much as they can in the limited play time. We also removed the more involved dialogue, world map navigation, and ‘boss’ stages to shorten the play time (showing those aspects in the looping video).
Another show-specific consideration is the automated management of the player’s play session. Upon completion of the final stage of the show demo, a “thanks for playing” splash screen displays, showing the player that the demo is over, and showing a call-to-action directing them to our landing page to pre-order the game; this would also loop back to the first puzzle.
A few other nice features we had planned (but not all implemented):
- An attract mode that would show gameplay when no one was interacting
- A manual quick soft reset option to instantly start a new player at the demo beginning
- Leaving to the menu plays “thanks for playing” splash and resets to first demo stage
- A hands-free demo reset after 90 seconds of inactivity (given first input is entered) and a 10-second faded screen telling the player of the impending reset
Issues and Oversights in the Show Build
With all the planning to have a stable build available at least a week prior to traveling to PAX East, we still ended up having a buggy build for the show! We’ve been keeping stable builds for a while now for this purpose, but silly us, we thought this build would work on ALL tablets, not just newer ones… Ah, naivety…
We had a few nasty visual bugs on two of the tablets due to GPU processing issues – luckily in brief spurts of background art or in late demo stages. No one seemed to notice during puzzle solving – and no one seemed to mention it – so maybe it went largely unnoticed? It was still painful to watch… It hurts that pride bone…
We tried to have a more streamlined system for attendee interaction through the three team members that were able to exhibit at this show. Keeping the environment comfortable for everyone was important to us, while still pushing A Tofu Tail and trying to make it stick in their mind (or hands/inbox) later.
We had a loose strategy of having at least one person to greet and pull people into game sessions, and at least one person to engage people in friendly conversation or talk in depth to those that have questions. Essentially someone to funnel people into interactions and someone to interact directly either before or after a play session to attempt to create a good experience for them. When a player would finish their play session, we would briefly mention the mailing list and free, branded stuff in the closing pitch – sans obligation.
There were also people that would stop and look for a bit and wouldn’t start playing, even though there were a couple openings – asking “wanna give it a try?” showed them they could, and a majority of these observers would sit down to play. Though, there were a couple of individuals that responded that they were just looking; here we just politely said thanks and let them engage if they wanted.
Psychology of Lines
I’ve often heard about the psychology of lines with people at trade shows and shops, but at PAX, it was really apparent. If no one was in the booth, people would gaze over at the video, see a few seconds of it, and then continue walking by. However, if we were standing around the front perimeter or playing ourselves, more people would stop and watch or sit down to play.
Was It Worth It?
People we met and the reactions we got were a MASSIVE boost in motivation and excitement to finish the project. Recently, being at the end of the project and working on all those hard problems that “we will get to later” has been very draining. Given the reduced costs, exposure, we believe it was well worth it. Obviously we can do better in the future, but for now, we are satisfied!
Without the free space and monitor provided by the PAX team, we personally would not have been able to justify the costs of showing at this event. From what I understand, the standard booth cost (at minimum, without extras) would be ~$1,700 for a basic 10’x10′ space on the show floor.
With the price of entry for this kind of event, it is likely only worth the money if you spend time to prep your presentation of the booth space and game itself. This is not the environment to perform rough and early playtesting/prototyping. And don’t pass up the opportunities to reach out for press coverage, increase your mailing list, and leave people with a lasting impression or takeaway of your game.