IndieMegabooth GDC Showcase Postmortem

After a bit over a year of heads-down coding, I finally had the first public showing of Metareal. It was over the week of March 14th through 18th, 2016, at the Game Developer Conference in San Francisco, at the Indie Megabooth Showcase. Here’s some notes for my own future reference, and the otherwise curious.

This post has become a bit longer than I prefer… but I’m going to leave it that way. Sorry.

The Selection

I’ve been working on my game for a while, and had decided that, one way or another, in 2016 would start to show it around. Submitted it for consideration to Indie Megabooth for Pax East.

Made a custom build and everything with some friendly personalized in-game notes to the IMB reviewers.

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(Looking back at this build, I cannot believe how cheesy it is!)

Figured it would be fun to hit Boston, April was a ways off, and in the “Minibooth” would just have it up part time, a few hours here and there for play testing and light publicity.

Waited for what felt like a terribly long time (but actually wasn’t), finally in January got the Best Email Ever from IMB:

We’d like your game to be one of fifteen at the IMB showcase at GDC, no charge, and oh you get an all access pass too.

Could not believe it!

The criteria for this selection, as I came to understand it, was games of interest that weren’t really quite ready for a consumer-facing event, that a developer-focused event was more suitable for. And I think “games of interest” was a curatorial choice on their part, for a variety of genres, developer diversity, and so forth.

Panic in Santa Cruz

On the plus side, this was a lot more logistically convenient for me. San Francisco is a 90 minute drive. I have friends who live near there. Boston is a bit further.

On the panic side, GDC was over a month earlier than Pax. Some various other projects were instantly backburnered. My Atari Tempest Machine restoration. My dining room table refinishing. My invitation to show some video art at a one-night event at our local art museum: CANCELED TIL AFTER GDC!

A little panic is good though.

Getting Stuff Done

I’m pretty good at “doing things”. Yet, for the first time in my life, I felt a profound bit of impostor syndrome. I’d written to IMB with a pack of lies and aspirations, and attached a barely working bit of buggy code, and they were calling me on my bluff. Ah, my failure, it would be hilarious and spectacular, no?

But back to reality.

The demo submitted to GDC didn’t even have sound, or a start screen. But now, a concrete goal was clear. Fortunately, I’d spent the month before The Letter arrived building up my sound engine and patch editor. Time to spring into action.

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Tool for editing audio patches.

All was as it should be. Coding, designing, and jumping up from time to time saying, “Yikes, I am going to GDC.”

We had a nice little email list for the IMB GDC 2016 cohort, and later set up a Slack team chat. This was great. Lots of advice about special demo features, data logging, &c. A couple of us were on chat quite regularly. Had especially useful communication with Austin Schaeffer (presenting Altered State), Radu Muresan (presenting Semispheres), and Ryan Burrell (Indie Megabooth all-around awesome guy). Radu had presented at a number of events, and had great guidance.

Two Months of Intense Focus Later…

I had a pretty presentable demo! It had some sound effects! It had the special Beginning of the Game where you find out that xxxx xx xxx xxxxxxx xxxx xx xxxxx. There were 12 rooms with 6 individual and challenging puzzle-elements that had to be completed! It was brightly colored!

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Looks a bit tighter than the original submission. Sound effects, too.

I got cocky and started my Steam Greenlight just before GDC. That may have been a miscalculation, the “Gameplay Video” was maybe not as compelling as it needed to be just yet. It’s currently stalled out around 270 yes votes. On the other hand, at least 100 of those were directly from GDC exposure. (Not worried; I’ll do PR and Follower Blasts at appropriate future milestones.)

My First Day At The Office

So, mathematically speaking, I’m older than the average game developer. I’ve been writing code for 40 years, first professional sale 35 years ago. But this is my third ever game development effort, and the other two were decades ago. And GDC… is the first time I’ve been around other professional game developers.

Truly, 2016 March 13th, Sunday, was my first day at the office! I finally got to meet “my people”.

Arrived at Moscone, found the MegaBooth, happily met our IMB hosts (all wonderful) and Austin and Radu for the first time, and installed my game on the Demo Laptop. Aaaaaand it totally crashed. Head smack, and so forth. I’d made the standard rookie error of building against dynamically linked debug libraries. Shortest fix: I installed Visual Studio, completely, on the Demo Laptop. Resolved.

Five Days of Demos

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People played it!

  • The first person to approach the game played for 8 seconds, and walked away. Oh no!
  • The second person played for 10 minutes and got well into it, and we got to chat. Whew!
  • Not all games are for all people. (A few lucky ones are. Not mine.)
  • People have different play styles, ranging from extremely rapid and random gestures up to finely controlled experiments. On the whole, those latter players got more out of Metareal.
  • IMB got us invited to a lovely catered dinner hosted by Valve, about the future of indie games and why Steam is a great platform
  • Talking to people became pretty fun after not too long. Like most trade shows, people are eager to talk about what they’re working on, find out about yours. Unlike most trade shows, people are honestly proud and excited in a playful way about their work. Also, authentically giving, and receptive to, ideas and subtleties and analyses.
  • I should have accepted IMB’s offer of two event passes and recruited a helper. Every other postmortem advises this, which I ignored.
  • Just the same, I went to a few talks, and checked out some other games. Finally got to meet William Chyr and actually play Manifold Garden (awesome!). Robin Baumgarten’s Line Wobbler led-based installation game was fun & notable. And I had an affinity for Le Chant du cygne’s goggle-assisted abstract puzzler Palimpsest, of course.
  • Met many other amazing developers, too many to list… But two I simply must mention for their sheer friendliness and cognitive energy are Ed Fries, notable for a recent Atari 2600 game (no, seriously), and Droqen, the author of Starseed Pilgrim.

Costs

My costs were minimal. IMB charged nothing, and gave me a $2000 all-access pass. Thank you, Indie MegaBooth!

I drove to Berkeley, parked my car at a friend’s house, and stayed at another friend’s house for the week. Each morning I took BART to Moscone. I brought a couple of sandwiches and bananas each day. The only food I got on site was coffee.

Glitches and Learnings

  • As mentioned above, should have brought a helper to man the station.
  • Discovered I need a Virgin Operating System for proper build testing. One without dev tools!
  • On IMB’s part, there was some ambiguity about the specs of the demo machines we’d have available. Was worried about graphics performance (especially since I have home-brew engine) but it all worked out fine.
  • My impostor syndrome subsided completely.

In Conclusion

This was the best week so far of my new, late-stage career as a game developer. Thank you Indie MegaBooth! This was an amazing opportunity and experience.

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