MAGFest 2018 – The Bomb Cyclone

If you are reading this, you are one of the few survivors of the worst winter storm to hit the east coast since the formation of Earth as a planet. Welcome to the Winter Storm Grayson resistance. We were able to get the Internet uplink working, but only for a few minutes. Just enough time to tell you how MAGFest 2018 was!

 

Setting Up The Bomb

To be honest, I did not encounter anything more than snow flurries and severe cold over the weekend. I drove down on Wednesday afternoon, which was before the storm hit. Also, the beautiful Gaylord Hotel located along the scenic National Harbor was more inland than I realized. We weren’t even close to the the Maryland coastline! Sure, the river froze, but we didn’t get any snow at all.

When I got to the hotel, I was greeted by a bubbly Magfest banner welcoming “Adventurers and Dreamers.” (I’m not sure which one Jack and I count as…) The MIVS banner shown above was proudly displayed in Hall C where all the indies were, and gives you a good idea of what that section is like. I love that they have this. I can’t tell you how much it means to us that we got a free booth at a show like MAGFest!

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By Wednesday evening, the Where Shadows Slumber booth was set up and ready to go. It was pretty painless, and everyone loved the sweet GreatMats foam flooring we had from last year. This post is sponsored by GreatMats. Have you gotten your GreatMats GreatMat today? I stole the idea to include table lamps from the Mushroom 11 team, who used it to great effect a few years back at a Sheep’s Meow event at the NYU Game Center. It wasn’t anything special, but the booth got the job done. Other people had crazy stuff like tents and massive posters. Maybe next year, when the game is for sale, we’ll go to town on the booth. I never really plan this out, I always wing it. But I bet if Jack and I sat down and asked ourselves “what experience do we want people to have with our game at our booth?” we could come up with something really cool.

 

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The Madness Begins!

Wednesday was the calm before the storm. Not Winter Storm Grayson – Winter Storm “Tons of People Dancing In The Gaylord.” By Thursday, the party had officially begun. They put us in the official hotel this year, which meant I had plenty of time to capture the insanity. If there were any normal, well-adjusted people staying in the hotel these past four days, they must have been terribly confused.

The show ran from Thursday to Sunday, with a pretty stable crowd of people all four days. Sunday surprised me actually – I don’t remember the short time-frame of Sunday being quite so busy last year. I had people at the table until after 2 pm on Sunday, which is when everything shuts down.

The build Jack prepared included the game’s first World (The Forest), then World 3 (The Aqueduct) and finally World 5 (The Hills). We wanted to jump around to get some feedback on parts of the game we haven’t shown off as much. I’ve seen tons of people play World 1 (The Jail) and World 2 (The River) at this point. And since I haven’t gone back to polish those yet, it would have been more of the same feedback.

The response to this build was overwhelmingly positive. People loved the new audio, although it was hard to hear in the crowded MAGFest hall. They commented on how beautiful the art style was, and how the game was more challenging than last year’s Demo. The critiques they had were generally about the game chugging along on the Amazon HD 8 devices (one Level has a ton of lights) and other things that were hard to quantify, like the way that draggable objects “feel.” It’s hard to know exactly what players want when they say stuff like that, but that’s what the final months of a project are all about – tweaking the small stuff.

 

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There Was Plenty of Indie Time

I’ve made a conscious effort during these shows to try to spend as much time with other developers as I do with customers. After seeing the same faces show after show, it’s a little embarrassing to not get to know them. I’m pretty shy… and there’s always a ton of stuff to do at these shows. But it’s important to make an effort to join the game industry and treat it like a community.

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SWEET RAVE PARTIES!

The MIVS crew threw a party for all of the game developers and staff on Friday night. We got to see the crazy penthouse nightclub that the Gaylord Hotel has up on the 18th floor. I don’t go to a lot of nightclubs, so I was easily amused at the pretty rainbow lights and stellar view of National Harbor. It was coooool, man!

After meeting up with some NYC-based indie devs, we went to a crazy Power Glove concert. Note to self: keep earplugs on hand for this sort of thing. Power Glove plays heavy death metal renditions of classic video game themes. It was the most MAGFest thing I’ve seen at MAGFest.

 

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Swing and a Miss!

Sadly, although they handed out MIVSy awards to the developers on Saturday evening, Where Shadows Slumber did not receive any accolades. In our defense, we only brought a few in-development Levels from the final game. Other teams brought their final “ready-to-purchase” games and put their best foot forward. Just like last year when we brought our Demo, you can’t expect to win an award for something you haven’t finished yet. It wouldn’t be fair!

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But it still stings a little bit – that’s the downside of the development route I took us on. There’s a ton of time we spend at festivals showing off our flaws and weaknesses, because we want feedback. It’s going to make the final game better, but it can be exhausting listening to the same comments for four days straight. I just hope that once the game “goes gold,” it will receive the recognition it deserves. Do I hear #2018GameOfTheYear?

I’m home now. Sadly, I had to run the table alone this past weekend – Jack was planning on coming, but had to stay home unexpectedly for personal reasons. He’ll explain everything next week in a really important blog post. Sorry to be a tease, but this is something we’ve known about for a while but have not made public. It’s his story to tell, so I won’t go into it. Please stay tuned for next week’s blog for more details.

Thanks again to the wonderful MIVS staff for inviting us to return and providing such a great opportunity! We hope to return for many more years to come, whether it’s to sell Where Shadows Slumber or get some feedback on a future project. Rock on, everybody!

 

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That’s all for MAGFest! Please leave a comment to let us know you’re not a Russian Twitter bot scanning this page for mercenary purposes. You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter @GameRevenant or Facebook, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

2017 Year In Review

On this date one year ago, Where Shadows Slumber didn’t even exist.

Hard to believe, right? There was a Demo on the store called Where Shadows Slumber Demo, but the official game project had not even been started yet! We’ve come so far in just one year. Everything you’ve seen online of the final game was started in 2017, from the level design, to the environment, to our new character models.

To ring in the new year, let’s take a look at the big milestones we hit in 2017 while working on Where Shadows Slumber.

 

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January 2017 – Rocked MAGFest!

I had to mention this one first because the timing is hilarious. Tomorrow, we’re heading out to Maryland again for MAGFest 2018! That was exactly how we kicked off 2017, too. This year, just like last year, the organizers of MIVS (the MAGFest Indie Videogame Showcase) saw something special in our game. So we’re going to be there for all four days of MAGFest in their massive indie game section, showing people a few Levels from Where Shadows Slumber and getting their feedback. Getting into MIVS every year is not a guarantee, so we were glad to be invited back. This year, we even get to stay in the official hotel!

But to be honest, MAGFest is a tough show. It’s the very first thing of the year, which makes it a bit stressful. I’d love to catch my breath and plan out how I’m going to finish a big pile of art, artistic polish, effects, cutscenes, and aesthetic optimizations. Instead, we’re going to be showing the game off to people for 7 hours straight, four days in a row. I remember last year’s show – it was fun, but exhausting. Even so, that’s a good problem to have. We’ll let you know how this year’s MAGFest goes next week, after our return!

 

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March 2017 – The Game Developers Conference

The Game Developers Conference (GDC) in March was an incredible show. I’ll be bummed if we can’t go again this year. I really enjoyed scoping it out in 2017, and I’d love to pay for Jack to come with me. (And hey, why not Caroline, Alba and Noah while we’re at it?) It may not be in the cards this year because we’ll still be in heads-down production mode by the time the show rolls around. But while I was there, I attended the Independent Games Festival and made a note to submit our Demo to the contest when it opened again. Sometime in the fall of 2017, we sent in our application. We haven’t heard back yet, so cross your fingers!

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The big surprise of my trip to GDC was attending the Big Indie Pitch and scoring third place! It was a totally impromptu thing where I had basically no time to prepare my quick pitch of the game, and deliver it perfectly before five teams of judges. This is where having a polished Demo really came in handy. There’s just no time to fiddle with a development build when you’re under the gun like that. Want to read about that experience? Well, my blog post about GDC 2017 was so good, PocketGamer put it on their website!

That’s probably because it was also a big ad for their contest, but… sometimes you just have to play the game to get noticed, man [ >‿o]

 

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March 2017 – PAX East Indie Showcase (PEIS)

March was busy for us! We didn’t just go to PAX East – Where Shadows Slumber was selected out of a large field of applicants to be a part of their Indie Showcase. This saved us a ton of money, which we really appreciated. It cost $50 to send in our Demo to be reviewed, but considering they gave us a free booth, it’s as if we saved $2,000!

But there’s more to it than that. They gave us a place of honor, along with four other really cool indie teams with awesome games. Being in such a crucial intersection of the main hall meant we got tons of traffic. (We even got a spot on a corner, which meant confused travelers often spotted us and walked over to our table out of sheer interest!)

When I’m feeling down, I worry about what might happen if Where Shadows Slumber isn’t the groundbreaking critical and financial success I know it can be. But then I think of “that time we were in the PAX East Indie Showcase” and I remember that they saw something special in us, long before we even began work on the final project.

Check out the video above and skip to the parts where they recorded Jack talking about our experience, Where Shadows Slumber, and indie development!

 

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June 2017 – AwesomeCon

Because Where Shadows Slumber is so awesome and we went to MAGFest earlier in the year, the organizers of AwesomeCon’s MAGFest room invited us to a show called AwesomeCon. I was very nervous for this show for two big reasons: I was going alone, and I was bringing a build of brand new Levels that had never been tested before. To make things worse, Jack and I agreed that the Levels should not receive an artistic pass until we figured out what everyone thought of them. That was the correct strategic move, but I got sick of telling people “just ignore the art and let me know what you think of the design!”

Customers, gamers, and fans… they don’t see the game as a collection of parts, like we do. It’s one big experience to them. It’s impossible for people not to comment on things you want them to ignore, unless they are also game designers. The good news is that Where Shadows Slumber got a free ride to yet another massive show, and plenty of people gave us super honest feedback about those early Levels.

It may seem weird to ask for all that feedback after having a Demo on the store for so many months, but you can never be too careful. Only one Level from the Demo actually made it over into the final game, so it was necessary to humble ourselves and start from scratch to get everything right.

 

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August 2017 – PLAY NYC

The Playcrafting organization has been nothing but good to us ever since we first darkened their doors for their free game event in the Spring of 2016. When Dan Butchko called to let me know they were working on a bigger show and wanted indies to purchase booth space, I was on board immediately. Normally, Playcrafting events are free. But PLAY NYC was an ambitious step forward for the New York City game industry, so it was worth the money to help make this show happen.

We loved it! We recommend that every tri-state indie reading this seriously considers going to PLAY NYC 2018. Get a booth if you have a game, or just buy a badge and walk the floor on Saturday.

New York City has everything, because it’s a massive metropolis. But if we’re being honest with ourselves, there are better places in the United States to make games. (Texas and California spring to mind) If we want to make Silicon “Alley” a reality, we need to support massive endeavors like PLAY NYC. If the New York City game industry scene actually becomes a “real thing” one day, we’ll have Playcrafting to thank. Plus, the show was packed with awesome people who were super interested in our game. It was probably our best investment of the year. Did I mention it was about 40 minutes from my Hoboken apartment? GO TO THIS SHOW!

 

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September 2017 – Big TechRaptor Interview

New Jersey-based journalist Robert Adams had met us at a few Playcrafting events before I contacted him about an interview. The article, over on TechRaptor, remains one of the best snapshots of our thinking that exists on the Internet.

Because I was on the phone with Robert instead of typing my replies, I got a chance to rant and ramble a lot. This led to us delving into some deep topics, which I appreciated. Give it a read over on their website!

In it, we discuss the origins of Game Revenant, my tragic corporate backstory, the art direction of Where Shadows Slumber, our progress over the past two years, mobile vs Steam, virtual reality’s prospects, release dates, the game’s price, and why Jack is our hero.

 

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September 2017 – Alba & Noah Join The Team

This is related to PLAY NYC since we met them there, but it’s worth mentioning independently: we hired two awesome audio designers! I had a lot of fun making whistling noises with my mouth as I made the sound effects for the wind in our free Demo… but that wasn’t going to cut it. We needed professionals who love the game, love music, and love adding in detailed sound effects. And we found them!

 

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October 2017 – Crazy Traveling

This month marked the most traveling I’ve ever done in such a short period of time. For some reason, October is designated as “every conference all at once month.” Don’t ask me why…

It seems weird to mention this in our Year In Review because none of these shows were originally intended as “marketing shows.” That means I didn’t go to them expecting to advertise Where Shadows Slumber. Rather, I just wanted to be an anonymous indie developer. That’s why Jack didn’t need to come to these either – we’re trying to minimize the amount of time he takes off from work, so that he can cash those vacation days in for when it really counts. (Or just for actual vacations!)

Anyway, it turns out I suck at being incognito. I won 2nd place at a game pitching contest when I went to Seattle for the last Mobile Games Forum ever, and then got to demo Where Shadows Slumber at IndieCade’s GameTasting event for a few hours in Los Angeles. Whoops! Unite 2017 in Austin, Texas ended up being the best one for networking. I highly recommend that show if you are a Unity developer! Meeting the people who built this game engine is an incredible resource. You can read my recap posts if you’re interested in getting my brutally honest take about what those shows were like.

 

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December 2017 – Ask Me Anything Event

We ended the year by taking your questions on the website AMAfeed. This website simulates the “AMA” threads that are really popular on Reddit. We got way more questions than I expected, and I answered them all – so if you’re dying to know the innermost workings of our hearts, check out our archived post.

This experience was great. It was like a trial run for a Reddit AMA, which I expect would get more traffic, but would be more demanding. We’ve decided to keep a bank of answers to commonly asked questions on hand, to make sure we can answer questions faster next time! We’ll look into setting one of those up on Reddit. If we do, we’ll post any information about it here to this blog.

 


 

As you can see, 2017 was a year marked by both hectic travel and silent, unrecognized work. It’s not flashy to talk about the long nights we spent in front of the computer plodding along, or the snippets of time we found in our lives to work on this game. People usually want to hear about the big stuff (when’s your next show?) but the hour-to-hour details are harder to chronicle. Rest assured that every big show we attended was book-ended by hours upon hours of work, as we strive to finish Where Shadows Slumber as soon as possible.

Whether you’ve been following this blog all throughout 2017 or you just joined us, we hope to have your support in 2018. Please continue to share our free Demo, our website, and this blog with people in your life who enjoy indie games. Our goal in 2018 is to finish what we started and offer the world a beautiful experience they’ve never seen before. Knowing that there’s an audience out there waiting to enjoy it is a powerful motivator! Get in touch with us by following us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, or just by trolling us in the comments [ ^_^]

Happy New Year!

 

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Do you have any interesting resolutions for New Year’s? Let us know in the comments. Thanks for reading!

Frank DiCola is the founder and CEO of Game Revenant, a game studio in Hoboken, NJ.

The Last Mobile Games Forum Ever!

Last week I went to Seattle for the Global Mobile Games Forum. It was my first time going to the event and I didn’t really know what to expect. It’s also the last MGF ever, but we’ll talk more about that later. Read on!

 

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Suddenly, Mobile Games Forum!

Originally, I wasn’t planning on going to the MGF. Usually I know which conventions I’m going to travel to, and I plan it out way in advance. With this show however, I was notified of it by a Mysterious Unnamed Person who was also going. He told me to check it out.

So I looked at their website, which didn’t have a ton of info, but it had a link to download an information packet. I put in my detailed info (email address, phone number, job title) and got the PDF. To my utter shock, I then received this message on LinkedIn from a woman named Louise Gibson-Bolton.

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This is a first – being invited to an expo for downloading a packet?

I assume she was monitoring the downloads and looking for more people for this show. I asked her what the catch was – no catch! They just wanted more people, especially developers, to come to Seattle.

Immediately, I was super suspicious of this. Who does that? Who invites a no-name developer like me to a show? What do the tickets normally cost? Did anyone else get this red carpet treatment?

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My decision – stay at the Belltown Inn. It was quite nice, and just three blocks from the expo.

I couldn’t say no to that offer! In addition to the free pass to the show, I was also going to be in Idaho the weekend before the MGF to attend the wedding of a close family friend. That meant travel was already paid for on the way over – I just needed to get a hotel quickly and then pay for a plane ticket home. Why not stay in Seattle and see what the MGF had to offer?

 

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Louise Gibson-Bolton Vanishes

During the opening keynote on the first day, the crowd got two unexpected pieces of news about the Mobile Games Forum. First, it has a new director named George Osborn (pictured above) who has worked on this show previously and is now in charge. Second, the show is being rebranded as Gamesforum, making this the last true Mobile Games Forum ever. The idea is to branch out into other platforms besides mobile, especially since many games are going multi-platform these days.

Louise, the woman who invited me, was nowhere to be found! I never got the chance to properly thank her. I gather that she must have been fired or forced out of the organization, because I can’t imagine why someone would quit in the weeks leading up to a really important show. Don’t quote me on that, though. The official line is “she’s since moved on.”

The reason I’m harping on all this is because there are some parts of MGF that were really disorganized, and some parts I loved. I choose to believe that the worst parts of this convention were due to team politics and shifts in management. My hope is that the new director can improve on this show and take Gamesforum in a better direction.

 

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Talk About The Convention, Frank

Please don’t assume that these blog posts are narcissistic bragging about my world travels. My goal here is always to give people a warning about what they’re getting into when they buy plane tickets and fly across the country to go to an expo. If you’re not an industry veteran, you’re like Jack and I – we never know what to expect and money does not come easily. Here’s my honest accounting of what the show offers and what needs improvement. I don’t score these shows, I just leave it to you to make a judgment.

 

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Sponsored Talks Are Dry and Fruitless

This might ruffle some feathers, but one thing I hope Gamesforum changes is relying on sponsored talks by companies. Not all of these were bad! I caught the last half of the EA Plants Vs. Zombies talk on the second day, and it had some interesting revelations about how they retain players.

But for the most part, the smaller the company, the more useless the talk. These minor players are clearly just trying to sell you something (“Buy Appodeal!”) and they don’t have enough experience to give you case studies you can apply to your own game. It’s really just a sales pitch disguised as a talk. Pass on these whenever you can. The Appodeal one in particular was just this dude reading from slides, and I still don’t really know what their business does. Because they were the main sponsor, this talk came right after a keynote by a woman from Minecraft. Sadly, MGF had a lot of “Appodeal” talks!

 

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The Panels Were Better

I actually really enjoyed a few of the panels at this show. They sat industry veterans down and just asked them candid questions about their business. The Mobile Games Forum is hyper focused on finance and marketing, so it’s not like the Games Developer’s Conference. You won’t find any info about how to make artwork, or music, or program – but you will get insights into developing business models and doing business overseas.

The panel pictured above was all about doing business in China. I always love hearing about other cultures – especially Chinese culture, because their government has a ton of crazy rules and restrictions keeping you from just putting whatever you want on the App Store. I’ll give you a quick one, it’s the most insane thing revealed by Hu Ning of iDreamSky about publishing games in China. Apparently, when you submit your game to the Chinese government for approval, you don’t send them a digital file. You send them a phone with the game installed on it! The rest of the panel was very illuminating!

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Some panels gave me a wake-up call. There was one panel about cloud-gaming that started with the blunt question: “are premium games dead?” Their conclusion: yes – premium is just 7% of the market at this point, and it’s shrinking. Yikes! Now, this panel was kind of just an advertisement for Hatch, which essentially markets itself as a Netflix for mobile games. But it also had a ton of depressing insights from developers like Ryan Payton, who told the audience a sad tale about how République was a financial failure despite releasing as a premium, episodic title with the full backing of Apple’s marketing team.

We’re not changing the business model of Where Shadows Slumber just because I got frighted at a panel. But we may be more open to experimenting on some platforms, especially Android, where premium doesn’t do well anyway. I never want to do ads or some kind of energy-store though, so don’t worry. (We even made an April Fool’s Day joke about that…)

 

The Food: Excellent

We never wanted for food at this show. Look at that menu! They had breakfast and lunch buffets, and even a snack bar around 4 pm when things were dying down. When I say a snack bar, I mean a literal buffet of candy. If that’s not worth the price of admission, I don’t know what is. This probably has more to do with the choice of venue, but hey – it’s a good choice and it should be noted.

 

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Go Home “Meet The Publishers,” You’re Drunk!

One of the messiest experience was the Meet The Publishers event. If you’ve been to publisher “speed dating,” you know what to expect: the publishers all have their own tables, and developers take turns making their way through the room in an orderly fashion pitching their game. Everyone has 5 minutes with each publisher, a bell rings, and it’s time to hand them your business card and move on.

Meet The Publishers at MGF was not like that at all. The publishers had their own tables, but there was no way of organizing the developers. George told everyone to kind of just find someone to talk to and go up to them. Developers often pitched their game with other developers right there. It wasn’t clear how much time each developer got, and George didn’t have a megaphone or a bell to ring when five minutes were up. Instead, he had to just shout over the din of the crowd when it was time to move on.

Some of the Publishers I talked to afterward were pretty angry about this. They wanted to see games, but since it was so disorganized apparently non-developers were going into the room and pitching to them. (“Buy Appodeal!”) George had to explain to these guys that this wasn’t the purpose of the event, but I can’t quite blame them for taking the opportunity. I kind of felt alienated since most publishers were looking for freemium games, and I got brushed aside by all but one.

We’re not seriously considering getting a publisher (except for China!) but I would have appreciated their feedback. Maybe I should just stop going to publisher speed-dating since we decided we’ll handle the global roll-out on our own…

 

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Adrian had a particularly impressive setup for Meow Wars.

Amazon Developer Showcase

I thought it was great that there were some actual games being featured at the show in the main hall! You could walk right up and play them, or talk with the developers. Or both! At a strictly business conference like this, sometimes it’s easy to forget that we’re publishing games, not virtual slot machines. There weren’t many, though – I think it was just Meow Wars, Cat Date, Tiny Bubbles, Tumblestone, and one other whose name escapes me. This section probably should have been larger.

 

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Marketplace

Nothing really appealed to me in the marketplace, which was a separate room where companies set up tables to sell their products. This would probably be more appealing if there were games here – or if the products were designed for a premium title. But, understandably, there were a lot of ad networks in this section.

PornHub had a table (not pictured) which I find extremely distasteful. There were no kids at this conference, but even so, it’s important to have standards about who you invite. I think the MGF can get by without PornHub’s $2,000 table fee, and I recommend they be more stringent about who is allowed to showcase at their events. If they want, I’ll pay them not to include PornHub and other such companies. This is hardly the place for a preachy article about how sex trafficking thrives on the porn industry, so I’ll move on and let you Google that on your own. Needless to say, I found that disturbing and I didn’t spend much time in this room.

 

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New Friends, and a Virtual Reality Party

Shows like this are great for meeting people! We had a great time going out for drinks and dinner before the official MGF party. This is probably the best reason to go to a conference like this, because you never know who you’ll meet – or where they’ll be working in 3 years. It’s a small industry, and everyone knows each other. So you have to make sure you’re part of “everyone!”

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This was pretty cool, too: the official party of the show had a few VR stations by this company Portal. They were showcasing mini-demos like the Star Wars VR experience, and larger titles like Valve’s The Lab. This is kind of where VR shines, honestly – a fun arcade experience where the expense is handled by someone else, and you have fun while looking goofy in front of your friends.

It was also probably not great that the party happened the night before the game pitching contest. Speaking of which…

 

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The Game Dev Showdown

There was a contest at the MGF to pitch your game in front of 5 industry judges. I knew about the contest beforehand, but I didn’t try to join it before I got to the show. On Tuesday, I just said “screw it” and went for it. They mentioned during the opening ceremony that there were two drop outs and I asked Anna if I could join. She told me I’d need a PowerPoint Presentation and a pitch ready to go by 1 pm the next day. I said “count me in!” and got the very last slot in the contest.

I was up until 2:30 am on Tuesday night, but I got it done! There were six games in all, many of whom were on display in the main hall of the expo center as part of the Amazon Developer Showcase. My pitch went quite well, and I got to use a clicker for the first time in my life. Afterward, people commented on how impressed they were with my polished delivery, especially considering I only had a day to prepare. I don’t mean to sound self-centered, but this is one area where I can claim some significance. I’ve done performing arts since 6th grade, and even some improv in college. It’s not a useless skill. My competitors were nervous, and for many this was their first pitch ever. Jack and I both did a bunch of acting at Stevens, and it’s a skill that stays with you – just watch his impromptu interview for PAX East if you need proof of that!

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Image Credit: Dean Takahashi of VentureBeat

You can see us lined up nervously on stage as we await the announcement. The winner was… Tiny Bubbles! It’s a polished puzzle game by Stu Denman, and it deserved to win. He went first and had a bunch of tech issues that weren’t his fault, so I was hoping they wouldn’t count that against him. Then he wowed the audience with his crazy bubble simulation physics, as well as a touching story of how his grandfather inspired the game’s design. Well done! (Thanks to Dean Takahashi of VentureBeat, one of the judges, for the photo above that was used in his article about Tiny Bubbles) Check out the Unreleased Google Beta for that game here, it’s awesome!

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Where Shadows Slumber won 2nd place (runner-up) in this contest, and they gave me a whole bunch of Amazon goodies! Pictured above is two Fire HD 8’s a Kindle Fire tablet, and an Amazon Fire TV. They also said that both winners would get a feature spot on Amazon’s App Store when we launch!

I was a little stunned when they announced this at the end of the second day. I had done it again – just like when I muscled my way into the Big Indie Pitch at GDC earlier this year – I won a pitching contest just by randomly entering at the last minute! Afterward, George congratulated me on my 2nd place win – not just because he liked the game, but because in his words “you stepped up.” If there’s anything to take from this article, that’s it. So much of success is about showing up, volunteering, and taking risks!

 

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Don’t Give Up On Gamesforum!

The Mobile Games Forum was a bit messy at times – but it’s over now. From here on out, it’s Gamesforum. Under the direction of George Osborn and Anna Bashall, I have confidence in the future of this conference. It seems like previous leaders put them in a horrible spot, where they had to run a conference on their own at the last second. I don’t envy anyone in their position.

With more time to plan and do things their way, I’m sure future expos will be even better. Hopefully they heed my advice about the corporate sponsorship and try to make talks more relevant even if they are disguised sales pitches. (“Buy Appodeal!”)

This team is based in the United Kingdom, so their next show is over there. I can’t make it to London for the first inaugural Gamesforum in January, but when they return to the United States I’ll look them up! Maybe I can persuade them to come to the east coast? (Psst, it’s a shorter flight for you guys!) In any event, I wish them the best of luck and I’d like to thank them for incredible opportunity!

 

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You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

IndieCade 10 Disappoints

Directly after my trip to Unite Austin, I flew straight to Los Angeles for IndieCade. I had never been to the show before, even though I’ve known about it for a few years now.

Ever since the Mr. Game! days, I’ve submitted games to their contest. It was a long-shot to assume that SkyRunner would make it in, but I thought we had a better chance with Where Shadows Slumber this year. I’ve never made it in to the showcase, and this year was no exception, but I’ve always wanted to figure out what kind of games IndieCade is looking for. On the bright side, they allowed me to show off the game during one of their show and tell segments! More on that later.

Jack and I went to IndieCade East a while back and really enjoyed it, so I thought I would do some field research on the main event and get some game testing in at the same time! Unfortunately, as I sit here writing this at my desk back in New Jersey, I’m struck by this awful realization: after 10 years in operation, IndieCade still doesn’t know how to put together a well-run event.

 

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Red Flags From The Start

Friday morning was incredibly stressful, and that feeling lingered on for the rest of the day. When I went to pick up my badge in the morning, I was dismayed to find a long single-file line that lead to a tent where one person was slowly handing out wristbands. As we all burned in the unforgiving Los Angeles sun, I started to freak out. IndieCade scheduled a talk with me and Oculus that morning and it didn’t look like I’d make it in time. Fortunately, Anita swooped in at the last second and just brought me to my meeting.

Oculus’ outreach team wanted to meet developers at IndieCade, and not just the ones presenting. Even though I’m working on a mobile puzzle game, I was able to meet Chris Jurney of Oculus! I tried to meet him at GDC 2017, but he was in meetings all day. But this time, I was the meetings all day >:). We discussed Where Shadows Slumber, and my post-release plans. Although this game can’t really ever come to VR, I do find the virtual reality medium pretty intriguing. They’re going to hook me up with an Oculus headset, which is insane. I’ll take it!

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From there, I went over to Game Tasting. Although Where Shadows Slumber was not an official IndieCade selection, they were nice enough to invite me to show off the game between 12 pm to 2 pm during the Game Testing segment. This is like IndieCade Lite, a quick look at some games that didn’t make it. To be honest, I liked the games near me even more than the ones at the official showcase! But we’ll discuss that more later.

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How can you say “get out, bum” to this face?

Due to some persistence (and my innocent baby face) I was able to get a second Game Tasting slot later that same day between 4 pm to 6 pm. In between, I saw a depressing talk about how Xbox Live Indie Games as a service is going to be shut down. That’s the first time I ever heard of that! It went offline the next day.

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After I fulfilled my obligations to IndieCade, I finally got a chance to grab dinner and explore around 7:30 pm. What I saw did not impress me. Although the Japanese American National Museum is a beautiful building, it makes for an awkward venue. Games seemed to be strewn about haphazardly, taking up space in crowded rooms while other larger halls remained inexplicably empty. Perhaps the most striking visual dissonance I witnessed was the IndieCade banner standing in front of a reproduction of a Japanese Internment shack. The banner screamed Enjoy some unique cool games! while the shack screamed Franklin D. Roosevelt violated the constitutional rights of over 100,000 American citizens and some people still say he’s their favorite president.

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Recreation of Japanese internment shack (left) and IndieCade’s banner (right)

It appears that this is their first year in this new venue, so I’ll cut them some slack on that end. They need to find their footing by next year’s IndieCade though, because this could really sink them. Many times, the exhibits on Japanese-American history were more interesting than the games being shown next to them. I don’t know why IndieCade has chosen to distract attendees from their games by putting them right next to compelling American history displays. Many times I found myself walking away from the dry non-games being exhibited to read more interesting plaques about Japanese immigrants coming to America. Perhaps the choice of a museum is to remind everyone that games are art and not just commercial products, but the venue put unnecessary strain on a show that’s already hanging by a thread.

 

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The Main Showcase

The main showcase of IndieCade had some of the strangest games I’ve ever seen. I believe that is the point of the show – to showcase the odd side of video game innovation. There were role-playing games that used only food and speech as a medium. Some games had unique controllers (like a giant inflatable sphere you played inside) that could never be mass produced and sold, which is why they can really only be displayed at IndieCade. A few games required large spaces to play in, or elaborate setups like a mock office area. As my friend said to me on Saturday, “IndieCade is good, because if they didn’t showcase these games, how would anyone else find out about them?”

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He’s right, of course. However, these games lose their power when stacked on top of each other like this. Although they may stand out at a conference like PAX East, at IndieCade everything blurs together into a politically left-leaning parade of grad-student quality propaganda. It’s hard to stand out when you’re put next to 29 similar games in a room titled LOOK AT ALL THESE THINGS THAT ALL STAND OUT!

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“The Hackers of Resistance (HORs) is a queer transfeminist hacker collective of artists, activists, researchers, cyborgs, witches, and technologists, of color.”

The strangest thing I “played” was an interactive experience called “Hackers of Resistance” that took place in a 10 x 10 area enclosed by pipe and drape. The designers of the experience decorated the room like a makeshift hacker den out of something like Mr. Robot. As we hacked our way to destroying the Trump administration, I couldn’t tell if I was taking part in a delusional liberal fantasy or brilliant conservative parody. (Seriously, read that caption again and tell me that doesn’t sound like something Kat Timpf would write)

Given the setting, I decided it must be the former, but the dreadful acting of the performers kept me guessing until the very end. Since this game is essentially an interactive installation that requires a physical space, you can see why IndieCade is just about the only place it could be setup. That’s fine by me! But I can’t help but think that IndieCade is doing its political messages a disservice by painting them as obscure. Think about it – they’re highlighting the strangest elements of the left-wing game industry and then purposely branding them as “weird” and “strange.” Don’t they want their political beliefs to be seen as mainstream instead? In its desire to seem weird, it makes them seem weird, too.

I’m quite used to blatant political messaging in the game industry these days, so that wasn’t even my biggest problem with IndieCade. What bugged me is that the show seemed dreary. The showcase was supposed to stay open until 10 pm, but by 8:30 many developers had abdicated their booths. I don’t blame them – many said they had been there since 4 pm. Giving people a long shift like that at the end of the day is bad planning on the part of the organizers. I would have liked to play more, but the venue depressed me. Around this time, a show like Unite would just be getting started with fun parties that last until 1 am. IndieCade was like an old man who was up past his bedtime at 9 pm, and went up to bed before his guests went to sleep.

 

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It’s Not All Bad

Before you think that I’m just a mean-spirited wet blanket who flies across the country to have a miserable time on purpose, let’s talk about my favorite three games from the showcase!

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Bit Rat is a cool futuristic puzzle game for PC where you play as a rogue A.I. construct trying to escape your company. I didn’t get a chance to play it because the tables were always packed, but you should check it out! The pixel aesthetic really works for the type of game this is, and the puzzles seemed quite difficult.

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Keyboard Sports: Saving Qwerty is an absolutely hilarious PC game where you use the keyboard to control your character’s position. That may not sound special, but I mean that quite literally: you don’t use keyboard keys to issue commands like “go right” or “go left.” Instead, the keys on your keyboard are mapped to physical locations within the game! See the tutorial level above, for example, where the spacious couch (hehe) is mapped to the space bar. There’s always an overlay on the screen so you can kind of gauge what to do, but it’s constantly changing which adds to the humor.

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Detention is a point-and-click horror puzzle adventure game set during a dark period in Taiwan’s history. I could have used less jump scares, but the overall experience is really tight. The actual mechanic this game uses for its monsters is one of the creepiest I’ve ever seen, but it’s apparently pretty common in China. You hold your breath to avoid being captured by ghosts! I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s very scary and I wish more games would do stuff like this. Incorporating folk tales into games is a great source of inspiration.

These three games showcase what IndieCade should be about, in my opinion. Alternative control schemes like the one found in Keyboard Sports are innovative, but still accessible to a wide audience. Cultural inspiration, as seen in Detention, doesn’t have to be overly preachy. Games can be weird and still be very well-made and polished, like Bit Rat. Too often, games at IndieCade use their “strange” identity as a shield to protect against the criticism that all game developers have to deal with. There’s no excuse for bad artwork, buggy code, or toothless gameplay – the label “indie” does not mean “I get away with delivering a lower quality product.” Anyway, instead of castigating more of IndieCade’s worst offenders, I’d rather show off the ones I enjoyed playing. Best of luck to these three games!

 

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By Sunday, The Nominee Gallery Vanished

By the final day of IndieCade, the Nominee Gallery was closed because an unrelated event was taking place in their room. (It seemed to be a Japanese-American dinner honoring some of the elderly in the community, but I didn’t pry too much.) Standing outside the venue, I heard quite a few people complaining.

“I was going to see the Nominees on Sunday, but they’re gone!”

The only thing more disappointing than not enjoying the official showcase is being robbed of an entire day to experience the official showcase. It’s just another bad choice by the staff – why wouldn’t you make sure your main showcase runs all three days? They were forced to do this because of the previous bad decision to host the event in a busy museum. Fortunately, I saw all I needed to see of the Nominee Gallery. But put yourself in the shoes of someone who bought a Sunday pass!

 

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The Talks Depended on the Room

I stand by the statement above: your experience going to the panels and talks at IndieCade will vary wildly depending on which ones you attended. The deciding factor seemed to be the room you chose.

I quite enjoyed the puzzle talk by Linelight creator Brett Taylor and Semblance creator Ben Myres. There was a talk about how to make “AAA Indie Games” by husband-and-wife team Tristan and Aby Moore. “50 Ways to Fail in VR” was a ton of fun, a great talk by Mike Murdock about hard lessons learned making virtual reality games. What did these games have in common? They took place in small classrooms with a simple projector screen and whiteboard. They also filled up quite fast!

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Brett and Ben tell us a bit about their games before their fireside chat about puzzle design.

The talks that served only to waste my time took place on the main stage; a large theater-styled presentation area with a massive projector, a tech booth, and tons of audio equipment. The IndieCade staff seemed woefully inadequate at operating this room. One talk started fifteen minutes late due to technical difficulties. At one point, ten minutes deep into technical drama, an exasperated technician scolded at the audience:

“Does anyone have an HDMI to VGA cable?! That’s what’s holding us up here!”

…as if I flew across the country and booked a hotel in an expensive area of Los Angeles just to personally hand-deliver you a cable you had months to purchase. Seriously, dude?

 

It Gets Worse Before It Gets Worse

But by far, the worst talk at IndieCade was the final one with Keita Takahashi, of Katamari Damacy fame. This was supposed to close out IndieCade with an intimate chat between the audience and a veteran game developer. Instead, it served to expose more flaws in the organizational structure of IndieCade. Find it online if you want to waste 50 minutes of your life.

I don’t have anything against Mr. Takahashi. He seems like a cool guy, and he has a wonderfully child-like sense of humor. But they evidently didn’t give him an agenda for this talk, because he began by trying to find his childhood home in Google Earth. As he struggled to do this, I realized both he and Brandon Boyer were trying to run the talk via their mobile phones for some inexplicable reason. This would become a recurring feature of the talk – waiting for the screen to slowly load whatever was on their phone.

The decision not to give Mr. Takahashi a translator was also mind-boggling. I felt bad for him – English is not his native language, and he is not fluent by any means. With no talking points or written speech, he spent half the talk fumbling around in Google Maps until that got old and they transitioned to Question and Answer time. It’s a shame they didn’t focus more on the few interesting bits of the talk, like his inspiration from Japanese sculptor Taro Okamoto. Without a solid plan, I can’t blame them for bombing on stage. When it comes to stuff like this, I usually blame whoever is at the top making the decisions that cause people to fail.

 

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Next time, Visit charming Little Tokyo, but skip IndieCade.

The Final Verdict

I’m not going to submit my games to IndieCade anymore, and I can’t see myself returning to the show any time soon. If you’re still interested in it, follow my guidelines below and I can help you avoid disappointment.

Should I attend IndieCade? If you live within walking or brief driving distance, there’s no reason not to go. Don’t spend money on a hotel or air travel, though. This show doesn’t deserve national or international attention in its current state. As a local show, it would be pretty awesome though.

What kind of pass should I get? I can’t see any reason why you would need more than a single day pass, probably Saturday. That had the biggest crowd. The games were all there. Besides, your wristband could probably get you in on Sunday too. They were all the same color.

Should I submit my game to IndieCade? Unless your game is as weird as some of the other stuff they highlight, don’t bother. There are two caveats: If your game is brazenly political and decidedly left-of-center, you’re good. Also, if you can modify your game to be super weird just for this show, go for it.

Will I fit in at IndieCade? Probably not. For a show that brags about its inclusive nature, it operates more like an exclusive club. IndieCade isn’t for everybody, whether its organizers want to admit it or not.

 

IndieCade Isn’t Fun

Before I went to IndieCade, I didn’t think all games had to be “fun.” I assumed that was a corporate label slapped on the industry that only applied to mass market games. “Games don’t need to be fun! It’s enough if they’re just engaging, interesting, or weird” I thought to myself. Oh, Frank-of-Last-Week… you were a fool!

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After playing scores of dull games at IndieCade, I’ve flipped my stance. I think fun is more important than ever, especially when you’re trying to make a game that deals with hard problems. I saw a lot of games that promised to tackle heavy issues (“this is a game about dealing with mental illness,” etc) but the only things the player could do were (a) walk around a 3D environment and (b) look around a 3D environment. That’s not innovative, and it doesn’t keep its promise either. The Spaces exhibit at IndieCade featured at least three of these. We wouldn’t stand for that if a AAA studio did that. Why do we accept this from indies?

What I think they’re missing is that fun is an important numbing device that helps people through painful topics. Without it, your work will just end up stressing people out and repelling them.

That stressful anxiety I felt since Friday morning was still with me by the show’s end. I felt it as I left the museum and passed by the ghostly faces of Japanese-American prisoners one last time. Death seems to haunt IndieCade, and I wonder if the show will be over for good sometime in the next few years. You’re either growing or dying, and IndieCade did not project strength during their 10th year in operation.

 

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Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber. The views expressed in this blog post are his own and do not reflect the opinions of anyone else on the Where Shadows Slumber team.

An Indie Developer’s First Trip to Unite

I’ve been an avid Unity user for nearly 5 years at this point. Without this creative tool, I would not be making games. It’s as simple as that. I owe a lot to this engine; it’s making my dreams come true. It’s even changed the landscape of the commercial game engine market. (Remember when the Unreal Engine 4 had a monthly subscription?)

Despite my love for Unity, somehow I never had the chance to attend Unite, their flagship conference. At Unite, they gather developers, influencers, sponsors, speakers, and Unity employees under one roof for two days of workshops. I finally decided to go when I saw they were holding one in Austin, Texas. Just a short plane ride away, compared to some of the other places they hold this show. Just in the next few weeks, they have three events across the globe: Unite Melbourne, Unite Singapore, and Unite India!

Have you ever been to Unite? No? Then this is the blog for you. It’s a straightforward account of my travels this past week to Unite Austin 2017. If you’re deciding whether or not to go, I hope this honest blog helps you make a decision.

 

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Day 1: “Keynote? Never Heard Of Him.”

Time to confess… there is one problem with this blog: I completely missed Day 1 of Unite, so I can’t tell you what it was like!

I meant to be there, but my flight got rerouted in mid-air to Dallas because of weather in Austin. We stayed at that airport for 2 hours before taking off again. I was supposed to have gotten in around 4:30, which would have been just enough time to check into my hotel and walk across the street to the Austin Convention Center. Instead, we landed at 8:00 pm… right when things were wrapping up and badge pickups had already closed. Damn!

Perhaps you can consider this a cautionary tale. If your travel plan relies on everything going perfectly, you’re not planning – you’re dreaming.

You can check the schedule to see what happened, because your guess is as good as mine. There was a keynote talk, and I’m sorry I missed it! They put it online here.

 

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Day 2: Party Time!

Day 2 was my first real day at Unite. This was my chance to familiarize myself with the main showcase, the talks, and the crowd. My first impressions:

  • Unity gives out free food at breakfast and lunch and it’s really good
  • There weren’t as many people as I was expecting. Or perhaps Unity chose a convention space that was a bit too large for this show?
  • The main showcase seemed underwhelming…

The negative first impressions didn’t really last though. As I went about exploring I found there was plenty to do and tons of people to meet. In fact, Unity scheduled some meetings with me prior to the show, which surprised me! Their Analytics team wanted to meet face-to-face to ask me user questions. I really appreciated that, even if I didn’t personally gain from it. The fact that they want feedback that badly shows me they care about constantly improving the engine, which is a good sign.

The schedule for the talks is online (you can find them here), but if you were wondering what was in the main showcase, I saw the following:

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(a) This live talk show segment being filmed that you could watch

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(b) A live demo area that was for mini-classes

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(c) An Ask The Experts section where you could sit down with Unity employees

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(d) Unity demos with members of the company nearby to explain the tech

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(e) The usual showcase of professional, released games Made With Unity

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(f) A separate showcase for VR titles Made With Unity

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(g) A gallery of printed images, which I was not expecting!

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(h) Booths for sponsors and partner companies, like Nintendo

I didn’t realize this, but Day 2 is also party night apparently! Unity knows how to throw an awesome party. I went to three! First, there was an Amazon App Store party. I believe they invited us because the Where Shadows Slumber demo is on their store. After speaking with one of their developer outreach leads, they even gave me an Amazon testing device!

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What an unexpected surprise!

Then I went to the Unity Analytics party, which was a happy hour before the real deal – the Unite party. It was insane, man. They rented out an entire venue called Fair Market and had the whole thing catered! There were taco stations, chili bowls, dessert food trucks, an open bar… I went a little wild. I didn’t leave until 10:30. :0

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It might seem weird to keep mentioning the parties and the food, but it gets to the core of what Unite is. Don’t go into this expecting some kind of staid business trip. You can totally get a lot done – just networking with Unity employees was worth the money. But I think the real way to enjoy Unite is to treat it like a big gathering of indie devs who just want to talk, hangout, and get to know each other. I wish I knew that going in.

Recognize that the price of admission also covers events that are meant to promote bonding and companionship. Take the name literally! It’s not just wordplay – this is really about remote developers coming together and uniting!

 

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Unity takes their food seriously.

Day 3

By Day 3, I found my footing. I went to a steady stream of talks, with time in between to attend some of the mini-lessons given by Unity. Their employees are so friendly! I missed an entire talk about the Unity Profiler, so I went up to the presenter and asked for help. Not only did he help me, we went to the Ask The Experts section and spent a full half-hour going over Where Shadows Slumber and how to optimize mobile games. It was incredible!

The talks I went to definitely varied in quality. There were some I was looking forward to that really disappointed me (the “Lessons Learned from PSVR” one was not as fun as the description indicated), and others that didn’t seem relevant at first, but totally inspired me. By far, the best one was a talk about this Walking Dead mobile game by Jason Booth of Disruptor Beam.

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Go find this online when he posts it. There’s so much information coming at your face, your face is going to leave your body to find a new one. And that that body will EXPLOOOOODE WITH KNOWLEDGE! He wasn’t shy about the parts of Unity that he didn’t like. That just made me trust him more! Essentially the talk was all about how they got this ridiculous massive world to show up even on lower-end mobile devices. His command of graphics and optimization was impressive.

 

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Hoping to Return

I’m writing this from a hotel room in Los Angeles. (I went straight to IndieCade after Unite) Now that I’ve attended my first Unite, I’ve got just one piece of advice for anyone attending: fill your schedule. When I planned this trip, I allowed for gaps in my schedule to explore the main expo hall. I was expecting something along the lines of GDC – a massive expo hall you could never possibly see all of. Instead, I found it to be a bit lacking. I was able to make the rounds in an hour or two. So, avoid gaps in your schedule and fill your time with meetings or talks! You’ll find that more helpful than wandering around aimlessly.

I hope to return to Unite America next year! (I’m calling it “Unite America” because I don’t know if they’ll be in Austin again.) However, my one condition is that I’d like to return to give talks about Where Shadows Slumber and maybe have a booth in the Made With Unity showcase.

Which reminds me of another talk I saw, all about Unity Connect… time to jump on that!

 

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You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

What We Learned From Testing At AwesomeCon 2017

Hey everybody, it’s Frank! I just got back from a trip to Washington D.C. for AwesomeCon 2017, a comic convention that’s expanding its selection of gaming exhibits. We were invited by the wonderful team that hosts the MAGFest Indie Videogame Showcase to take part in their giant indie booth – thanks to Lexi Urell and her team for allowing us to take part in such an awesome con!

 

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Why Did Frank Go To AwesomeCon?

That’s kind of a weird question, right? Is there ever a reason not to go to a convention? Besides, we were invited! Do you even need to ask?

Now that the Game Revenant official coffers are looking a little emptier, it’s important to evaluate every large expense. Travel is certainly one of them. While I’d love to go to every show on planet Earth that’s even remotely related to gaming, we don’t have that kind of cash to spend. Besides that, there’s the time cost involved. If I’m standing at a table showing off Where Shadows Slumber for 3 days straight, that’s 3 days I’m not spending doing animations or environment art for the game. Was it worth it?

We decided that the best way to get a return-on-investment for our time and money was to focus on one very specific thing during AwesomeCon 2017 – testing. Conventions are a great way to show your game to a lot of people. It may seem like this is purely a marketing activity where indies promote their game, but that’s a shallow view of what conventions can do for you. When you’re given the opportunity to sit down with nearly 100 people and focus on your game, that’s a great time to ask them critical questions about your work and get their honest feedback.

So before I left, Jack created a build of our Where Shadows Slumber alpha that had all 17 of our test Levels in it, along with a basic menu for easy navigation. I resolved to show this early alpha to as many people as possible, with a specific focus on these key issues:

  1. If I don’t tell Players how to play the game, what will they do?
  2. What do Players think of the first three Levels, which are meant as a tutorial?
  3. How far will Players go before they get stuck or bored?

 

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My Testing Procedure This Time Around

As you test your game at a convention, you begin to find a consistent testing method that works. Halfway through the first day (Friday), I had a pitch ready to go once people sat down at the Where Shadows Slumber table.

I was really straightforward with people. I told them that I wasn’t going to teach them how to play because I wanted to see how they performed on their own. (No one seemed to mind!) Then I told them that they could ask me questions if they got really stuck. I told them that the game’s artwork was a placeholder. The only information they were allowed to know was that it was a puzzle game called Where Shadows Slumber. With that, I just watched them play through Level 0-1 and noted their progress. This pitch accomplished a few key things.

This Is Only A Test: Setting up expectations right away is key. By telling people that the game is being tested (and not them) it put them in the proper mindset. They weren’t here to be entertained – they were here to break the game if possible, and try to beat it. I think that increased people’s enjoyment actually, and definitely led to finding some serious bugs.

Ask Me Questions: Getting people to talk while they play is really hard, but it’s very important. You can only glean so much from watching people. I didn’t give anyone that much information, but allowing them to ask questions is helpful. After all, if they ask a question, it means they don’t understand something. That “something” is what Jack and I have to go back and add to our tutorial.

Don’t Tell Me The Art Sucks: It’s important that you tell people what you don’t want to hear. Setting up this expectation decreased the amount of people who would complain about the art. Seeing this alpha next to screenshots of our beautiful demo was probably  a bit jarring, but once I explained it to testers it wasn’t an issue anymore. When you’re testing, you don’t have much time with each person so you need to make it count. Make sure that people know what you already know, so they focus on different issues.

 

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The Results

To my surprise, people loved the alpha! I only say I am surprised because this is the first time I’ve seen people play it with my own eyes. And although the artwork is all just placeholders and the Levels are brand new, people gave it glowing reviews:

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Having said that, not everything is sunshine and rainbows. We found a few bugs over the weekend, and there are some Levels that may need to be redesigned or cut from the game entirely. Here are all my notes from AwesomeCon 2017:

 

  • People don’t realize they can’t drag something if the Player is in the way. Draggable objects should smack into the protagonist to give them feedback on this matter.
  • Someone suggested a mechanic where torches (lights) are only on for a fixed amount of time before they shut off.
  • Someone requested a Reset button (which our demo has, but the alpha does not – even though you can just re-select the current Level from the menu).
  • MAJOR ISSUE: People didn’t realize they could drag red objects. Many suggested that they “shimmer” when they are dormant to encourage dragging. Perhaps there should be a handle on the Draggable object to indicate that it is interactive, and show the direction it moves. They should glow when they are being dragged as well.
  • Someone suggested a UI indicator that shows how a Draggable moves, since some objects rotate but others slide across the floor.
  • When the Player is following closely behind a Walker, he stutters and stops, producing an awkward floating animation.
  • The protagonist’s light should grow out from him and stop at the predetermined radius needed to solve this Level.
  • MAJOR ISSUE: Every single Player (with few exceptions) dragged-to-move if I didn’t tell them the controls. Our game is tap-to-move, so dragging is not an optimal way to play. People assume the controls are bad, but they’re just doing it wrong. Without a way to correct them, they make it harder on themselves.
  • Someone suggested charting a path (like in StarCraft) when you drag-to-move, a possible solution to those who find that way more comfortable. This would basically be like connecting the dots between every space you dragged over.
  • IDEA FOR A LEVEL: Level 1-3’s “Lock”, but the Light Switches are connected to some of the Rotating Draggable blocks.
  • MAJOR ISSUE: People tried to drag the purple blocks, but couldn’t. This stopped them from trying things in the future.
  • Glyphs are really just buttons that can be pressed infinite times, right?
  • Draggable Light Switches need to be turned off when they’re off. They still appear on, which is impairing people’s understanding of the light mechanic.
  • The age when players seem able to understand the game is 12 – younger children could trudge through it by trial and error, but with limited understanding.
  • MAJOR ISSUE: “Why is there a shadow?” People do not realize the main character has a lantern with a massive radius and it’s the only light in the scene. This is understandable because our game is super weird. We need to find a way to show this constantly, or they’ll think the shadows have a mind of their own.
  • Someone suggested a mechanic where the main character’s lantern is a spotlight, instead of a point light, for a few Levels.
  • Someone suggested a mechanic where the main character can lower their lantern’s light radius and then reset it, for a few Levels.
  • A businesswoman with knowledge of the Indian market suggested that we lower the price from $5 for that particular market. She felt strongly that Indian mobile gamers wanted free games or something much cheaper.

Here are my notes that are specific to each Level in the alpha.

 

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Level 0-1, Fallen

There’s a bug in this level where there bridge (which should fall after you press a trigger) stays exactly where it is. Players who drag-to-move skip right over the trigger, and they never trigger the bridge sequence, so basically they miss the puzzle.

The Draggable box on this level doesn’t have much weight to it. People fling it around like crazy. They also really want to drag it down (onto the dirt path), up (onto the dirt path), or onto the bridge to drop it into the water as a makeshift bridge. None of that is possible but there’s no feedback for that and they don’t know how shadows work yet so it doesn’t register.

Half of the people who play this Level don’t quite understand that the shadow makes the bridge appear.

It’s possible to walk past the Goal Space, and go to a spot on the Level that is beyond the door.

This level is not idiot-proof, like the first Level in our demo.

I think this is our weakest Level. I suggest cutting it and replacing it with a walking tutorial similar to the first Level in the demo. This Level is just throwing way too much at Players all at once.

 

0-2

Level 0-2, Bridge

An excellent Level. This serves as a perfect introduction to 3 key mechanics: walking, shadow revelation, and dragging.

The Rotatable bridges here should probably wobble after a while to indicate they can be dragged. I can also make a circular pivot point in the center, cut into the stone. That would be a good indication that these are on a swivel.

Draggables can also have parts on them that suck in when Players hold them down. Having parts of the stone depress inward is a good sign that you’re controlling the object with your finger.

 

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Level 0-3, Monolith

This Level is perfect teaching. It’s a great gateway – you will never beat this if you do not understand how shadows work in our game.

“The purple box moved!” We need to make sure people don’t think the shadows merely move things. They make things appear and disappear… the visual style of the purple box makes it seem like it’s jumping around.

Why can’t Players make the farthest purple block appear if they are standing all the way at the entrance of the Level?

The Draggable Block here should be on some kind of a flagpole so that the vertical movement appears to be a natural fit to Players. (Many tried to move it horizontally.)

 

1-1

Level 1-1, Recovery

The name of this Level ought to be “Protection” or even just “Light”.

Why is the Light Switch casting a shadow? Does that shadow do anything? That may be a visual error.

 

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Level 1-2, Detour

This Level can be broken to make both Goal Spaces appear at the same time. Players usually move the Draggable Block back and forth so rapidly that it causes both to be visible. However, the fake Goal Space does not work. If we can’t fix this bug… we should make it work! Why not reward Players for their trickery?

If there was a Light Switch near the space where the Goal Space is revealed, this Level would be a bit harder. You’d have to make sure the Light Switch was off. That may make it more interesting for the Players who figure it out in two seconds – and it keeps the World’s atmosphere consistent, since we use a lot of lights here.

The shadow needs to change more of the Level when it swipes across the screen, to give Players a clue that something weird is going on.

There ought to be two Shadow Eyes on the Draggable Block.

 

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Level 1-3, Lock

Let’s make the sides of the Rotating Blocks sloped here, or at least spiked. People consistently try to walk on the sides of them when they are down, but that would break the Lights. It must appear unwalkable.

 

1-4.PNG

Level 1-4, Pressure

Extremely hard Level. That’s a good thing to have at this point in the game.

“I didn’t know I could stand on the box and rotate it.” Are we being consistent with when Players can do this and when they cannot?

How will Shadow Eyes work here? How can we align them with the object they are changing?

Someone found a bug where both buttons were pressed and they beat the Level, but they could not walk on the green path. (This is a soft crash I guess, since the Level is broken but the game still works fine.)

 

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Level 1-5, Wolf

This Level should be renamed to something that indicates how to solve the puzzle, like “Doors” or “Black” or “Pitch”.

People don’t know they can drag these pillars.

The effect of pressing a Button here was not always obvious. I need to make an animation and we ought to have a clear sound attached to it.

On the iPhone, there was a bug where the sliding pillars could not be dragged. We had to reset the Level. I suspect Glyphs have something to do with this.

 

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Level 2-1, Docks

Literally every tester thought the Walkers would hurt them and everyone called them “zombies”. My use of the color green was foolish!

We should start this Level with a Walker coming toward you that you can’t avoid, so people see that they aren’t bad.

People LOVE the reveal with the pillar sweeping across the Level. We should do more.

People tried to reverse the reveal and they couldn’t do that, which upset them. I think they wanted to see it more than once. When we get it set up properly, let’s consider this. It’s about consistency and Players enjoying the game for its toys rather than its puzzles.

 

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Level 2-2, Test

We can call this Level “Elevator” or something. Maybe “Switch”, because you press a switch, but you also need to change places with the Walker.

Walkers flip around when you rotate Draggable Bridges, and this really annoys Players who are trying to guide his path. Also sometimes the Walkers float, breaking immersion.

 

2-3.PNG

Level 2-3, Guide

Pressed Buttons really ought to look pressed. I need to redo the art and then I’ll need help setting the states properly. We can also drain them of color once pressed.

For some reason I think buttons should be octagons. Why did I write this?

 

2-4.PNG

Level 2-4, Ebb

These Walkers cast a light, but they don’t have an obvious light source. I can make them holding torches, but what happened to their little light bulbs? Did I delete them?

 

3-2

Level 3-2, Tradeoff

The main light in this Level looks like it’s off because it’s so dark. The Player’s lantern doesn’t always need to be the brightest light in the scene! This sliding light is way more important to the mechanics of the Level. We can dim the Player’s light in favor of the other one.

 

3-3

Level 3-3, Anchor

Rectangles can pass through each other.

The right side Button node was briefly unwalkable, due to a multiple reality error.

After leaving a node, the state of a Button was still pressed. This made the Level unbeatable.

 

3-4.PNG

Level 3-4, Torus

“Is that it?” Torus looks more intimidating than it is. Can we bring up the difficulty on this one somehow? I think people are disappointed that you don’t need to find a way to navigate back and forth using the rotating segments. It is solved quite easily.

 

3-5.PNG

Level 3-5, Island

This Level can be broken by drag-dashing back and forth until the pillars remain upright. Then, walk into the island, the pillars lower, and you beat the puzzle without really solving anything.

 

It’s incredible how much insight you can get from just a few days of testing! These kind of testing moments are hard to come by, so it’s important to make the most of them. I hope you appreciated seeing how your feedback will impact the game, and this gave you an insight into what indie developers are looking for from testers.

We’ve got a lot of work cut out for us this month, so expect to see these changes reflected in my post at the end of June where I update you on the state of the game’s artwork.

 

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We hope you enjoyed this insight into our testing methods. Do you have any feedback for us about the game’s alpha? You can reach out to us at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, tweet at us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), message us on Facebook, leave a comment on itch.io, jump into chat on Twitch, and email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

3 Things I Learned at GDC 2017

I’ve just returned from a whirlwind trip to this year’s Game Developers Conference (GDC), and I have a lot to tell you! Unfortunately, most of what I learned is top secret. You hear a lot at these conventions, so between secret news and talks with undisclosed mobile publishers there isn’t a lot I can disclose. More on that later this year…

But I can certainly reveal my impressions as a first-timer to help you out if you’re planning on going to GDC 2018. Here are three things I learned my first time at GDC!


 

Calendar with pushpins

Lesson 1: Schedule Meetings Months Ahead of Time

My number one priority at GDC 2017 was to talk to someone from the App Store about Where Shadows Slumber. My number two priority was to talk to someone from Google Play. Specifically, I’m looking for the people that make promotions and “features” happen. Being featured on an app marketplace can sometimes be the difference between relative obscurity and worldwide fame. It’s that important.

Certainly it can’t be your only strategy, but it’s at the top of my list. Sadly, I failed! Since I was so late to the game (I only found out about GDC when two people mentioned it at MAGFest 2017 earlier this year) I never scheduled times to meet with them. Naively, I assumed there would be some kind of Apple booth and I could meet them there.

No way. Although the major players (PlayStation, Oculus, Facebook, Microsoft, Unity) had large presences at the show, Apple did not have a booth. They probably assume they would just get inundated by indies and it wouldn’t be worth the expense. If you wanted to talk to them, you had to get on their calendar months in advance. They met with business partners in secret rooms during the show, protected under heavy guard. The same is true for Google – they had a booth, but it was specifically to show off Daydream, their mobile VR peripheral. The Google Play team was nowhere to be found.

I learned the hard way – don’t make my mistake! It’s crucial that you do your homework ahead of time and get on the calendar of a major player like Apple, Google, Nintendo, or whoever you want to meet. Don’t leave this stuff to chance!

 

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GDC talk about Chinese localization pitfalls, given by Jung-Sheng Lin of Taiwan.

 

Lesson 2: The Talks Are Great, But You’ll Get Tossed Out

I went to GDC primarily to make connections in the industry. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the seminars as much as I did. It turns out there are a lot of talks, panels and seminars at GDC and they run the full week. (I arrived on Wednesday, since I was mostly concerned with the Expo – but there are talks and parties beginning on Sunday) The lectures were great! I enjoyed pretty much every one that I went to. The panels weren’t as interesting as the talks because less work went into preparing them. But overall, I was impressed.

One thing bugged me though. I should have seen this coming, but when you buy a pass for GDC you’re effectively selecting what access you’ll have during the show. They have all kinds of “tracks” – Art, Music, VR, All Access, Mega Golden God Status, etc. I got an Expo Pass, which is the cheapest option. This lets you into the Expo and a small smattering of talks.

What this meant was that often I would see a talk advertised (“Nintendo Reveals All About Breath of the Wild!”) and get really excited for it only to be turned away at the door. The paper pocket guide doesn’t warn you about the access required for a talk, it just says where the talk is and who is giving it. To see a filtered view, you need the app. Once I filtered the talks available by the Expo Pass using the GDC app, it become clear that there really wasn’t too much I was interested in. Fortunately I snuck into at least one restricted talk (it was about early access and Ark) and the talks I was able to get into were pretty good. Still, it’s a bad feeling.

So, again, plan ahead! Before you buy a badge, look at the talks available. Filter the list. Ask yourself – are the seminars worth the price jump from $299 to $999? If so, take the plunge. You’ll appreciate getting the access. Otherwise, just deal with the consequences and don’t be surprised when ushers show you the door.

 

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Lesson 3: Don’t Take No For An Answer

The theme of the first two Lessons is quite clear: plan ahead. Having said that, I should also mention that just because you didn’t plan ahead doesn’t mean you shouldn’t muscle your way in anyway.

Rules only matter if they’re enforced, right? Once they stop being enforced they might as well not even apply. Although I don’t believe this is true when it comes to objective morality (don’t go burning down houses because you think you’ll get away with it), it certainly works when it comes to event admissions.

For example, I went to the Big Indie Pitch at GDC 2017 after some urging by Craig Barnes (I owe you one, man!). This is a pitching contest where you show your mobile game to publishers and industry professionals. You get 4 minutes with 5 different groups each, and they judge your game based on its aesthetics, mechanics, marketability, and overall quality. But I never formally applied for the contest because I missed the submission cut-off by one day. Feeling dejected, I almost didn’t even attend! It was 3 pm on a Thursday, I was already exhausted, the event wasn’t close to the convention center, and I very nearly bailed to go to other events instead.

Something told me I’d regret it if I didn’t at least show up, so I took an Uber over. As the event began, I begged the event coordinator Simon Drake of Steel Media to put me on a Waitlist. If people didn’t show up, I could take their slot! There were four others like me so Simon agreed, and to our surprise the Waitlisters were given a chance at the tail end of the contest to make our case to the judges. (OK, this isn’t really “muscling”, more like “pleading”… but you get the point!)

To my utter shock, Where Shadows Slumber received third place at the Big Indie Pitch! Jack and I now have $1,000 in marketing money to use on any of Steel Media’s owned platforms, and we’ll put it to good use. Another awesome thing: the second place winner, Louard of Suzy Cube, was also on the Waitlist! The moral of the story? Plan ahead, and plan for everything.

Then, expect your plans to go wrong, and don’t give up when they do!

 


 

I’m going back to GDC next year for sure. We may exhibit at the show, or just walk the show floor. I definitely want Jack to see this, because it’s an awesome experience. Where Shadows Slumber will hopefully be commercially available by GDC 2018 so the timing should be perfect… but you know what they say about plans.

 

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Were you at GDC 2017? Tell us about your experience in the comments below! You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly with any questions or feedback at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.