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Showcase Season Retrospective: Wildfire Swap at SIX & XOXO 2019

September 30, 2019

24 min read

Its been a wild couple months of showcasing and preparing to showcase my game, Wildfire Swap. I wanted to take some time to reflect on this experience of showcasing my first commercial project. Hopefully there's some insight other folks can gain from this.

This post is a long one already so I won't have much space to go into depth on any one topic. If there are sections of this post that interest you, please let me know so I can figure out what is worth covering in more detail in follow up posts!

Here are the main sections in case you want to jump to a specific one:

#Preparations

There is a lot of work that goes into preparing to showcase your game at a convention, and making the game is only one part of it. My preparations fell into a few different main categories of work:

  • Product Development - actually making the video game
  • Application Processes - applying to showcase events
  • Marketing/Outreach - letting people know the game exists
  • Showcase Logistics - getting the game to the showcase

I used the site Indie Booth Craft liberally during my preparation process and it was incredibly helpful. I absolutely recommend checking it out!

#Product Development

This is the category of work surrounding actually building Wildfire Swap, and getting it into a demo-able state. I got into games by starting to program them myself, so I'm guilty of spending too much of my time in this area.

Milestones

The first thing I found valuable in this area was setting multiple milestones leading up to my showcase events. These milestones described the number of features and levels I planned to have accomplished at what dates.

Each milestone required that I would have a specific playable build with a specific number of worlds, levels per world, and mechanics per world. Additionally, milestones would call out specific bugs or UI elements or other features that needed to get created.

Having this plan written down allowed me to focus and get things done in the weeks leading up to my showcase.

Feedback

During my preparations, I found feedback gathering to be the most important part of my build cycle. We gathered feedback in three main ways:

  1. Existing local developer events I brought builds of my game to local indie game events put on by PIGSquad. This was useful to watch how people interacted with the game. However, play throughs could not be as in depth since we were at in person events.
  2. Mailing list builds I sent builds of Wildfire Swap out to my mailing list. It was particularly helpful to watch streamers play through the game in person, or to see folks' gameplay recording. I also got a good number of feature requests and bug reports through direct messages.
  3. Host my own feedback centric event Finally, I hosted my own local event, a Feedback Night. This was super worth it and got folks together for the express purpose of play-testing each others games. This event had the bonus of being valuable for other participants too!

Repeat

The final step in my build cycle was to use the feedback I received through these various channels to reorganize and update my milestones.

One example of a milestone change in response to feedback was the addition of an Undo Move button. After my first play test build, tons of people asked for an undo button. For my second milestone, I removed the planned addition of a new mechanic and put this button in instead.

Then, I started working towards hitting that next milestone!

#Application Processes

Applying to show at events was a surprisingly straightforward process. However, every application I did required several pieces of information and some set up. Not all of them required every one of these, but most of it was necessary at some point.

Website

Every application I went in for required a link to the website of your game. This doesn't seem like it needed to be super complicated. I looked at a few other folk's games to get an idea of what this should be made of. Plenty of folks just linked to a Steam page or their own personal portfolio page for the game.

The minimum content needed for a game page was some sort of screenshot or key art, a short description of the game, and some call to action. The site I put together is live at wildfire.fun. My call to action at the time of writing this is "Be the first to know when beta access opens!" next to an email subscription box.

Trailer

A short trailer was required by most applications. They generally seemed to prefer a gameplay trailer or something of substance rather than a teaser style trailer. I didn't try a teaser trailer, that may've worked too though.

I commissioned a friend, Alden Roth, who does video editing professionally for this. I recorded my own gameplay, put together a rough cut in iMovie, and wrote the copy. This made it easier for Alden to put my video together in less time and for less money.

Screenshots

I record a lot of short GIFs for sharing my development on Twitter. These came in handy to put in my applications (and on my website). The GIFs focused on showing interesting slices of gameplay so judges could quickly understand what Wildfire was about.

Copy

Every application required at least one brief catchy description of your game. These were usually in the 100-250 word range. I think paid off to spend a bit of time refining this as it was also useful on my website.

I wrote two different descriptions of Wildfire Swap.

The first is a one liner designed to grab attention:

Protect people's homes from raging forest fires by tile-swapping your way out of tricky puzzles in Wildfire Swap.

The second is longer, less punchy, but more descriptive explanation of the game:

Wildfire Swap is a puzzle game where you're presented with a grid of houses, trees, and fires. Each turn you're allowed to swap two adjacent tiles with each other to try and move the houses to a safe position.

However, every time you make a swap, all of the fires on the map spread to nearby flammable tiles. Your goal is to create a fire break of cleared land between all the houses in a level and the surrounding flames.

Money :-(

Finally, most applications did require some amount of money. I am fortunate enough to be in the position of having a full time day job that let me spend some money applying. Some conventions are much more affordable than others, be on the look out for more affordable events!

#Marketing/Outreach

This is one of the areas that I did the worst in and would really like to improve in the future. In the future I think it would be worth spending more time reaching out to the various press and publishers attending the events.

There are a few things that I did do in this area that I think went fairly well.

Presskit

I created a presskit page on the Wildfire Swap website with more information about the game. It contains information like target platforms, release dates, credits and more. A lot of this is information that I needed when submitting my applications, but its all in once place now.

Mailing List

Earlier on in the year I put together a mailing list where I send out a monthly update on my progress with Wildfire. Additionally, I will send out demo and early access builds of the game to people subscribed to this list.

It has been helpful to be able to direct people to this list as a way of keeping in touch with them after out initial interaction.

I'm not sure that this resulted in driving any traffic to my booths, but it was definitely a useful tool for sending folks that wound up at my booth.

I put the mailing list together using MailChimp.

Shout Out Posts

One small attempt at marketing I did was to comb through all the indie events listed on the PAX West website. I looked for every puzzle game I could find and aggregated them all into a blog post on my site.

I tweeted this out a few times and managed to get a bit of attention from folks outside of my normal circles, but it wasn't a resounding viral success or anything. I think a more detailed post, written earlier, with more effort could pay off next time.

I also noticed the developer from Roundguard tweeted out a list of the other Roguelike games in Indie Mega Booth. I liked this strategy because it helped build awareness for folks interested in that genre but also came with the benefit of tagging other developers.

#Showcase Logistics

The most expensive bit of attending conventions seemed to be travel, lodging, and supplies. I borrowed heavily from Indie Booth Craft for this section of my planning.

Booth Supplies

I tried to figure out what the minimum amount of stuff I could purchase for this event while still having my booth look halfway decent. Below is the list of stuff I brought in my backpack and carry on suitcase.

Reused from my home

  • mouse
  • headphones
  • my personal development laptop

Ordered Online

  • table cloth → cheap, flashy flaming table cloth meant for a 10 year old's birthday party

Bought around town for the event

  • Clorox wipes → sanitize mouse and headset between plays
  • clip board → for holding my mailing list
  • Pen
  • 8.5x11 plastic displays → Office Depot

Printed at local Fedex

  • 10x Mailing list forms
  • 2x Informational 8.5x11
  • 1x Promotional key art 8.5x11
  • 100x business cards → not enough

Borrowed from the venue

  • 2x Monitors
  • Mouse
  • Headphones

Travel & Lodging

  • Studio apartment with couch on AirBnb to share between me and my Wildfire Swap partner, Drew Gingerich. This was the biggest expensive of the whole weekend by far, event after splitting the costs!
  • Bolt Bus ride from Portland to Seattle and back again. Take the bus if you can! This was so much more affordable than flying or finding parking.

Help running the booth

Organizing to have my friend Drew come up with me was a great last minute idea. He'd also recently joined the team to help with level design so it made sense to have him come up and represent the game.

Splitting the cost of the AirBnb was super helpful financially.

But it really paid off incredibly well for running the booth at SIX too. Having two of us at the event allowed for us to entertain twice as many people at our booth. There was enough volume there that we were rarely both talking to the same group of folks at the booth.

Both of us being there allowed one of us to take the time to have a deeper conversation with interested players while the other was still welcoming newcomers.

Additionally, it was painless for us to go on breaks without needing to bug the event staff to watch the booth for us.

#Seattle Indies Expo

The Seattle Indies Expo (SIX) is an event put on by the Seattle Indies group to showcase Pacific Northwest indie games. It was a great opportunity to showcase Wildfire Swap to loads of new people during the PAX West weekend.

It cost six dollars to apply to SIX and sixty-six to showcase your game there when selected. This makes it probably the lowest costed event in the area during PAX West.

My experience showing Wildfire Swap at SIX was amazing! We got way more traffic than I expected we would. We had two stations running the game all night and they were filled almost the entire event. Additionally, we were almost always talking to at least one more person who wasn't playing. Frequently, we had short lines of folks waiting to play or watching other people play.

Also, the event was held in a very large, carpeted hotel conference. This had the unexpected benefit of being of making it possible to hold a conversation with people and not needing to shout at them.

#Minibooth & SIX

I talked to a few exhibitors at SIX who showcased their games with the Indie Megabooth's Minibooth as well. The Minibooth has two rotations of games throughout the weekend. One set of games is there only Friday and Saturday. This meant those folks would be free to also show their games at SIX on Sunday. This seemed like a good way for smaller indies to show their games at more events.

#Mailing List

Having a mailing list was a great way to get people to stay in touch. It was super helpful after we ran out of business cards too and had no other way of maintaining contact. Additionally, as of the time of writing (9/28/19), we've only had 16 people join the mailing list via our website but we gave out just shy of 100 business cards. However, we collected 41 email addresses at SIX and another 17 at XOXO.

Having folks write down their emails was great and provided a low cost solution to get way more folks. The issue with this method showed itself when it was time for me to enter these emails into my mailing list. After sending my newsletter 5 of the emails bounced.

I got two different suggestions for remedying this at future events. One is to print out a gridded email form, similar to what you would find on a government form at the DMV. The second, more costly option would be to use a digital tablet for email address collection.

#Steam Page

The SIX event was sponsored in part by Valve this year. That had an unexpected benefit of all of the games at the event being listed on Steam's home page for a day. Unfortunately, I did not have a page ready for Wildfire Swap at the time.

I think directing folks to wishlist on Steam during the event might also have a higher conversion rate than trying to collect peoples' emails.

#SIX Stats

Business cards handed out: 90. We ran out of these pretty early on in the event. We should get more next time! Also, some business cards from other folks I saw had a screenshot of the game on it. Seems like a good idea for jogging memories!

Level 1 of my demo was completed: 104 times. This is my proxy for the number of players who played the game. For every player doing this, there were another couple who watched and then didn't play themselves.

Final level completed: 82 times. Roughly 80% of the players who played the demo made it to the end of the event. This means we have some fine tuning of the demo to do to get people through it smoothly. But still a pretty good number!

Emails collected on sign up sheet: 41. The number of folks signing up increased after we ran out of business cards!

Email signups on wildfire.fun before next event: 6. After this point, its impossible to distinguish which email sign ups were driven by SIX or XOXO.

Views on wildfire.fun before next event: 44. This is from the time frame of Friday PAX weekend to the next Friday. XOXO started that Friday, so I can't be sure which event contributed how many views.

#Other PAX West Stuff

I also wanted to take this opportunity to briefly reflect on the rest of my PAX West experience. This is the first time I attended a PAX event as someone actively working on a commercial title. I was not interested in waiting for hours to play AAA titles, but I found the weekend valuable for meeting other indie developers and learning from them.

#Media Indie Exchange (MIX)

The MIX was a neat event where upcoming indie games could showcase at an event after the PAX main show. It was way more spacious and had more of a laid back "party" vibe than the main events. This made it a much nicer place to get to know other people attending or showing at the event.

This seemed like it would be a good next step style target on the plan for growing as an indie dev. This venue seemed like it would draw more press type folks and content creators looking to discover new indie titles.

The titles at MIX all met a certain tier of graphical polish and style that Wildfire Swap does not reach. The titles there did not only have high quality of art, but were also stylized in memorable and distinctive ways.

Wildfire Swap was intentionally designed with my artistic limitations in mind. It makes the most of my talents, but to get a game into this event I imagine it will require working with an artist. Ideally, that artist would not just be technically proficient, but also bring a distinctive art style to the project.

#Indie Megabooth (IMB)

The IMB is a group that reserves a large space on the main PAX floor and sells small slots to various indie game titles. This lets much smaller indie titles that would never be able to showcase at PAX otherwise get a chance to share their games.

This year at PAX West I helped out as an Indie Megabooth volunteer. They open applications sometime leading up to PAX and then you might be chosen to help out. Throughout PAX weekend I did a three hour shift three times and I helped set up the Megabooth space.

In exchange for that volunteer work, I received an exhibitors pass to PAX West and I got to meet with and chat to many of the devs at IMB. Since I didn't know many people at PAX it was very helpful to start the event meeting several nice and interesting folks.

This chatting with devs was especially instructional when I took time to chat with other devs making puzzle games. I learned a lot of neat tricks that helped me with my own development and showcasing for Wildfire Swap.

#6th Floor Indies?

Apparently, there were also a bunch of indie developers with their own booths and the PAX 10 up and coming indie games on the 6th floor of the expo hall. Unfortunately, I spent the majority of my time in the Megabooth section and totally missed all of this. Next year I want to be sure to head upstairs!

#XOXO Festival

I've not been to a lot of festivals or conventions but XOXO has been the hardest one to explain thus far. To start the explanation I've copied the description from their site, "XOXO is an experimental festival for independent artists who live and work online." In practice it was a collection of a lot of different events over a weekend. There were social meetups, an arcade, talks, live podcasts, and more.

The highlight of this event for me was meeting new people. I talked to folks from gaming at this event, but also people who make websites, do physical art, write stories and more.

#XOXO Arcade

One of the events during the weekend was the XOXO Arcade. I showed Wildfire Swap here with the PIGSquad Showcase, a collection of Portland based indie games. There were also other cool indie games that were there on their own right and not as PIGSquad games.

This event allowed me to show Wildfire Swap to an audience of people that was much less games focused than the crowd at PAX.

This was super interesting, because it allowed me to discover areas where my game assumed players knew gamer specific metaphors. One example of this is the Super Mario inspired world map currently in Wildfire Swap. Folks at this event did not always understand this was meant to be a level selector. In the future, we're planning to tutorialize this much better!

A downside of this less games focused audience was that it was harder to know how many people checking out the game are likely to be interested in playing later. I got fewer email signups here and ran into more folks that weren't super interested. I'm sure a big part of the reduced sign ups was due to this being a smaller event (PAX is huge!).

#Game-makers social meetup

Another event that was neat and gaming focused was the game-makers social meetup. I met a lot of other neat people that make indie games. The attendees to this event were generally more like myself. They didn't have as much experience with the business and showcasing side of things. We did have a lot of great conversations about weird games we made and other neat design topics. There were definitely some experienced folks there though that I should have spent some more time getting to know!

#Plan ahead to meet more people

This is another place where it would've been a great idea for me to reach out to cool people ahead of the event. XOXO in general would've been that much more awesome if I made plans with people I know online to meetup in person.

I met up with a few people I follow online and it was super awesome to get to know them better and make a deeper connection with people.

#Booth supplies

For this event I reused everything I purchased for my SIX showcase. However, I did purchase 250 Wildfire Swap logo stickers. These had my same business card information on the reverse side, but were also stickers! Neat!

#XOXO Stats

Business stickers given out: Around 65. I still have over 100 left and don't want to count them all! Next time I will count them as I'm setting them out!

Level 1 completed: 48 times. This event was not nearly as large, so there were many fewer folks watching while others played. Additionally, I only had one station at this event so that probably cut down on player count. Most times, I did not feel like I would've been able to fill 2 stations though.

Final level completed: 28 times. Only around 50% of players made it to the end of the demo. I noticed this in person at the event, but the data confirms it. XOXO is not only a gaming event, so a lot of the folks I met weren't as interested in finishing Wildfire Swap.

Emails collected on sign up sheet: 17. This felt like a decent number of sign ups at the time. Given the percentage of folks that were into games and the smaller nature of the event. Additionally, we didn't run out of stickers so there were other options.

Email signups on wildfire.fun since XOXO until today (9/28/19): 10. Its impossible to know if these were driven by SIX or XOXO! Next time I might try advertising a sign up page like wildfire.fun/xoxo to get some of this info.

Views on wildfire.fun before next event (9/28/19): 18. I think this indicates a lot smaller amount of interest. Wildfire Swap was not linked in any official capacity on the XOXO website though where it was at SIX. The other thing of note is that of 18 website views, 10 did convert to email subscribers. So a much higher ratio of success on that front!

#XOXO Verdict

Being located in Portland, I didn't have to travel to attend XOXO. This coupled with meeting cool people, showing Wildfire to more folks, and learning new things was great. So from my perspective this was still a great event to attend and showcase at.

#General Showcasing Takeaways

After my first round of showcasing, I feel like I've learned a million little things. Here are some more topics that didn't really fit in any particular category above!

#Puzzle games are hard to showcase

Puzzle games are hard to showcase! Make a demo world. Your goal is to have people leaving your game on your terms and feeling smart. Don't let them leave when they get frustrated and are feeling dumb because they couldn't beat a level. Headphones can help people get into a puzzlier mood at a convention so they can tune out some of the noise.

#Demo build fine tuning

We updated our demo world at the last minute to be a flashy slice of all Wildfire Swap's mechanics instead of just starting players at World 1. This had the benefit of showing off the game's depth without stumping people part way through.

We also added a message to the victory screen of the demo build:

If there's no one waiting, check out these challenge levels

This was great because it allowed more veteran puzzlers to learn that we do have challenging levels and mechanics in store. Also it gave people a nice reward for beating the game.

One thing I would add next time that I saw on a lot of others' demo builds was an email address collection form. Putting this in the final screen of your demo would probably greatly increase the number of sign ups you collected. Plus you'd probably typo them less!

#Timers

We added a reset timer to Wildfire Swap for the demo build, and it was a great addition. After 30 seconds where the player has not clicked at all we launch a pop up that says "click me to keep playing". If there is no click after 15 seconds we reset the game.

We never saw this catch someone by accident and make them lose their progress. I also only rarely saw it pop up at all during the demo when folks were paying attention and only playing the game.

This was great because it allowed both of us to leave the booth unattended for a bit. When we came back folks were still playing at both stations!

#What to do for your spiel?

Over the course of SIX we went through many iterations of how we addressed newcomers to the booth. My primary opener was "Do you like puzzle games?".

If they engaged with me then I would ask "Do you just want to watch or hear more about the game?". Engagement did not just mean they literally answered me. Sometimes it was very clear by the response to my initial question that people just wanted to be left alone.

Finally, as people finished playing the game I would ask the next in line folks if they wanted to play next. Sometimes there were enough people between Drew and I that we weren't always sure who was next up though.

#Make plans to meet people!

A big takeaway after both of these events was the need to take some more time beforehand to reach out to other attendees. The few people I did make contact with prior to the event and meet with were awesome. It was super cool to see people in person I wanted to chat with and helped make the events more comfortable for me. Additionally, I learned a ton by having conversations with these people, which was great!

#Crash recovery

We had a crash occur a few times during the conventions. I wasn't able to restore those player's progress because I had disabled saving for the demo. Everyone was understanding, but it would've been nicer to let them finish I think.

Taking some time to create an "unlock" mode or some kind of cheat codes might be a good idea to allow crashed players to recover.

#Game name

My game was called Wildfire at the time of these events. It was a nice evocative name, and I liked it for its simplicity! However, it was also a very common word and not super descriptive of what the game is about.

Several people took a bit to understand what was happening when they started watching the game during someone else's play session. They thought their goal was to burn houses, not save them.

Additionally, I've found out since then that another, more popular game was already in development and also called Wildfire. Due to this and the fact that my game has been confused with this game a few times already, I've renamed my game "Wildfire Swap".

#Thanks for making it this far!

I hope some of this retrospective was helpful and/or interesting. Please let me know if you have any questions about this brain dump! I would love to do shorter and more focused follow up posts on any of these topics.