A couple of weeks ago, we attended the East Coast Game Conference in Raleigh, NC. This was our first time running a booth at a show, and we learned a lot. We were showing our in-progress game Exploit: Zero Day—running demos of the tutorial cluster and signing people up for our mailing list, which is where you can get an access key for our closed alpha test!
Above, you can see a short video of us setting up for day three. By this time we'd gotten a good feel for how things would go. Here are some of the things Melissa and I learned!
Shows are tiring.
We were socially "on" for almost three days straight. It's tiring for anyone, and especially so for folks that don't normally feel too extroverted. We were usually standing and scanning passersby for folks who seemed interested. We welcomed them and gave a basic introduction to what the game was about. We weren't working from a script, but we were saying most of the same words over and over. We paid attention to the folks who chose to try the game, helped them if they got stuck, and then did it all over again.
Even with an anti-fatigue mat set up behind the booth, we were tired and our legs were sore by the end of the first half-day. Some other people showing at the expo attended parties in the evenings, but I'm glad we chose to get rest instead. We had some nice, chill meals and ended up less exhausted than we might have if we'd braved noisy, busy parties.
People love buttons.
We used the excellent Indie Boothcraft site as a guide to setting up, and we're very glad we did. They have all sorts of checklists for supplies and links to promo materials. One thing they mention is that "Buttons are sure winners," and they're right.
We had 1.25" buttons made at Pure Buttons, and they were great. Buttons with simple graphics and a matte finish look really classy, and they hopefully will serve as a reminder of our work for attendees. We printed our website URLs and some info near the edges of the buttons; it turned out well, but a 12px font at 300dpi proved a bit small to read without magnification. If we print another batch we'll definitely make the text a bit larger.
People notice rough edges but don't always comment on them.
If we'd only listened to verbal feedback, we would have missed out on a lot of important learning opportunities at the show. Observing players at shows can be a cheap way of doing usability testing, especially when the booth is relatively inexpensive and you can drive to a show.
We were able to observe various stumbling points that we never noticed due to our familiarity with the game. Nearly universally, new players had trouble figuring out how to navigate back to the cluster grid after finishing a puzzle. Certain user interface elements were too small to reliably click. Certain lessons that the tutorial was supposed to share could be missed by an inattentive player. None of these were issues that players complained about, but by watching their behavior we knew that there were problems we could fix.
We've already fixed some of these issues, and more improvements will happen over the coming weeks and months.
Our tutorial is well-designed.
Despite some minor issues mentioned above, our tutorial is pretty darn good. People found it fun, even if they were skeptical of the slow start; it was paced well enough to hold most folks' attention. Even folks who were initially intimidated at the scope of the more complicated puzzles were able to make it through the tutorial and solve a decently big puzzle by the end just based on what they'd learned.
Our game was appealing.
We were unsure how much time people would actually want to spend with a game at a show, but folks were perfectly willing to take several minutes to play through a well-paced demonstration. It especially helped that we have two big hooks for passersby: interesting puzzles and cool story. Some people were attracted by the idea of a puzzle game and the neon look of our puzzle grids, while others latched on to the word "cyberpunk" and the idea of roleplaying as a hacktivist. It was really rewarding to see people respond well to the cool parts of our game.
Shows are fun, but tiring. They're useful in a number of ways and in the end we had around a hundred people sign up to hear more about the game. Even if only a fraction of those go through with playing, they should still provide us with valuable info and feedback as we prepare to open up our alpha test.
Exploit: Zero Day is a cyberthriller with living story where you roleplay as a hacktivist by solving and making puzzles. If you're seeing this but don't have Alpha access to the game yet, join the mailing list for a key when we send this month's newsletter. If you're a streamer, YouTuber, or member of the press, request keys from distribute().