A PAX Roundup

When exhibiting at something like PAX, you need to think about what exactly you’re trying to get out of it. Where your game is finished and available for sale already, your “Call to action” at PAX would be for people to buy your game. Black Annex isn’t finished yet, it isn’t even in beta and there’s no publicly available demo for people to play, so what is the “Call to action” for attendees who saw Black Annex at PAXAus? Three things, in order of priority (this doesn’t include vague things like “Get excited about Black Annex! Tell your friends!”, these are measurable things).

  • Follow @manfightdragon on Twitter
  • Vote for Black Annex on Steam Greenlight
  • Visit blackannex.net

For media at PAX, the call to action was:

  • Write something about Black Annex on the internet.

So lets talk about how I expressed these calls to action to the people I met at PAX (or communicated with online before/during/after PAX), and what kind of result it all had.

The first thing I had to do was prepare media for Black Annex at PAX. I wrote about 190 emails individually to media people who were granted media passes to PAXAus. For every person I emailed, I made sure I already knew a little about them. Do they follow me on twitter already? Do they follow me back already? Have I talked to them before? Have they written about me online before? What kind of stuff do they write about online? etc.

I build a huge spreadsheet of all this information in one place, and spent about three days (one month prior to PAXAus) writing all the emails up. I asked Mark Serrels (Kotaku Australia) for some opinion on how/when to send emails to press. Among the advice he gave, he also published an article on KotakuAU (which I think aggregated to Kotaku US maybe?) where he mentioned the insane effort I had put into press contact. You’ll notice the effect this article had on my Greenlight stats later in this post.

The emails I sent all were about 2 paragraphs long. Here is an example of one I sent:

“Hey, Dave! It’s Lance here (@manfightdragon on twitter, guy making Black Annex, http://www.blackannex.net, don’t act like you don’t know me). Anyway, you’ll be at PAXAus, yeah? I’m in the “Indie showcase” there, at booth 2330 specifically (theres a map app thing here: https://itunes.apple.com/au/app/pax-aus-2013/id657630506?mt=8 ) . If you don’t come say “Hi” to me at some point, I’ll be a big sad baby forever because I am literally a child.

So yeah, I better catch you there at some point!
(I’m also on the indie showcase panel at 8:30PM on Friday but that’s boring you don’t have to do that)”
Now, Dave already followed me on twitter, and we had talked in the past and he had DMed me his email address, so I didn’t need to mention twitter to him as we already have a relationship there. But, almost every email I wrote to press that day ended with:
“(PS. tweet me maybe, @manfightdragon)”
post email twittersSo I wanted three things from this exercise. Email replies saying “I will come say hi!”, people to actually come and say “hi!”, and people to follow me on twitter. The most immediate result was twitter follows (emails were sent on the 24th, you can see an immediate spike followed by steady growth.). About 80% of email I emailed replied, and about 90% were “Yeah, I’ll come see you!”. I had a short dialogue with everyone who replied.
So that was the main action I took to prepare for PAXAus. I hadn’t updated this website since getting back from E3, as it’s not really a marketing tool in any way at all.
So lets look at what happened during, and just after PAX in any measurable way I can so far.
The Press: The most immediate press results were in the form of tweets, here’s most of the ones I can find that happened during PAX (or just after):

Articles went online starting from the first day, and are still continuing now. Here’s a few I’ve seen so far:
There’s a few others floating around, but Google Alerts is probably the most awful way to try to track this kind of thing, so I can’t pull up a list of them easily right now. A huge part of the press result was meeting so many people, and I’m not in a lot of discussions in regards to further marketing opportunities, so this will span a fairly large time-frame.

pax twitersTwitter: At the booth, we had mints with our twitter handles written on them, and I had business cards with my twitter name. The mint trays also had little tags sticking out of them with @manfightdragon written on them. Twitter followers are probably one of the best things to get out of something like PAX, because they’re people who care about you, or your game, and they’ll help promote it for you. If you say something interesting, they’ll hopefully retweet it and spread it around super-fast. Twitter followers, for me personally, is the most valuable thing to have in promotion. Other people might be better that harnessing Facebook or Google+ but I can’t get my head around how to use those effectively. So, overall, a great result in twitter followers. I was telling a lot of people face-to-face, on camera, or on the panel “Follow me on twitter”. I wasn’t giving anyone my email address or any other way to contact me.

pax greenlightGreenlight: Okay, let’s talk about Greenlight for a bit. Everyone wants to talk about Greenlight, right? Well. PAXAus was, easily, the biggest Greenlight spike I’ve had in a while. It’s not as big as a fantastic RPS article, or getting a storm of KotakuUSA+PCGamer in one day, but it was still really REALLY good. Also, just out of interest, notice how a KotakuAU (And I think it went on KotakuUS at the same time) article gets more visitors (yellow) but less “Yes” votes (green). Where as an article on RockPaperShotgun gets less visitors, but the traffic you do get are more likely to vote “Yes”. Target your marketing!

Ahem, anyway. Yeah, so PAX had a great result, partially because a KotakuAU article went up on Day 1, but also because one of my big “Call to action”s for visitors was to go to Blackannex.net, which has a big Greenlight button on it. Greenlight doesn’t tell you exactly where people are coming from who see your campaign, so it’s hard to get a result on that kind of thing. I’m interested to see how Greenlight fares as a few more articles go up over time in the post-PAX period, and which spikes I’ll be able to correlate to what events.

So yeah, PAX was a big marketing success. Now I have to actually make a game, I guess…

Let’s talk about PAX, baby.

I spent the entire last two months preparing for E3, which was an awesome lead-up to readying Black Annex for PAXAus.

Knowing that Black Annex would be playable by the general public at PAXAus in a massive booth, I took a very rough build to E3 and let about ten people play it there with no guidance (I just silently stood behind them to find out what guidance I need to build into the game and get it ready for PAX).

E3 was great. It was super fun and absolutely massive, I met some amazing people there. I spent time talking to Joystiq, RockPaperShotgun, GhostRobo, Fullscreen Arcade, BeefJack, and Random Assault Podcast. Among all that, I also got a chance to just explore E3, see lots of awesome games, and also be amazed by my first time in the USA.

BPR5pMvCYAAKHp_But that was all to prepare for PAXAus. So I made a single mission for Black Annex that was *fairly* hard, but also do-able with a few brute-force attempts, and built a short (somewhat confusing) tutorial into the start of the game. I had a team of five people including myself to help run the booth (@manfightdragon, @honeycommbe, @urbanneurosis, @takorii, and @davomagnifico). I had sent out about 200 emails a month before PAX, each individually written and catered to each person inviting them to stop by the booth and meet me to check out Black Annex. I was fully booked all 3 days to be in interviews, so I knew I’d need people at the booth the whole time for me.

IMG_1386In the lead-up to PAXAus, while I was preparing the demo and talking to media, @honeycommbe was preparing the booth. We would have a trestle table with two desktop PCs (actually an iMac and a laptop hooked into a KVM), and one press-only demo unit (a laptop on a bar table). We also had a small cabinet, and five seats. We brought two A1 posters with our own art, three rice-bubbles boxes that we put printed sheets over to create fake “Big box” Black Annex retail boxes, glass jars filled with mints which we had written our twitter handles on (using food dye), about 1500 button/pins, of which there were 6 different styles in two fishbowls at the booth. We also brought business cards in holders.

IMG_1396We packed a car and drove to PAXAus. I arrived Wednesday in the expo hall (PAX begins Friday). I took all the bulky items in and set them up. I wasn’t allowed to hook up the electrics until they’d been “Tagged”. I ran into Jerry (from Penny Arcade Co.) and got a very excited photo with him after giving him a run-through of Black Annex. I left things for the night and got some sleep.

The next morning, I wandered back into the expo hall, still with one day to go before the actual show, hooked all the electronics up and made sure everything was sound. After a lot of work, preparation and meditation, we were ready for the media and the public to come and play Black Annex for the first time. (Sidenote: I’m pretty sure the entire “we have to test and tag your cables!” thing never happened). I didn’t want to leave, but I had a VIP event to go to where press people would be mulling around, so we headed over there.

IMG_1411The next morning we arrived about two hours before the media would be allowed in (which happens one hour before the public are allowed in). We chatted with other exhibitors, and waited. I expected a huge flood of media to enter, but it was only a very small group of people scattered around. All the media people who came by in the first hour knew who I was, and a few sat down to play Black Annex and have a chat. They all seemed fairly happy.

IMG_1439Eventually, time passed and the public came in. The public was a massive crowd, and after about 30 minutes, the Black Annex booth was absolutely packed with lines for both demo units. It stayed that way for the entire expo. People found game-breaking bugs and we realized that we needed to manually re-start the game every time people walked away from it (when the public sit down to play a demo game, they don’t esc->new game, they just start playing.). The response was fantastic, most of all from the press-people who wandered by. There was a huge mix of people who had heard of the game, and people who had no idea what it was. I spent all my time between booked interviews and ad-hoc interviews. There wasn’t really any down-time at all. Having five people at the booth was definitely necessary.

IMG_1452So I took an alpha build of Black Annex to PAXAus as one of six people chosen to be in the indie showcase. I had an enormously positive response from the media and the public. I got to meet a lot of new media I’d never met before, and got to finally get face-to-face with many I already knew well.

It was an immensely important event for Black Annex, and it’s caused a massive boost for the game’s position online now. I’ll be pushing out a lot more information about “What PAX meant for Black Annex” over the course of this month and as time goes on. There’s a lot to be said, and I’m really glad it’s all done now.

March to PAXAus – Finale: You have been judged…

greenlightI didn’t really make it clear what I was doing in March, I just just smashing out updates every day to try to create a cohesive, playable game out of the pre-alpha version of BA Project. The reason for this was that the deadline for submitting a playable demo to the judges at PAXAus was April 10th and I really wanted to try to get something into their hands that actually “worked”.

So I spent the entire month of March smashing through as many critical features that the game needed to actually work as a whole. With that done, I hit the Alpha milestone and announced Black Annex. Around April 7th I sent the most bleeding edge build into the PAX judges after about 30mins of playtesting and two last-second fixes. (The final playtesting is shown in the video below, recorded around 3am).

For a little fun, I built a gimmicky custom intro into the PAX build which makes it appear that you’ve launched a DOS command prompt when you run the game. It just dumps you into a DOS window reading: “C:\GAMES\BLACKA~1>”, slowly, the commend prompt types out “annex.exe /paxmode”, a fake DOS/4GW runtime starts, and then a warning saying “YOU ARE SEEING THIS SCREEN BECAUSE BLACK ANNEX WAS LAUNCHED IN ‘PAX MODE’”. The moment the player pressed a key on the keyboard, the entire computer screen instantly goes black and the demo starts.

The demo had an utterly broken Main Menu that liked to randomly drop in and out if you clicked “Begin Game” too quickly, the Options menu didn’t work, and sometimes the “BLACK ANNEX” logo itself would just disappear. The only instruction given to the player was a loading-screen hint reading “Left click to make your agents walk to a location, double-click to run.”. There were five “playable” levels, but all of them were either uncompletable due to being massively unbalanced, or completed within 10 seconds of the level starting because the mission objective was way too simple. The minigun was completely broken, if you stacked three weapon abilities none of them worked, nothing made sense. The mouse cursor was an uncontrollable wreck plagued by a bug that I’ve only now fixed two weeks later and the “Mission Deploy” screen would just randomly close sometimes as soon as it opened. Loading took up to twenty seconds per level and the game ran at about 40fps on a computer made one year ago.

I can not stress enough how little sense this game made in the demo. You were dumped into a game with way too many mechanics, none of which were explained to the player and most of which barely functioned correctly anyway and expected to find, as the PAXAus submission form said “fun factor and a great gameplay experience.”.

As the creator of Black Annex, all I see when I play it is a mess of systems interacting with a bunch of unintended things happening all over the place.

The judges at PAXAus didn’t see the same thing I see. They sent me an email to let me know.

ais logo mediumSo now, me and five other Australian developers are going to be part of the Australian Indie Showcase at PAXAustralia 2013. We get to do a panel! So come to PAX and ask me about making a game or something.

Year two, day one or: Introducing…

One year ago today I sat down in front of a blank QBASIC document having gotten sick of working on a 2D adventure-game engine for DOS which had constantly run into memory limitations. I made an isometric tile editor, a sprite editor, a spritesheet builder, and a little game engine that put them all together and made them move around. Then I made a post  on this website about it to show it off.

Lots of people found my work really interesting and paid lots of attention to what I wrote every few days about my adventures in a struggle to make a game in QBASIC. Many months later I visited a site called reddit.com for the first time, made a post there called “I’m making a game in QBASIC”, and showed people some screenshots of it. I thought everyone would think it was a really stupid idea, but lots of people really encouraged me to keep working hard and had lots of positive things to say about the work I had done so far.

Since then, people talk to me about my game and ask me for updates. Sometimes a person knows who I am even though I’ve never interacted with them. I even got mentioned on a real video game website! People who I care about actually follow me on twitter and they listen to what I have to say. Hundreds of people talk to me and online and actually sit down to read the often nonsensical things I write on this website just to keep up with what I’m struggling through at the time to keep working on making a game in such a limited environment.

It’s been a year of nights staying up until 3am with 9am starts the next morning. A year of missing time at the gym because a door keeps randomly opening the third time you visit a certain level. A year of missing time with my wife and daughters because half the chair legs on all the desks are the wrong shade of grey and tomorrow is screenshotsaturday.

But most of all, it’s been a year of amazing encouragement from a huge online community of people who really actually care about the effort I’m putting into making a game that they might get to play some day.

I’d like to show you a game I’ve been making; I’d like to show you Black Annex.

March to PAXAus – Day 27: A UI Grind

Overhauling the UI elements is a really tedious task of constantly adjusting values by tiny amounts, recompiling and testing it in-game. It takes hours to just relocate a bunch of icons and make them draggable.

grinding on the UII’ve got the “Available Staff” window and the “Current Solution” window where I want them to be now as far as the Beta product goes. The Abilities menu is really taking a long time as I need to make a sensible and easy-to-understand way to explain to the player that they’ve got two classes of agents and two sets of abilities that need to be assigned accordingly.

At the moment it’s a total mess, but it always is when it’s halfway finished. It’s function, but just horribly ugly. Still a ton of work to do.

Oh, I also fixed a bug. It turned out that if you removed all your agents from the current solution, you were totally unable to add any new ones to the list. That had me stumped for a good hour or two.

March to PAXAus – Day 26: A Little Class

I sat down with Photoshop and made some little icons to denote character “Class”. The game has two classes of (playable) characters. Enforcers and Deceivers. They each do a different thing when you right-click (enforcers fire a gun, deceivers throw a distraction) and they each have unique abilities that they have access to. Anyway, there was a real lack of persons screenindication in the game regarding which agents where of which class, so I’ve beefed up the “Solution” window to show a tiny icon regarding each class, and I’ve added a bunch more information to the “Persons” window for when you’re actually building up your team.

I’ve pretty much got the “Persons” screen to where it needs to be to ship the beta at the moment; it still has some bugs where you click on a certain areas, but nothing that actually breaks, it’s just a little animation glitch. It seems to deliver the info you need to know and it’s fairly easy to drag the icons around and assign agents to your solution.

I’ve got to really overhaul the “Abilities” screen next because it’s a barely usable mess as far as design goes. It’s feature-complete but it’s just confusing and barely explains what you’re doing. The whole UI needs a fair bit of work really.

March to PAXAus – Day 25: Movement

Only a few little changes today with some tweaks to the hub area map layout and a big of messing around with the camera. It has a very very slight jitter because it’s locked to the isometric shaped tiles (it moves along the X axis two pixels at a time and the Y axis one pixel at a time) and I fiddled around with some logic to try to get around that without much luck.

lots of little adjustmentsAfter that slight failure, I sat down and just played one of the campaigns a few times over and fiddled with the controls a little. It was kinda confusing when you’d click on some tiles and your agent wouldn’t move there because it had something blocking that tile. I fixed that, now the agent just walks up-to the tile and bumps into it; I don’t know why I thought the alternative would have ever been remotely acceptable.

Fixed two bugs as well today. HAYWIRE! was infinitely overpowered when used on PCs instead of actually taking into account your ability level, and creatures remembered which doors were locked and unlocked even if you left a campaign and restarted it from scratch. Two easy ones to knock off the list.

Chugging along, almost time to deliver a product to someone somewhere.

March to PAXAus – Day 24: All The Small Things

I spent hours today just playing maps and fixing little things that either went totally wrong, or felt bad enough to really affect the gameplay experience. There’s way too many small things to list, but there’s some fairly large improvements that have been made which I’ve had in mind for a few days.

Now, when you go to an object which can be HAYWIRE!ed, the camera will shift focus to highlight what you’re going to have an effect on if you choose to. You can see in the screenshot that the only selected character and the mouse cursor are in one part of the world, but the camera has shifted to show the player what they’re going to affect if they use the HAYWIRE! ability here. Previously you had to move the mouse around to find what it was going to do.

plethora of fixesI’ve changed the camera/mouse behavior a little bit so the mouse almost always stays hovering over the same tile no matter what happens. The only way to have the mouse move to a different tile is if the player physically moves it; camera movements never effect it now. I’ve changed the way the camera behaves before the players spawn-in as well to help highlight who the player is actually controlling.

A few other fixes include a bunch of balance changes to how “loud” a lot of things in the game are. Previously, if you set off one alarm, almost the entire level would go crazy looking for you. I’ve tweaked it to be a lot more about small-scale battle and problems so setting off an alarm will usually only cause an alert across maybe the two adjacent rooms at most and won’t mean the entire mission is a write-off.

Something I had to change was the way guns make noise. Now that they’re a lot quieter, it was possible to shoot people really far away and they wouldn’t hear the noise so they wouldn’t “react” (they weren’t programmed to react to pain, just gunshot sounds). I’ve made it so bullets make a “bang” sound when they hit walls or entities now. It’s a quieter sound than an actual gunshot going off, quite literally like the sound of a bullet hitting a wall. I added a little particle spatter when they hit walls, too.

The game really slows down when you get five people all shooting eachother with blood, bullets, shell casing, and little bits of debris flying around. I’m not too concerned with it at this point, though.

Oh, another thing I changed was the way your agents behave when you control more than one. They no longer all try to go to the same tile and start arguing with each-other when someone else gets there first. They now all go to their own tile (after a moment of thinking).

There’s a bunch of other changes made but I really can’t even think of most of them now, I’m not sure if I mentioned yesterday but I’ve made a new “popup” that happens if you try to go through a locked door. Previously there was no on-screen indication that the door was locked; people would just refuse to use the door. Now when they try, it shows a little animation of the “padlock down” floating above the door.

March to PAXAus – Day 23: Campaigns

It’s really getting to the point where I have to make the demo campaigns for the game – I can’t keep running around in placeholder test areas with gaping holes and out-of-place assets from different tile-sets dropped around at random.

working on demo mapsAt the moment I have maybe three campaigns started that are intended to eventually evolve into complete, playable ones. I’ve grabbed one of them and started fleshing it out into a full-sized area and playtesting it using different approaches to make sure it’s able to demonstrate most of the features and options that the player has at this point in the game. To do this I need to give opportunities for the player to either complete objectives using violence, deception, or a mixture of both. I also need to show opportunities where upgrading your abilities will give you different options and approaches to the situations. At the moment you’re not able to collect certain items along the way without setting off alarms unless you’ve upgraded HAYWIRE! to a certain level where it can knock cameras out of commission.

It’s nice to be able to spend a day working on improving the game without having to actually develop new features and systems. Just taking advantage of the game that’s already done and giving the player content to enjoy.

March to PAXAus – Day 22: Bug Smash

The last 24 hours have just been all about getting rid of the many tiny little bugs that plague the overall game-play experience. I just have to go into campaigns and try to play the game and see what goes wrong. It takes such a long time to play test like this because you’re constantly recompiling and replaying the campaigns from the start.

working on AI bugsA short list of things I’ve fixes would include a bug where every door in the hub area changes into a controllable entity after returning from a mission with more than one agent. Creatures that hear a gunshot while trying to fix a computer were glitching out and warping through walls. Creatures that hear a computer needing repairs would go repair it even if they were busy running away scared from an enemy. It was possible to embark on a campaign with no one in your solution so there were no controllable agents. The list goes on and on and it’s been a frustrating experience.

Other than that, I added a couple more tracks to the soundtrack and a lot more lines of “Hint” dialogue text to the NPCs.

Slowly turning this into a game you can “play”.