Demo-ing After The Fact: A PixelPop Retrospective

Watching strangers play your game is terrifying. It’s especially terrifying when your game is already released. The flaws you see can be corrected, but they can’t be contained. They are already out in the world, installed on the hard drive of everyone who has bought and played the game. Even if they are minor issues–even if you are incredibly proud of the game you put out there–the smallest of imperfections can drive you crazy because there’s nothing you can do to fix them for all the people who have already experienced them.

Despite that, we attended this year’s PixelPop Festival with a demo of Echoes of the Fey Episode 1: The Fox’s Trail.

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PixelPop Festival, now in its third year, is St. Louis’s annual gaming convention. It features competitive events, talks from developers and others in the industry, and of course demos of upcoming and recently released games. It ran from October 8-9 this year at a new location, the St. Louis Science Center.

There are a few reasons we brought Episode 1 to PixelPop. First off, right now we’re in a transitory period. If we’d committed to GameMaker Studio after finishing Episode 1, I’m sure we’d have a (very rough, very early) build of our next release, Episode 0: Immolation to show off right now. But we decided to make the rather huge leap to Unreal Engine 4, which necessitated rewriting our VN system from the ground up and learning how to make 3d environments. So you might say we’re a little behind schedule. Second, we wanted to test controller support before submitting a build for approval on console. Handing folks a controller at a convention to see how they use it seemed like the best way to get an idea of how accessible our build would be.

Fortunately, the results were great. We’ve brought our visual novels to various events, but none were more welcoming than PixelPop. Demo-ing a visual novel is never easy. VNs don’t have small, digestible chunks or “vertical slices” that can be carved out and used as a standalone example of the overall gameplay. We basically have two options: start players at the very beginning of the game and hope the first few scenes are compelling, or pick out a spot in the game we know is exciting and start players there.

For our very first demo at Anime St. Louis earlier this year, we took the later route. We skipped ahead in the story to when the player can control Sofya’s transformation into a cat, which allows them to spy on various characters and have a little freedom in the overworld portion of the investigation. We wanted people to see the beginning of the side stories, and see the very first hints at the mystery central to the game. Unfortunately, we found that people were just confused. Dropping people in the middle of the story left them with too many questions, and the core gameplay of a visual novel just doesn’t work if you don’t understand what’s going on.

Going forward, we decided to start our demo at the beginning. Our game starts with a nice CGI, an introduction to the world, and then a short scene with a cat, all of which are at least conducive to drawing people in. This meant that the demo would not feature the full extent of the exploration/investigation, but we recognize that the story is the draw and that needs to make sense.

On the first day of PixelPop, we committed to our usual strategy of encouraging players to use headphones. The first few scenes are heavily voiced, and we’ve got some rad music we want people to hear. Convention demo areas are usually pretty loud, so we figured the best way to make sure all of it is heard is force headphones.

However, we quickly discovered yet another problem with demo-ing a visual novel. Even a small portion of the game–the first investigation sequence of the first day–can become a 30+ minute experience if a player gets into the game and goes everywhere they can. And there are pretty much two reactions we had to our demo. Either people immediately didn’t like the game (too much reading which, hey,I get it) and left after a minute, or they stuck around for a while and played through several scenes. We loved seeing people get deep into the demo, but with only one demo station, it limited the number of people we could engage. We put the game on a larger monitor to the side so passers-by could watch, but that wasn’t quite enough to entice anyone to stand and observe the demo. So we decided to bring a set of speakers for the second day.

Despite the loud demo floor, we found that the speakers encouraged people to stand and watch the demo, which for a visual novel is almost as good as getting them to play it. Granted, we had the opening music in our heads all day, but I think it was worth it.

All in all, we had a great experience showing off Echoes of the Fey to the crowd at PixelPop. We’d encourage any local developers (and any developers who can make it to STL with relative ease) next year to join us!

 

Demo and Release Considerations

I’m very excited to demo Serafina’s Crown at the upcoming Six-Pack Demo Night at Earthbound Brewery on February 18th. Demoing one of my games will be a new experience for me. I’ve had friends play the game while I watch, which is a blast, but that’s quite different from presenting it to total newcomers in short bouts of play-time.

The challenge with show-casing a visual novel, of course, is that it’s a heavily story-based game, and most of the “playing” aspect comes in the form of reading large sections of text. So how should I present Serafina’s Crown in a way that’s quick and accessible, but still gives the player a good sense of the story and overall feel of the game?

The best plan I can formulate right now is to include a video at my demo station that provides a general idea of the story and play style – in other words, a trailer:

Then, the sections I will open for demos will be the Duma Debate sections, which involve using the Divinity Dial to pick numbers that will beat your opponents’.

I am excited to demo the game, and in addition to that, I’ve started to think seriously about my release plan for this title. I’ll be frank with any of you reading this: I don’t make enough money from my games or books combined to support myself. That’s probably no huge surprise. Although I’ve had successes here and there, I’m far from producing a massively popular hit. I don’t charge much money for my books or games, and some of them are completely free. That’s because I want my creations to be accessible to a wide range of people, and also because these days, a lot of players and readers expect to get things for free. So it’s often the only way to get exposure.

But I’m nearing a crossroads of sorts. With Serafina’s Crown, I need to start making enough money to legitimize my company as a sustainable business, or I need to focus on a full-time job (or lots more freelance work) and set this aside as more of a hobby. It pains me to say that, but otherwise I just can’t justify spending as much time and effort on projects that pay me next to nothing in return.

With my re-release of Serafina’s Saga, I added in-app purchases in the form of costumes. These have provided some revenue, but nothing significant. So that leaves me to wonder whether I should continue to add more in-app purchases, perhaps in the form of story content such as additional plot paths, or whether I should abandon that model altogether and sell my game at a set price. It’s going to be a difficult decision. And if you’re reading this as one of my players, or perhaps a fellow game developer, I hope you’ll give me your opinion.