Last month, I attended my first in-person event as a game developer: the annual Playtest Party at Logan Theater in Chicago, where I showed my first iPhone game, Bitey Trees . I found it to be really fun and interesting, and a valuable learning experience as I’m continuing to grow as a (hobbyist) game developer. So, I decided to put together this blog post with an overview of the event, as well as some lessons learned and reflections on showing a mobile game at an event in general.
Some background: I actually heard about this event from one of my coworkers about two days before the submission deadline, and decided somewhat impulsively to sign up for it via their online signup form. I’d never done anything like it before, but figured why the heck not?
Within a few days I got an email response letting me know that my game had been accepted for the event, along with a bunch of other information about the event, the venue, and the judging process. (There was a contest aspect to the event, where the winner would be given the opportunity to showcase their game at C2E2.)
Due to the short lead time resulting from the last-minute signup, the possibilities for preparation were limited – though another factor was that I wasn’t too keen to spend a bunch of money on anything (the event signup itself was free of charge). So for a combination of those two reasons, I didn’t pursue getting any business cards or other physical materials along those lines created.
The preparation I did do fell into two categories: First, I got a new TestFlight build of the game ready – this was the batch of content updates that I later released as version 1.2.0, and added 9 additional levels to the game along with a couple new gameplay mechanics. This would be the version of the game I showed at the event.
Second, I created a couple of printouts – One with the game icon and a QR code people could scan to go straight to the App Store to download it, and a second page with some info about the TestFlight beta and a QR code to easily sign up for that. These were just simple printouts on standard 8.5 x 11 printer paper and weren’t intended to serve as handouts, but rather as a form of additional “signage” to supplement what would be provided at the event (the email from the organizers had explained that they would create a sign with each game’s info).
The event itself took place in the Logan Theater Lounge, a comfy little space attached to the movie theater which has a neat old fashioned historical feel, but also a fully stocked bar and a food counter selling popcorn and other typical movie theater snacks. (This event was actually the first time I’d ever been there, but it’s definitely the sort of place that would be fun to go back to for actual movie going purposes.)
In the signup form, I’d specified that I wouldn’t need much in the way of space or equipment, since it’s just a mobile game and wouldn’t need room for monitors or anything like that. My setup ended up being just on one of the small round bar tables, and consisted of the phone set on the table with those printouts I’d prepared. I also brought a charger and extension cord, so I could have the phone plugged in and charging the whole time.
The event organizers did make signs for all of the games, and mine ended up being up on the wall behind my table:
![Logan Theater Playtest Event Sign for Bitey Trees](/images/events/2019-11-logan-playtest-party/logan-playtest-event-sign-bitey-trees.jpg “The sign for “Bitey Trees” at the Logan Theater Playtest Party.")
I think the location and table style of my setup proved to be advantageous – people had to walk right past it to go between the main entrance and bar area to where most of the rest of the games were, and since it was one of those tall tables intended to be sat at with bar stools, the phone was at just the right height to catch people’s attention as they walked past.
It was really interesting seeing the variety of games people were showing at this little event. It was about half tabletop games (involving a board and/or cards) and half video games of one variety or another. Mine ended up being the only mobile game there, but there were a bunch of PC games, two virtual reality games, and even one arcade game with a cabinet and controls and everything.
Due to sticking near my table for most of the evening, I didn’t actually get a chance to check out all of the games there unfortunately, but here’s a nice article from a local arts and culture publication that provides a good overview of the event and more details about some of the games that were shown. It even includes my first ever game development “press coverage” (for this game or otherwise):
I didn’t end up winning any sort of prize or anything (not that I’d really expected or hoped to), but it was a very enjoyable event overall, and I think I would happily attend it again next year even if I wasn’t participating as a game developer.
Observations & Feedback
Over the course of the evening, I lost count of how many people stopped by my little table to try out the game, and it was by far the most times I’ve ever watched people pick up the game and try it out as new players. This was incredibly valuable to me just as an opportunity to see which aspects of the game seemed intuitive vs. confusing, and which aspects of the game seemed fun vs. not so fun. A couple of the biggest highlights:
- Tutorials / learning curve: It seemed to be about 50/50 whether people picked up the mechanics and controls right away, or if they struggled and found it confusing. I did end up adding two new tutorials to the game based on what people seemed to get confused by (one to explain monster HP, and one to make it clear from the start that running out of spell cards is a lose condition)… but the bigger problem seemed to be that my current tutorial system is just simple text popups, and a lot of people don’t actually bother to read these. So putting more effort into an interactive, animated tutorial system seems like a good and important thing for drawing in new players.
- The fun factor: Almost universally, people seemed to find it fun and satisfying to set off the “chain reaction” combos where spells would spread to all adjacent monsters of the same color matching a spell… And not fun / unsatisfying to have to pick off monsters one by one. This led to me deciding to make a fairly small change where “non-elemental” monsters became vulnerable to combos of any spell element (rather than being immune to all combos as they had previously).
- Accessibility: During the event, at least two different colorblind people pointed out that it’s difficult to figure out which tree monsters correspond to which spell elements – because even though I had made an effort to make them visually distinct in ways other than color, there’s no obvious link between their appearance and the spells. This is something I’ll plan to continue improving on (in this case probably by adding some kind of subtle icons or patterns to the cards in a future update).
- Other aspects: There were other random insights and ideas I was able to gain from watching people play and getting their feedback. For instance, I realized it needs some kind of “quit” or “reset” button for when you know you have no hope of winning a level and want to just start over rather than playing to the end. And I realized some players were frustrated at the “randomness” aspect, wanting more reassurance that making all the right moves would result in a win. And watching players fumble with the aiming controls or expect that tapping on the cards would have a spell casting effect gave some ideas on how those things could be improved as well.
All in all, I came away from the event with a ton of ideas for improvements to potentially make to the game – and while I can’t say I’ll get around to implementing all of them (since at some point I’ll probably call it a day on updates for Bitey Trees in favor of focusing on other projects), a lot of it is also the kind of stuff that will be good to keep in mind for future games.
Since this was my first time doing anything like this, I also came away with some lessons about things to do the same vs. things to do differently if or when I attend another event to show a game. The things that seemed to work well:
- The table (a bar table intended for those high stools): This setup seemed to be pretty close to ideal, as far as making it easy for people walking by to quickly try out the game. I’m not sure it would have worked as well for a PC or console game, but for a mobile game designed for short casual play sessions (like 2-3 minutes), it seemed to work great. So that’s something to keep in mind if/when I attend another event to demo a mobile game.
- Having the game available to download on the App Store: A lot of the games being shown at the event were not yet released, so a few people even seemed surprised that mine was already available on the App Store. Even though the version I had loaded on the phone was a newer unreleased version with more levels and such, having it out there in any form seemed to be a big plus, and I definitely saw a small increase over the usual meager download rate as a handful of people from the event installed it on their own devices.
And a few things that could probably be improved:
- Printed / physical materials: This one may seem pretty obvious, but it would have been beneficial to have something that would stand vertically on the table – either some kind of sign or prop, or maybe even a monitor to have displaying a video or the like. I suspect this wouldn’t be as big of an issue with a PC or console game (where the gameplay itself on any kind of monitor can be more easily seen from further away), but for a mobile game the demo itself isn’t very large or eye-catching, and people generally had to walk pretty close to the table before even noticing anything was there.
- Internet connectivity: I had gone to the trouble of creating and printing out those QR codes that people could scan to go download the App Store version, or sign up for the TestFlight beta (for the newest unreleased version). But the first few people who tried scanning them turned out to have zero cell phone reception inside the building, and therefore couldn’t get to the App Store page at all. I was able to get the theater’s wifi connection info later on to give to people who wanted to download the game (and were willing to do that extra step), but if I had planned ahead for this a little better I could’ve had that on hand from the beginning.
There were a few other minor things, such as maybe practice a more concise “elevator pitch” for the game (I think this generally went fine as far as introducing / explaining the game to people, but I felt like I was winging it). It would probably also be good to reconsider providing some kind of printed materials to hand out (such as business cards or flyers) if I ever get serious enough to spend a little money on those.
Overall, this was good experience that I consider to have been super valuable in many ways, and I hope it’s the first of many such events for me. And if the Logan Theater Playtest Party specifically is an annual thing, maybe I can even try to attend this same event again next year with my next game – which I’ve only barely started on, but which will hopefully be cross-platform (for both iOS and Android). This would give me a little under one year to get it into a playable state, which may or may not be a little overly optimistic – but it’s definitely good motivation!
But speaking of that “next game”, more updates on the ongoing progress will surely be the subject of future dev blog posts! For anyone who’d like to follow along with the latest updates, feel free to follow on Twitter, subscribe to the blog’s RSS feed, or sign up for the email mailing list (reserved only for important updates). Thanks for reading!