Tokyo Game Show Post-Mortem – Part 3: Final Thoughts + Conclusion

Ok, this is the last part of this post-mortem. I just want to go over a few thoughts that I didn’t get to cover in the previous two posts.

Was the language barrier an issue? 

No, not really. I had two friends helping me with the booth during the convention, Sagar and Patel. Both of them speak Japanese and were able to help translate. There are also several student volunteers assigned to the Indie Game Area who can translate. These guys were all pretty awesome. They’re there for everyone in the Indie Game Area, so you have to find them first, but this is not a big problem.

I knew a little bit of Japanese, so could provide hints (“hinto”), and also point out when things were bugs (“bagu”). I also tried to talk to Japanese players as much as possible after they’re done playing in order to get their perspective, and see whether the puzzles were too difficult or too easy. Often, I would just ask them to wait a bit (“mate”), and then go and find a translator.

I had the bilingual poster and postcards too, which were really helpful. It also helped tremendously that the UI for the game was all in both Japanese and English.

How did Japanese players respond to the game?

Much better than I had expected! I wasn’t very familiar with the Japanese game scene prior to going to TGS, but from what I had gathered, it didn’t seem like first-person games were very popular there. The few that were popular seemed to be either shooters or horror games. I didn’t have much hope as a first-person puzzle game.

All in all, I was really surprised. Most of the people playing the game seem to be very comfortable with FPS controls (this may have probably been due to self-selection, of course, with people who enjoy first-person games wanting to try out another first-person game). I did ask most players if they played a lot of first-person puzzle games before, and while many answered they had Portal, a few had never played a first-person game before.

One thing I did notice is that Japanese players tend to prefer controller over mouse + keyboard. Also, for the control scheme, I had set the right and left trigger buttons as the action to rotate onto a wall, and someone pointed out to me that most Japanese control schemes tend to use the face buttons, and not the triggers or bumpers. This is quite interesting, and I did notice that most Japanese players would confuse the triggers and bumpers when they first pick up the controller.

Japanese players also tend to play for much longer. One thing I noticed with conventions in North America is that a lot of players would constantly be looking over their shoulders to see if others were waiting. In Japan though, people were much more focused. I wonder if this might be because queuing is much more common in Japan and people are much more polite and more used to it? Anyway, it wasn’t uncommon for people to play for 15+ minutes at a time, and I saw several people completely finish the demo.

How about food during the convention? 

Like with any convention in which I’m exhibiting, I never go to get food during the event. Mostly this is because I’m far more fascinated with watching people play the game (it’s really useful playtesting), and also because the lines for food are always so long.

On the first day, Sagar introduced me to Calorie Mate, which is a brand of energy bar/drinks in Japan. The block form is sort of like shortbread, and comes in a number of different flavors. It is also a bit of a meme. It’s in Metal Gear Solid:

And there’s also a bizarre TV commercial featuring Kiefer Sutherland: http://youtu.be/K_swFUVeVKo

Anyway, what I would do at the start of each day is grab two boxes of Calorie Mate block:

TGS_calorie_mate

And two 2L bottles of water:

TGS_water_bottle

And I was all set. The 2L bottles made me look a little ridiculous, but it was a great idea, and some of the other indies started adopting it as well. Gotta stay hydrated!

Was it worth it?

Yes! Undeniably so. It was definitely one of the most incredible events I got to be part of so far in my journey as a game developer.

This is not to say that it was easy, or that if you participate in TGS, you’ll get a ton of press and sales.

On the contrary, I actually had a somewhat difficult time getting US press to come to my booth. I think this was due to the event being so big, with so much going on, and also my game doesn’t across right away as something typical for the Japanese market. I also had a lot of publishers tell me that my game won’t sell well in Japan because it’s first-person and a puzzle game.

However, I got to meet a lot of really great devs and also players. On the last day, I remember this one guy who played the game for 30 minutes, and when he was done, he seemed really touched by the game. We talked for a bit, and he said, “I really want to keep talking to you, but I don’t know what to say”.

It was an incredible experience for me, to have spent nearly 2 years on this project, and to have someone living on the other side of the planet, get what I was trying to do.  Tears of Joy

It was really great to connect with players on a one-on-one basis, and to see people enjoy your game despite not speaking the same language. It was quite powerful and affirming, especially in light of all the recent stuff that’s been going on with the game scene on twitter.

Oh, and getting feedback from Japanese players and designers was really helpful. It definitely showed me I was moving in the right direction overall, but they also pointed out a few problems that I hadn’t seen before. One one of the business days, I had designers from both Bandai Namco and Capcom play the game, and their feedback was very insightful.

Conclusion

So yeah, I had a blast at TGS and Japan in general. It was really good experience both from the point of view of exhibiting the game for feedback, as well as personal development. The Japanese indie scene is also full of super cool people.

Finally, I want to take this opportunity to thank all the student volunteers as TGS who helped me with translation. You guys are awesome! And also, huge thanks to Sagar and Alex for helping me with the booth during the 4 days!

Here’s a pic of me and Sagar:

tgs_willy_sagar

And here’s one with me and Alex:

TGS_alex_willy

Tokyo Game Show Post-Mortem – Part 2: The Show Itself + Tokyo Indies

September 18th – Business Day 1

The Tokyo Game Show takes place over 4 days. The first 2 days are business days, meaning that it’s only open to industry people (in reality, the requirements for industry people is pretty relaxed), and the last 2 days are public days.

One of the things I’ve always wanted to do in Japan was to have sushi at at the Tuskiji fish market, which is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. It’s a pretty popular destination, so unless you arrive super early, you have to wait in line for several hours.

tgs_fish_market

I woke up at 4:30 AM to go, and even though I got there at around 5:30 AM, the wait was for the most popular sushi restaurant was already at around 4 hours. I ended up going to the second most popular sushi restaurant, which only had a 1 hour wait. It was still very delicious! Grin

At the fish market, the workers all drive around in these little vehicles with barrel steering wheels. I thought this would actually make for a really cool game idea.
After breakfast, I took the train straight to Makuhari Messe. I got there at 9 am and met Alex outside to give him his TGS pass, and then we went inside to make sure the booth was ready (mostly this consisted of us trying to get the poster back up as it had fallen off during the night). Here’s my 1 hour long commute to Makuhari Messe summed up in 5 seconds:

Even though it was a business day, the first day of TGS was still quite crowded. The density of people felt quite similar to conventions like PAX, and I actually forgot that it was a business day. I had a very consistent flow of people coming to the booth to play the game throughout the day.

Here’s a pic of the crowd:

TGS_business_day_crowd

Here’s a pic of the Indie Game Area from the outside:

TGS_IGA_02

Here’s another from the inside:TGS_IGA_03

And here’s Marc Ten Bosch of Miegakure playing Relativity!tgs_player

After the day was over, a bunch of the devs showing in the Indie Game Area headed to a nearby pub called ‘Always’ to grab some food and drinks, and relax for a little bit. There’s not a whole lot of stuff around the convention center.

Afterwards, we all got on the train back to Tokyo to go to Otaru.

Otaru is basically a weekly meetup of people interested in game development.
It’s organized by 8-4, the guys behind the Pre-TGS party, and it is at this one Japanese restaurant/bar, where everyone sits on the floor on tatami mats.

Otaru Tokyo Game Show 8-4

In any case, it was a ton of fun, and I had a great time and met lots of cool people. Apparently, it was one of the largest Otaru meetups yet.

otaruThis photo was taken by Zachary Pintchik

September 19th – Business Day 2

During the day, a few members of the Friend and Foe team stopped by. If you’re not familiar with them, they’re currently working on the beautiful Vane. They actually have a devlog here that I’ve been following for some time now. I didn’t know they were based in Tokyo, so when I learned that they were going to be at TGS, I invited them to stop by!

Sense of Wonder Night presentation took place this afternoon from 2 pm to 4 pm. As I was already familiar with most of the games there, and had played them earlier, I opted not to go but to stay and watch playtesters at my booth instead. A lot of people who went said it was really cool though, so I do wish I could have gone.

tgs_player_09-19

Very positive response from players during the day. A lot of people plying for over 15 minutes at a time, which was really surprising for me.

Someone even finished the demo! :D I think it must have taken at least 40 minutes:IMG_6509

As we were wrapping up the day, Lucas Pope came by the Indie Game Area! I’ve been following Lucas’ devlog for “Return of the Obra Dinn” and have been blown away by the quality of his edge-detection shader. It was awesome to finally get to ask him some questions about it in person and to get feedback on the look for Relativity. This was pretty much the highlight of my day!

I have a few ideas now on how I can fix some of the artifact problems for my own shader.

From 5:30 to 7:30 pm, there was an exhibitor party organized by Sony. I didn’t take any pictures of the event, but it was pretty fun, and mostly it was cool to get to hang out with other exhibitors.

September 20th – Public Day 1
When I showed up to get the booth ready on this day, I thought someone had vandalized my poster. But it turns out, Relativity got nominated for some prizes! The one on the left is from Famitsu and the one on the right is from Dengeki:

TGS_nomination

This was the first public day, and boy, it was crowded! I thought business days were pretty crowded, but they were nothing compared to the public day. It was just a massive sea of people.

From the top of the stairs, this is what it looked like:

TGS_me_crowd Here’s another shot of the crowd from that day: tgs_sony_booth

After the day wrapped up, there was a party called the Indie Stream Fes:

indie_stream_fes_2014_logo

10 indies were selected to give 2-minute long lightning talks at this event, and I was fortunate enough to be chosen as one of them. The party didn’t start until 6 PM, but all of us who were doing lightning talks had to arrive at 5 PM to do a tech check and rehearse.

tgs_indie_stream_fes_prep

This was one of the coolest experiences at TGS for me, as I got to present Relativity in front of a crowd of around 400 industry people.

Here’s a shot of the crowd from the stage:

tgs_indie_stream_fes_crowd

Here’s Japanese Indie Dev Maruchu talking about his work:

And here’s Sun Park of Turtle Cream giving a talk about his 2nd person platformer game “Long Take”

During the party, the organizers also held a Kagami-biraki, which is a celebratory ceremony where they take out a sake barrel, and then break the lid of it using a wooden mallet. Then sake is served to everyone present.

They had these small little wooden boxes to drink the sake with, that had Unity printed on one side. I wanted to get a picture of me with one, but it seems that whoever I gave my phone to take a picture with had a bit too much sake to drink!

tgs_sake

Also, during the party, I got to meet one of the developers working on Pavilion! I randomly came across the trailer for that game late one night and was totally amazed by the art style and very surprised I hadn’t heard of it earlier. I didn’t realize he was based in Japan, so that was very cool.

September 21st – Public Day 2

Day 4 of TGS, and I have to admit I was feeling pretty exhausted by this point. I had basically been standing on my feet for at least 8 hours each day for the past 3 days, not to mention all the walking around.

The large crowd continued for this day, but it was a little less crowded than the first public day. I believe the attendee number of each of the public days is around 200,000.

Anyway, lots of positive response from players this day as well. Several played for over 30 minutes, and I think 3 people finished the demo, which is again, quite impressive. Someone even played for close to an hour! And when they were done, I asked them how long they had been playing for, and they said 30 minutes! :D

tgs_player_09-21

Here’s me at the end of the last day. Can you tell that I’m totally exhausted? I still had to pack up!

tgs_take_down

Like I said, don’t use Scotch brand double-sided tape. Just use the ones you can find at Japanese convenience stores.

IMG_6671

Here’s a shot during take down: tgs_cleanup

This is probably the first convention I’ve seen where people were riding parks around the convention center during takedown. They definitely had the right idea though!

September 22nd

Monday was my first day in Japan without anything I needed to do for TGS. I decided to go check out some parts of Japan outside of Tokyo. I ended up taking a day trip to Kamakura, which is a small city with a lot of temples about an hour and a half by train from Tokyo.

kamakura

In the evening, I went to a Tokyo Indie Meetup. This is a monthly meetup organized by local indie Alvin Phu, which is originally from Boston.

It took place in a gallery/cafe on the second story of a building in Shibuya. The event started off with just people hanging out and socializing, and then about an hour in, we started doing presentations.

IMG_6795

Japanese indie dev Moppin_ presenting his game ‘Downwell’:IMG_6798

Chris Johnson presenting ‘Expand’: IMG_6799

The Friend and Foe team previewed a trailer for Vane!IMG_6800

I had a USB with my Indie Stream Fes presentation, so I presented Relativity here too, and got some really great feedback! Anyway, it was a really fun event all in all. The Tokyo indie scene is small, but very vibrant. And lots of talent! I’m really looking forward to seeing the scene grow and play the games that come out of there.

Tokyo Game Show Post-Mortem – Part 1: Application and Preparation

TGS_poster_horizontal

I’m finally back in Chicago after quite a bit of traveling. Tokyo Game Show last week was a blast! I’m still trying to process everything, but here’s the post-mortem about my experience while my memory is still fresh.

Application Process

Back in May, I heard the news that Sony was covering the cost of booths in the Indie Game Area (IGA) at the Tokyo Game Show (TGS). It hadn’t actually occurred to me to submit to TGS prior to this. I had known about Sense of Wonder Night (SOWN) as Antichamber was shown there, but didn’t think I could justify the cost of going to Japan.

However, often with these large conventions, the cost of the booth is the most expensive item. This was certainly the case for me at PAX East. So with the Sony sponsorship, I thought, this could actually work, so I decided to submit.

The application deadline for IGA was June 11th. I submitted my application on June 10th.

Sense of Wonder Night is an event that takes place at TGS as well, and is a showcase of 10 games, focusing mostly on experimental titles. It was actually inspired by the Experimental Gameplay Workshop at GDC.  The application process for SOWN was separate from that of IGA, and the deadline was about a month later, on July 7th.  I also submitted Relativity to that.

Neither IGA nor SOWN required a submission fee, which was really awesome.

Hearing Back

Only July 29th, I got an email from the Indie Game Area organizers saying that Relativity got in! To be honest, I wasn’t really expecting to get in, so had more or less forgotten about the event.

Needless to say, when I got the news, I was not only surprised, but also quite excited and nervous as well. Up until now, I hadn’t seriously considered going to TGS, and I only had 3 days to respond and confirm (I needed to let the organizers know my decision by July 31st).

Right away, I reached out to a few indie devs who I know had been to TGS, and also talked to other Chicago-based indies.
A lot of the feedback was along the lines of:

“Japanese players are not crazy about western-looking titles, and indies games (especially for the PC) don’t do really well there”.

“Don’t expect to make sales while there. You’re not going to meet the same fan base that you would at events like PAX East or PAX Prime”

However, everyone unanimously agreed that it would be a fantastic life experience. And if you’ve seen Alexander Bruce’s talk about the development of Antichamber, you’ll know that going to TGS and Japan in general was one of the most profound experiences for him as a developer.

I went back and forth on whether I should go or not, and ultimately decided I would. Here were my reasons:

  • For me, development of the game is about the journey behind it, as much as it is about the game itself. To this end, I want to experience all the opportunities that are available to me. I’m not doing this just to make a game – I also want to meet passionate people, go places I wouldn’t have gone before, and grow as a person.
  • I’m still pretty far from release, so I’m not looking to make sales at the moment. My main priority is still to get feedback on design. TGS would be a great opportunity to receive feedback from players coming from a totally different cultural background, and who have likely never heard of or seen the game before.
  • I had originally planned to save up to exhibit at PAX Prime. However, when talking to a fellow indie dev, he pointed out that showing at similar conventions may not give you the same return each time. I’ve already shown at PAX East, and while PAX Prime is an opportunity to meet new fans, the demographic of the two conventions is quite similar. From a playtesting standpoint, I’ll probably see a lot of similar people at PAX Prime as I did at PAX East, so may not necessarily gain new insight based on players’ backgrounds.
  • Another event I had been considering going to at the same time was Fantastic Arcade in Austin. I had submitted my game to that, and didn’t get in, but was thinking I would still go to meet other indie devs and get feedback on my game from them. However, as was pointed out to me, a lot of these devs I am very likely to meet at the other North American conventions, like GDC and IndieCade. And really, I can get feedback from North American indies anytime I want. At TGS though, I am much more likely to meet people who I would never meet otherwise.
  • The life experience – While I’ve traveled to Japan twice prior to my TGS trip, neither were for work. This seemed like it would be a fantastic way to see a side of Japan that isn’t a cookie cutter experience. Plus, as a game developer, going to Japan for a video game convention seems like such a cool experience. It’s the mecca! It’s not very often I get to travel overseas for work, so I didn’t want to look back and regret not taking this opportunity to experience something new.

Preparation

After I responded to the IGA organizers and confirmed I was going, it was time to get ready. I had about a month and a half before the show began, so there was no time to waste!

Japanese Language

tgs_japanese_books

One of the first things I did right away was to go to the library and check out a bunch of Japanese textbooks and audiotapes. I started practicing reading and writing hiragana, and also started listening to the Pimsleur Japanese series – doing one episode a day.

Now, as you probably know already, Japanese is an incredibly difficult language, and it takes people years to master. I wasn’t going to learn how to explain gravity shifting game mechanics in the span of 6 weeks. However, I did learn some basic conversational Japanese, like asking for directions, talking about eating and drinking, and this actually helped quite a bit when I was in Japan.

Poster and Postcards
The Tokyo Game Show organizers emailed a PDF manual about what to expect in the Indie Game Area, and what the booth looked like. One of their suggestions was to have a poster.

tgs_booth_design

I figured since I wouldn’t be able to explain the game in Japanese, that I would put some introductory text on the poster to give people an idea of what the game is about, and a bit about myself. That way, if people have any questions, I can just point to the poster.

Here’s the design of the poster:

TGS_Relativity_Poster

It turned out I was the only one in the Indie Game Area to do this, and it worked really well! A lot of the booths just had a poster with an image and the game title on it. This would be fine if you were just showing at PAX, but this meant that a lot of Japanese gamers couldn’t tell what your game was about. Likewise, there were several Japanese indies that only had posters with Japanese on it, and I had no idea what their games were about.

I got the same text printed on postcards, with the Japanese text on one side and English on the other. These were also really handy to have at the booth.

postcard_horizontal

Translation
Regarding translation for the English text, I ended up contacting a translator living in Japan based on a friend’s recommendation, and also reached out to Playism, a company that does game localization in Japan. I had actually met someone from Playism on the shuttle ride to the airport during GDC back in March.

I only had about 200 words to translate – including the poster text as well as all the UI in the game, so it was pretty small translation job, and didn’t cost very much.

Once I got the text back, I actually shared my designs on twitter and asked for feedback. Moppin_, a Japanese Indie gave me some really good feedback, and helped me tweak a few sentences to improve the flow of the text.

Phone / Wifi 
Like many of you, I now find it very difficult to travel without cell phone plans. Seriously, how did people meet up or find places before cell phones!?

As it turns out, getting a sim card in Japan is actually kind of tricky, as you need a Japanese address to do so. I did some research and decided that a pocket wifi device would be my best option. It’s basically a small device that can receive data, and you just set your phone to get wifi from that.

huawei_gl04p_pocket_wifi_lte

I ended up going with PuPuRu, which I highly recommend. The cost is about 4 USD a day. On their site they have a map that shows the different areas in which they have coverage. I spent all my time in Tokyo and surrounding areas, and didn’t have any problems.

If you do decide to get this, and want to have it right after you land in Japan, remember you need to book it about a week before you arrive. I had to let them know which flight I was coming in from and send them a copy of my passport. They sent the device in advance to the airport, and I was able to pick it up at the QL counter at Narita when I arrived.  This was really convenient, as I was able to look up travel directions right after I landed.

Looking for booth help
As a solo developer, I’m very much used to traveling to conventions and doing everything by myself. However, getting some additional help when exhibiting is always nice.

As an exhibitor in the Indie Game Area, you can get up to 5 passes for free. I reached out to Twitter and asked if there were any indies based in Japan who’d be interested in helping me out for a bit during the show in exchange for a TGS pass.

Through this, I was introduced to Sagar Patel – a Kyoto-based Indie who is originally from Montreal, and who organizes the Kyoto Indie meetup. Sagar then connected me with his friend Alex, who is also based in Kyoto.

The Game
What little time I had outside of working on all the stuff above was spent getting the game’s UI localized in Japanese.

relativity_UI_bilingual_02

I continued to use OnGUI instead of switching to the newest GUI system in Unity 4.6. Mostly this was because I didn’t want to run the risk of breaking anything, and even though OnGUI is not very efficient, I was at least familiar with it.

I ended up hardcoding all the UI in both Japanese and English. This is not the best localization solution –the preferred method is to have the different languages in an XML file, and just call directly from that.

However, I didn’t really have too much time to implement that, and since I don’t have that much text in the game, I just decided to go with the hacked solution for now.

I do wish I had spent more time on optimization, as frame rate of the game running on my laptop was a bit of an issue.

Travel

September 16th

I arrived in Japan on Tuesday, September 16th, around 5 PM, after a 20 hour trip. My flight was from Chicago to Toronto, with a 6 hour layover, and then a 12 hour flight to Tokyo.

TGS_flight_path

This was actually pretty exhausting as my flight from Chicago was at 6 AM, meaning I had to be at the airport at 4 AM, so I just didn’t get any sleep the night before. On the other hand, I didn’t feel jetlagged at all when I landed.

TGS_Narita

After I picked up my pocket wifi device, I took the Narita Express train to Tokyo, then transferred to the metro line, and went to Ueno station, near where my hostel was located.

I checked in, and then grabbed a bite to eat at a restaurant nearby.

TGS_First_meal My first meal in Japan!

 

After that, I headed over to Roppongi for Pre-TGS party organized by 8-4, a video game localization based in Tokyo, and they also have apodcast.

The party was really cool – a ton of industry people were there, both locals and people coming in for TGS. I also got to meet a lot of the indies who were going to be exhibiting in the Indie Game Area during the next few days as well.

TGS_84_play

September 17th
One of the options given to exhibitors is to set up your booth the day before TGS starts. You actually have to let the TGS organizers know that you want to do this by September 10th. I figured since I’m carrying a bunch of things, and would prefer not to panic on the morning of the show, I’d go in earlier to set up.

The Tokyo Game Show takes place at Makuhari Messe convention center, and is actually in Chiba, which is about an hour outside of Tokyo. If you’re leaving from Tokyo Station, you need to take the JR Keiyo Line, and a one-way ticket costs 550 JPY.

This is the layout of Makuhari Messe:

makuhari messe layout

There were 7 halls in total for the expo floor. The Indie Game Area (in pink) was in Hall 3.

indie game area layout

And this is the layout inside the Indie Game Area:

tokyo game show layout

I was in booth 84, highlighted in yellow. The booths are organized by alphabetical order. I was in between Wales Interactive and Witch Beam, who were awesome neighbors for the 4 days.

Our location meant that it was really great for exposure, as we were directly across from Square Enix and Capcom. However, we were quite far away from the Indie Lounge area, which was were the benches were, so we couldn’t sit and watch people play our games…

A few things I learned:

  • It’s better to rent a 26” TV from the convention center for 10,000 JPY (100 USD) instead of bringing your own monitor. I brought a monitor, and yes, I saved some money, but it is a serious hassle carrying a giant suitcase through the Tokyo train lines during rush hour. There’s also a ton of walking you have to do to transfer between lines, and some of the stations don’t have elevators/escalators. For all the trouble my giant suitcase caused me, I would have gladly paid for the TV. Plus, it was much bigger than my 21” monitor, and you don’t run the risk of accidentally breaking your monitor.
  • Don’t use Scotch brand double-sided tape, it doesn’t work very well, and it leaves a mark. I bought some double-sided tape from a convenient store while in Japan, and it worked way better.
  • The booth only provided two outlets – this wasn’t enough as I had my laptop, the monitor, speakers, and phone charger. I asked if I could have extra outlets, and soon enough, two workers came and installed them for me. What I didn’t know was that this actually cost 3500 JPY (35 USD), and on the last day, I got a bill unexpectedly. Sad If I had known, I would have just gone out and bought an extension cord. Oh well.

It took me about an hour and a half to get set up. Most of the problem was because I was originally using Scotch brand double-sided tape, and it wasn’t very effective, so the poster kept falling off.

Anyway, here’s what my booth looked like once I got it all set up:

IMG_6377

Development Update – New Changes, Bit Bash, & IndieCade Feedback

Relativity_Game_Screenshot-2014-09-11_17-26-44

I am getting ready to go to Japan for the Tokyo Game Show. These last few days are getting pretty hectic with packing and making sure the build is ready, and of course, all the tiny little details that crop up last minute.

Anyway, I thought I’d take a moment to write about my experience showing Relativity at Bit Bash last weekend. I also heard back from IndieCade – unfortunately, I didn’t get in. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed in the result, but the judges also gave me some really detailed and useful feedback. This is still a great opportunity to improve the game, and I’ll post their feedback  below, and share what I’ve  learned from this experience.

New Changes

Last month, I had the opportunity to show Relativity at SIGGRAPH as part of the MIX Showcase. I wrote about my experience and what I learned there in this devlog post.

Basically, after showing there, I realized that there were some serious design problems in the introductory part of the game.
When I got back to Chicago, I immediately scheduled a number of playtest sessions. I knew I had to redesign the introductory sequence in a very fundamental way before the Tokyo Game Show, and wanted to test out any changes, so I don’t run into unforeseen problems while exhibiting.

playtestingAbove – A friend invited me to his office to demo the game. Here is one of his co-workers playing the game.

I ended up doing about 4 playtest sessions a week for about 2 weeks, and slowly molded the intro into something new.

Here are some of the new changes I’ve made:

1. Interactive Instructions - Instead of having the instructions all in separate slides before the start of the game, the instructions now pop up during gameplay when players see the relevant element. Relativity_Game_Screenshot-2014-09-11_17-26-29 Relativity_Game_Screenshot-2014-09-11_17-26-37

2. Shortened the tutorial sequence - I want the player to get outside as soon as possible, as that is the real meat of the game, and the most impressive part visually. I realized that there were a few puzzles I had placed in the beginning indoor tutorial sequence that didn’t need to be there, and as such, could be moved elsewhere. For me, a good demo at a convention setting is when players make it through the interior tutorial section, and get outside. Too often though, I’d see people give up and leave right before the last puzzle. This was really anticlimactic, both because the player didn’t get to see the payoff for solving all these early puzzles, and also because they didn’t see the depth of the game. Relativity_Game_Screenshot-2014-09-11_19-21-43

3. First Hub World Overhaul - Completely redesigned the first hub world, effectively replacing it with the second hub world. From playtesting, everyone would talk about how much they liked the second hub world, while with the first hub world, people only talked about how often they got lost and how confusing it was.

Relativity_Game_Screenshot-2014-09-08_02-07-54

I think this is because the second hub world had logic to it. There was a meta-puzzle to the hub world itself, and this presented a sense of purpose, and a way to track progress. There were patterns that allowed the player to figure out where they had come from, and where they were going.

The original first hub was more or less random in design, and how you progressed through it depended largely on luck. Some playtesters told me that there was no sense of progression, and even when they did complete the level, it didn’t feel like they had completed it. They felt like they may have missed a thing or two.

After SIGGRAPH, I realized there was really no reason not to have the second hub as the first one. It’s better designed, easier to navigate, and everyone liked it. It was much larger than the first hub, but since it had a pattern and logic to its design, players found it much easier to deal with. It was only the second hub because that’s how I originally designed it, and my mind had come to accept that as reality.

4. Revamped the UI - I know it doesn’t make a difference in terms of the core gameplay, but having nice-looking UI really goes a long way!

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Bit Bash

bitbash

Bit Bash is a video game festival that a bunch of Chicago developers organized, which took place this past Saturday, September 6th. It was inspired by the Wild Rumpus party at GDC, and began as a series of conversations.

I won’t go too much into the festival itself, as there is plenty of information on the interwebz, except to say that it was a huge success with a turnout of around 1,400 people, and demonstrates that there is clearly a demand for such an event here in the Midwest. Also, the Chicago indie community is made up of a group of seriously awesome people, and I’m incredibly blessed to be based here.

IMG_6053Above – There was a huge crowd only an hour into the festival.

Anyway, showing the game at Bit Bash proved that all the design changes I had made were right. This time, instead of actively trying to recruit players, I would stand back and observe. And I noticed that people were making through the tutorial section and getting outside. It also helped a lot that I improved the start menu screen, so that it actually looked attractive and got players interested in it.

I had spent a lot of time on UI, and the game at Bit Bash was more or less able to run itself. There was a constant stream of players, and I didn’t have to stand around to reset it. Because of the improved UI and faster load time, people could very easily restart the game themselves.

I would stand in the distance and keep an eye on the screen, and after people finished playing, I would go up, introduce myself, and ask them some questions about what they thought. Almost everyone was able to make it the exterior parts of the level, so that was a very good sign.

Here are some shots of people playing the game at Bit Bash:

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IndieCade Feedback

Yesterday, I received an email from IndieCade informing me that Relativity wasn’t selected for this year’s festival. Needless to say, I was pretty disappointed. IndieCade was one of my top festivals I wanted to get into.

However, having seen the issues that arose when I was at SIGGRAPH, I can totally understand what happened. One of the really nice things about the IndieCade submission process is that the judges are required to give feedback on the games they juried.

The feedback I got from the judges were very informative and detailed, and I totally agree with the points they made, especially regarding the box puzzles. In fact, during a playtest session about 2 weeks ago, a playtester told me that he found the box puzzles to detract from the main theme of the game, and were very tedious to play through. This got me thinking about their role in the game, and I’ve since decided to scale them back a lot. So it was great to read the comments from the judges about the box puzzles. It means that the decision to lessen the role of the block puzzles in the game is the right one.

As always, each feedback is an opportunity to improve the game. It definitely hurts when criticisms are made about your game, but it’s important not to get emotional about it. This isn’t about feeling good, it’s about making a great game!

It can be easy to dismiss the feedback from the judges, saying “they didn’t get it” or that “this is just not the kind of game they like”, and I’ve seen some people posting on twitter to this effect upon finding out they’ve been rejected.

However, from the feedback I received, it’s very clear that the judges took the time to play through the entirety of my demo (which takes on average about 3 hours for a first time player), so the judges clearly made an effort to play and understand my game. I really appreciate this, and since the judging process is anonymous, and there’s no incentive for the judge to lie, it’s really important to think about why the judges felt that way. It can be easy to blame the system, to become angry and say that your game was biased against, but I think it’s much more effective to use this opportunity to really analyze your game – ask yourself if the design is really that good, and what’s holding it back? It’s not fun, but it’ll make your game better.

Anyway, since the feedback given was anonymous, I’ve decided to post it here in its entirety (this is for the version of the game in July 2014):

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Once my head got used to it and didn’t hurt anymore from switching, the game was interesting. However at one point I did feel like I was doing stacking boxes against a ledge. Navigating the balls through the tunnels bugged a bit in the big puzzle; the ball fell through the doors I was meant to open. ‘
In the seemingly endless staircase, I guess this was sort of the end of the game for now? I could revisit previous puzzles, and a place with cubicle-likes connected to each other. I fell through a connecting beam that was glitching with green. I also fell out of the endless staircase that didn’t turn out to be endless (red gravity). Here was another of those cubicle-like below it, but I missed it and fell into the void.

I think I was able to skip some puzzles in the first open world, I didn’t need to use a blue box there. I just fell myself toward the green pop and could make it from there.

I hope that if you’ll make more puzzles, you’ll be able to make some that feel more different from each other. The box-against-the-wall puzzles are different from each other, but they don’t feel that much different, since the concept of solving them is often the same, just a little more difficult. I’m sure you can think of some that are more clever, rather than more difficult; it feels like you can get a little more out of this.. Surprise your player!

Hope you won’t think of me as too harsh. I love puzzle games (such as Antichamber and Portal, which seem like a big influence), but that’s why it feels familiar and the patterns are easy to recognize.

Good luck with the rest of the development!

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The core mechanic of Relativity has immense potential. The first time you flip the world and start walking on the ceiling to access a hidden corner of a room is a real thrill. That novelty and discovery propelled me through the much of the game. And while walking through the different rooms there’s a real sense of how the entire structure connects in greater way. Walking outside the buildings into the open spaces where you can see the worlds repeat infinitely is a unique and wonderful moment.

The individual puzzles though bog down the experience by making the focus of the game on block placement than the joy of shifting the axis of gravity and bending spaces. While there’s some clever puzzles based on following block-line connections across floors and walls too many times I felt like I was staring at the floor placing blocks over and over. The worst offenders here are the puzzles in which you are required to use blocks as temporary platforms to get across spaces. The effective landing area of the player is a lot smaller than you would think and each time you fall off and have to restart the process is an exercise in frustration.

Still though the newness of the mechanic really helped push me the more mundane moments. I look forward to seeing the experience as it develops and I feel this game with further refinement and polish can be something incredibly special.

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Art is great, shows a nice refrain given the subject matter. For more variety, maybe different superstructures could have different color schemes, bright, dark or colorful, etc. Something as simple as alternating the color scheme could really give different superstructures different moods.

I really enjoyed the mistake of slipping off the edge of the structure, it was a pretty clever way to handle ‘falling of the edge.’

While engaging at first, the box-stacking component of the gameplay became a bit tiresome, especially because you know the solution, but now you have to apply the repetitive movement to complete it. I wonder if experimenting with the box scaling could help with this?

I did enjoy falling off edges to get to strategic locations, which there was more of later in the game, like when you’re turning on the color-coded beams, you’re falling down into various nooks and cranies of the superstructure. There was one interior puzzle where, after an extensive box-stacking, I lept off with a box in hand to the desired platform.

I would’ve like to see more variety in the puzzles, maybe this could be a good angle? Since its a WASD first-person with a central gravity mechanic, I think considering more non-discrete acrobatic movement in the puzzles could help add diversity.

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IGF Feedback

The IndieCade feedback strongly parallels the feedback I received when I submitted Relativity to IGF last year. When I submitted Relativity in fall of 2013, I thought I had such a kick-ass demo, and the judges would be crazy not to choose this a finalist. Of course, this didn’t happen, and I was disappointed.

However, I continued to work on the game, to improve it, and by the time I got the feedback from the judges, in April 2014, I not only agreed with the problems they pointed out, but I had also started to address those.
In the spirit of open development, I meant to share the feedback I received for IGF when I received them, but had forgotten to, so I’m going to do it here. This is for the October 2013 version of the game:

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I just wanted to say that I had a great time playing Relativity, and I think the general premise has a lot of potential for some interesting puzzles. But I wanted to convey my thoughts that it felt like this was the BEGINNING of a much bigger and better experience. And by that I primarily mean how you progress. The colored box system works, but I don’t think that should be the primary form of interaction/progression. I don’t want to sound disrespectful when I say this (as I probably would be annoyed by this feedback if I worked on the game), but I would recommend trying to experiment with what it means to orient the gravity to each wall in a room. I think there’s a lot more that you can find if you mess around more. What if there was a linear progression through a room, with the room filled with stairs and hallways, and you had to go through the right order? What if this? What if that? As I played the game, I sorta got bored by the colored block requirement and I just started walking around the room, flipping the gravity. It was like a breath of fresh air, and it makes me think there should be something more inherent to that in terms of going through the game. It’s way more fun to think of where you are, instead of where the blocks are. I guess that’s it, base it on the player’s perspective primarily, not the block’s perspective. But again, this is your expression, so take what I say with a grain of salt. I think, with more time, it could be a great game. I definitely like the block idea, but I don’t think it’s the “true” form of the game.

Oh, and not sure how far along the game is, but try to differentiate yourself visually and narratively from Portal, otherwise players will think it’s a retread of what Valve already did. To me it definitely like I was playing Portal again, and that loses some of the wow factor. But overall, great job on it! I’ll be looking forward to what you do with it in the future :)

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Hi there – was very interesting playing through Relativity. As a game I think it’s definitely accomplishing some of what it sets out to do, but it also feels very very early in terms of things like setting and puzzle design, which I think is holding it back a bit for me in terms of voting for any of the categories.

Let me say, first, that I think that you really have got a lovely mechanic here, and one that’s much more interesting that just “look ma! I can walk on the wall!”. I think the way it changes your relationship to the space of the world is fantastic, more interesting than the Portal gun I think, in the way that it’s localized and perspective-changing. I had several occasions when I felt genuinely disoriented and the way that the game forces you to spend a lot of your time *not* taking an orientation to the world is really interesting (and slightly nauseating at times). I had a moment of running up some stairs while very much simultaneously thinking of myself as running *up* them toward a wall. These sorts of moments are just the kind of Escher-esque things that can be great about this game.

So, that said, I didn’t vote for any of the awards because it just feels too early. You have this really interesting mechanic and relationship to the world, but the world isn’t there yet, the puzzles aren’t really there yet, there’s no contextualization, no texture (literally and figuratively) and so on.

Very, very much looking forward to seeing where you take this.

Also a “bug” (perhaps it isn’t, it hard to tell in these sorts of environments) in the elevator cube thing – if I changed orientation while inside it I got spat out into the surrounding world. Which I initially thought was a kind of homage to Portal’s furnace scene, but didn’t actually seem to be. Nice potential easter egg to hide there somewhere maybe.

One minor technical comment is that I think it would make a *huge* different if the orientation change was just animated quite a lot faster (and perhaps more smoothly)… the jolt of stopping at a wall definitely removed some of the kinaesthetic enjoyment of the space…

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The puzzles were fun/interesting, but — in the end — was looking for more of a ‘hook’ to the game, other than the whole walking-on-walls thing. Would like to see some kind of story or ‘voice’ to set this game apart and make it feel like more than a Portal homage. Also, agree that the overall mechanics need to be tightened up/smoothed out to be an optimal experience. 

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Conclusion

Making a game is hard! For me, I’ve been working on this game alone for almost two years now. It’s like my baby now, and it can be really difficult to get an objective view of the game. My feelings toward the game can go from thinking it’s the coolest thing ever one day, to thinking that it’s absolute crap the next day. Rejection is never easy, and taking criticism is still difficult. I get butterflies in my stomach whenever I’m about to open an email with feedback on the game. However, honest, straightforward feedback that point out the problems in your game is hands down the best way for you to improve!

When I look at the IGF feedback and see how far the game has come, I know I can do the same for the IndieCade feedback!